How to Achieve Perfect Butterfly Lighting

How to Achieve Perfect Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly Lighting is one of the most flattering and artistic ways of lighting the face. As it’s name would denote, Butterfly Lighting is created by the way in which you angle the light to fall on the face of your subject. Often used by celebrity photographers, this style of lighting can be achieved by a single off camera light and a reflector.

Image by Kathleen Thomas Photography

Image by Kathleen Thomas Photography

Here’s a step by step guide of how to achieve perfect butterfly lighting:

1. Face your subject at 7.8 view: Start by facing your subject directly to the camera, then turn the head just to hide the far ear. This view of the face is most flattering as it minimizes the face.

2. Hold your off camera flash 1′ above your subject, and 3′ toward the front to eliminate any possible shadowing on the face. You will also create a shadow beneath the chin, thus hiding any excess weight there.

3. Place a reflector just below the edge of your frame. The closer your reflector is to your subjects chin, the more even the spread of light. This reflector will soften that shadow and eliminate a harsh contrast.

4. Light for catch lights: You want your subjects eyes to be well lit and fortunately, with the angle of your main light in front/above, and the fill light coming in from below, your subject should have large round catch lights in both the bottom and top part of the eye.

For such beautiful results, Butterfly Lighting is among the most simple of the “directed” studio lighting options. As you can see, Butterfly Lighting will yield gorgeous results, without a great deal of precision or drama.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Wendy June 21, 2013 03:00 am

    Where is the camera positioned? I would do this with a 50mm on my crop sensor, so would imagine I would have to stand almost directly beside the umbrella stand?

  • Mark February 19, 2013 06:16 am

    It is unfortunate, but because of such bad reviews of all Christina's posts I actual scroll down to the bottom of articles now to make sure it isn't one of hers.

  • KG May 18, 2012 02:45 am

    OK, here it is.

    With all due respect to Christine, she completely missed the boat on this. Look at the title of the article. What she shows is NOT Butterfly Lighting and certainly not Perfect. As has been mentioned before, she is showing "beauty lighting" or "glamor lighting" or "magazine cover (Vogue) lighting", but certainly not Butterfly. She is also describing " top lighting with reflector underneath", but not "clamshell" lighting. Clamshell is two, fairly large, soft, light sources of equal size ( think clam shells), with the camera placed at the hinge point and shooting through them. Bastardizations of them include a reflector underneath rather than a light source up to and include what Christine describes, but that does not make it a correct use of the term.

    Butterfly lighting is created by a harder light source and creates a well defined shadow directly under the nose. So the light must come from above and in line with the nose, not from the side as state by another will meaning, but ignorant poster. If the light is not directly under the nose, then it is a form of LOOP lighting. If it goes even further to the side so that the cheek shadow and nose shadow touch, it is Rembrandt pattern lighting. To be truly Rembrandt lighting, it should also have a fairly high lighting ratio like 5:1 as he favored dark shadows, but still with detail in them.

    As far as the views of the face, there is full face, 7/8, 3/4 half or profile and shoot from behind. 7/8 while verbally described, wasn't demonstrated in the article, which has lead to the confusion. Probably shouldn't have even been mentioned for that reason and because Butterfly lighting isn't limited to just that view of the face. Look at George Hurrell's lighting to see good examples of Butterfly lighting.

    Just because some well know photographer uses a term incorrectly, that doesn't change the meaning of the term. Many people use the wrong words all the time. It is no big deal. But, if you want to teach, at least learn your subject well enough to be able to teach accurately and correctly. Don't be lazy. Do the work.

  • Peter May 4, 2012 10:15 am

    Butterfly Lighting: I have seen a video on other websites about this particular topic or term. The guy
    set a constant lighting on a bom stand and positioned it 1' above the head of the subject. Now, there
    was a shadow just below the nose formed like a butterfly. There was no reflector nor additional light.

    The shadow formed like a butterfly because of the shape of the nose. He used a softbox light by
    the way. Perhaps photographers have different approach on the topic.

