Photographer Jon Van Gorder Goes Eye-to-Eye with the Westcott Rapid Box Beauty Dish

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday October 27, 2016

Actor Austin James Cleri

No Light Modifier Left Untested

If there’s one thing that both studio and location photographers have a fetish for, it’s light modifiers. And why not? Light is, after all, the universal currency in photography and the more that you can direct, soften, shape and otherwise tailor the light to your particular needs and subjects and shooting style, the more in control you are and the better you can show off your subjects.

All you have to do is to walk into a busy studio and you’ll see a circus-like tangle of softboxes, umbrellas, diffusers, parabolic dishes, snoots, bare heads and grids dancing around you. In fact, if you’re applying for a job as an assistant in a studio, just being able to name and identify the majority of lighting tools in the studio will win you big points. Of course, discovering the “perfect” (if there is such a thing) lighting-accessory combination is a career-long process of testing, experimenting and creative evolution. Most busy photographers eventually settle on a few trusted tools and techniques to do the heavy lifting because, let’s face it, you can’t experiment forever.

Still, unpacking and testing a new light-modifier in front of any photographer is a temptation that’s pretty much irresistible and that’s what brought me to the studio of photographer Jon Van Gorder in Fairfield, Connecticut. Jon is one of the country’s leading food and wine and still-life photographers, as well as an extremely talented portrait photographer. He and I have known each other since the dawn of time (or at least the beginning of both of our careers) and so he was, of course, the perfect photographer for me to exploit in testing Westcott’s new 24-inch Rapid Box Beauty Dish (whose talent is better to tap into than an old friend’s?).

This new lighting device was designed for Wescott by photographer Joel Grimes and it is constructed with solid aluminum umbrella-inspired framework that was designed to maximize durability, minimize weight, eliminate the need for separate support rods, and makes setup quick and easy. When it arrived at my office I was pretty surprised at just how compact and lightweight it was. Westcott was also kind enough to loan me a Strobelite Plus Monolight to use with the dish and that’s the light that Jon used as his main light in all of these shots.


Product name: Westcott Rapid Box Beauty Dish
Description:  Circular parabolic Shape with 16 Panels, white interior
Dimensions:  24-inch diameter (61 cm diameter)
Compatible with: Built-in speedring for select monolight heads including: Bowens, Photogenic, Elinchrom, Balcar/Alien Bees/Einstein and Profoto
Weight: 2.5 lbs. / 1.1 kg
Accessories (shipped with): Removable diffusion panel, deflector and travel case
Full description: Here
Price: $299.

Have You Ever Eaten with One?

In order to give the Beauty Dish a real world test, Jon decided to use it in shooting a series of head shots of a very talented, handsome and tireless 16-year-old actor named Austin James Cleri. Being around actors always reminds me of the famous scene from The Producers where Leo Bloom proclaims: “Actors are not animals! They're human beings!” and Max Bialystock fires back: “They are? Have you ever eaten with one?” But I have to say that, even after a couple of hours of inventing poses and expressions and quickly morphing through an endless panorama of moods, even Max would have been happy to have lunch with this kid—a patient pro to the end. I think he would have been eager to keep posing all night.

Jon Van Gorder doing the initial tests with the Westcott Rapid Box Beauty Dish with Austin James.

These are the three straight-up comparisons of three different light sources as the key light (left to right): the Mola 35", a softbox and the Westcott. No fill or other lights were added. As you can see, all three have a pretty similar look with the Mola and the softbox being perhaps slightly and predictably softer since they are larger sources.

The first thing that we did in the studio was to do a quick straight-up comparison between the Westcott and two other light sources: namely a 28x40” Plume Soft Box and a 35” Mola Euro Beauty Dish. As he was shooting and fine-tuning the lighting design, I asked Jon a few questions about why he was making certain lighting decisions and, after the shoot, asked him about his first impressions of the Westcott. Here are some of his thoughts:

ST: How did you select an overall lighting design for this portrait?

JVG: Austin James was looking for a musical theatre/actor head shot so we were lighting him with more shadow to showcase his personality rather than a glamour lighting with the light more directly over the lens.

ST: What differences did you see between the Westcott and the other lighting options?

JVG: Both the Westcott and the Mola benefit from an efficient reflector design to maximize the amount of light hitting the front diffusion fabric. The Westcott stands out for it’s light weight and packability so it’s great for location work. It’s solid and stiff when expanded. The Mola’s larger diameter delivers a bit softer gradation across the subject, but is quite heavy and best suited for studio work only. The Mola is also twice the price.

