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
The distinctive nose shadow of butterfly light gives the lighting technique it’s name

What is butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a portrait lighting pattern where the light is placed in front of the subject for dramatic shadows. It’s also called beauty lighting and 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 in a butterfly lighting setup. 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, which is why it’s also called beauty lighting. 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 subject’s face, particularly for subjects with high cheekbones and a defined jawline.

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

  • Double chins – it has a slimming effect for subjects 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 with this type of lighting, as the irregularities are minimized by the light filling in bumps and dents

However, 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 lighting, loop lighting 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 – because the eyes are set further back, 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
I used a softbox on a flash unit to camera right and angled down at a 45-degree angle for this newborn portrait. See the butterfly shadow beneath his nose and how the light falls on his round cheek’s, highlighting his chubby baby cheeks?

What are catchlights?

Lights that are reflected in your subjects eyes are catchlights. Portraits without catchlights in the eyes are lifeless as there’s not sparkle to the eyes. 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’s positioned in relation to the subject, so they’re great for seeing how a portrait was lit.

When butterfly light is used, you can see catchlights in the 12 o’clock position in the subject’s eyes.

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 main light source is positioned in front of your subject. 

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

In studio portrait photography the most used light modifier for butterfly lighting is a beauty dish, especially for beauty shots. That said, I’ve also used rectangular softboxes and stripboxes, umbrella lighting and also bare bulb 

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’s head and then angled down towards the subject.

Butterfly lighting diagram pdf
Butterfly lighting diagram for a butterfly lighting setup using a single light source

It’s the combination of height and angling down of the light that creates and controls the butterfly-shaped 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 and then adjust from there.

It’s important to remember that all faces are different, so with the butterfly lighting technique the exact angle of the light depends 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 two reasons:

  • You can’t move the sun or a window around the way you can artificial light. Instead, you have to move your subject into position
  • Because of the position of this type of 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. In which case you might need to take several shots in case they’re still focusing when you take the shot – their eyes will look glazed if they’re not yet properly focused on the lens.

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’re not as dark, you can use a reflector beneath your subject’s chin at chest height to bounce the light back up and fill in the shadows. 

Alternatively, you can position a second light as 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’s in shade or if it’s a cloudy day, there’ll be a gradual fall off of the light so the edges of the shadow won’t be as clearly defined.

With flash photography, 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 in the butterfly light position. 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 your subject turns their head slightly sideways, the pattern will shift. If they move further, so that the light is more to the side of the subject, it’ll change to a loop lighting pattern. If they turn their head even further their nose will cast more of a shadow on their cheek and it’ll eventually transform into a Rembrandt lighting pattern if they turn their head far enough.

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 what makes a difference here. It’s their position in relation to the position of the light.

As with the image below, I often photograph my subjects slightly from the side when using a butterfly lighting setup. 

View from the side of butterfly lighting pattern
Lit by direct sunlight as the key light source to camera right in front of the subject. If Katie had turned her head to look at me the light pattern would have changed to Rembrandt lighting..

How the headline image was lit

The answer to my question is that she was lit by natural light. Here’s a pullback shot of the headline photo. Sophie was sitting on the steps to the front door of the building in open shade for soft light. The entrance is recessed by about a meter or two, so the indirect natural light channeled in from behind me at the right angle for a butterfly lighting effect.

Pullback shot to show how a portrait was lit
Photographed in open shade, perfect for creating butterfly lighting with natural light!

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

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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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