I’m not a huge fan of unwieldy light stands and modifiers, especially for on-location portraits – and in dreary, rainy Holland you really can’t count on natural light providing you with the bright, soft illumination that makes portraits shine. As a solo shooter I strive to be as light and mobile as possible, and no piece of gear has proven as versatile and advantageous as the set-up I’ve come to call the Dishgun.
Basically it’s a lightweight beauty dish strapped to a flashgun with a pistol grip. Armed with a 35-50mm equivalent lens, you’ve now got an incredibly versatile, soft lighting solution for portraits. You can control the angle of the light, feathering, and the relative size of the light source simply by moving the dish around your subject, keeping the session fluid, fun and quick.
It’s hardly an invention; all the pieces are off-the-shelf. But together they provide the solo shooter with high-quality light that rivals the best single-light studio set-ups – but more importantly: it provides you with blazing-fast flexibility.
I can move with my subject, try out different locations and angles and different positions of light in a matter of seconds. The portraits I shot of my company’s Movember participants, for instance, were all taken with the Dishgun, each photo taking less than 60 seconds, which included trying multiple angles and light directions. It proved specially useful for subjects wearing glasses, as I could quickly snap a few shots and move the light until its reflection no longer showed up in the glass.
This is all it is:
- Standard off-camera flash speedlight
Preferably triggered via TTL with an off-camera TTL cord or a radio trigger. I use a Canon 600EX-RT triggered via the ST-E3-RT remote radio trigger. Manual control is of course possible, but the whole point is to be flexible and quick; with TTL I can freely experiment and trust my camera to maintain consistent light intensity..
- Lumodi Beauty Dish
Lumodi is a small company which produces lightweight, plastic beauty dishes that attach directly to a flash with velcro. I favour the 11″ version over the 14″ because it travels significantly easier, admittedly at the cost of some surface. Note: the 18″ version is not plastic and requires a mounting bracket.
- Pistol grip with 1/4-20 tripod screw
Any one will do! Since these are simple plastic accessories there’s a rather large variety of them available for sale. I got this one from JJC.
- Coldshoe Adapter with 1/4-20 tripod thread
Again, any one will do. I’m very fond of the Frio, but unfortunately it doesn’t work well with the 600EX’s hotshoe foot, so I use a generic clamp-style mounting coldshoe.
- Belt holster & pin
Not pictured here, I use a Spider Black Widow holster on my belt, with the pin screwed in the base of the pistol grip and the locking pin removed (broken) from the holster. This allows me to quickly secure the dishgun without needing to find a safe place to put it and free up my hand.
Camera in one hand, dishgun in the other, you can now try a variety of lighting set-ups in seconds. Your subject can remain stationary and comfortable while you play with shadows and highlights.
Bring the dishgun closer to your subject and the light source will be larger relative to your subject, so shadows will be softer. At the same time, though, light falloff will be more intense, so highlights will be stronger and shadows darker.
Be aware: even with the diffusion sock, the beauty dish is fairly hard light, even with the plain white version of the Lumodi dish, and the subject’s skin texture will be more pronounced. I happen to like this look; it’s trivial to soften the image by using negative Clarity in Lightroom afterward, and the effect of a large light source on the eyes is magical: beautiful texture in the iris and a nice big round catchlight to boot. Just be careful with glasses!
Lumodi recommends zooming the flash head as narrow (long) as possible, and I’ve found this to be good advise. With the 600EX zoomed to 200mm the dishgun produces the strongest and most even light. This may seem counterintuitive, but the beauty dish has a conical internal reflector which distributes light against the inner surface of the dish before sending it forward toward your subject. By making the beam from your flashgun as narrow as possible you ensure that all the light hits the reflector cone and follows this path. Zoom wider, and a portion of the light will spill past the reflector and directly hit the diffuser and your subject.
Because the beauty dish is strapped to the front of the flashgun, as flush as possible to ensure no light is wasted, attaching a filter requires some care – especially velcro solutions, since the Lumodi dish relies on a velcro strap for security. I use self-adhesive, removable Sticky Filters, and pretty much use 1/2-CTO at all times. In daylight it adds some rosy warmth to your subject’s skin, while indoors it keeps the warmth in the shadows for a cozy, intimate feel.
I generally favour the 50mm-equivalent field of view for head-and-shoulders portraits, but my walkaround lens is the magnificent Sigma 35mm, and I love using it for environmental portraits landscape orientation. I like to get close to my subjects, a little beyond arm’s reach, to really get a sense of the depth and volume of their face. I keep the banter lively and the energy high, and occasionally remind them to look into the lens rather than the dish, which seems to be an instinct for some subjects!
In the gallery below you can see a sample of portraits I shot handheld with the dishgun solution over the last year. Poorly-lit offices, warm homes, nightclubs, parks and pools. Weddings, family photos, corporate portraits, party shots, in bright daylight and pitch darkness. Study the catchlights in the eyes to see the direction and proximity of the dishgun at the time the photo was taken.
If you’re convinced to try this for yourself, I hope you find this useful, and I’d love to hear your experiences!