Between Light and Shadow with Tony Corbell

 Light Control with the Beauty Dish and the Octabank

No matter what you use as a light shaping tool, care must be taken to show the true features of the subject

As more and more working photographers gain high levels of skill in their chosen craft, I feel there might be a need for a new way of thinking in terms of photographic education.  Perhaps it could be looked upon as a new way to learn for those who are already knowledgeable. With that in mind welcome to Between Light and Shadow. In this series we will explore not only the “how” a particular technique might be or could be used, but more importantly “why.” 


For many years photographers have been given a plan to follow by well-meaning mentors, a graphic diagram to copy from a periodical or website, or a recipe with a specific technique to employ in their work. However, the direction of this series is dedicated to teaching the theories and why’s of light and shadow control to better understand the use of our tools, the reason for their existence, and when to choose one tool over the next, as opposed to a recipe book style of education.

To begin this new concept we will look at two particular lighting tools to discuss and illustrate. Today we are seeing an increase in people using the popular beauty dish as a main light source. It is smallish, lightweight and not terribly expensive.  We are also seeing quite a large increase in people working with the octabank. I wanted to create a comparison and see if we can determine the specific use of each and under which conditions we would choose one over the other. 

Our first sample image was taken with an octabank that was approximately 48”in size and in both of the example pictures placement was about the same as the width of the octabank, 40”-48”. One of the things I have tested out and proven true over and over is that with any large light source it is generally a better picture when you work the source very close to your subject. However, care must be taken to show the features of the subject. There are times when an extra large light source becomes “mushy”, such as a really tight head shot with a 4’X6’ softbox very close to the face. Often this can become a little softer than is comfortable to the eye and can actually alter facial features by eliminating any example of depth, shape and true form with little or no shadows and very soft highlights. 

Great Light Sources Equal Great Catch Lights in the Eyes

Great Light Sources Equal Great Catch Lights in the Eyes

One of the important elements to keep in mind in portrait photography is that often the highlight in the eye, the catchlight, becomes a design element. The octabank does a great job of creating a good, substantial catchlight that when placed just about anyplace in the upper portion of the eye yields a great looking picture with life in the eyes of your subject.

The beauty dish, on the other hand, has its own sense of style and a look that when used appropriately will turn an average picture into something very special. But it is not the forgiving, soft light source you will find with a softbox, octabank or even a raw light behind a translucent diffusion panel. It is best used when close to the face and, as it is fairly directional, the exact placement is critical. For me, with close placement of the light in its distance to the subject, I move the source up and down while looking carefully at the face and literally watch for the perfect “sweet spot” which reveals itself a little differently with each subject. But trust me, when you see it, you’ll know it.

While so many light-shaping tools use diffusion fabric with light transmitting through the fabric softening the light quality, the beauty dish works by bouncing the light into the parabolic shape of the silver or white dish, reflecting the light outwards onto the subject. This gives an entirely different feel to the skin, especially in a subject that has great skin and great features to begin with. When in the butterfly or “paramount” position, high and above the lens, the cheekbones are greatly enhanced by introducing slight shadows just under the cheeks and the mask of the face is ideally lit to give great definition. 

As an added feature, both of these examples of working with the beauty dish also have a grid in place on the light-shaping tool.  The grid helps to prevent light from spilling into areas that you might not intend to light.  For example, if it is important to not allow light to strike the background, a grid spot for the beauty dish is ideally suited for this task as it contains the light and directs it only straight-forward, not outward away from the source.

To recap, the beauty dish is really good for especially smooth skin and clean, even facial features of the subject. Think of the beauty light as being great with beautiful faces. While the octabank is really good at smoothing out imperfections in the face and skin such as blemishes, wrinkles, etc. and does a great job softening these features on your subject.  

Tony Corbell,  Photographic Craftsman and Approved Photographic Instructor is a long-time PPA member, photographer/educator and recipient of the 2014 Gerhard Bakker Award and has conducted more than 650 seminars/workshops throughout the world.  Send any ideas for future articles to: