Used frequently in fashion and beauty photography for decades, this classic lighting style remains extremely popular today–just look at any cosmetic print ad in any fashion magazine, and you’ll likely to see this technique employed in every one.

butterfly lighting diagram:

If you’ve already tackled clamshell lighting, this one’s easy. It’s a straight overhead key which doesn’t include a lower fill. You can use a softbox, octa, or umbrella for your key’s modifier. Often, this look is accomplished with a smaller source, so in this example we’re using an 18″ beauty dish for a slightly harder under-nose shadow to better illustrate this style of lighting.


The idea is to place the key directly in line with your camera’s optical axis, and for your subject to face directly into the key. This creates a small butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose. Another reason beauty dishes are often used for this application is that they can be placed closer to the subject without intruding into the frame.


Getting your source closer to your subject increases both “wrap,” and the effects of the inverse-square law, where light falls-off faster as a result of placing any given source closer to the subject: i.e., the closer the source is to its subject, the shorter the gradient from light to shadow. Notice again, the close proximity of the lens’ angle of view (depicted above by the dashed lines) to the bottom lip of the beauty dish. My objective here was to position my beauty dish as close as possible to the subject’s eyeline without intruding into the frame.

a.) main key: 18″ beauty dish


Although popular in fashion and beauty photography, there’s really nothing special about a beauty dish, but the technique shown here places the light source closer to the subject. This makes the inverse-square law work harder, allowing the light to fall off faster.

As we’ll learn in the section on how to choose a studio strobe, for most interior uses, a 400 Watt-second strobe is often just too powerful, forcing you to shoot at incredibly small apertures (high, numerically) even when your camera’s set at its lowest base ISO setting. For the example above, I had to add four layers of Lee 216 diffusion, plus an ND gel to knock down the output of my 400Ws Dynalite strobe enough to be able to expose my model at a “normal” f-stop of f/8, even when the camera was set to an ISO 50.


That’s why for most interior portraiture set-ups, I would recommend getting only a 100Ws-200Ws strobe, or a strobe with a very wide power range like the Einstein E640, which can be set to as low as 2.5Ws.

b.) backlight:

Though not specific to butterfly lighting, I’ve again used my “standard” backlight, a Profoto 1.3′ x 2′ rectangular softbox with a Profoto 50-degree softgrid, powered by a Nikon SB-800. The Speedlight is triggered by a PocketWizard Flex TT5 tranceiver, and sits in its built-in hot-shoe.


c.) background light:

For the background, as I’ve used in the other set-ups, I have Nikon SB-800, powered by a Quantum Turbo high-voltage battery for quick recycling. To create a soft glow onto the Savage “Thunder Gray” seamless background paper used in this set-up, I attached the Nikon diffusion dome made for the Nikon SB-800 onto the flash head (a Sto-Fen diffusion dome would also do the trick).