Make Your Portraits Soar with Butterfly Lighting!

Using flash in portraits doesn’t have to be scary or complicated.  Today, we’ll talk about one of the simplest, and happiest sounding lighting patterns, butterfly lighting.  With one light and a reflector, you’ll be on your way to shooting off-camera flash with confidence.  Learn why it’s called butterfly lighting, how to set it up and 3 reasons butterfly lighting is an amazing light setup for portraits!

What is butterfly lighting

What is butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a simple lighting pattern used in photography.  It’s named for the butterfly-shaped shadow that’s formed underneath the subject’s nose.

Not seeing the butterfly?  Picture a butterfly flying toward you, wings spread out…that’s the shadow it creates!  I think it also looks a bit like the Batman symbol if that helps.

What is butterfly lighting used for?

Butterfly lighting is used for portraits of people.  It’s also known as “Paramount Lighting” because it was a favorite lighting technique of the Paramount movie studio in early Hollywood.

Butterfly lighting is common in beauty shots or high-end portraits requiring soft, flattering lighting like fashion or glamour shoots.

How to rock butterfly lighting

3 reasons to rock butterfly lighting in your portraits

#1.  Butterfly lighting is incredibly flattering!

Butterfly lighting can accentuate cheekbones and give a glamorous, high-end look to your portraits.  There’s a reason it was the favorite of old Hollywood!

#2.  Butterfly lighting looks great on older subjects!

Butterfly lighting creates shadows under the cheeks and chin but adds lots of light to the other part of the face.  This can help minimize a double chin and fills in shadows in wrinkles.  It’s an easy way to give an older subject a brighter, more youthful appearance.

#3.  Butterfly lighting is easy to set up and understand!

If you have a single speedlight and a reflector, you can do butterfly lighting!  As you’ll see below, it’s incredibly easy to set up in studio or in the field!

Learn some basics of studio lighting with our tutorial!

How to achieve butterfly lighting

A 1-light setup

Butterfly Lighting Diagram

First, start with a single light source.  This can be a strobe or a speedlight, usually with a modifier of your choice.  Try different modifiers for a slightly different look, like a softbox, beauty dish or shoot-through umbrella.

Next, place your light behind the camera and slightly above eye level of your subject.  Your light should be about a foot above your subject’s head, and a few feet in front of them.  You should see that signature butterfly-shaped shadow under your subject’s nose.  By adjusting the placement of the light, you can adjust the contrast of the shadow to your liking.  Try moving your light closer to and further away from your subject until you get a look you like.  Don’t forget to adjust your flash power to maintain proper exposure on your subject.

You can turn your subject slightly one direction or the other, but your light should stay on the same axis as the camera.  That’s what creates the tell-tale shadow.

Below is an example of butterfly lighting with a single light.

Butterfly lighting using 1 light

1 light plus a reflector

Now if you like how the portrait looks, there’s no need to get complicated.  Butterfly-lighting can be as simple as 1 light!  But if you’d like to soften the shadows under the chin, try using a reflector.  Place it in front of the subject, underneath the face and just outside the frame.  This bounces some light back into the face and eyes and fills in shadows under the chin.

The closer your reflector gets to your subject, the softer the shadows will be.

Remember that the reflector is adding light back into the scene, so you may need to adjust your flash power down from your settings above.

Below is an example of butterfly lighting with 1 light plus a reflector.  My model held the reflector just below her chest to draw light back into the scene.  This changes the whole mood of the scene and adds a lot more light under the chin and into the eyes.  If your subject has deepset eyes, this can be particularly helpful!

Butterfly lighting with one light plus a reflector

Not sure about flash modfiers?  Read our introduction and find one that’s right for you!

2 lights (AKA Clamshell lighting)

Clamshell lighting

Some photographers prefer to use two lights instead of 1 light and a reflector.  In place of the reflector, add a second light UNDER the main light, pointed up toward your subject.  This lower light is acting as a fill light, filling in shadows.  Be sure to set it at a lower power than the upper light, usually 2 or more stops less in power.