  • kaitlin January 12, 2012 10:59 pm

    these photos are soooooo cute

  • kaitlin January 12, 2012 10:57 pm

    i am kaitlin i am 9 years old i can draw manga a chibi a horse and a dog i am a artist and this website i thought it would teach you how to draw it doesent it just is photos ok lame

  • alvin January 1, 2012 07:28 pm

    wow! what a discussion...

  • Chris November 15, 2011 09:45 pm

    Christina, you are awesome! I love your posts - keep them coming!

  • CJ Standish November 11, 2011 09:23 am

    Butterfly lighting if done correctly does not need to be restricted to only those with perfect skin. What one needs to remember is any time you have light raking across skin, the bumps - or wrinkles - are going to create shadows on the other side of the bump. So then you want it as head-on as you can get away with. That is, where there will still be some shadows visible - giving the face contour, so it looks spherical and not "flat." "Flat lighting" is not complimentary, either.

    The up-high key light is to create shadows, reflector fills in the weird shadows. Notice how there is a glare on the guy's forehead, then the light falls off on down toward his chin. That is not flattering. Thukral's is a more flattering portrait, but it is still not "butterfly" - the glamourous - lighting. There is no butterfly there. Look at Dietrich photos and compare to bothportraits above. ( The light fall-off on Dietrich is around-about her oval face, not at bottom.Photog. also points the light at her nose, not glaring down from her forehead nor head-on. That is what creates the "butterfly" shadow. The "fill" has given her a soft creamy-textured skin but it is not so much as to fill in all contour.

    David, you've never seen photos of Marlene Dietrich? I'm surprised!

  • Hefjar November 9, 2011 07:55 am

    I dont know what you dont like about this. You say it is bad but it is good. I went to yor website, and ther are just as good as this! Cannot understand what the is problem here!

  • David Langley November 8, 2011 11:29 am

    I stand my ground, AGAIN. That post is getting close to a year old and I shutter to think how many times it has been studied and taken seriously. The description is confusing, the lighting explanation reeks of bad lighting technique, the picture doesn't match the description and for the life of me I can't understand why the author doesn't come forward and fix it or retract it.
    The idiot that thinks I'm trying to come off as a "big photographer" can kiss my butt! I know who I am, where I have been, and feel perfectly comfortable in responding to an internet posting that is confusing, gives miss information and worst of all, is still out there.
    Your non-shrinking flower, Dave

  • Hefjar November 8, 2011 10:25 am

    @David You are not a very nice man, You say things that are unkind about article very good!

  • Alex Franklin August 16, 2011 08:01 pm

    @david : 50 yrs of commercial photography and u havent heard the term 'butterfly lighting' ??? sorry , does that mean it is not there ... nope , it means u dont know about it . and BTW your post offers nothing constructive to the DPS users . it looks like your main aim is to show off that u r a big photographer by criticizing and insulting the author ... i am just amazed that with this attitude u have lasted 50 years in taking photographs ... If u cant criticize constructively u might as well shut up :)

  • jackie October 23, 2010 12:11 am

    i agree that we are quite visual since we are photogs:-) and need more.
    i'm not criticising, just confused...
    i guess i am confused by 2 things:
    1) the article mentions creating a shadow on the chin to make it more flattering, but then states the reflector will lighten it up.
    2) nice round catchlights... i'd love to know how to create those - but i do not see how this set up creates that.

