Beauty lighting is unique in itself because it only addresses lighting the model’s face. That’s not to say that you are not concerned with lighting her hair or other parts of her body. But when you are shooting a beauty ad or a headshot, it is imperative to understand how to specifically light for beauty. For the most part now in my career, I rely on a lighting accessory known as a beauty dish. A beauty dish is a round, flat dish usually 18″ to 36″ in diameter. It is metal and has a smaller opaque dish inside the metal dish that the light reflects against. The idea is the light reflects onto the smaller opaque dish, back into the metal dish and onto your model. The light is unforgiving but it is highly controllable in studio lighting situations. You can use a diffusion material over them, also known as a “sock”. Or you can also use a grid over the dish. A grid will soften the light but you’ll have more definitive shadows. The sock will soften the entire face, much like a soft box.
I usually place my beauty dish as close to the model as I can. Why? Because the closer the light is to your subject, the softer the light. My dish is placed high above the face, angled down on it at about a 45 degree angle. It also can be placed directly centered above the model’s face. This is normally referred to as “paramount” lighting. It got its name from Paramount Studios. This lighting was used constantly as a female “glamour” light. Remember the old Hollywood portraits made famous by photographers like George Hurrell? He used this lighting to accent the cheekbones and give a broad look to a narrow face. It is also sometimes referred to as “butterfly lighting” because of the small butterfly shadow under the nose. The shadow should fall half way between under the nose and the upper lip. With paramount lighting, I generally use a fill light to soften the shadows. I have to add here that paramount lighting has been deemed “unforgiving” light because it works best on women with high cheekbones and good skin. Beauty dishes somewhat reinforce that rule because when they are not diffused the light can equally be a bit harsh. Because I shoot young models, generally, with good skin, also generally, I don’t have too many dilemmas with this lighting. But I should say here that yes, it does have it downfalls on girls who don’t have the strongest bone structure or who have some skin issues.
BUT. Good models usually have Good skin! So it’s a lighting set up that I use frequently. (and I didn’t say it, but I’m saying it: photoshop can clean up the skin. We all know that by now, right?)
Beauty dishes are expensive. Here’s my favorite beauty dish on the market: profoto beauty dish. It’s probably the most expensive one on the market right now. But I love it. There are alternatives and much less expensive ones out there. Here’s one I took from the DIY photography site that you can make from a (gulp!) soup dish: soup dish beauty dish.
Here’s a diagram for a paramount lighting set up:
This diagram also shows a hair light and fill light set up that you can use with your paramount lighting. On the shot below, I wanted a strong character lighting so I used paramount lighting with a beauty dish. You can see how you can get those “raccoon eyes” if you’re not careful. I didn’t use a fill on this shot because I wanted an edgy look. In the cover shot I took at the top of this blog, I used paramount lighting with a beauty dish and a soft fill to the left of the model so I could get rid of the strong shadows under the eyes and nose and soften the skin a bit more. Also, as you can see by the shadows to the right of her nose, my beauty dish was not directly over her but placed slightly to the left of her face.