For anyone doing portrait work, the term “beauty dish” is bound to crop up sometime or another, whether it's reading Strobist, looking at the technical notes from shoots, or simply surfing for more gear you don't need.
Over the last year, there's been a lot of interest in DIY (do it yourself) beauty dishes, made of everything from plastic salad bowls to aluminum turkey roasting pans. With the annual slowdown of concert season this winter, I decided to undertake my own DIY project and set out to see what this beauty dish business was all about.
About $20, one Nikon SB-900 speedlight, and a bit of work later, and here are the results.
The Anatomy of a Beauty Dish
The principle of a beauty dish is relatively simple: flash is fired through the back of a large concave dish into a smaller reflector, which returns the flash into the bowl for an outward projection of indirect light.
With DIY beauty dishes, there are three main components:
- Reflecting dish
- Internal reflector
- Mount (speedlight/light stand)
Non-DIY Beauty Dish Options
If you don't want to build your own beauty dish, there are lots of options available for photographers using speedlights all the way up to studio strobes.
For the strobist, I would recommend the ePhoto 22″ Beauty Dish, which is identical to this 22″ (55cm) beauty dish available via eBay. A smaller 16″ Beauty Dish from Cowboystudio is also available for a cheap $48. These are the cheapest beauty dishes available, come ready to mount a speedlight flash, and they're still much less expensive than the top of the line Mola beauty dishes that we all really want.
If you're looking for a beauty dish for your small flash and don't have the power tools to make my design, I recommend these choices.
“Chinatown Special” – The Design Rationale
Rather than go with an eBay beauty dish, all of which seemed pretty weak, I set out to make my own design.
I made my first DIY beauty dish mid-December 2009 – the Mark I. While together with my brother Chris for the holidays, we decided to undertake construction of the Mark II design. The main differences between the first and second designs center around tweaks to the beauty dish's internal reflector.
After scouring Google, Flickr, and various photography websites, I had a good idea of how I wanted to approach my DIY beauty dish. While a lot of the existing designs feature plastic elements, I figured that I'd go for all-metal construction for my dish. And, what better resource to use for materials than a place that is no stranger to use and abuse: the kitchen.
For the main component – the reflecting dish – Chris and I used a 16-quart stainless steel mixing bowl (which looks identical to this 16-quart stainless steel mixing bowl from Amazon.com). For the internal reflector/return, an Winware Coupe Style Aluminum 8-Inch Pizza Tray was perfect. The source for these items? A Chinese restaurant supply warehouse.
Enter the Chinatown Special DIY Beauty Dish.
Parts & Tools
- 1x 16 Qt. Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl ($8.50*) – 18″ diameter (~45.75cm)
- (Alternatlively, a 2o Qt. mixing bowl is also available at Amazon.com)
- 1x 8-Inch Pizza Tray ($1.50)
- 3x 1/4″-20 x 3″ round head slotted machine screws ($1.00)
- 9x 1/4″-20 jam nut ($1.00)
- 3x 1/4″ SAE washer ($0.25)
- 4x #4-40 x 1/2″ round head slotted machine screw ($0.25)
- 4x $4-40 jam nut ($0.25)
Lastolite EZBox Softbox bracket ($0.00) **
- White spray paint, flat ($3.50)
- Black spray paint, flat ($3.50)
- Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish
($8.50) – optional
- Power drill w/ 1/4″ and 5/64″ bits
- Dremel cutting wheel for metal, Aluminum Oxide Grinding Stone
- 150 and 320-grit sandpaper
- Masking tape
* Prices reflect the prices I paid when I made my DIY beauty dish.
** The Cheat: The Speedlight Speedright/Flash Bracket
Obviously this part isn't free. I have the 15″ Lastolite EZYBox Softbox, and while I considered going with a 100% DIY solution with a 5″ L-bracket from Home Depot, I figured that the pre-fab bracket would make this project all that much easier while providing a more reliable and adjustable bracket for mounting different kinds of speedlights.
Assembly Instructions for the DIY Beauty Dish
Detail shots of making the dish are at the end of this article. Be sure to check out the walk-through video of this design's construction, too.
First, create a stencil based on the flash you want to use. Since I made my dish specifically for the Nikon SB-900, my template was sized for that flash head with very narrow clearances. While a large hole will allow you to use various flashes, custom-fitting the opening will allow less spill out the back of the dish and make for a more efficient light modifier.
