Facebook Pixel Butterfly Lighting: A One-Strobe Setup for Amazing Portraits!

Butterfly Lighting: A One-Strobe Setup for Amazing Portraits!

butterfly lighting in portrait photography

This article was updated in March 2024 with contributions from Christina N Dickson and Jaymes Dempsey.

If you want to capture refined, pro-level portrait photos, then it pays to master some basic lighting patterns. Now, different patterns can have very different effects – loop lighting, for instance, looks fairly neutral, while split lighting is far more intense – and for photoshoots that require dramatic, glamour-type images, butterfly lighting is hard to beat.

Not only does the butterfly lighting pattern look amazing, but it’s also surprisingly easy to achieve in the studio. You can get good results with a single light (and from there, you can always add different modifiers, reflectors, and fill lights for an array of cool looks). Bottom line: If you’re a studio lighting beginner, the butterfly pattern is an outstanding place to start. And even if you’re a more seasoned portrait photographer, mastering the butterfly technique will pay off in the long run.

In this article, I share everything you need to know for beautiful butterfly lighting setups, including:

  • When you should (and shouldn’t) use butterfly lighting
  • My recommended butterfly lighting equipment
  • A step-by-step method to create a simple butterfly setup
  • Advanced methods of modifying your setup for even better results

So if you’re ready to get started with this gorgeous lighting technique, then let’s dive right in!

What is butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting, also known as glamour lighting and paramount lighting, is a basic portrait photography lighting pattern. It produces a characteristic butterfly-shaped shadow under the subject’s nose, hence the butterfly moniker.

butterfly lighting example in photography
See the shadow under the subject’s nose? That’s where the pattern gets its name (though to see a butterfly, imagination may be required!).

If you look at the example above, you’ll also see strong shadows under the subject’s lips, chin, and cheekbones. That’s standard for butterfly lighting: the effect is dramatic, and the light does a great job of sculpting the subject’s face to create a sense of three-dimensionality.

Note that butterfly lighting differs from loop lighting, where the nose shadow falls onto the subject’s cheek, and Rembrandt lighting, where shadows create a triangle under one eye. Butterfly lighting is a form of direct lighting; the light source comes from directly in front of the subject for that powerful, dramatic look.

When should you use butterfly lighting?

The butterfly pattern, when done right, can look amazing – but it’s important to recognize that such a dramatic, intense effect isn’t ideal for every portrait scenario.

If you’re doing fashion portraits or glamour shots, then butterfly lighting will serve you well. You’ll be able to give your models the kind of sculpted lighting that often appears in fashion magazines. I also think that the pattern can work for formal portrait sessions, but you’ll want to ensure that the light is relatively soft (by adding a strong diffuser) to prevent the shadows from being too heavy and noticeable.

However, because butterfly lighting tends to give the face a thinner, sharper look, and it also adds a touch of intensity and drama, I’d recommend avoiding it when doing photoshoots that require a more natural, artless look. For instance, I generally wouldn’t try the butterfly technique when doing children’s sessions, family sessions, and engagement sessions. Instead, I’d look to other portrait lighting patterns that make the subjects look good without drawing attention to themselves (such as loop lighting, mentioned above).

How to do butterfly lighting: the three-step process

Fortunately, not only does butterfly lighting look amazing in the right scenario, but it’s also easy to achieve. You’ll need a light of some sort; I recommend speedlights or studio strobes, though you can use a continuous light, too. And if you don’t own an artificial light, window light is another option – it’s not as easy to control, but as long as the sun isn’t shining through directly, the illumination will be beautifully soft.

Assuming you’re using an artificial light, you’ll want a sturdy light stand. I’d also encourage you to have a reflector on hand, though it’s not absolutely essential.

Step 1: Position the light directly in front of your subject

Butterfly lighting begins with your light pointed directly at your subject (so the light beams toward your subject’s nose).

Set the light on a lighting stand, and make sure that it’s pointed in a straight line toward the center of your subject. Then raise it up above your subject, keeping it tilted toward the subject’s face until it reaches a 45-degree angle (or thereabouts).

You’re free to fiddle with the height, but you’ll need enough space to get your camera under the light, and you’ll also need the light high enough to create a beautiful butterfly shadow. (The higher the light, the longer the shadow – so if you’re looking for a more intense, dramatic effect, raise that light even higher!)

Take a test shot. You don’t need to pay attention to the overall exposure; just make sure you have the right shadow shape. Then continue to the next step:

Step 2: Add in a reflector

At this point, you should have the basic butterfly look (simple, right?), but it generally pays to slightly decrease the intensity of the shadows under the subject’s nose, chin, eyes, and face. 

Therefore, I’d recommend adding a reflector under your subject’s chin. The closer the reflector is to the subject, the softer the butterfly shadow will appear – so look through your viewfinder and do some test shots until you get the look you’re after. 

man with butterfly shadow under the nose
A heavy butterfly lighting effect. This is a good example of how a strong light positioned from above can sculpt the subject’s features – notice how the cheekbones stand out. Of course, this level of dramatic lighting isn’t always ideal, and I don’t recommend it for all types of photoshoots! Fortunately, it’s possible to dial back the effect with a larger modifier, a reflector, or a fill light.

If you want even more control, you can use a second light instead of a reflector. Make sure the light is several stops weaker than the main light (after all, you don’t want to cancel out the shadow completely, or worse, send it upward!).

Pro tip: Check the subject’s eyes for a nice catchlight or two. If the main light or the reflector/fill light is positioned too high or low, you can lose the catchlight (which lends your portrait a sense of life).

Also, remember: You need to fit your camera between the upper light and the lower reflector. Before you move ahead with your setup, make sure you can shoot comfortably from between the two items.

