Butterfly Lighting; Building the shot with the FlexFlash 200W

Final Set Up Copr Brian Hummel 2016 590 785


In my approach to shooting portraits, I almost always begin with the classic Hollywood-style butterfly lighting set-up. The reason for this is to determine how well the model can follow directions, and to establish a routine of not holding a pose for longer than three seconds. By utilizing butterfly lighting as a starting point, I do not intimidate the subject with an array of lights, backdrops, c-stands, and other items. A new model walking into a session needs time to adjust to a new photographer and to build a comfort level. This is the critical first step. A comfortable subject will make the session go much smoother and result in better photographs.

Butterfly lighting itself uses only one or two lights. In my own work, I prefer to use just one light in an outdoor setting. When I do shoot indoors I need to separate my subject from the background, so a second light is added. In addition to the second light, I will often add a reflector sometimes held by the subject, to fill in some areas under the chin. More on that later.

Step 1 Before call time (scheduled start of the photo session), you should be completely set up with stingers (extension cords) taped down to avoid creating trip hazards. Being organized and ready will build confidence with your model. Know the aperture you are going to shoot with, the ISO and the shutter speed, and set your camera ahead of time (ideally in flash work, we should shoot at ISO100, as this is where your flash’s guide number is calibrated). The less time spent changing settings, the more at ease your subject will be. In a number of my sessions, I may work with up to three or four lights. These will be set up ahead of time and put to the side, ready to go into service. I often use two long folding tables as well, holding an array of cords, soft boxes, umbrella gaffers tape, and anything else I may need. This makes me look organized, rather than crouching down sorting through bags and cases.

For this shoot, I begin with the FlexFlash 200W, paired with a 7” reflector placed directly in front of and above my model. Butterfly lighting is dependent on creating a strong shadow under the nose (mimicking the shape of butterfly wings). Shooting through an umbrella or soft box will give you the shadow, just not as strong, but this is not my shooting preference. Everyone needs to develop their own style or signature; mine is a higher contrast on shadows.

Because I am using only one light and a featureless background, my aperture selection is different than shooting outdoors with a busy background. In order to minimize distractions within the image, large apertures (f4 and larger) create a much shallower depth of field to separate the subject from background elements. Working with a background of a single color removes it from competition with the subject and allows me to use a smaller aperture. My reason for staging the shoot in this way is to allow the model greater freedom in posing. The smaller aperture provides me with increased depth of field. This is very important for the subject. Katelyn, my model for this session, will change her pose every three seconds, or each time the flash is fired, unless I tell her otherwise. The deeper depth of field brought on by f8 and smaller apertures allows her to shift weight from her front to back foot, changing her distance from the camera. Using a shallow depth of field from an aperture of f4 and larger would have a greater likelihood of yielding an out-of-focus shot when the model shifts her pose.

When setting up my lights I also pay attention to the model’s clothing and hair, as this session will be captured in color.. Katelyn has dark hair and is wearing a light green shirt. I first think of how these colors will contrast or stand out from the background selected. On the menu of my Nikon camera I select the picture control option and then the portrait setting in order to soften her skin tones under the harsh and high-contrast light I have set up.

Step 2 I begin with Katelyn standing. I have worked with her before and she knows what to expect and how I work, creating a smooth flow in the session. However, any time I am working with a new or inexperienced model (one who has limited experience with me and my style of shooting), I start with a seated position. The “crouched” aspect of being seated adds to a feeling of being protected. Starting in any other position, I have found, can make your model feel more exposed and vulnerable. Gradually working into a standing position will put the subject at ease.

Step 3 I knew my model Katelyn is 5’-0” and was able to set up my light stand ahead of time to be about +/- 3’ above her eye level when standing. The light stand is positioned directly in front of her. At this point, I turn on the modeling lamp. The FlexFlash 200W has a modeling light, allowing you to see how light will fall on your subject, revealing the shadows and highlights. This is where you begin to fine tune your light’s position.

Everyone has different facial features. Paying attention to those and how the light reacts with them helps you get better images. Katelyn looked straight at me through the light, and I adjusted it to accommodate her specific features in order to achieve the effects I wanted: strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the upper cheeks, and the distinct shadow below the nose. Katelyn has a slightly shorter nose, so this dictated moving the light a bit closer to create the butterfly shadow. The modeling light also allows me to adjust the intensity of the light to equal the intensity of the flash.

