The difference between a beauty dish and a softbox

The difference between a beauty dish and a softbox

Lighting modifiers can be very confusing. I’m often asked about the difference between the light dispersal pattern for a beauty dish and a softbox when shooting portraits. Other questions you might have are: should I buy a beauty dish? Or is there a difference between a fold up beauty dish and one of those hard to store solid units? and the all-important which is better a softbox or a beauty dish? Let’s talk about it.

The gear

For this article I used my trusty Canon 5dmkIV fitted with a 70-200 f2.8 IS II, a very common camera/lens setup for shooting portraits. The strobes for this shoot were a Profoto D2 500 w/s with air remote and 36-inch Profoto octabox. I also used an AD200 (Flashpoint version) with Godox XPro trigger and a Godox AD-S3 beauty dish which comes with a diffuser sock and a honeycomb grid (more on those is a bit). Everything was held by a variety of light stands and C-stands.

The setup

For my model I used a mannequin I often shoot jewelry on, and for a background a (very wrinkled) 5 in 1 reflector. Generally, if I were to use the reflector for a background in a real portrait shooting situation, I would light it with a separate strobe to remove the wrinkles and give a nice even white background. For the purposes of this shoot I thought leaving the background unlit would be more illustrative of the light patterns for each modifier.

I set my camera on Manual and used flash white balance for all the shots, with the remote triggers set to TTL auto metering. In Lightroom, I did not apply any other color adjustments, and we will discuss the differences in light temperature for the modifiers as we go.

AD200 and Beauty Dish

AD200 with beauty dish

The first shot uses the AD200 (with bare bulb head) and the AD-S3 beauty dish. Using the flash white balance, you can see that the AD200 runs a bit cool (toward the blue end) of the light spectrum. The white and black combo of my model is a notoriously difficult scenario for many triggers to calculate, but the Godox trigger and strobe did just fine. If this were a person, I would warm the shot a bit, but otherwise you can see that the beauty dish provides a nice punchy source of light for out subject. Note the way the light falls off the background and the deep shadow under the chin of our subject. I consider the light from a beauty dish somewhere between a bare bulb and a softbox. The light from the beauty dish isn’t as soft as a softbox and not as harsh as a bare bulb. I often use a reflector in front of the model which brings more light into the chin and in the eyes however this article isn’t a how-to-use a beauty dish tutorial, rather, it is just to compare the two light modifiers.

Nice warm sock

AD200 with AD-S3 beauty dish and diffusion sock

The second shot also uses the AD200 and AD-S3 beauty dish, but this time the included diffusion sock has been added to the front of the dish. When you use the sock, you will lose about ¼ to ½ stop of light. If you are shooting in TTL the trigger will adjust for you, I only mention the light loss in case you shoot manual like I do. The biggest difference you will notice when shooting with the sock is the color cast. The sock introduces a warmer cast to the light. This is common with Godox branded diffusion materials. Depending on the roll the material comes from, it can have a warmer cast like this one, or a cooler (bluer) color cast. I have modifiers from Godox (strip boxes) which are the same model, but one has a blue cast with the diffusion material and the other has a warm cast. Something to be aware of when buying Godox materials if you intend to use the diffusion materials. This isn’t a big deal for me, I don’t use their diffusion materials often anyway – just the grids.

Honeycomb Grid

AD200 with AD-S3 beauty dish and grid

The last shot with the AD200 and AD-S3uses the included honeycomb grid. As with the diffusion material you will lose between ¼ and ½ stop of light when this modifier is attached so if you are shooting in manual be aware. Since I have removed the diffusion material, you can see we are back to the cooler color cast but notice the way the light falls off the background compared to the bare beauty dish or the beauty dish with the diffusion material. Look at the shadow under the model’s chin, the shadow has deepened even more compared to the bare dish and the diffusion material. The grid focuses your light, so when shooting with a live person, be aware that when you use a grid (depending on the angle of the grid) it can be easy for your model to shift their weight while you are shooting and move right out the sweet spot of light you have created.

Super Soft

Profoto D2 with Profoto 36-inch Octabox

The softbox is aptly named. The light that comes from a softbox spreads out much more than the beauty dish does. Notice that there is a lot more (and more even) light on the background and see how the deep shadow on our model’s chin is much lighter and can be easily removed completely by using a small reflector in front of your model. Take a look at the light on the back of the model’s neck compared to the beauty dish – especially compared to the gridded beauty dish.  The diffusion material for this model of softbox is color neutral, though you do lose ½ stop of light when using it.

Which is better?

As you can see from these images, the light from a beauty dish is noticeably different than from a softbox. My normal use scenario for a beauty dish is fashion or glamour and I use the softbox for just about everything else. If I was looking at buying one or the other, I would get the softbox, because they are more versatile than a beauty dish.  Let’s go through some questions I have received from email and via twitter about softboxes and beauty dishes.

Rapid fire questions


Does the brand of softbox matter?

It does. I have found that lower priced softboxes often do not focus the light as well as more expensive ones – which can lead to loss of power. This can be especially noticeable when shooting with lower powered battery strobes outdoors where you need every watt of power if you plan to overpower the sun with your strobe.

Is there a difference between the folding and solid beauty dishes?

Some beauty dishes fold up like umbrellas, while others are a solid piece of plastic or aluminum. They all have a plate that covers the bulb of your strobe which causes the light to bounce around and soften. The construction of a beauty dish is similar whether they fold up or not, so buy the one that best suits your needs for storage or travel. I personally like the foldable ones because they can be stuffed in my bag along with my other modifiers. The solid dishes tend to get left at home unless I’m specifically shooting headshots or glamour. 

Is the light softer from a beauty dish or softbox?

Beauty dishes provide a punchy contrasty light which is intended to be used to light a model’s face. Softboxes provide an even, soft less contrasty light and are more general-use light modifiers.   

Is there a difference between a low cost and expensive beauty dish?

It depends. Some lower cost dishes work just fine and are great for beginner to intermediate uses. Just like with a softbox, the more expensive beauty dishes tend to be more efficient with the dispersion and focus of light coming from the source.

Which is better beauty dish or softbox for portraits?

I use the beauty dish to achieve a specific look. The light from a dish will be contrasty and punchy. They are specifically made for portraits like headshots. A softbox is a more general-use modifier, which is also very much useable for portraits and headshots. The two modifiers produce a different look, whether you prefer one over the other depends on the style or look you are going for in your portraiture.

There you have it. Did this article help you? If you found the information provided useful, feel free to share or repost this article. If you have questions about anything photographically oriented feel free to contact me on my contact form here or on any of my social media sources below. Until next time, get out and get shooting!

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