The standard soft box is also softer still than the Mola, but it delivers a less attractive square highlight in the eyes and that’s the reason round beauty dishes are desirable. Large soft boxes are fine for two or more subjects or 3/4 length fashion, but I found the Westcott to be an excellent main light source for people. It falls off fairly quickly so it delivers plenty of drama to your subject. Plan to pack some white or silver fill to open it up where needed.

ST: Are there any other advantages of the Westcott over a softbox in a portrait?

JVG: The clean circular highlight in the eyes is a noticeable difference. The smaller size and round shape is simpler to work with on light stands and booms than a rectangular box.

Here are two of the final shots--both chosen by Austin James' mom, of course! You can read below about the finishing lighting touches that Jon Van Gorder used to create the portrait.

Finishing Touches

Once he had a good feel for the light’s attributes, Jon and his first assistant John Goldhurst created a nice lighting look by adding three more lights with the Westcott for background separation and as rim lights. The final light setup consisted of the Westcott as the main light with varying amounts of reflected white or silver fill, a gridded spot on the background, a right side rim light from the rear, and a boom mounted soft box set back and above as a hair and shoulder light. In all cases the Westcott was the key subject light and it was placed fairly close to the subject (as you can see in the iPhone snapshot of the set) and slightly above; I’m estimating it was about three feet from his face.

Once the final lighting design was set, Jon and Austin James went to work creating a very fun series of head shots that morphed from serious, to playful, to dramatic and occasionally to completely off-the-wall silly. The actor’s mother and I stood by the monitor (a 27-inch iMac) that was tethered to the Nikon D800 and watched the results as they popped onto the screen. (And say what you will about stage moms, Austin James’ mother was a hoot to be around and wasn’t at all surprised by her son’s incredible acting range.)

And here are two of my favorites.


The whole shoot from tests to final shots took about two hours and I learned quite a lot about studio work, as I do every time I’m in Jon’s studio. One of the key attributes of the Westcott, of course, is its extreme portability particularly if you’re shooting with a battery-powered monolight in the field. I think that wedding and outdoor portrait photographers, in particular, would find it very versatile. In the studio the light proved to be an easy-to-use key light for head shots and its soft and yet directional light make it a good option for head shots or beauty shots any time that you need to create a nice degree of shaping and modeling to facial features. As Jon noted above, you will want to have some fill cards handy to soften the lighting a bit if you’re getting too much shadow, but that’s pretty standard with any type of direct lighting. For the price (it retails for $299), I think this Westcott dish is a very efficient and affordable lighting solution.

New Product News 

Nikon PC NIKKOR 19mm f/4E ED lens. PC (perspective control) lenses have always been popular with architectural photographers because of their unique ability to make view camera-like perspective corrections in camera. Increasingly they’re also being put to work in all forms of fine-art photography from landscapes to portraits and now, of course, with video. One of the benefits of using a PC lens is that it allows you to maximize depth of field for any given aperture. And with this lens, says Nikor, for the first time ever with a NIKKOR PC lens, the direction of tilt operation can be made parallel or perpendicular to shift, thereby enabling you to control perspective, focus and depth of field like never before. And according to the specs, three Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass elements and two Aspheric glass (AS) elements virtually eliminate chromatic aberration and coma, even when the lens is used at the widest aperture setting.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 V. If you’ve been hanging back waiting to buy a nice pocket-size camera with some serious pro qualities, your wait may be over. Sony’s latest incarnation of their RX100 line, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 V with a very sharp 24-70mm lens has some pretty extreme features including a 24 fps (yeah, you read that right) burst mode, along with what Sony says is the fastest (0.05 sec.) hybrid AF system that uses both contrast and phase-detection focusing. Let’s face it, you could shoot the photo finish at the Kentucky Derby with that combo. The sensor features 315 phase detection AF points which Sony says is more than any other camera. Improved 4K video too, naturally. The camera features a 20.1mp CMOS sensor and a three-inch LCD display. While I wouldn't mind having a slightly longer zoom, this is one impressive pocket camera.

Manfrotto XPRO Monopod/Full Fluid Base Monopods. One of the coolest and most practical new innovations in camera support that I saw last week at Photo Expo in New York was the new high-performance line of monopods for professional videographers and photographers from Manfrotto: the new XPRO Monopod+ family. The monopods are a great solution whenever a tripod is not an option because they let you quickly and easily move from one spot to another while still providing nice support and fluid camera positioning, panning, etc. I’ll be doing a full test on one of these in an upcoming newsletter.


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