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!

Published by 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!