Student’s Butterfly Lighting Examples

I love teaching at the School of Photography run by my good friend Dennis Fahringer. I think it is the best schools of photography I have come across. Here is a link to learn more about the school.

This is my favorite light for headshots. We didn’t have my Tri-Flector that I love to use, so we used a softbox lower under the person’s chin.


This was the lighting setup. Main light 45º above the camera and the fill light below at 45º. The key here is to keep the camera lights and subject in the same positions. You can have them face a little left or right, but keep head straight forward to get that butterfly that is formed under the nose due to the main light.

Photos by Jedidiah Pearson

By staying with a lighting setup and just having the person move a little right and left with mixing your expressions and body language you can get a lot of nice photos.

Photos by John Davidson

For this assignment I didn’t have the photographers light the background. I did suggest the hair light up and directly behind the subject. Putting the stand behind the background let you hide it.

Photos by Sarah Klinke

If a person was bald I suggested to not use the hair light. if they had light hair maybe no more than one stop brighter than the main light. If dark hair you can often go as much as two stops brighter than the main light.

Photos by Valentine Huss

Now if you look close at the eyes you can see the main light and fill light.

This is even closer for you to see the eyes.

This is a tip for deciphering photos. Look in the eyes and you can usually see where the lights are place and the shape of the modifiers.

Here is my personal setup that I use most of the time for headshots of actors and models.

This is the second modification where I light the background.

This last setup is where I have enough space. The lights behind the background I turn on for white background and turn off for a grey background.

KISS Rule

Keep It Simple Stupid – is what I have been taught through the years. Don’t over think things.

Hope this inspires you to use lights with your photos.

Student’s 3:1 Lighting Ratio Headshots

I love teaching at the School of Photography run by my good friend Dennis Fahringer. I think it is the best school of photography I have come across. Here is a link to learn more about the school.


I love to teach lighting. One of the setups I love to teach is one I learned first from my Uncle Knolan Benfield.

He is the one that taught me what a 3:1 Light Ratio setup looks like and why should know how to shoot it.

Photos by Jedidiah Pearson

These are some of the shots that the students produced last week during my time teaching at the School of Photography in Kona, Hawaii.

Photos by Sarah Klinke

You see the problem with too contrasty of lighting is when it is reproduced in something like a newspaper the shadows go black. The 3:1 ratio produces a good shadow on newspaper print and yet still has some modeling on the face.

Here is a blog post that goes step by step on how to shoot it.

Photo by Wyatt Reed Alderman

I wanted you to see how students who have never done lighting before my time with them were able to not just master it, but get great expressions as well of their subjects.

Photos by Tess Williams

What they learned is once you have a good solid lighting setup it can free you to then work on expressions and posing.

Photos by John Davidson

The also were challenged to write a little story on their subjects. John Davidson wrote this about his subject.

Stan was a farmer who raised potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, and grew marijuana. Unfortunately he also smoked the marijuana and used many harder drugs. His life was a mess and he almost killed himself. He went to a Drug & Treatment Center and got clean. He retired after working 27 years at Idaho National Laboratory as a nuclear reactor Operator/Instructor.

The idea is that when you share a photo having a story with the photo makes it so much more interesting and people come back to look for more.

Photos by Gabe Hein

What do you think of these students photos they made of people?

KISS for portraits

Alexia Shepherd [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

When you are changing lighting setups or camera settings you are not able to pay attention to expressions. Trying to give a lot of variety with lighting setups may not be the best approach.

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

It takes a lot more skill to get great face expressions than it takes to change a lighting setup. You have to build trust with the person. You have to have a connection with them so that together you can capture the true essence of the subject.

Alexia Shepherd [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I do super minor lighting changes so that I can spend more time on getting lots of expressions.

One thing I do with my setup is just change the background from a grey to a white background.

I can pause just for a moment and turn on or off the two lights behind my white muslin background. Off I get a nice neutral grey. The light from the beauty dish is what is lighting the background and my subject.

When I have my background lights on they are giving me one stop more light than I have set on the subject. This gives me a really clean white background.

Chance Wills [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I love to shoot 50 to 100 images before I change the background.

Chance Wills[NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I encourage people to bring a couple of outfits. It is amazing to me how much wardrobe change impacts the final photo.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

Changing from a low-key photo to a high-key photo also can help change the mood of the photo.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

My tip is to pick one outfit and shoot a lot. Go for 100 photos without changing lighting. background or clothing. Then just change the background and repeat. After you have done that, then change outfits and shoot again.

Make the emphasis of the portrait/headshot session about getting an expression. Go past the extremes of sadness and joy. Then try and shoot all the nuances of expressions.

Chance Wills [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

Don’t forget to get verticals and horizontal photos.

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

Most of all remember the thing that makes a great headshot is EXPRESSION!!!

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

It is much easier to get a pleasant and real expression if you have pushed the limits of expressions first.

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

What you can learn from actors

I believe there is such a thing as over directing a person during a head shot/portrait session.

I love working with actors because they want to use their skills and rarely get to do that with photographers during a head shot.

Maggie Cook [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

Before I get a really intimate and what I would call transparent moment with a subject they have to be really relaxed and comfortable with me.

Maggie Cook [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

One of my techniques I use is to ask “actors” to give me as many face expressions as you can in 30 seconds. Those just starting out in acting often will struggle, but for those who love to perform and do a variety of characters this is like a psychogenic ‘trip’. They are Thrill-Seekers whose risk is being perceived as being weird or off.

So “pushing the envelope” or “pushing the limits” means to test the boundaries of what is safe or acceptable in a given situation, by exceeding those boundaries.

Macy Frazier [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

Once I have gone with them on this journey of letting them perform and risky expressions, they tend to let me in.

They are able to tap into their emotions and let me see them through their eyes and on their faces.

Timothy Villalovas [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

For me the hardest type of photos to get with people is one where their personality is being projected.

Katy Johnson [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

Even the smile photos are more genuine and inviting than had I not gone through asking them to give me all their expressions.

I just spend my time slowly adjusting the heads so that the light works best a that their expressions are captured in the most effective way. That might mean I lower an raise the camera angle to their eyes.

I work hard at getting rid of things like double chins.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

The way I like to think of getting a great expression is that you need to have the subject go past the acceptable moment to an extreme.

My role is to create a safe environment where it is OK to try any expression with the goal being that by pushing the limits we are able to be truly transparent. This is when great moments can happen.

How do you get to the next level?

  1. Educate Yourself. Have a goal in mind. …
  2. Move From Thinking to Doing. …
  3. Face Your Fear. …
  4. Embrace Your Challenge. …
  5. Avoid Procrastination. …
  6. Adapt a “No Failure” Attitude. …
  7. Create a positive environment.