In the image above, I asked Katelyn to pull back her hair to display the shadows falling across her facial features more clearly. Notice the shadow under her nose, shaped like a butterfly flying towards you. Look for this shadow first when setting your lighting. Do not let it touch the top of the upper lip. Once you have created this shadow, look at the other shadows around her cheeks, eyebrows and so forth. These add depth to an otherwise one-dimensional image.

Step 4 The only thing left is determining the distance the flash should be from the model. It is important to remember that the flash is controlled by the aperture (f). Shutter speed or sync speed controls whether or not the shutter is fully open at the time the flash fires. Referring to the flash exposure circle helps us determine the distance for setting the flash.

I had previously determined that the guide number for the FlexFlash 200W is 100 (see LiteBlog Post https://photoflex.com/liteblog/george-wilson-determining-the-guide-number-for-flexflash200w).

My shooting preference for aperture is f16 and I will use a shutter speed of 160, which is below my camera’s sync speed of 1/250. Again, shutter speed only ensures the shutter is fully open when the flash is fired.

Using the exposure circle above, I can quickly see the equation I need is distance = guide number/ f . Doing the math (FlexFlash 200W guide number is 100/ Desired Aperture f16 = distance), I know that at full power the flash needs to be 6’3” (100/16 = 6.25’) away from Katelyn at full power. This works out well for shooting against a background. F16 yields a deep depth of field, but the featureless black background does not create a visual distraction for the image. I move the flash to 6’3” from Katelyn and directly in front of her, as my diagram shows.

Step 5 The first shot with a single FlexFlash 200W (below) shows the desired shadow under Katelyn’s nose, but highlights a couple of areas that need some additional fill light. The dark color of her hair blends into the background too much at the top of the image. The high frontal light creates a shadow under her chin as well.

This dictates that my first correction is a hair light. I tend to work from weaker to stronger intensity levels. The first shot is done with only the key light. I then select the light source of the next strongest intensity, in this case a hair light. I mount a Nikon SB600 on a light stand with a boom arm to position the flash out of the frame and above Katelyn.

Positioning the Nikon SB600 slightly behind Katelyn created the background separation I was looking for. It also provided a spill of light on the top of her head and shoulders. Minimizing the influence of light to the front side of the model keeps the exposure calculation for f16 constant – no changes to settings needed. The Nikon SB600 has a calculated guide number of 80 – less than the FlexFlash 200W acting as the key light. The difference is minimal, so I reduce the power setting on the SB600 to ¼. Normally I would begin at a ½ power setting, but the flash was close to Katelyn so a reduction in power to ¼ seems appropriate.

Step 6 I take a second test shot and evaluate.

The second image maintains the butterfly shadow under Katelyn’s nose with the hair light creating the desired background separation. The shadow under her chin remains and additional highlights are visible on her face and arms due to the light source above her head.

My next task is to remove the highlights and open the shadows. Working downward in intensity, I place a Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1 Reflector with the gold side reflecting on a chair in front of Katelyn. My choice to use the gold side of the reflector was determined by testing reflectivity before Katelyn got to the session. White did not supply enough light and silver was too harsh.

Using the modeling light of the FlexFlash 200W, I adjust the angle of the reflector to fill in the area under her chin that would have been darkened by shadow. Reflectors do not have a power setting like a flash or constant light. The intensity of reflected light is increased or decreased by distance. I simply adjust the distance between Katelyn and the reflector to create the intensity of reflected fill I want.

Step 7 I take a third test shot and evaluate.

In the third shot I can see the butterfly effect still under Katelyn’s nose, and the hair light is separating her from the background while highlighting the auburn color in her hair. The Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1 Reflector has filled in the shadows and evened out the highlights in her face and on her arms.

In each shot of Katelyn, I have turned her shoulders towards the camera. This has a slight slimming effect, but in the image I have her facing me still. The butterfly shadow is below her nose, as it should be.

The key element to my style of shooting is to keep the model, in this case Katelyn, moving. Holding a pose for no longer than three seconds or changing each time the flash fires involves them in the shooting process and makes them a collaborative partner in the session. Explaining the type of lighting I am using and the importance of a specific shadow or light pattern will help your model be successful in helping you create great images.

Written and photographed by George Wilson.

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