Using the stencil for the flash opening, mark out on the dish where you'll need to cut. Also, determine where you'll need to drill for the mounting bracket and for the hardware that will secure the internal reflector.
The bracket Lastolite uses – and which can be found elsewhere on similar, cheaper products – features holes around the circumference. Perfect for a DIY beauty dish. I used these holes as guides for the holes I drilled, both for mounting the bracket and for the mounting screws for the internal reflector.
After the mounting holes and flash opening are marked out (I used an ultra-fine point Sharpie), get to work with the power tools.
To cut out the opening for the flash, I recommend using Dremel's Rotary Cutting Wheel for metal. You'll probably want a pair of earplugs while you're cutting the metal.
After everything was drilled and cut, Dremel's Aluminum Oxide Grinding Stone
is great for cleaning up the sharp edges and burs that remain.
Use a medium to fine-grit sandpaper (I used 150-grit) over the entire surface of the mixing bowl and the piece for the internal reflector. Sanding will give spray paint a nice surface to which to adhere.
After sanding, I wiped down the bowl and plate with denatured alcohol for good measure.
Now you're ready to paint the interior of the mixing bowl, but before you do, tape up the flash opening and the drilled holes on the back of the bowl with masking tape.
Using flat white spray paint, coat the interior of the bowl and both sides of the internal reflector in thin, even applications.
I recommend three coats, with 20-30 minutes minutes drying time in between coats. Save some spray paint if you're “detail oriented” like me and want to perform touch ups after the black paint.
After painting the interior of the bowl, paint back of the dish with flat black. Again, you'll want to tape up the flash opening and mounting holes, this time on the interior of the dish, with masking tape.
If you're looking to save money, you can skip painting the back of the dish – your DIY dish will just look a lot more do-it-yourself.
Painting the exterior last means that you'll have a nice clean edge black-white around the rim of the bowl.
Step 7 (optional)
If you're like me, and, after completing the above steps you're starting to develop an attachment to your DIY project, you can pick up a can of Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish
to protect your dish.
I did four coats on the interior of the bowl and and about six on the exterior of the beauty dish, with a light sanding with 320-grit sandpaper in between coats.
Grabbing a can of this protective coat will set you back about $9.00, but it will provide a little more peace of mind not having to baby the dish and worry about paint getting chipped or scraped. Believe me, just setting the dish face down is going to tear up the spray paint on the rim in no time – just ask my Mark I design.
After the paint and polycrylic coating are dry, it's time to assemble the return on the interior of the dish. Due to the way the mounting bracket overlaps the dish, it's necessary to first screw on the hardware for mounting the internal reflector. This is where the 1/4″-20 3″ machine screws and the appropriate fasteners come in.
Once you've installed the internal reflector, attach the flash bracket to the dish with the #4 machine screws and fasteners. At this point, things should be looking pretty good, but you're not finished yet.
Remember the adjustable return? The last step is to fine tune this internal reflector to provide the most even and efficient diffusion of light possible. Since the internal reflector is held in place by the jam nuts on internal reflector, just screw on the jam nuts closer or farther away from the flash to adjust. Every combination of bowl and return will be different, so you'll have to tweak your design.
The Finished Beauty Dish
Quality of Light
Beauty dishes seem to be classified in a middling purgatory of light modifiers, positioned between the harsher light of a reflector and the diffusion of a softbox. A kind of soft-and-hard directional light.
A 16-qt mixing bowl is designed to hold water, flour, eggs, and maybe even a pinch of salt, but the question remains: how well does it hold – and reflect – light?
The following is an example of the beauty dish positioned roughly one foot from the wall.
The dish throws a roughly 120º spread of light. In the above image, the dish is just a few inches from the wall.
Beauty Dish – Example Portraits
Now, photographing a wall is all well and good – but how does the beauty dish do on real live humans?
Fine-Tuning the Beauty Dish Output
One thing I wanted in the design of the Chinatown Special is the feature of an adjustable internal reflector, which the threaded screws easily provide.
Of course, the irony of the adjustable return is that you really only need to adjust it once to get the sweet spot for difussion. However, since every dish, internal reflector, and combination therein are going to be a little different, this is a nice feature for the best output.
In fine-tuning the beauty dish, I found that the closer in I adjusted the interal reflector, the more soft/even the spread of light. Logically, this effect was at the expense of efficiency. And so, the real question is at what length the spread remains as even as possible but with the highest relative efficiency.
