Butterfly lighting is a wonderfully flattering portrait lighting technique–and one that every photographer should know.
So if you want to create stunning portraits, butterfly lighting is a great option.
That’s why this article is dedicated to all things butterfly lighting. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll know all the of the essentials:
What butterfly lighting is.
When you should use butterfly lighting.
And how you can use butterfly lighting for the best possible results.
What Is Butterfly Lighting?
Butterfly lighting is a common portrait lighting technique, known for the butterfly-shaped shadow it creates under the portrait subject’s nose, like this:
Butterfly lighting is also referred to as “Paramount lighting,” or “Hollywood lighting”–because it was frequently used in older movies.
But butterfly lighting is also used in fashion magazine portraits, and it’s an excellent glamour pattern to have in your photography tool belt.
When Should You Use Butterfly Lighting?
Butterfly lighting is fantastic for situations where you want to emphasize the angles of your subject’s face.
For instance, butterfly lighting enhances high cheekbones, and will make noses and chins look far sharper.
It has that glamour-type presence because it’s so frequently used to light professional models, and this can be both good and bad; good, if you’re photographing subjects that are looking for a little extra pizazz, but bad, if you’re photographing subjects that are looking for more natural, less dramatic results.
So I recommend using butterfly lighting when photographing subjects that want that extra bit of pop, but avoid it when photographing, say, families and children.
(That said, you can always tone down the intensity of the butterfly lighting effect via a reflector, which I’ll talk about in a later section.)
You can also use butterfly lighting when you want to slim down a subject’s face. The shadows created by butterfly lighting are great for achieving a thinner look.
How to Achieve Beautiful Butterfly Lighting: A Step-By-Step
As I mentioned above, butterfly lighting is very easy to create, and can be done by most portrait photography beginners.
Butterfly Lighting Equipment
The biggest hurdle to a butterfly setup is making sure you have the right light source.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to achieve butterfly lighting with the sun, because you’ll have very little control over the direction of the light and the shadows it creates.
So I recommend you use one off-camera flash instead.
You’ll also need a trigger, because the flash can’t mount directly onto your camera’s hot shoe, and you’ll need a stand that you can raise above your subject (this is where you’ll position the light).
Finally, while it’s possible to do butterfly lighting without a reflector, you’re going to want to have one on hand. You can find a reflector on Amazon for cheap, or you can create one out of white poster board.
(Note that if you do decide to purchase a reflector, I recommend the five-in-one options, because these will give you several reflector colors to work with–generally silver, gold, and white.)
The Basics of Butterfly Lighting
Here’s how butterfly lighting works:
First, position your subject looking straight ahead, toward you, the photographer.
Then position the light in front of your subject, and slightly above, pointing down (so as to create the butterfly shadow under the nose).
The higher you raise the light, the more prominent the shadows, and the more dramatic the result, so make sure you think about your different options. Feel free to experiment with different angles; it’ll really all depend on what you’re after, and your personal photographic preferences.
As the photographer, you’ll crouch (or stand) below the light, so it comes from directly behind you, and beams right into the subject’s face.
Oh, and while it’s very common to use side-lighting for portraits (e.g., Rembrandt lighting), note that butterfly lighting is completely and utterly flat. Your light should not be at an angle from your subject; this will start to create something more akin to loop lighting, and will lose the dramatic, angular, butterfly lighting effect.
Soft Versus Hard Light
When you use an umodified (i.e., naked) flash to create a butterfly lighting effect, you’ll end up with very harsh, sharp shadows and lines.
But if you use a modified flash, you’ll end up with less contrast and softer transitions between the shadows and the highlights on your subject.
(Umbrellas offer the softest light, while softboxes tend to be harsher, and small diffusers harsher still.)
Either one of these options can work well, so you’ll want to test out umodified and modified lighting setups and see what you prefer. Photographers will often use one or the other, depending on whether they want a harsh, dramatic look (such as when photographing an athlete), or a softer, more feathery look (such as when creating a more gentle, flattering image).
Adding in a Reflector
Once you have your (main) key light, you can go ahead and add the reflector.
Note that you technically don’t have to do this, but it’ll punch light under your subject’s nose and chin, which adds back some detail and prevents the shadows from overpowering the shot.
So put the reflector down under the subject’s chin. Experiment with different angles and distances; by bringing the reflector up close to the chin, you’ll add a lot of light, and by pulling it farther away, you’ll end up with stronger shadows.
By the way, you can try holding the reflector yourself, but if that doesn’t work out, you can either have an assistant hold it, or the model themselves. Reflectors are feather-light, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about tiring out yourself or your model!
Adjusting the Head Angle
Because butterfly lighting requires a light flat on your subject, it’s important to remember that different head angles will result in different effects.
By tilting your subject’s head up, you’ll end up with less of a shadow under the nose and the chin–whereas by tilting your subject’s head down, the shadows will become more pronounced, and you’ll get more of that angular, intense look.
Adding a Backlight
While the most basic butterfly lighting setups just involve a single flash and a reflector, you’re always free to take things to the next level.
Consider adding a light behind your subject as a rim light, or a light pointed at your background to add a nice halo effect. Either one of these options will help your subject stand out–without ruining the butterfly effect.
Butterfly Lighting: Conclusion
Butterfly lighting is an easy technique to master–and it’s one that can get you great results, again and again.
So just remember to position the light just above your subject, the reflector just below your subject, and you’re practically guaranteed great results.
Butterfly lighting is a type of frontlight pattern. Position your main light above and in front of your subject, in order to create a butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose (and a shadow under the chin, as well). You can also add a reflector under your subject’s chin in order to minimize the strength of the shadow (depending on your goals and the level of drama you’d like to achieve).
Butterfly lighting is named after the shadow it produces under your subject’s nose. It looks vaguely like a butterfly, hence the term “butterfly lighting.” Also note that butterfly lighting is sometimes referred to as “Hollywood lighting” and “Paramount lighting.”
I recommend using butterfly lighting when you plan to create dramatic, angular results. It works great for fashion portraits, but isn’t the best option for family-style and very natural images.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.