Choosing a Beauty Dish: What Size Is Right for Portraits?

The post Choosing a Beauty Dish: What Size Is Right for Portraits? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.

How to choose the perfect beauty dish

Beauty dishes are common and well-loved lighting modifiers. They’re particularly great for portrait photography – beauty is in the name, after all! – and they also tend to be cheaper than decent-sized softboxes, so they offer more bang for your buck.

Years ago, your choice of beauty dish was quite limited. Nowadays, if you try searching for beauty dishes, you will be presented with dozens of options that vary greatly in size.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
Beauty dishes come in several sizes, and each has a distinct effect on the light in your images.

So when you’re faced with this kind of choice, what do you do? How do you know what size beauty dish to buy? In this article, I discuss three common beauty dish sizes, and I share examples so you can see the kind of effect each size will have on your photos.

Note that all of the beauty dishes discussed here are silver, and none of them are collapsible. As long as they are of decent quality, the fact that a beauty dish is collapsible should have no impact on your images.

What is a beauty dish?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to start with the basics:

Beauty dishes are bowl-shaped modifiers that are known for the contrasty light they provide. The quality of light is usually somewhere between hard and soft (when brought in close to your subject). This sets them apart from other modifiers, like umbrellas and softboxes, where the goal is to achieve the softest light possible.

With beauty dishes, you can achieve well-defined edges and shadows but still retain a flattering light on your subject:

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
Captured with a beauty dish. Note the flattering light on my subject’s face as well as the relatively well-defined chin and cheeks.

Beauty dishes often come with grids and diffusion socks to help modify them further. Grids increase the directionality of the light, while diffusion socks diffuse the light further, softening it a bit and altering the shape.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
An unmodified beauty dish is on the left, a gridded beauty dish in the middle, and a beauty dish fitted with a diffusion sock on the right.

What beauty dish sizes are available?

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
Three different-sized beauty dishes. The beauty dish on the left is 16 inches; the beauty dish in the middle is 20 inches, and the beauty dish on the right is 27 inches.

A search for a beauty dish should reveal a huge amount of results these days. You can find tiny beauty dishes that are designed for speedlights, and you can find massive beauty dishes that are ideal for lighting groups of people.

However, I’d like to focus on three normal-sized beauty dishes: 27 inches, 20 inches, and 16 inches. These are the sizes that you’ll generally want to consider for a standard portrait studio setup.

Below, I explain the benefits of the different sizes, and I share sample images taken with each type of beauty dish. I photographed the same subject with each dish, and I also made sure that the beauty dishes were positioned the same distance from the subject to clearly demonstrate the differences in lighting they provide.

1. The 27-inch beauty dish

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?

At 27 inches in diameter, this beauty dish is at the upper reaches of what you can expect to find in terms of size. When it’s positioned close to your subject, the light it provides is really soft and is comparable to a medium-sized softbox, but with a bit more contrast. It also provides large catchlights in your subject’s eyes.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
My 27-inch beauty dish in action!

Because of its size, it’s easy to bring the light further away from your subject to achieve a similar effect to that of smaller beauty dishes, while giving you more room to work. A 27-inch beauty dish would also be great for lighting multiple people, whereas you might struggle to get decent results with a smaller beauty dish.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
This image was taken with a 27-inch beauty dish. When brought in close to your subject, a dish of this size provides really soft light. Pay attention to the shadow and highlight transitions as well as to how the light wraps around the subject.

There are a couple of disadvantages to a beauty dish this big. The bigger the light source is in relation to your subject, the less bright your subject’s eyes are going to be. If you want bright, clear eyes, a smaller beauty dish may be the way to go.

A 27-inch beauty dish also makes it harder to control the light fall-off since the bigger source will cast more light behind your subject (assuming you don’t use a grid).

2. The 20-inch beauty dish

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?

The second beauty dish we’re going to discuss comes in at 20 inches. This is pretty close to what may be considered a standard size for a beauty dish (if there is such a thing). Placed 1-4 feet away from your subject, the quality of light it produces is great for all sorts of portraiture and for a wide variety of subjects.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?

A 20-inch beauty dish is great for both male and female subjects, though for flattering portraits of older people, you may want avoid beauty dishes entirely. Instead, opt for large softboxes and umbrellas.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
The 20″ beauty dish also provides good, soft light. However, the edges of the transitions from shadow to highlight are more defined. You’ll also note the light wraps around the subject less and results in darker shadows toward the back of the subject’s head.

As a beauty dish of this size won’t be a great deal bigger than your average subject’s head (from an appropriate distance), you’ll also have good control over the light fall-off, and you’ll have even more control if you introduce a grid.

3. The 16-inch beauty dish

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?

This last beauty dish is 16 inches in diameter. This is the size that I use the most as a portrait photographer, and it’s been that way since I bought it well over a decade ago. (Look carefully at the image above, and you’ll see just how battered and it is.)

Because a 16-inch beauty dish is quite small, it is easy to control and great to bring in really close to your subject. This beauty dish clearly lights and defines your subject’s eyes. And since it’s a harder light source, it also provides clearly defined edges between shadows and highlights – but in a flattering manner.

If you want to reduce light fall-off as much as possible, this size is definitely the way to go. However, if you want to increase light fall-off, you are better off with a larger modifier. To increase fall-off, you need to move the light away from your subject. But moving a 16-inch beauty dish any distance from your subject will result in extremely hard light that you might find unflattering on most subjects.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
The 16-inch beauty dish is great for minimizing light fall-off. Note the dark background behind my subject.

In terms of portability, this size beauty dish is great. It doesn’t weigh very much at all and just carrying it in your hand takes minimum effort.

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
The 16-inch beauty dish also provides excellent light. Here you can see the transitions from shadow to highlight are clearly defined. Also, the rapid light fall-off means the areas towards the back of the subject’s head are more in shadow.

When used as something other than a key light, this size beauty dish is really effective. Its small size makes it unobtrusive and easy to position anywhere you need, whether you want to use it as a hair light or for fill.

So what size beauty dish should you get?

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?
A comparison of the three beauty dish sizes.
Left: 16″ Middle: 20″ Right: 27″

Some of the differences between these three modifiers can be subtle and hard to spot if you’re new to lighting. If you’re still wondering which dish should opt for, my best advice (which is by no means gospel!) would be to evaluate how you would use it and what you want to photograph.

Do you need portability? Get a small 16-inch beauty dish, or consider a collapsible model.

Will you be shooting groups of people often? Go for the largest beauty dish you can afford.

Are you shooting in a small space? Go for a smaller beauty dish.

Are you shooting in a large space where you can’t get the lights very close to your subject? Again, go for the biggest one possible.

Whichever you choose, make sure it comes with both a grid and a diffusion sock so you can have the most possible control over the light.

No matter which way you choose to go, you are going to find yourself with a versatile and useful modifier that will last you for years!

Now over to you:

Have you used any beauty dishes? Do you have a favorite size? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Choosing a beauty dish: what size is best for portraits?

Table of contents

Portrait Photography

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The post Choosing a Beauty Dish: What Size Is Right for Portraits? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire.

The post Choosing a Beauty Dish: What Size Is Right for Portraits? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire. Beauty dishes are common and well-loved lighting modifiers. They’re particularly great for portrait photography – beauty is in the name, after all! – and they also tend to be cheaper than…

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