Step 3: Dial in your camera settings

Finally, you’ll need to expose carefully for your shot. I’d suggest setting your camera to Manual mode, then dialing in your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture ahead of time.

Assuming you’re using strobes, the shutter speed should be determined by your camera’s maximum flash sync speed (generally around 1/160s or 1/200s). Pick an aperture based on the depth of field you’d like to achieve (for an all-black background, an aperture in the f/8 area should be fine – it’ll keep the subject sharp from the tip of their nose to the back of their head).

Then dial in your camera’s base ISO value (this is often ISO 100, but on certain cameras, it can be slightly different!). The lower the ISO, the less you’ll need to worry about unpleasant noise speckles creeping into your files.

At this point, your images will likely be very poorly exposed, but that’s to be expected. You’ll need to rely on the flash power to adjust image brightness; consider using a handheld light meter to accurately gauge the proper exposure variables.

Don’t be afraid to take multiple test shots, especially when starting out. Tethering can be a big help, and it’s something that I always like to recommend to beginners, especially those working with strobes rather than continuous lights; it’ll let you view your images on a large computer monitor so you know exactly what you’re getting and what to tweak. (Sure, you can view your files on your camera’s LCD, but in my experience, this just isn’t good enough for evaluating subtle lighting effects; it’s very easy to miss key details, such as too-dark shadows or missing catchlights.)

Modifying your butterfly lighting setup for the best results

While the basic butterfly lighting pattern is great, and it can definitely get you plenty of pro-level shots, it’s always good to modify and enhance your setups for uniquely outstanding results. 

woman headshot with butterfly lighting
The shadows on this subject’s face are heavy. If you get similar results, and you’re looking for a softer look, you can use a fill light or a reflector, as I mentioned above – but you can also use modifiers (see below!).

Here are a few tips for more advanced butterfly lighting:

1. Add lighting modifiers

You can do butterfly lighting with a bare strobe or speedlight, but if you’d like to create more flattering results, I’d recommend adding a modifier to your light source. Bare light sources are very small, and small lights create harsher, hard-edged shadows that flatten the subject. That’s why nearly all portrait photographers – myself included – work with modifiers, which go between the light source and the subject to soften the shadows.

Beauty dishes are a great place to start, as they soften the light while keeping it directional for that nice glamour look. If you’re after an even softer, ethereal look, consider using a softbox rather than a beauty dish. The larger the softbox, the softer the light (so if softness is your thing, try a 6+ foot octabox)!

Modifiers can get somewhat expensive, but there are some great budget brands (like Neewer) that offer reasonable-quality softboxes, beauty dishes, and the like for around $40-100. Just make sure that you purchase modifiers that match your lights – different lights have different mounts, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a softbox that doesn’t fit!

(As an aside: Once you’ve done enough portrait shoots, and once you’ve mastered enough lighting patterns, you’ll probably have a huge collection of modifiers lying around your house/studio. And yes, I’m speaking from experience here!)

2. Move your light closer or farther from the subject

If your lighting isn’t looking as hard or as soft as you’d like, you might be tempted to focus on the modifier you’re using. Light too hard? Put a large softbox on it. Light too soft? Add a beauty dish instead.

But while modifiers are a useful way to handle light-quality problems, you can create harder and softer lighting effects another way, too:

By moving your light closer to your subject, or farther from your subject.

Once you’ve established the basic butterfly lighting pattern, if you move your light closer, the shadows will soften. And if you move your light farther away, the shadows will become harder and more contrasty.

It can be a neat little exercise to test this out yourself – just pop a modifier on a strobe, find a willing subject, set up your butterfly pattern, then take a series of images as you move the light source closer and farther away.

Just keep in mind that you can’t just move your light and hope for the best; with each lighting adjustment, you’ll need to change other elements of the shot – the light’s power, the light’s angle – to make sure you get a consistent result.

3. Add a background

If you’re after an ultra-professional look, I’d suggest including a background in your shot – one that you light independently from the model.

You can hand paint your backdrops, you can use sheets of white paper, you can find naturally stunning backdrops, or you can buy large fabric and/or paper backdrops online. 

Another option is to use a sheet of gray paper, then add in different background files using Photoshop. 

In general, it’s best to light your background independently of your main subject. So first aim to create a low-key image of your subject – where the background fades completely to black. Then put a light on the backdrop with enough power to create an artistic ring behind the subject.

(You may want to put the light directly behind the subject so that it evenly lights the background; alternatively, you can use two lights positioned just outside the frame on either side.)

4. Add a rim light

The best portraits tend to contain separation between the subject and the background. In other words, you can clearly see where the subject ends and the background begins.

That’s where rim lighting comes in: It lights the edge of your subject so that there’s a clear difference between the beautiful background and your stately subject.

Note that the rim light will simply add to your butterfly setup. You won’t need to do any adjustments to the main pattern, and I’d recommend you achieve all the necessary butterfly elements before attempting a rim light.

Position your rim light behind your subject and off to the side, so it’s sculpting your subject from the back. You can technically do this a second time – on the opposite side – but one rim light is generally enough.

Then take some test shots, experimenting with different rim light exposure values and positions. Ideally, you’ll achieve a very slight rim along the back of your subject.

Capture some amazing portraits using butterfly lighting!

woman butterfly lighting headshot

Butterfly lighting is a stunning portrait pattern – and it’s super easy to achieve.

So follow the instructions from this article. Experiment with different lighting modifiers and positions. And have plenty of fun!

Now over to you:

Have you tried butterfly lighting before? How do you plan to do it this time? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Christina N Dickson
Christina N Dickson

is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

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