Butterfly lighting for portraits – how and when to use it

Butterfly lighting is a portrait lighting pattern that has nothing to do with lighting butterflies. I thought I’d state the obvious from the start – only half joking. When you first hear about portrait lighting patterns, it’s easy to think that it’s for flash photography only, but that’s not at all the case.

Portrait lighting patterns apply as much to natural light photography as they do to off camera flash photography. Read all the way to the bottom to see how this headline photo was shot. What do you think – natural light or flash?.

Different lighting patterns are used in portrait photography for different reasons, but especially to:

  • Create atmosphere
  • Flatter a particular face shape

Today we’re exploring the benefits of butterfly lighting for portraits – when and how to use it.

Butterfly lighting pattern in portrait photography

What is butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting refers to a portrait lighting pattern that’s also called paramount lighting, because it was particularly popular in the glamorous, early Hollywood film days for portraits of actresses.

A portrait lighting pattern is simply a way of:

  • Arranging lights in relation to the subject, if using flash
  • Positioning a subject in relation to the light, if using natural light

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

What distinguishes butterfly lighting, and gives it its name, is the butterfly shaped shadow below the subject’s nose, created by the position of the light. Personally, I don’t think it looks much like a butterfly, unless the butterfly is flying directly towards you.

If you want drama, butterfly lighting is a great lighting pattern to use.


When should you use butterfly lighting?

Although it’s used mainly with women, there’s no reason why you can’t use it with men.

The reason why we see it in photos of women so much more is that it’s one of the most popular lighting patterns for beauty photography. So most women’s magazine covers feature butterfly lighting.

Butterfly lighting pattern from direct sunlight

Facial features affected by butterfly lighting

Aside from the butterfly shadow, the most distinguishing feature of butterfly lighting pattern is the way it sculpts the face, particularly for people with high cheekbones and a defined jawline.

But it’s not just for model like features, butterfly lighting can be used to flatter faces too:

  • Double chins – it can be really slimming for people carrying a little weight beneath their chin as it casts a shadow on the area
  • Uneven noses – because of the direction of the light, noses that aren’t smooth and straight look better, as the irregularities are minimized by the light filling in bumps and dents

Two facial features that do not suit butterfly lighting are:

  • Round faces – don’t photograph well with butterfly lighting as it makes them look heavier. For round faces, rather use Rembrandt, loop or split lighting patterns to slim and define them. However, in photography there are always exceptions, and for me the round face exception for butterfly lighting is babies and toddlers – it’s great for emphasizing their gorgeous little chubby cheeks! Which, of course is not what we want to do for adults.
  • Deepset eyes – you need to be careful that the light is not so high that you lose the catchlights in their eyes

Butterfly lighting for newborn photography

What are catchlights?

Lights that are reflected in your subjects eyes are catchlights. Portraits without catchlights in the eyes are lifeless as the eyes are darker than if lit. If you want sparkling eyes, you need catchlights.

Most of the time, if you zoom into a photo, you can see the type and/or shape of the light source by examining the catchlights in the subject’s eyes. Catchlights also show you where the light is positioned in relation to the subject, so they’re great for seeing how a portrait was lit.

Further reading: Using catchlights in photography to easily create eyes that sparkle

How do you use butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a way of front lighting your subject – so, to state the obvious, the light is positioned in front of the subject. 

Further reading: Understanding direction of light: how to use front lighting

Position of the light for butterfly lighting

Unlike flat lighting, which also lights a subject from the front, with butterfly lighting the light is placed higher than the subject and then angled down.

Butterfly lighting diagram pdf

It’s the combination of height and angling down of the light that creates and controls the butterfly shadow beneath the nose. So keep a close eye on the shape of the shadow. When it starts to look like a moustache, you’ve gone too far.

A good starting point for butterfly lighting is to angle the light 45 degrees down towards your subject.

It’s important to remember that all faces are different, so the exact angle of the light will depend on the shape of your subject’s nose, as well as their brow bones.

Difference between natural light and flash for butterfly lighting

The only difference between using natural light and off camera flash for creating butterfly lighting is that it’s easier with flash. For 2 reasons:

  • You can’t move the sun or a window around the way you can off camera flash. Instead, you have to move your subject into position
  • Because of the position of butterfly lighting, using sunlight can be quite blinding for your subject, especially if their eyes are sensitive to light. To avoid squinting, they’ll either need to wear sunglasses, or keep their eyes closed until you’re ready to take the shot. 

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

Off camera flash butterfly lighting outdoors

For this photo I used off camera flash balanced with the ambient (natural) light. The light was placed right next to me on the right, but perfectly in line with  the direction Katie was facing.

Controlling butterfly lighting shadows

If you want to lessen the shadows so that they are not as dark, you can use a reflector beneath your subject’s chin at chest height to bounce the light back up. 

Alternatively, you can position a fill light (less bright than the main light) below the main light and angled up to your subject. This is called clamshell lighting, because the two lights are like the top and bottom shells of the clamshell. You’d then shoot from between the two lights, in the “hinge” of the clamshell.

For a softer shadow, you need to diffuse the light.

For natural light, direct sunlight will cause a clearly defined shadow, but if your subject is in shade or if it’s a cloudy day ,there will be a gradual fall off of the light so the edges of the shadow won’t be as clearly defined.

With flash, the light modifier you use affects the shadows. For example, a flash fitted with a softbox will create significantly softer shadows than a bare bulb.

What if the subject moves?

It’s really important to remember that when your subject moves their head the lighting pattern on their face will change. 

How portrait lighting pattern changes when subject rotates head

This photo was lit by direct sunlight. You can see the change in the lighting pattern with the slight rotation of Katie’s head. The photo on the left is a perfect butterfly lighting pattern, whereas on the right it’s a little off.

So, if they turn their head slightly sideways, the pattern will shift. If they move further, it will change to a loop lighting pattern. If they turn their head further their nose will cast more of a shadow on their cheek and it will eventually transform into a Rembrandt lighting pattern if they turn their head far enough.

Further reading: Rembrandt lighting – what is it and how is it set up?

Moving butterfly lighting to the side

Remember, that as long as the light strikes the subject from the front of their face and at the right height and angle, you’ll have butterfly lighting. So your position is not the key here. It’s their position in relation to the light.

I often photograph my subjects slightly from the side when using butterfly lighting. 

View from the side of butterfly lighting pattern

Lit by direct sunlight to camera right. If Katie had turned her head to look at me the lighting pattern would have changed to Rembrandt lighting.

How the headline shot was lit

Here’s a pullback shot of the headline photo. Sophie was sitting on the steps to the front door of the building. The entrance is recessed by about a meter or two, so the natural light was channeled in from behind me.

Perfect for creating butterfly lighting with natural light!

Pullback shot to show how a portrait was lit

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about portrait lighting patterns, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our portrait lighting pattern tips have helped you to understand how to use butterfly lighting share that too.

Will this photography tutorial help you to use butterfly lighting?

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Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

2 thoughts on “Butterfly lighting for portraits – how and when to use it

  1. Thanks for the post, you have an easy style of explaining the techniques, which for my age, makes it easy to follow, besides using this flatform, I am able to search for information easily, when I need it

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