The butterfly lighting setup is one of the most basic lighting setups that you can use as a beginner in photography. It’s simple to set up and creates soft, pretty shadows on your subject’s face.

butterfly lighting

What Is butterfly lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a very popular portrait lighting style. The reason it’s called butterfly lighting is because the shadow below your nose looks like a butterfly. A

The setup is pretty simple – you need a light source above your subject at around 45 degrees.

You then place a reflector below the subject’s face to fill in the shadows (otherwise their face will be too dark). It doesn’t need to be anything special – it could be white cardboard or even just some folded paper will work fine.

Butterfly Lighting: Portrait Magic in Film & Photo

Butterfly lighting is a go-to technique for creating flattering portraits with a classic feel.

It’s named for the butterfly-shaped shadow that forms under the subject’s nose, instantly adding depth and dimension to the image.

We’ll jump into how this lighting setup can elevate your photography and film work, ensuring your subjects always look their best.

Understanding butterfly lighting is key for both beginners and seasoned professionals aiming to enhance their visual storytelling.

We’ll explore the ins and outs of this technique, from setup to execution, and show you how to harness its power to transform your creative projects.

What Is Butterfly Lighting?

Butterfly lighting has become a staple for filmmakers and photographers aiming to achieve a classic and flattering look.

The term originates from the distinctive shadow that’s cast under the nose, resembling the shape of a butterfly.

This lighting technique is not only about the shadow it creates but also about the way it sculpts the subject’s features.

It’s particularly renowned for highlighting the cheeks and chin, So defining the facial structure.


To achieve butterfly lighting, we position a single light source directly in front of and above the subject’s face.

This setup ensures that the light hits the face at an angle that generates the titular shadow.

Key components of butterfly lighting include:

  • A primary light source – usually a strobe or a continuous light placed above and slightly behind the camera.
  • A reflector or a fill light – often employed to soften the shadows, especially under the chin and eyes.

The exact positioning and intensity of the light can be fine-tuned to suit different subjects and artistic visions.

It’s the simplicity and versatility of butterfly lighting that make it a go-to choice for many visual storytelling projects.

Understanding the subtleties of this lighting setup can dramatically affect the mood and professional feel of the scene we’re capturing.

Whether we’re aiming for high drama or a subtle nuance, mastering butterfly lighting is pivotal.

Practitioners often supplement butterfly lighting with additional lights to create more complex setups.

But, the essence of the technique lies in the single light source and its effect on the subject’s face.

In both film and photography, utilizing butterfly lighting requires a grasp of how light shapes and communicates character.

It’s a technique that has stood the test of time, continually proving its worth in the realm of visual arts.

The Butterfly Lighting Setup

Creating the perfect butterfly lighting setup is essential for capturing that classically dramatic look.

We position our primary source of light – usually a spotlight or a strobe – directly in front of and slightly above the subject’s head.

The goal is to cast a shadow right below the nose, mimicking a butterfly’s wings.


That’s where the magic happens, sculpting the face and enhancing the subject’s features with just a touch of shadow.

To ensure the light flatters our subject, we incorporate a few critical elements:

  • Primary Light Source: This is crucial as it provides the characteristic shadow under the nose.
  • Reflector or Fill Light: We use this to soften shadows, particularly under the chin, maintaining texture and depth without harsh contrasts.

In cinematic contexts, our approach to butterfly lighting might require adjustments.

We’re not just considering a single frame but an entire sequence.

The continuity is key.

Our setup must be versatile, allowing movement while preserving the signature effect of the butterfly setup.

Films like The Godfather showcase butterfly lighting’s potential to convey power and intensity in a scene.

By balancing the intensity and position of our lights, we craft the desired mood.

Whether it’s a feeling of romance or tension, butterfly lighting offers that desired control.

The setup isn’t just about the lighting equipment.


It also includes the camera angles and the subject’s position.

A slight tilt of the head can change the entire dynamic of the butterfly effect.

Fine-tuning these elements requires practice and an eye for detail.

But it’s well worth the effort for that high-impact result that butterfly lighting is famous for.

Adjust your lighting to match the narrative.

The story dictates the emotion, and our lighting must follow suit.

Why Use Butterfly Lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a go-to technique for filmmakers who aim to achieve that elusive, classic look in character close-ups.

It’s particularly stunning when you need to bring out an actor’s best features, creating a glamorous image reminiscent of Old Hollywood.

In the high stakes of visual storytelling, butterfly lighting offers a controlled method to sculpt the subject’s face with precision.

It’s the interplay of light and shadow that defines their facial structure, enhancing their natural beauty or adding a dramatic edge.

The uses of butterfly lighting extend beyond aesthetics; it’s also about the feel it imbues on the scene.

Here’s what makes it a powerful tool in our arsenal – – It communicates emotions subtly, with the shadows hinting at hidden depths or the highlights suggesting an ethereal quality.

  • It helps focus the viewer’s attention squarely on the subject, making it ideal for key moments in a character’s journey where their emotions take center stage.

also, butterfly lighting is surprisingly versatile Even though its seemingly simple setup.

Adjustments in the intensity or angle of the primary light source can transform the mood from joyous to somber with just a few tweaks.

