What’s the Difference? is a series of lighting tutorials. Each article responds to a single question. In this post, Jared Platt explains the difference between using a bare head and a white beauty dish.
Photographers instinctively know that a soft box creates soft light, it’s in the name for heaven sake! But the reason is sometimes less obvious to some. If you already know the answer to this quiz, don’t worry, we will get a little more detailed in a moment. The sun (less than an inch in diameter in the sky) is a very hard light and creates very hard shadows, but a 4 foot softbox, placed next to your portrait subject will create soft, beautiful light. Take that softbox a few hundred yards away from the subject (if the strobe was strong enough) and that light would feel a lot more like the hard sunlight you so desperately want to avoid. Simply put, the quality of light (whether a light is soft or hard) depends on the size of the light to the subject. No matter what light you have and what modifier you are using, the closer you bring the light to the subject, the softer it will become (even if it is also becoming more powerful in the process).
In my work as a wedding photographer, I am always in need of soft beautiful light in tight spaces. As the bride is getting ready, putting makeup on, there is no better time to use the new Profoto OCF Beauty Dish on a B2 Off Camera Flash. The new OCF Beauty dish is a collapsible soft sided beauty dish. It increases the size of the light source but maintains a small enough profile to avoid becoming cumbersome to my assistant or an obstacle for the clients who are moving about in the room. A speed light is often used in these circumstances and bounced off the nearest wall. However, bouncing flash (while good at creating a larger light source) has a number of drawbacks: a) many times the walls are dark and colored, b) when we are outdoors there is often times nothing of which to bounce. In any of these instances, pointing the light at the subject is the only way to go, but with a bare bulb, that often means that your shadows will be harsh. If it is the only option I have, then of course, I will take it, but a soft, direct light would be preferable.
Increasing the size of the light from a speedlite size to a Profoto B2 is a step in the right direction, but adding a small Beauty dish increases the size of the light significantly. Also, the design of a Beauty dish insures that there is no direct light on the subject. A round plate in front of the flash itself forces the light back toward the dish, which then bounces out of the dish in a large even circle. This means that a photographer can aim a relatively small light directly at their subject and still get directional soft light.
With a B2 bare head
In the first example, my assistant is pointing a bare head Profoto B2 Off Camera Flash on a monopod at the bride, who is touching up her makeup. The light is positioned about ninety degrees from the camera (above and to the right of the bride). I am careful to direct my assistant so that the light sneaks past her nose and provides that “Rembrandt lighting” triangle of light under her left eye. The photograph is a well exposed, short light portrait and is completely acceptable as a “getting ready” image for a wedding, but the nose and chin shadow lines are both hard, the specular highlights on her face or brighter and any laugh lines and wrinkles in her skin are accentuated by the quality of the light. There is nothing wrong with the photo, in fact some may prefer this lighting scenario to a softer one.
With an OCF Beauty Dish White
Next, we added the Profoto OCF Beauty Dish White to the B2 flash head and with a slight adjustment for the loss of flash power, photographed the bride again with the light and camera in the same position. Because the light is evenly spread across the width of the beauty dish, and refracting it in multiple directions off the white surface of the dish, all of the shadow edges are softened as are the depths of the laugh lines and wrinkles and imperfections in the bride’s skin (not there were many imperfections, but you can see the differences in the clefts below her nose and above her chin). This is because the light from the left side of the dish is filling in the shadows created by the light emanating from the right side of the dish and vice versa. Also because of the floating plate in the center of the dish (blocking the original light source), the bride’s skin does not have as many of the extra bright highlights on her skin or sparkles in her eyes we call “specular highlights.”
In the final shot, we still have beautiful direction of light by taking the light off camera, but by modifying the light with a white beauty dish, we created a beautiful soft quality of light as well. A larger beauty dish will create and even softer light, but the OCF Beauty Dish is a nice blend of small for portability and large for a soft quality of light. Both photographs are beautiful and will please the client, but there is no question that the the effect of the beauty dish is a much softer look, and with the total size and weight of the B2, with the OCF Beauty Dish, as small and light as they are, my assistant can wander through the morning of a wedding with a B2 and OCF Beauty Dish and make great light without getting in the way.
With a small and portable beauty dish in hand, you may want to try using it outside of the typical headshots and fashion portraits use.
Both images are photographed with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 70-200 2.8L IS II lens. Settings were set at 400 ISO, 1/200 sec at f 2.8 (190mm).
Location: Jared Platt’s Studio in Chandler, Arizona