  • David Langley December 18, 2009 07:34 am

    I have reviewed all the criticisms of my criticism of that article about "butterfly lighting". I stand my ground! The audience for articles of this type range from raw beginners to pros. Beginners take it as gospel and pros know that formulas are for beginners. My comments concerning that article were not meant to be a personal attack on the author but in all honesty if that photograph she posted was an example of her portraiture I fear for her longevity as a portrait photographer. I won't apologize for being honest!
    Digital Photography School has an obligation to carefully screen "how to" articles and surely dropped the ball in this case. The text and image had no relationship to each other. I pity the poor beginner who tried to follow the instructions in this article.
    Lighting is a self taught art and skill and takes years to understand. If you like what you are getting it's right for you. If nobody likes it, your out of business!
    Here's my formula for teaching yourself lighting. Take a 10" or 12" utility light (home depot) with a 200 watt bulb, in a dark room, shine it on a white cup and saucer on a black background. Have an assistant move it left , right, up, down, behind, you sit where the camera would be, and see what happens. Shine it through a piece of tracing paper, bounce it off the ceiling, a wall, and change the contrast with a white card. A few hours at this will convince you that lighting has infinite variations and formulas are worthless.
    The next step would be to find a very patient model for the same exercise.

  • Paul December 18, 2009 03:01 am

    I would suggest this as an example of what I would call butterfly lighting:

  • Tom November 23, 2009 08:17 pm

    I agree that some of the comments have been overharsh, though I still think the original article wasn't up to DPS standards.

    Another criticism, if I may: no matter how favourably or unfavourably an online article is received, I think the author is under some obligation to attempt to respond to at least some of the comments made, provide clarifications and so on.

    I'm a teacher: I would never dream of giving a class and then leaving, refusing point blank to answer any doubts there might be. And if I did provide an opportunity to do so, I would not then remain totally silent...

    I'm not sure what guidelines DPS provides for its writers, but I do think they should point out that posting on an online forum carries that obligation with it... Otherwise, don't allow comments at all in the first place.

  • sam hicks November 23, 2009 04:00 pm

    Christina, don’t be discouraged by negative comments by people may have lots of experience but are not willing to contribute articles.
    Thank you for your time!

    It’s like lens and cameras - lighting and studio set ups are always big discussion points.
    Loved the photos from Kathleen, and, lots of wow, interesting subject, interesting lighting and sharp detail. ( also love JCP's butterfly pic- Jason please write an article about your challenging b/flys.)

    Its hard to write an article. You can either have so much detail, that people who are not in to the detail their eyes can start to glaze over or if you only have a hint of detail it leaves people wanting more..I encourage all of you to consider it.

    For me there are four styles of studio lighting techniques for portraits Short lighting, Broad lighting, Butterfly lighting and Rembrandt lighting. And yes there are many different words for each such as clamshell ( love that one )

    For me I like to do not the norm, it can make for interesting shots. I don’t use flash sometimes just have soft light and get great results that is pleasing to the customer.
    The experts would say tsk tsk, but at the end of the day if you have happy customers and pleasing results you have done your job well!
    A couple of my current favourites are on

    My understanding of B/fly lighting is lighting direct in front of the subject, and adjusting the height to create a shadow directly under and in line with the nose. Its best suited for women with an oval face, and as others have said it’s for glamour shots. Some say not as nice for men as it can highlight ears too much hence why turning the men to one side (hiding the ear) can work really well.
    When I use this technique I have the light/ umbrella right behind the camera and I have used a reflector also.

    For me to review my lighting positions I use the Light cage @
    Just go to 3D workshop and then click on artificial lighting, and then click on light cage.

    This hint was given to me by Madsens camera and imaging ( ) where I bought my studio set up. These helpful people have been in the camera business for 42 years.
    They include with their lighting setups diagrams for such techniques which I have found INVALUABLE.

    For some one who teaches like David, and has huge talent, a wealth of cliental, there is an opportunity for submitting an article instead of wasting valuable experience & time on negative comments that is at the end of the day - not good PR .

  • Brad Tremblay November 22, 2009 11:20 am

    Geez...take it easy David. The article might not be 100% accurate but its helpful nonetheless. Instead of hacking on someone and insulting their "crappy" lights. Perhaps giving some constructive criticism would be a much better approach. After all, we are all here to learn from each other.

  • hal mooney November 21, 2009 01:06 pm

    Follow up - Christina has written this article, I think, more for the beginner who doesn't have much equipment. Therefore, she describes making a two light set-up with one light and a reflector.
    It's also handy when you're out on location, and don't have all your studio gear available.

