A Flash In The Pan – Part 1

Photographers who genuinely want to get the best out of their photography, will have within their arsenal at least one set of supplementary lighting (not to forget light modifiers, reflectors etc) to add to natural lighting, or to provide lighting that is fully under the photographer’s control. In this day and age, however, some DSLRs, it’s said, can photograph black cats in coal mines and this has led to a new group of photographers that completely eschew any form of artificial lighting. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, the more prevalent it becomes, the greater the possibility that the art of lighting may be forgotten and with it a fundamental aspect of photography. Well, I doubt that will ever happen, as I guess Photoshop or the like will be able to provide for what the photographer didn’t or couldn’t.

My two black hounds in a coal mine - Olympus E-M1

My two black hounds in a coal mine – Olympus E-M1

Now one of the possible reasons for many new photographers not being interested in supplementary lighting is because of cost and, to some extent, the need to learn something new, as getting supplementary lighting right does take some effort. Studio lighting, electronic flash, reflectors etc can get very expensive (I’ll call an electronic flash that usually attaches to a camera a strobe, for easier reference) and certainly when I started out, even a simple strobe cost a veritable arm and a leg (OEM ones still do). However, nowadays it’s possible to get just about anything on eBay and some of the gear is very reasonably priced and often of pretty good quality. But one thing that I’ve never owned and for some reason felt that I needed to learn about is a beauty dish. Now beauty dishes come in many sizes, variations and prices, and can be used for main or supplementary lighting in conjunction with other studio lights, or to supplement outdoor lighting.

Relatively inexpensive and sort of portable:

Beauty dish that attaches to strobe - (source: iShoot)

Beauty dish that attaches to strobe – (source: iShoot)

Seriously good, but pricy and not so portable:

Shoot through ring flash and beauty dish - (source: Hensel)

Shoot through ring flash and beauty dish – (source: Hensel)

I’m hardly on my own when it comes to trying to save money wherever possible and so I thought I’d take the simplest and possibly cheapest route to sourcing a beauty dish for my strobe, one taken by many others before me. Considering that I like to build things and that most of what I required was already at hand in the kitchen or shed, this one was a no brainer. The initial items that I purloined from the kitchen were a stainless steel mixing bowl, approx 240mm in diameter, and an old stainless steel platter, plus some nuts and bolts from the shed. The first stage was to mark out where the flash would be positioned through the bowl and then cut out the required hole. All that was required was some gaffer tape, a drill and jigsaw. I only used a 240mm diameter bowl, as I wanted the option to use the beauty dish on-camera and so that I could easily take it anywhere (of course it can always be upscaled).

Position FL-50R and mark out with tape

Position FL-50R and mark out with tape

Base of bowl marked out

Base of bowl marked out

Hole cut

Hole cut

FL-50R fits neatly

FL-50R fits neatly

The second step was to add a support bracket for the strobe head, so that it would sit securely in the bowl when mounted. All that was required here was to mark out and cut the stainless steel platter into a few strips, make a few folds, drill some holes for the bolts and, basically, that’s the structural outside of the beauty dish completed.

Bracket made and mounted

Bracket made and mounted

FL-50R sits firmly in bracket

FL-50R sits firmly in bracket

Next it was time for the inside to get some attention. Now there are two options when it comes to the reflector side (inside) of beauty dishes, leave it silver or paint it white. Silver tends to produce more contrasty light, is more directional and loses less of the strobe output, while white tends to be softer, provides a broader light, but loses more of the strobe’s output. For the moment, I’ve decided to leave the inside of the dish silver, as I want to experiment with the lighting effects and, because I’ve made everything more or less modular, I can always disassemble the dish and paint the inside white. I can also add a diffuser to the front of the dish to approximate the effects of a white dish, as another option. So, at this stage, this is what the beauty dish looks like mounted to the camera, a reasonably neat fit and not too shabby looking. Actually, it’s not too far removed from the old bulb flash units press photographers used with their Speed Graphics years (many years) ago.

Beauty dish and FL-50R attached to E-M1 with 14-35mm f2 lens

Beauty dish and FL-50R attached to E-M1 with 14-35mm f2 lens

As an aside, my reference to a Speed Graphic and bulb flash units isn’t too far off the mark. Back in the day when press photographers wore a suit, tie, good shoes and usually a hat (rather than dirty jeans, T shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap or beanie), the Speed Graphic was the camera of choice. In those days, you couldn’t photograph a white cat in a coal mine without a flash unit as film was very, very, slow by today’s standards, so a very powerful flash was required to illuminate the subjects even during the day. These bulb flashes were indeed very powerful and no portable flash today comes close to them in the performance stakes, and they are still available and used for special work requiring a lot of power: Dark Light Imagery.

