Butterfly Lighting on a Budget

This tutorial only requires one light!

Hey here’s one for the ages! For some time I’ve wanted to own a beauty dish. While searching the web I found that the most respected beauty dish seems to be the Mola brand. However, when I went to the web site I was shocked by the price (www.mola-light.com/htm/samples.html). Many photographers love the Mola beauty dish and with good reason. Hoping to get a better deal, I found out that Adorama and B&H Photovideo sell the Mola Dish… for over $500! I decided that a less expensive solution was in order.

Before I go any further let me explain the whole beauty dish thing to ya. The first thing to understand is called Butterfly Lighting. It’s when you place a light above the camera lens but in front of the subject. It gets its name “Butterfly Lighting” because of the butterfly shape of the shadow that forms under the subjects’ nose (see also the studiolighting.net Butterfly Lighting setup). This lighting technique creates hard shadows in the eye sockets and under the chin depending on the size of your main light and distance to your subject. Typically you would place a reflector or additional strobe under the main light source to fill in the underside of the face (eye sockets, under nose and under chin areas). This means it’s just “over and under” lighting.

The fabled Beauty Dish (and I do mean dish in they way they look) is considered by many as the best tool to create the right “type” of light for “Butterfly Lighting”. It’s kinda hard, kinda wide, it’s fall-off (bright center – darker edges) is very obvious and pronounced and it’s a lot less clumsy (space saving) than many other light modifiers. Alien Bees sells a 22 inch beauty dish for $119.00 (not bad for what you get), The Adorama Flashpoint system offers a 16 inch beauty dish for $49.00 (a bit on the small side), even the 99 cent store has one (11 inches wide) for a dollar (commonly called a big plastic mixing bowl if you can figure a way to mount it onto your flash)!

As the Prince of Cheap, I use the Britek line of strobes so I get no frills! Britek doesn’t offer a beauty dish or even an octobox! Even when I found the Mola 22 inch dish for $279.00 at Adorama I kept thinking there was a cheaper way – here’s what I did to create some beauty lighting:

Butterfly Lighting Diagram


Beauty Lighting on a Budget:

  • Get a light modifier that is round and relatively small. Try a 24 inch shoot through umbrella from www.briteklight.com. It is the only place I found a shoot through umbrella that small for dirt cheap – only 8 dollars!
  • Get it high above the camera and a bit to one side. Aim it downward.
  • Purchase either a 1 dollar piece of white foamboard from an art store or a 32 inch or larger white or silver reflector (I like silver a bit more because of the snap it gives) and position it below the strobe and subject but still in front. I suggest white foamboard when your budget is like mine.
  • FIRE!

The result is instant butterfly light! It’s that simple – one light above and one light (reflector) below. The light closes in and does all the work. The only thing you do is position the reflector! Below are my test results.

Butterfly Lighting Example

This image is somewhat over filled, but it looks good after some post processing. Check out how the skin is lit. I started with a 32 inch Alien Bees brolly box (after all it’s really about 25 inches wide when you set it up)! I’ve even tested this with the standard 7 inch reflectors that put out an 80 degree spread of light with my inexpensive Britek lights. The key, as always, is to have fun and experiment.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that if your subject has pretty smooth skin then this style will really shine! Combine that with some slight soft focus filtration and you got top model stuff. Now get shootin!

David Griffin

About David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!

16 thoughts on “Butterfly Lighting on a Budget

  1. rynelle

    Just a question if I may ? Just wondering how to stop shadow from my subject falling onto my back drop? Is my lighting too strong ? what am I doing wrong?
    thanks for any advice

  2. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    With butterfly lighting… all you do is set your light up high so it will throw all the shadows downward. Also try moving the subject farther from the background. This will give more room for the shadows to fall out of the picture instead of on the background.

  3. Lee Francis

    Just wanted to say thank you for all ideas I’ve picked up on from visiting your website!

    Lee Francis
    Newcastle, NSW

  4. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Hey Lee, your welcome. Somebodies gotta fight for the beginning photographer! Thanks for checking it out! Keep coming back to studiolighting.net.. its gonna be all rocked out soon enough… trust me!!

  5. Richard Pentin

    I’d like to second that. You’ve got some really useful tips on your site. I’ve never gone to photography school so all the tips I pick up are from helpful pros like yourself. So thank you.

