I often hear the term 'Butterfly Lighting' used when discussing high-fashion and glamor photography. How do I set up Butterfly Lighting, and when do I use it?

  • So, we've got the five basic, are there standard non-basic setups? – rfusca Jan 11 '11 at 15:48
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    There are... So far people haven't gotten tired of me posting these studio lighting question/answers, so I'll continue posting about additional studio lighting based setups and work into multi-light variations as long as it's useful and/or I run out of stuff to say or until someone tells me it's time for me to stop. :-) – Jay Lance Photography Jan 11 '11 at 18:26
  • Related: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/4775/… – mattdm Apr 27 '11 at 16:30
  • Unless i missed it mentioned somewhere, it may be of useful note that the lower light is roughly about 3 stops lighter than the key/top light (im sure most photographers vary slightly). – user17703 Mar 12 '13 at 4:04
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    Lighter is a bit confusing in context of lights, did you mean brighter or weaker? – Imre Mar 12 '13 at 10:12
up vote 36 down vote accepted

What is Butterfly Lighting?

Butterfly Lighting is one of the 5 basic lighting setups commonly used in studio portrait photography. It is also variously referred to as 'Clamshell Lighting,''Glamor Lighting' 'Beauty Lighting,' or 'Paramount Lighting.' At its most basic, Butterfly consists of a single light pointed directly at the subject straight on, and raised high enough to create a downward shadow on the subject. This causes a little ‘butterfly’ shadow to appear directly underneath the subject’s nose.

One-light Butterfly Lighting setup:

One-light Butterfly Lighting setup diagram One-light Butterfly Lighting setup example

Often the Butterfly Lighting setup is augmented by a reflector or fill ight in front of the subject, underneath and just outside the frame of the shot to bounce some light up into the eyes because a light at such a high camera angle generally causes the eyes to go very dark without it.

One-light + reflector Butterfly Lighting setup:

One-light + reflector Butterfly Lighting setup diagram One-light + reflector Butterfly Lighting setup example

When do I use Butterfly Lighting?

Butterfly lighting is considered the ‘fashion’ or ‘glamor’ lighting setup. Often times this is a flattering look for high-school and college aged girls. It is especially well suited to women with narrow faces and high cheekbones, but because there is very little shadow cast on the face it can add weight to the subject with a rounder face. Additionally, the lack of shadows means that it is unsuitable for subjects who have skin problems, facial scars, facial hair, etc.. Although it is occasionally used as a fashion setup for men, it is so commonly used in women's fashion photography that it has become 'synonymous' with women's glamor lighting. So much so that even people who don't pay much attention to such things may still feel like a portrait of a man with Butterfly Lighting looks 'funny' somehow, even if they can't articulate why. Additionally, the lack of facial shadow that is cast by the light is generally not especially flattering unless the man’s features are somewhat feminine already.

  • What a lovely answer! – AJ Finch Jan 11 '11 at 11:12
  • Trying this tonight...I wonder if high gloss white poster board will work well as a reflector... – rfusca Jan 11 '11 at 15:49
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    White poster board should work just fine! White will give you a nice subtle highlight with no hotspots on the subject. I have a bunch floating around my studio and use it all the time... – Jay Lance Photography Jan 11 '11 at 17:55

@Jay Lance's lighting diagrams are nice, but they're top-down. That's what you want for most lighting diagrams (and hence that's how most software works). However, for butterfly lighting, the key is to position the lights vertically, "on top of" each other... and so a side-shot of the lighting setup is more illustrative.

This page on DIYPhotography has a perfect example of how it's done:

butterfly_lighting_03

Note that in this example two soft boxes (= diffusing umbrellas) are being used instead of a soft box and a reflector—which means two light sources instead of one. The lower light source should be set at lower power than the upper, to mimic the reflector.

As said in the aforementioned DIYPhotography article:

I used two SBs (an SB800 and an SB26) mounted with shoot through umbrellas. […] I set the upper on for 1/8 (and in some shots for 1/8 to “burn” the skin). I set the lower flash to 1/32 to mimic a dimmer light coming from a reflector.

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    DYIPhotography: "yes, I like the example and don't even mind the dirty laundry on the sofa" :-P – Craig Walker Jan 14 '11 at 17:29
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    Excellent example photo, Craig! +1 from me when I have more points to spend in a few hours Thanks for the addition! (assuming it's legal and gets to stay)... – Jay Lance Photography Jan 14 '11 at 17:39

Here is an article on the subject from the digital-photography-school on butterfly lighting. And here is a nice video on the subject as well.

As a note butterfly lighting typically works best with thin faces and is called butterfly lighting because of the shape of the soft shadow under the persons nose is shaped like a butterfly.

I hope they help.

-Cheers

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