  • hal mooney November 21, 2009 12:32 pm

    I agree Thukral, no need for viciousness. Christina used a term that has been around as long as lighting. It surprises me that David has not heard it. Generally, butterfly lighting is a two-light set up that sets the two lights wide, an equal distance from the subject, and slightly higher, so that they point down and across the face. It minimizes shadows, and facial flaws, so it works well for teens with bad skin. It's not very dramatic, but improves most faces. Improving the way people look, and drawing "feeling" out of them, so that they like how they look in the picture - that's what portrait photographers DO.

  • November 21, 2009 05:23 am

    I saw David's website and it has some really well done work. But...

    50 years of commercial photography and never heard the term?
    I did a simple Google web search ( and Google Images search ( and I found over a million hits. A few of them say that its synonymous with Paramount lighting, perhaps made famous by Paramount Studios in the 30s.

    Whatever the situation, I believe David's comment was too harsh on the author.

  • Tom November 21, 2009 04:06 am

    I'm not sure it's quite as bad as that, David ,-) ! Though, true, it's maybe not quite up to the usual DPS standard...

    I'm a complete amateur, and I'd have been quite content with the image if it were mine...

  • David Langley November 21, 2009 02:51 am

    I was appalled by your "butterfly lighting" article. After 50 years as a commercial photographer I have never heard the term.
    Your picture doesn't match your instructions.
    What does 7.8 mean
    How big is your off camera flash? It looks like one of those crappy little 2" X 3" strobes that is the most unflattering light devised by man
    Your fill light breaks all the rules of good beauty or portrait photography. Never use a second light for fill unless it's really big and soft.
    Your subject has bad skin which screams for the tried and true 3' umbrella or light box with a 20" X 30" white fill in card.
    Umbrellas have only been around since the 50's, 'cmon get with it!
    You got a lot of nerve writing that article because you clearly know NOTHING about lighting!

  • 2manycars November 20, 2009 10:19 am

    As I learned it, and have taught for many years, Butterfly and Rembrandt lighting are two distinctly different lightings alike in that for both, the key light is raised high above the subject. In Butterfly lighting, the key light is in line with the subject's nose casting a shadow directly underneath the nose and creating shadows accentuating the cheekbones thus creating the pattern of a butterfly's wings on the face. The lighting described by m.watanabe above is Rembrandt lighting which is off to the side casting a triangular highlight. The shadows of both are lightened using a fill light or reflector. The other three basic lightings are Broad (near side of subject's face key lit), Short (Far side of subject's face key lit) and Split which comes from either side desired to throw the face in half shadow (for dramatic effect or to possibly hide a facial defect or scar.) There is also Monte Zucker's famed modified loop lighting but that has been a bit involved to introduce in Photo I.

    I wish I could include my example pictures from class but do not have a website at this time.

    I would like to add my thanks to Christina for instigating a rather involved discussion and getting us to all take a look at how we can improve ourselves as photographers.

  • B M Osgood November 20, 2009 09:20 am

    I cannot hope to comment on the technicalities of technique names or correctness, etc. However I did want to give some positive feedback. At my level of experience, I was able to gain some great intel from this article, which is severely needed given my non-existant budget.

    Sometimes I fear we get too technical as to not appreciate the simple sharing of knowledge to help people like me.

    Thank you, Christina.

  • M Watanabe November 20, 2009 07:14 am

    The article describes a contemporary lighting technique popularized by glamour makeover portrait salons. The term Butterfly Lighting as I learned is also referred to as Rembrandt Lighting. This term attributed by some to cinema figure Cecil B DeMille actually mimics the lighting used by painting Master Rembrandt van Rijn.

