Butterfly Lighting in Photography (Capture Stunning Portraits)

by John Stapel

butterfly lighting in portrait photography

What is butterfly lighting, and how can you use it for flattering portraits?

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

  • When you should (and shouldn’t) use butterfly lighting
  • Necessary 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

Note that butterfly lighting differs from loop lighting, where the nose shadow falls onto the subject’s cheek, and Rembrandt lighting, where the 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 a powerful, dramatic look.

When should you use butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting is great for formal portrait sessions. You can also use butterfly lighting for fashion portraits.

Because butterfly lighting tends to give the face a thinner, sharper look, I’d recommend avoiding it when doing children sessions, family sessions, and engagement sessions. Instead, look to other portrait lighting patterns (such as loop lighting, mentioned above).

How to do butterfly lighting: the two-step process

Fortunately, while butterfly lighting looks amazing, it’s actually very easy to achieve. You’ll need a light of some sort (I recommend speedlights and studio strobes, though you can use a continuous light, too), a light stand, and generally a reflector, though the latter is optional.

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 raise it up above your subject 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. 

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. 

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

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.

Finally, you’ll need to expose carefully for your shot. I’d suggest dialing in your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture ahead of time, then relying on the flash power to adjust 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; it’ll let you view your images on a large computer monitor so you know exactly what to tweak in advance.

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

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. 

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)!

And by moving the light closer to the subject, you can increase softness (on the other hand, moving the light farther back will increase light hardness and shadow intensity).

2. 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.)

3. 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.

Butterfly lighting in portrait photography: final words

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!

Butterfly Lighting in Photography (Capture Stunning Portraits)