Speed Graphic 4"x5" camera with bulb flash - (source: Steve Harwood, Flickr)

Speed Graphic 4″x5″ camera with bulb flash – (source: Steve Harwood, Flickr)

There are a couple of quite good DIY beauty dish examples going around the interwebs, but with each one (from my observation) the builder places the centre reflector far too close to the flash head, restricting the ability of the reflector to spread the light fully and evenly within the dish. This shows most clearly in a number of photos posted, where the main reflector produces rings of light or other odd patterns, rather than an even spread. Part of this will also be due to the fact that the dish isn’t ideally curved, but experimentation with positioning of the strobe head and centre reflector should provide a reasonable compromise. A couple of quick tests reveal how the beauty dish performs with and without the Sto-Fen diffuser on the flash head. With it on, it becomes a very large flash and it might actually be a great alternative, and with it off, not so good (the movement in the shots is due to the camera being set to 1 sec and held one handed while I fired the flash via a cable release).

Beauty dish fired with Sto-Fen diffuser attached and flash at lowest power setting

Beauty dish fired with Sto-Fen diffuser attached and flash at lowest power setting

Beauty dish fired without Sto-Fen diffuser attached and flash at lowest power setting

Beauty dish fired without Sto-Fen diffuser attached and flash at lowest power setting

The DIY examples use various means to attach a centre reflector and, after some pondering, I came up with an idea that might work. The idea was to find a clear acrylic cup, that I could glue/screw to the base of the bowl and attach the centre reflector to the other end. I had no luck in that regard; however, I came across some clear plastic containers, which appeared to fit the bill. The base of the bowl matched almost perfectly with the lid of the container, which would allow me to lock the lid inside the bowl with the existing screws and then the container would just snap into the lid. A convex mirror was then attached inside the base of the container as a reflector (the black stuff covering the outside of the container is this: Protostar). It just so happened that where the mirror sat, was just about right for producing an even spread. So the setup works and I’m happy with the reflector assembly.

Beauty dish with reflector

Beauty dish with reflector

Test shot with flash at lowest power setting

Test shot with flash at lowest power setting

Now the beauty dish was ready for some scrubbing, polishing and painting. First off, I didn’t want the inside of the bowl to be mirror shiny and the way that it was after a lot of general use was fairly close to what I wanted, but a little more work was needed (the photo with the reflector shows the final surface finish). The outside, on the other hand, required a lot more roughening, as stainless steel can be very difficult to paint unless properly prepared and that means giving it a rough(ish) surface. Industrial stainless is often pickled in acid to give it that micro-porosity required for good paint adhesion but, in my case, sandpaper would suffice. After an absolutely thorough surface cleaning using acetone, to ensure that there were no contaminants on the surface, came several thin coats of etching primer, followed by several coats of satin black paint (as per the obligatory professional photographer’s colour code). It now looks pretty neat.

Beauty dish with final exterior finish on E-M1 with 14-35mm f2 lens

Beauty dish with final exterior finish on E-M1 with 14-35mm f2 lens

I thought I’d add a bit of science here about how beauty dishes are supposed to work and how they can be modified or designed to suit your needs, which is something worth considering if you want to make a beauty dish yourself. The science applies whether you have a parabolic, spherical or any curved dish. The simplest way to understand this is that just about any reflective curved surface has a point within it where a light can be positioned and the light that comes out will be parallel (or nearly so). If the light is moved away from that point, the light coming out will no longer be parallel (basically, it works like a simple lens). It’s a bit more complex than that because we’re not using a point source of light, instead, we’re reflecting the light from the flash head off a flat or curved surface somewhere near the focal point of the dish. However, the principle is the same, even though the absolute effect may not be, and this provides the flexibility when you design your own beauty dish, in that you can decide how much the light spreads as it comes out of the dish by moving the reflector closer to the flash head. But remember, the amount of movement doesn’t have to be a lot to make a significant difference.

A reflector with light source at focal point and parallel light coming out

A reflector with light source at focal point and parallel light coming out

So that’s it, the beauty dish is complete and ready for some test shots. And in case anyone was wondering about the weight, it weighs exactly 230g, not a lot. Part 2 will provide some dreary examples taken with and without the beauty dish, and with the beauty dish both on-camera and off-camera. This is really to identify any issues using a static subject, which I can easily control, before tackling live victims.