Sunday, June 30, 2013

Master Soft Light

Text And Photography By William Sawalich Published in Photography Lighting
Master Soft Light
Beauty Dish


The beauty dish isn't especially soft, but it's certainly much softer than a bare bulb. As the name connotes, the beauty dish is ideal for beauty, fashion and portraiture. I tend to think of it as my old-school Hollywood glamour light, producing a focused hot spot in the center of an even softer circle of light—one that tapers quickly at the edges to fall into shadow. The harder-edged shadows from a beauty dish add strong contrast that's very appealing when portraits need to pop off the page. When positioned close to the subject, not only is the center spot more defined, but the broader nature of the source becomes clearer thanks to its relatively larger size in close proximity.

Beauty dishes are available from many manufacturers like Bowens, which offers a 21" Beauty Dish reflector and an optional 3/8" honeycomb grid for channeling any light spill forward. They also offer a fabric diffuser in a shower cap design that will fit over the 21" Beauty Dish to soften light further. Chimera's Octa 2 and Octa 30 beauty dishes are good choices because they're collapsible and lightweight.

Diffusion is available in several different forms, like silks and baffles, which can be added or removed from softboxes and similar lighting tools to soften light and reduce contrast. Available in a variety of sizes, silks even can be placed in front of a light for softbox-like effects without the softbox setup.

Silk Diffusion Panel

In my own continuing quest for an ideal window light replacement, I've finally found something that definitely looks different from both a softbox and an umbrella. It's the use of a simple sheet of diffusion silk on a 4x4 frame, with a specular source positioned far away. The amount of softening depends on how opaque that diffusion material is, but the distance from source to subject changes the dynamic enough to make the light unique. It's an overall soft light that lends itself to high-key shooting because of its relatively low contrast. I know food photographers who use this window substitute both in studio and on location.

Similar to silks, but with more tensile strength, freestanding diffusion panels are also available from companies like Sunbounce, which offers the SUN-SWATTER and SUN-SCRIM lines, as well as a variety of Sunbouncer reflective panels.

William Sawalich is a professional photographer, and he teaches studio photography at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. A frequent contributor to DPP, you can see more of his softly lit photography at

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