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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

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When it comes to portrait lighting, the options for gear and setup can be overwhelming.

One simple way to dive into the world of portrait lighting is to learn the butterfly lighting setup.

Let’s walk through the equipment you’ll need and the butterfly lighting method.

A portrait of a smiling female model taken using butterfly lighting
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Butterfly Lighting Equipment

Off Camera Flash and Triggers

One of the best things about the butterfly lighting setup is its simplicity. You need very little gear to pull it off.

The minimum you’ll need is one off-camera flash and a set of triggers. I use the Canon 430ex II off-camera flash, and this set of triggers from PocketWizard.

The triggers are a pair of devices that you can use to wirelessly set the flash off. One piece goes on your camera’s hot shoe and the other goes at the base of your flash unit.

This lets you position the flash anywhere you need it so that you can get the lighting effect you want.

To have the flash in the right position for butterfly lighting, you’ll need either an assistant to help hold it. Or you’ll need to put your flash on a stand.

Often, grabbing a willing family member to help hold it does the trick!

One final note about the flash and triggers is to make sure that the flash unit you have is compatible with your camera model.

The same goes for the triggers you purchase. They need to be compatible with your flash unit and camera model.

Triggers often will not work well with off-brand flashes. Be sure to read the specifications before purchasing.

Two DSLR lenses resting on an outdoor table

Reflectors

So you want to add a reflector into your setup? There are basic reflectors on the market that are very inexpensive.

I recommend looking for one that’s double-sided. This means each side is a different finish. Often one side is white and the other is metallic.

This gives you options in case you want to play with warmer or cooler tones.

You can also experiment before committing to buying a reflector. A simple white piece of poster board will do the trick!

With the reflector, you can have someone help to hold it. Or, most often, the subject themselves can hold the reflector underneath them if needed.

Another trick is to grab a large piece of cardboard and wrap it in aluminium foil so that it reflects. Now you have a silver reflector!

Camera and Lenses

Finally, let’s talk about camera and lenses. There’s no specific need for this setup, so any lens that you would use for portraits works well.

This means nothing wider than a 50mm. Distortion becomes noticeable once you shoot too wide.

What if you have a telephoto lens like a 70-200mm?

You’ll want to make sure that the space you’re using for this setup allows you to move back and focus.

Butterfly Lighting Setup

First, you’ll want to position your subject directly in front of the camera. You can turn them for a bit of added interest.

Be careful not to turn them so much that their nose creates a shadow on the cheekbone.

Your one and only light should be aligned with the subject. In an ideal situation, this is several feet in front of the subject, and a foot or so above their head.

You should position the reflector a foot or so below the subject’s face. Angle it so shadows are softened.

You’ll want to put the reflector far enough away from the subject’s face. The shadows should be slightly filled in, but not too bright.

You want to avoid losing that butterfly-shaded shadow under their nose. That’s the signature of this lighting setup.

The diagram below shows this basic setup in both plan view and from the side.

Diagram for butterfly lighting setup

It’s that simple! While it’s a basic setup, you will still need to experiment before you become fully comfortable with it. Try using your family as test subjects before taking this method to a paid photo shoot.

It’s important to remember that you can adjust the power of the flash, not only its positioning, to control the intensity and direction of the light.

Conclusion

Butterfly lighting is basic, but flattering. It’s the perfect setup to try when you’re still learning about portrait lighting and all the photography lighting options that are out on the market today.

Whether you use this setup in studio or on location, follow the basic steps above to ensure you’ll get professional and flattering results every time.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Natalia Robert

California-based lifestyle photographer and founder of The Grove, I specialize in interiors big and small for unique properties worldwide. With my spunky dog as my co-pilot, I'm always looking for the next adventure! You can find me at www.NataliaRobert.com and www.MeetMeAtTheGrove, and follow my daily adventures on IG (@nataliarobertphoto).

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