Our experience has taught us that mastering butterfly lighting is quintessential not only for the human element of our stories but also for the aesthetic value it brings to every frame.

By combining technical skill with our creative vision, we evoke powerful reactions that linger with audiences long after they’ve left the theater.

Tips For Achieving Great Butterfly Lighting

Mastering the butterfly lighting technique requires attention to detail and a willingness to experiment.

To ensure that the striking look of butterfly lighting enhances your next film project, let’s focus on several key factors.

Placement is crucial.

The main light should be centered and just above the subject’s eye level to create the desired shadow effect.

To prevent harsh shadows and to bring detail into the subject’s eyes, it’s best to angle the light downwards at about 45 degrees.

Modify the intensity of your primary light source to suit the mood of the scene.

A softer light can evoke a sense of intimacy; while a stronger, more direct light might emphasize tension or power within a character.

Consider the subject’s unique features.

Butterfly lighting isn’t one-size-fits-all; adjusting the distance and angle of your light can complement different face shapes and skin tones.

Reflectors are your friends.

They can be positioned strategically to fill in shadows and provide a more even light distribution.

The type and position of your reflector will greatly affect the overall look:

  • Silver reflectors will add a crisp, bright quality to the fill,
  • White reflectors provide a softer, more natural fill,
  • Positioning closer to the subject will increase reflectivity and vice versa.

Remember to monitor your on-camera monitor or digital playback for real-time feedback.

It’ll give you the opportunity to tweak your lighting setup on the spot rather than discovering issues in post-production.

Regular practice with various subjects and environments will refine your skills.

Each film set poses unique challenges and learning how to adapt your butterfly lighting setup will enhance your ability to tell visual stories effectively.

Examples Of Butterfly Lighting In Film And Photography

When we look at the iconic portraits of Hollywood legends, we often see the classic butterfly lighting at play.

In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman’s radiant beauty is accentuated by this technique, showing how it’s timeless and evocative even in black and white cinematography.

Modern filmmakers still rely on this impactful lighting setup to convey grace and elegance on screen.

For instance, the soft glow on Gal Gadot’s face in Wonder Woman demonstrates butterfly lighting’s ability to sculpt a heroic yet feminine visage.

Several key aspects make butterfly lighting a sought-after choice:

  • It’s exceptional for highlighting the subject’s symmetrical features.
  • It creates a subtle drama and adds depth to the character’s portrayal.

Understanding where butterfly lighting can be observed helps us grasp its versatility.

It’s not confined to classic films; even contemporary photography utilizes this approach to craft striking images.

Take a look at the portfolio of Annie Leibovitz, and you’ll see butterfly lighting’s influence.

Her photographs of celebrities often feature the tell-tale shadow under the nose, which enhances the subject’s facial structure.

also, in interviews with luminaries, this lighting style is frequently adopted to enhance the subject’s authority and presence.

It hovers in the background of many a documentary, adding a layer of sophistication to the discourse.

The next time you’re watching a heartfelt monologue in a film or sifting through a high-fashion magazine, pay close attention to the lighting.

Chances are, you’ll see butterfly lighting shaping the narrative without uttering a single word.

Butterfly Lighting In Film And Photography – Wrap Up

We’ve explored the nuances of butterfly lighting and its impact on both film and photography.

This technique’s ability to sculpt features and create a professional aesthetic is unparalleled.

As we’ve seen, it’s a favorite among the greats, from classic Hollywood to contemporary icons like Annie Leibovitz.

We encourage you to notice the subtle yet powerful role butterfly lighting plays in storytelling.

It’s not just about the shadow under the nose; it’s about the narrative that light can tell without a single word.

So grab your camera, set up your lights, and let’s create something timeless.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Butterfly Lighting?

Butterfly lighting is a portrait lighting technique where the main light source is positioned in front of and above the subject’s face, casting a shadow under the nose resembling butterfly wings, and highlighting facial features such as cheeks and chin.

Where Should The Primary Light Source Be Placed For Butterfly Lighting?

The primary light source for butterfly lighting should be placed directly in front of the subject’s face and slightly above eye level to create the characteristic shadow under the nose.

What Additional Equipment Is Commonly Used With Butterfly Lighting?

A reflector or fill light is commonly used alongside the primary light source in butterfly lighting to soften shadows and balance the light on the subject’s face.

Why Is Butterfly Lighting Popular In Portrait Photography And Film?

Butterfly lighting is popular because it sculpts the subject’s facial features, providing a classic and flattering look that conveys grace and elegance, often used to create a professional feel in visual storytelling.

Can Butterfly Lighting Be Used To Convey Different Moods In Photography?

Yes, by adjusting the intensity and positioning of the light, butterfly lighting can be used to capture a range of moods from graceful and elegant to dramatic and intense in both photography and film.

Who Is Known For Incorporating Butterfly Lighting In Their Work?

Iconic Hollywood portraits and contemporary photographers like Annie Leibovitz are known for incorporating butterfly lighting, using it to enhance the subject’s facial structure and create a sense of authority.

Why Should Readers Pay Attention To Butterfly Lighting In Visual Media?

Butterfly lighting contributes significantly to the narrative in visual media by shaping how characters and subjects are perceived, often setting the tone and mood without the use of words.