    In classic photographic portraiture, Butterfly Lighting is actually achieved by the use of a single main light, usually with a large pan reflector although spcular umbrellas can be used. The main or key light is usually placed in the front of the subject and to one side, slightly higher than the subject's face. The subject's face may be turned [only] slightly away from the camera, and the key light is used in a short lighting set-up. A fill reflector is placed opposite the key light, slightly lower, filling the shadow side of the subject but not so close as to raise the highlight/shadow ratio. The key telltale signature of Butterfly Lighting is a triangular highlight on the subject's cheek opposite the highlighted side of the face. The elevated key light will also cast a shadow under the nose on the subject's upper lip somewhat resembling a butterfly. Hence the name.

  • Bull Rhino November 20, 2009 06:49 am

    I have to agree with several of the previous comments. Photographers are, by nature, visual people. A visual diagram certainly would have improved this article. In addition are we talking 7.8 as written by the author or 7/8 as written by others? 7/8 certainly makes more sense to me, but if there is a 7.8 I'd like to learn about it. And like most of the others I count two ears. I don't mean to be critical, but I learned more from the comments than the article, and I'm still not a big fan of "butterfly/clamshell" lighting - Oh - and I don't care what you call it as long as we know what it is.

  • J.D. Black November 20, 2009 05:29 am

    Well, kudos to Christina for trying. But the responders do make good points. The photo she used as an illustration doesn't really fit what she was talking about at all. It did make me think about portrait lighting in a new way and that was of some value. The responders also made me think about lighting, even lighting real butterflies.

    Christina, come back with a better photo of what you are talking about. And I think it would be useful for someone to photograph the photographer actually doing the setup, showing the position of the main light and the reflector.

  • Jason Collin Photography November 19, 2009 06:45 am

    I meant to include this in the above comment:


  • Jason Collin Photography November 19, 2009 06:44 am

    Wow, this it totally not what I thought the post would be about when I read the title "butterfly lighting!" I was expecting instructions on how I could better photograph butterflies, which is one of my own ongoing personal macro challenges:

    However, I will remember the human related butterfly lighting technique for my next headshot session.

  • vikki November 17, 2009 01:22 pm

    I understand 7/8 view (thanks Thukral for the nice article), but the original post example is head on, so that's where the confusion came from on my end. The description doesn't match the shot.

    Does anyone else have any other examples of what they would term "butterfly" or "clamshell"?

  • Fernando November 17, 2009 04:01 am

    Thanks for the article... It was quite useful, however I seem to have the same questions and notes as most of the other comments. I dont quite know what 7.8 view means, and although it mentions to hide the ear furthest from the camera, both ears are visible.
    Also, by having the flash that close (3' away?) I think a soft box would be necessary no? Humm... I'll have to try it and find out! Thanks for getting my brain thinking about the magic of lighting once again! =)
    I would have really appreciated a photo of the setup as well.. or at least a drawing.

  • Thukral November 17, 2009 01:48 am

    Well, that is where the reflector comes in. It tries to fill in the wrinkles and spots on the face that would otherwise case a much harsher shadows.
    Doing it properly, you might want to use something like this It puts in so much reflected light from all other sides (except from the direction of the key light) that those imperfections are more or less eliminated.

  • james jordan November 17, 2009 12:57 am

    This type of lighting tends to reveal every imperfection of the subject's face -- as the sample photo at top painfully demonstrates. That's why magazine covers are retouched extensively.

    This works best on people with clear, smooth skin, otherwise, prepare to Photoshop.

  • Photographer November 16, 2009 12:31 pm

    P.S. the lighting that they describe here and demonstrate is often called glamour lighting. And it is flattering and often used for Magazine covers.

  • Photographer November 16, 2009 12:29 pm

    Actually this isn't butterfly lighting. Butterfly lighting comes from a light source above and slightly more to the side than this article states. It's name comes from the shape of the shadow that you get when the light hits the subjects nose...because it looks like a butterfly. Neither the article or the photograph demonstrate this technique and I think that is what is confusing people.

  • November 16, 2009 07:22 am

    Here is the article on head positions I mentioned I'll write.

  • November 16, 2009 05:57 am

    I'll clear a few things here.
    The author is talking about two things.
    1. Pose of the face (the 7/8th shot)
    2. Lighting technique (butterfly/clamshell)

    When I put my comment(s) int (the website was playing games which lead to the double post), I was focusing on the lighting technique. In my example, the post is straight on and not the 7/8th. Hence you see both her ears.