As you can see from the image below, the two lights and modifiers mimic the two halves of a clamshell, hence the name “Clamshell Lighting.”

Clamshell lighting is a little bit trickier to master.  You need to make sure your bottom light is just acting as fill and not overpowering your main light.  Because the two lights are stacked on top of each other, you need to shoot through the gap.  It takes some adjusting to get a gap big enough to shoot through but still light your subject correctly.

Also know that clamshell lighting will put two catchlights in your subject’s eyes.  If that’s not a look you like stick with the reflector.

Watch your catchlights

As you position your subject, be sure that you’re capturing catchlights in her eyes.  If your subject lowers her chin too much, you’ll lose the catchlights out of the tops of the eyes.

Adding other lights

Feel free to accentuate your subject with another light or two in conjunction to butterfly lighting.  You may choose to use a hair light or rim light shot from behind.  Or add a third light behind your subject, pointing toward the background.  You’re limited only by your creativity and number of flashes.  Just remember, for true butterfly lighting, you’re using one main light straight on from above to create the butterfly shadow on your subject’s face.

Butterfly lighting for group portraits

Butterfly lighting is also one of my favorite lighting patterns for group shots.  I use one big light source on axis with my camera, above my head, pointing down to my group.  That way, my group is evenly lit, shadows are falling behind them and I’m not getting cross shadows from lights at two separate corners.

Do I need a strobe for butterfly lighting?

A butterfly lighting pattern can be created with any light source: strobe, speedlight, continuous light or even natural light.  After all, the sun can be overhead pointing down – the exact position we need for butterfly lighting.  But natural light can be difficult to control.  It’s harder to vary the placement and power of the light.  So most butterfly lighting setups you see will involve some sort of artificial light.

But artificial light doesn’t have to be overpowering or fake.  You can easily use a flash to mimic soft, natural light.  It’s simply a matter of understanding how to use the equipment correctly.

Butterfly lighting for men

Are there times I should AVOID butterfly lighting?

Some photographers feel butterfly lighting should only be used on women, and even women with thin faces.  Butterfly lighting doesn’t have the slimming effect of other lighting patterns, such as short Rembrandt lighting.  And you may find that it feels a touch feminine.  But other photographers use it all different sexes and ages.  Experiment with butterfly lighting and see how it works.  You’ll get a feel for when it can flatter and when it might fall short for your clients.

Other common lighting patterns

Rembrandt lighting is just one of several common lighting patterns used by studio photographers.  The others are:

  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Split lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Broad lighting
  • Short lighting

Rembrandt lighting uses a light at a 45-degree angle from your subject.  Done correctly, your subject will have a triangle of light under his nose on the side of his face opposite the light.  It’s a great setup for a moody, more contrasty look.

Learn how to master Rembrandt lighting with our tutorial!

Split lighting divides the face in half, with one side being properly exposed and the other side is in shadow.

Butterfly lighting is named for the butterfly-shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera.  This is also called placing the light on axis with the camera.

Loop lighting creates a small shadow of the subject’s nose on his or her cheek.  Loop lighting is a lot like Rembrandt lighting, but in loop patterns, the shadow of the nose and the shadow of the cheek do not touch.  The two are often confused.  And while it’s important to understand the difference, if you like the look of the portrait, that’s what matters more than exactly what you call it, right?

Broad lighting and short lighting aren’t really lighting patterns.  They are more styles.  Technically you could have a broad Rembrandt setup or a short loop lighting.  Broad lighting lights the side of the face closest to the camera.  Short lighting lights the side of the face furthest from the camera.

To me, butterfly lighting is one of the friendliest lighting patterns to learn.  Not only does it have a very non-threatening name, it’s easy to set up and understand.  A few practice sessions with your flash and a subject, and you’ll have this lighting pattern mastered.  Just keep your eye on the butterfly.  Soon you’ll feel confident flying butterfly lighting in any season!