In my build of the Chinatown Special Mark II, I found that a 3″ machine screw provided the perfect distance between the 8″ pizza dish with the 16-quart bowl, thus rendering a very nice spread of light. Your mileage may vary.
Reflector Affect on Output
Positioning of the internal reflector affects the quality of light from the beauty dish – distance, reflectivity, and curve relative to the reflecting bowl are key variables. The first image in this series shows the return in the convex arrangement; bottom shows the concave arrangement. For these samples, the dish was positioned about a foot from the wall.
Aside from the position of the internal reflector, one additional factor that may be important in the optimization of your beauty dish is the effect of flash zoom position.
In the Mark I design, which featured a smaller return plate with higher sloping sides, I found that I needed a zoom setting of 200mm on the Nikon SB-900 for the smoothest light. With the Mark II, which features a different, slightly larger reflector, anywhere from 17mm to 200mm produces just about the same effect.
What, No 3″ Auto Mirror in the Internal Reflector?
The Mark II design that I present here is the result of a few different trials conducted with the first version of this DIY Beauty dish, most extensively with the internal reflector.
A lot of the DIY designs I saw on different blogs featured a 3″ convex mirror in the internal reflector (most famously David Tejada's Home Depot-sourced dish). For efficiency, this sounds great, but when I looked at most commercial beauty dishes, they all featured white returns and no specular reflection. I had to investigate.
In my Mark I design of the Chinatown Special, to roughly test, I bought two plates to be used for the internal reflector. I painted one plate flat white and left the control as polished stainless steel. Overall, I found that the painted return offered a smoother light source with no visible loss in efficiency. Smoother and just as powerful? That sounds like win-win, and for me, enough reason to proceed with white reflector sans mirror in the final design for the Mark I and Mark II dishes.
There you have it – one music photographer's DIY beauty dish, AKA the Chinatown Special. Be sure to check out the samples I posted earlier for an idea of this beauty dish's output.
My brother Chris and I had a blast making this little homebrew project and I'm excited to put this light modifier to the test for future shoots. Due to the relatively small size, I think this beauty dish will work out great for band portraits and promos, either on a boom or simply on a light stand.
If you end up making a beauty dish with this design as a reference, no matter how small, I'd love to hear from you and your experiences. Feel free to ask questions as well if there's anything I've left out that you want to know. Thanks for reading.
The above image was shot with a Nikon SB-900 fired into the “Chinatown Special” DIY beauty dish camera right. Two Nikon SB-600s at 45º fired from behind. One SB-900 with a snoot fired behind at the wall.
DIY Beauty Dishes Made From This Design:
- Sample portraits by photographer Eric Ashley
- Richard C Hill's parts list for UK residents
- Great build/tutorial in Spanish using this design.
- Gregory Tran's version of this design, using an L-plate instead of the Lastolate bracket.
- Wes Taylor's version of the Chinatown Special, also using an L-plate.
- Another Chinatown Special with a custom bracket/plate that also holds the flash perpendicularly.
- An example of the Chinatown Special DIY beauty dish made for two flashes.
- A fantastically detailed tutorial for this DIY beauty dish build in Spanish.
I scoured Google for DIY beauty dishes, and the best of what I found pointed me to a series these posts:
- David Tejada's plastic planter bowl dish, famously pimped by some guy on the internet
- Tom Siebert's bamboo dish
- Isaac Lane Koval's interpretation of Siebert's bamboo bowl BD
DIY isn't for everyone. Again, for the strobist shooter looking for a speedlight dish, I would recommend is the Cowboystudio 22, which is identical to this 22″ (55cm) beauty dish available via eBay. A smaller 16″ Beauty Dish from Cowboystudio is also available for a cheap $48. These are the cheapest beauty dishes available, come ready to mount a speedlight flash, and they're still much less expensive than the top of the line Mola beauty dishes that we all really want.
If you're looking for a beauty dish for your small flash and don't have the power tools to make my design, I recommend these choices.
Finally, I've received a lot of comments and emails about a sock for this dish. I'd recommend this ready-made Beauty Dish Diffuser for 19-22″ diameter dishes— it's a 2-pack and the price is right. There's also a model for 12-16″ diameter beauty dishes.
If these instructions have been helpful to you, please drop me a comment, share this link, and go make a DIY beauty dish. Or, if you're so inclined, buy yourself something nice through my affiliate links through B&H Photo in New York.
Thanks for reading. You can see more examples of the Chinatown Special in my band promos and portraits.
For the video walk-through, check out this four-minute tutorial.