    I'll write a brief article on the poses (straight on, 7/8th, 3/4th and profile) in a few minutes and attach a link here.

  • vikki November 16, 2009 05:16 am

    I agree with Tom that this "how to" would GREATLY benefit from a shot/diagram of the set up showing the lights/reflector in position.

    Also, in the description, you say to turn the subject's head "just to hide the far ear." Am I wrong? I still see both ears.
    I also do not see the two catch lights in the eyes. And personally I prefer just one anyway.

    Just my 2 cents and my questions...

  • jobob Arikan November 16, 2009 01:51 am

    I remember when the single catch light was desired.

    Then they came up with large umbrellas and boxs and now folks
    seem to like huge rectangles and such shapes in the eye. Actually the viewers are to asleep to even recognize a catch light when they see them much less discern what the solar catchlight is about.

    I prefer a more natural single catch light where it should be-in the pupil.

  • JP November 16, 2009 01:36 am

    OK, I get the placement of the flash having used it before, but just didn't place a name on it, but the article says to turn the subject's head so that one ear is hidden, but both the example by the author and Thukral's examples show point blank face-on shots. Obviously the system works well for both.

  • Quintin November 16, 2009 01:18 am

    @Tom: Agreed. It's kind of difficult to decipher the info or envision the setup to a beginner.

  • Bob November 16, 2009 12:58 am

    The author describes the 7.8 view: "Start by facing your subject directly to the camera, then turn the head just to hide the far ear." However, both examples show both ears -- they're both full head-on poses.

  • Tom November 15, 2009 07:29 pm

    An article that would have been much improved by adding a diagram showing the intended setup.

  • November 15, 2009 05:46 pm

    I'm not arguing on the name of this technique or the beauty of the 7/8th view.
    Here is an example of the same. I did this with a softbox powered by an SB-26 and a silver reflector held directly below the subject's face, as suggested in the article. Its not a true one-light setup as the backdrop (actually a wall in the model's house) is being lit by an SB-28 on the ground.


  • Rod November 15, 2009 03:11 pm

    I found it interesting and like the effect but I am confused by the 7.8 view. I almost thought of it as a clock where 6 would be looking straight on seven would be turning the head slightly

  • Jesper Revald November 15, 2009 11:03 am

    It is both called clamshell and butterfly lighting. Two words for the same type of light. A google search reveals that the term butterlfy lighting is much more common than the term clamshell lighting. Clamshell lighting also incorporates two umbrellas on top of each other, shooting in between them. Butterfly lighting involves one light on top, and only optionally a reflector below.

    I do however agree, that the term "face your subject at 7.8 view is one I've never heard before. Would the author please elaborate :-)

    Last, of course this light needs to be softened. A bare flash that close to a subject will not look any flattering.

  • Mark November 15, 2009 10:06 am

    You're both right... butterfly lighting is "style" terminology that many photographers use. Clamshell is the "technical" term for how to set it up. (Go ahead, type "butterfly lighting" in google and you'll quickly see that a lot of photogs use this "term" and many of them ARE professional, well known photographers).

  • November 15, 2009 09:02 am

    I'm not arguing on the name of this technique or the beauty of the 7/8th view.
    Here is an example of the same. I did this with a softbox powered by an SB-26 and a silver reflector held directly below the subject's face, as suggested in the article. Its not a true one-light setup as the backdrop (actually a wall in the model's house) is being lit by an SB-28 on the ground.

    Click and view in large size to see the catchlights.

  • Jeffrey November 15, 2009 08:45 am

    I'm not sure, but when I read it I thought she meant where to position the person in your frame.

  • Eric November 15, 2009 07:37 am

    Actually, this is called clamshell lighting, not butterfly lighting.

    and what does, "Face your subject at 7.8 view" mean?

    And this isn't going to look flattering with a bare flash at 3ft from the subject