    I do have a specific question though. For low key lighting, what type of light do you recommending using – continuous, flash? I’ve got to photograph a pregnant woman this week and I was hoping to try out that fine art low key effect of some soft lighting on the side without illuminating too much of the rest of the scene. Any pointers

  6. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Richard, I gotta admit that I’m a bit partial to flash because of the heat and comfort factor.
    As far as a low key situation is concerned, this is where I built a litpanel specifically to put black fabric to absorb the light. Try this use a very low powered flash (even a hotshoe flash mounted offcamera with a wireless trigger will work just fine). Try this (a preview to an upcoming post) buy 2 pieces of white foamcore (as big as you can afford and control. Tape them together at the end so that it free stands like a “V” shape. Put a low powered flash on a stand and fire into the center of the “V”. This is called a bookend bounce. Its similar to a softbox. Get this though… if you put black construction paper at the edges it will funnel the light in a tighter pattern. This will reduce the light that hits the background dramatically! I’ve even done this with 2 piece of 20×30 inch foamcore! It works like a 30×30 inch softbox (especially if you put some black on the top to stop the vertical light exit path!)Try it.
    – The Prince of Cheap

  7. Zachary Kirkton

    Can this look be effectively achieved using a softbox? I have a 150 w/s strobe and 20×28″ softbox – Will that do anything good, here?

    And a question regarding your directions to make the “V” shaped bookend bounce thing with the foamcore – What should the distance (give or take) between each – the subject, the light, and the foamcore ‘V’ – be? And at about what angle should I make the ‘V’? A wide, 90 degree angle one? 45 degree? Any thoughts?

    Anyway, great tutorial, thanks a lot!

  8. Marcio Cavalcanti

    Hi David,

    Thanks for these wonderful tutorials, this website will be my source for a lot of things…

    One little question about this shot, is the background lighting provided by any other light source? or it’s a result o the butterfly lighting?

    Once again, thank you!

  9. Ola Haldor Voll

    I stumbled across this article after a quick search on Google. GREAT STUFF!

    I also read your article about the fluorescent lighting – will this work on this butterfly kind of lighting too? I’m just getting into photography on people – landscape gets a bit dull over time…….. Would appreciate if you could answer this one.

  10. Ola Haldor Voll

    GREAT! I’ll be buying some equipment for lighting – hopefully within 2-4 weeks. I’m on a tight budget – your articles is a great inspiration to look for other brands or solutions.

    I’ve been in touch with several shops on eBay who sell Britek kits of three lamps + softbox etc… But nobody seems to ship to Norway. I don’t expect you to know this – but it would be great if you could give me a solid kick in the right direction of where I might find someone who can send the goods overseas.

  11. Ola Haldor Voll

    I bought a kit with two fluorescent lamps, softbox and stands, a reflector grip and a 80cm 5-in-1 reflector. Can’t wait! And I contacted a store on eBay about an octagon – they could confirm the octagon would work with the lamps I bought. Sometimes, I wish I could sleep until the goods arrive!

  12. Luc


    Seriously bro….you rock!
    Thank you for sharing your skill and talent.
    This is great information and technique building advice.
    In the true spirit of the www. you make the internet a better place.

  13. Mamun

    I’m so glad to find this website and I’m keeping my eyes on it to learn about studio lighting. It’s helping me a lot! I’m using 2 tungsten(each 500v) for lighting with changing my white balance. i know it’s the worst idea to use those bulb which create reddish tone on the image. Could you tell me that what kind of bulb I can use instead of it? I’m using those bulb as I only could afford these.


  14. Bob

    I cheap alternative to foam core can be found at Home Depot, Lowes, etc. They sell 4’x8′ sheets of foil covered foam insulation (like 3/4″ foam core) for about $10 or less. One side is black (though shiny), the other a dull silver. If you need white, paint it with Bulls Eye Primer/Sealer (Shellac…it bonds to everything; put it under any other paint to ensure that it bonds). Bulls Eye sealer/primer is a flat white and dries in about 20 minutes (it’s alcohol based). We have used these boards for my daughters’ science/history/whatever fair project boards for years. We cover them with wallpaper then mount the reports. They probably could be useful for a small backdrop with the right wallpaper.

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