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MARLENE DIETRICH And Invention of Butterfly Lighting


MARLENE DIETRICH And Invention of Butterfly Lighting

October 14, 2019  |  by Bill Dobbins
By Bill Dobbins
This photo by George Hurrell shows a good example of butterfly lighting – the key light is located above and to the front, leaving a small shadow under the nose. | Source:

Moviegoers who saw the character of Lili von Schtup in Blazing Saddles might not have realized they were seeing a parody of the character played by legendary film actress Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.

marlene destry
Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. Her role was parodied in Blazing Saddles by Madeline Kahn. | Source:
Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtup in Blazing Saddles, a parody of Marlene Dietrich. | Source:

Marlene Dietrich began as a silent film actress in Germany in the 1920s, and then in the 1930s came to Hollywood with director Josef von Sternberg. It was how she was presented working with von Sternberg, and particularly how she looked with his movie lighting, which helped her to create one of the great careers in movie history.

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A very young Marlene Dietrich. | Source:
Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, a movie with director Josef von Sternberg that helped her launch a Hollywood career. | Source:
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Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, 1932. “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly.”| Source:

Under von Sternberg’s lighting, Marlene had sculpted features, prominent cheekbones, and a glamorous, angular face.  But photos of her earlier in her career and candid pictures shot over time, show that, in reality, she had a much rounder face, not nearly as lean and sculptured. The difference is that in von Sternberg films her key light in close-ups was positioned above her and to the front.  This light coming down from above can be recognized because it leaves a small shadow right under the nose.  The is called “Butterly Lighting” and it soon became a standard method of Hollywood glamour lighting in BW movies.

The movie Morocco with Gary Cooper, Dietrich daringly dressed in a man’s tuxedo and flirted with a woman. | Source:
Marlene Hurrell
Another George Hurrell photo using butterfly lighting. | Source:
Photo by George Hurrell | Source:

Dietrich understood the value of this kind of lighting in creating the kind of glamour image that became her “brand.”  So throughout her career, working with other directors and DP’s, she insisted on being lit the same way.  Hollywood, knowing a good thing when they saw it (meaning box office success), generally complied with her wishes.

Take a look at a Dietrich scene in a von Sternberg movie and you’ll see her moving around the set in longer shots, but when there is a close-up she positions herself under a key light located to the front and above.  Notice the shadow under her nose.  That is the sign of butterfly lighting,  This was also known as Paramount lighting, but in my view, it could have been called Von Sternberg Lighting.

marlene vegas
Toward the end of her career, Marlene Dietrich created a very successful Las Vegas stage act. | Source:

One of my favorite Hollywood studio photographers, George Hurrell, frequently used this lighting set up shooting stars from Dietrich and Greta Garbo to Tyrone Power and Clark Gable.  If fact, butterfly lighting is still a great technique for shooting portraits that are dramatic, sculptural and glamourous.

Some artistic techniques may fall out of fashion but never go out of style.


Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

 Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) Modern Amazons (Taschen)





Marlene Dietrich was fervently anti Nazi and sacrificed much of her career during WWII to entertain the troops. | Source:
Josef-von-Sternberg-Marlene-Dietrich (2)
Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were a successful creative team and had an off screen romance as well. | Source:
October 14, 2019

About the Author

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos - images of the aesthetic, athletic body. Using the same distinctive personal style, characterized by strong graphics and a classic look in both color and BW, Bill Dobbins has also developed a body of work featuring fashion, beauty and glamor photos In a world in which so many images create a level of "noise" that makes it hard for advertisers to be noticed, Bill's work cuts right through the confusion and grabs the eye. Bill has created two art photos books: The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen) and his fine art work has appeared in two museums and several galleries. WEBSITES BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY BILL DOBBINS ART THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY EMAIL:

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