When to Use Butterfly Lighting in Portrait Photography

In previous articles, we’ve discussed photo lighting patterns where we place the light source to the side of the subject–split lighting, loop lighting and Rembrandt lighting–and create shadows that go off to the side. Continuing with our series of portrait photography lighting patterns, today’s photo tip discusses butterfly lighting.

"Tammy" captured by Tracy DePaola. (Click image to see more from Tracy DePaola.)

“Tammy” captured by Tracy DePaola

Keep in mind that shadows create 3D depth and form in our photos. These lighting patterns are good ones to make subjects come to life and “pop.”

But, the downside of shadows showing form is that they sometimes show things we may not want showing. For example, what if we’re taking a portrait of an elderly lady? I’m not talking about some moody character study; I’m talking about a nice photo of Grandma.

Everyone over a certain age wants to look younger. As an old dude myself, I can tell you that my outward appearance has absolutely no relationship with the way I feel inside and the way I wish I looked. In other words, I’m a 23-year-old trapped in a 63-year-old body.

But what makes us look older?

It’s sagging skin and wrinkles that visually age us. The older we get the more–and deeper–wrinkles we get. If we could tone down the wrinkles, we would appear much younger.

Since it’s the shadows that show form, it’s the shadows that visually create wrinkles. The darker the shadow, the deeper the wrinkle–and vice versa. So, to visually eliminate or tone down wrinkles, all we need to do is lighten the shadows that visually created them. Obviously, the way to do that is by shining a light into the wrinkles. To do that means we have to have the light coming from straight in front of the subject at the camera angle.

A ring flash (a ring light is an on-camera flash that completely circles the lens) can work. In fact, we most often see ring lights used in modeling shots where absolutely flawless skin is necessary. This is the ideal light for removing any sort of blemish or wrinkle, but it’s a very flat light and isn’t ideal for portrait photography. It leaves an odd-looking, unappealing catch light in the eyes, too.

Slightly better is the on-camera flash that is normally attached to the top of the camera. But that still produces flat light–and with both ring and regular on-camera flashes, we have problems with red-eye.

So, we take the light off the camera and raise it up. With the light above our head, we will actually be shooting from under the light. This creates the butterfly lighting pattern because it casts a small butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose. It can be tiny and almost unnoticeable or slightly larger depending on how high you position the light. But, it’s enough to add some depth and life to the photo.

The butterfly lighting pattern fills in and lightens a lot of the shadows in the wrinkles–but not so much that it looks phony– and it creates a shadowed area under the chin, too.

True, this can be done in Photoshop–if you want to spend hour after hour retouching. Or you could spend five minutes setting up a butterfly lighting pattern. Your choice!

Grab your favorite model and a flash, and experiment with this photo tip. Learn how to create a butterfly lighting pattern in your portrait photography. Your older subjects will thank you.

About the Author
Dan Eitreim writes forĀ ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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One response to “When to Use Butterfly Lighting in Portrait Photography”

  1. I see so many articles extolling the beauty of ring flash images and I’ve never seen one that I thought looked beautiful. They always looked flat and if they’re against a wall, there’s the ugly shadow behind them. I’m glad someone else sees the flatness. I also love butterfly lighting for older folks (such as myself). Thanks for the article.

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