Butterfly Lighting Outdoors

Photoflex Butterfly Lighting Image 3 And 4 590 475


Great portraits start with simple lighting. In this lesson, George Wilson uses a single FlexFlash 200W to create simple and flattering head shots.

In my portrait approach, I almost always begin with the classic Hollywood style lighting techniques. The reason for this is to establish how well the subject can follow directions and work into 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. This is the critical first step. A comfortable subject will make the session go much smoother and result in better photographs. In a session that could last an entire day, I involve multiple assistants and so forth, starting simple and building the subject’s confidence should be the first step.

Butterfly lighting has its roots in Hollywood’s classic days of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It was a favorite of Hollywood portrait photographer George Hurrell. Hurrell’s extensive use of this high contrast style under constant lights gave it the nickname of “Paramount lighting” after Hurrell’s employer; Paramount Studios.

Butterfly lighting itself uses only one or two lights. In my own work, I prefer to use just one light, but in the event I need to separate my subject from the background, a second light can be used. In addition to the one light, I will often add a reflector, typically held by the subject to fill in some areas under the chin, but 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 them being a trip hazard. 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. Idealy with strobe 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 model 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 set to the side ready to go when needed. I will usually also have two long folding tables holding an array of cords, soft boxes, umbrellas gaffer 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 began with the Photoflex FlexFlash 200W on a Medium LiteStand shooting through an RUD White Umbrella, placed directly in front of and above my model, Katelyn. In a typical butterfly lighting scenario I am indoors with a dark or black background. I would not be using a shoot through umbrella, but rather just a 7” reflector. This would create a stronger light and greater contrast. For this session, being outdoors with ambient light and a much brighter background, I chose to soften the light and help the relaxed feel of the intended images.

Using only one light and not having a featureless background, my aperture selection was f3.5. I will sometimes shoot at f2.8, but often I have needed just a bit more depth of field in portrait work so stopping down just a touch gives me the little bit extra I need. To help with defocusing the background I placed the posing stool about 8 feet from the background. I wanted some features to be present, but overall I wanted the background out of focus. I wanted the viewer to focus on Katelyn and not be confused with background elements.

When setting up my lights I also pay attention to the model’s clothing and hair color. My model for this session, Katelyn, has dark hair and was wearing a light green shirt. I photographed this session in monochrome which is my favorite method of shooting. My choice of using both an orange and a green/yellow contrast filter during the session, lightened the shirt color slightly and smoothed Katelyn’s skin as well.

In some cases, if my subject’s hair and clothing were similar to the background, I would add a hair light. Typically this is a remotely fired flash mounted above and behind your subject.

Step 2
Begin with your model seated. I had worked with Katelyn, as a model, only once before this session. Any time I am working with a new or non-experienced model, (I generally mean a model 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 the feel of protection. Starting in any other position, I have found, can make your model feel more exposed and vulnerable. Gradually working into a standing position puts them at ease.

Step 3
I knew my model Katelyn was 5’0” tall and set my light stand ahead of time to be about 3’ above her eye level when seated. The light stand was positioned directly in front of her, where she was seated on the posing stool. At this point I turned on the modeling lamp. The FlexFlash 200W has a modeling light that allows you to see how the light will fall on your subject and effect the shadows and the highlights. This is where you begin to fine tune your light’s position. In the case of butterfly lighting, Katelyn looked straight forward at me. Everyone has different facial features. Paying attention to those and how the light reacts with them helps you get better images. Butterfly lighting is based on a shadow created by the nose. This lighting may be recognized by the strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the upper cheeks, and by the distinct shadow below the nose that often looks rather like a butterfly and thus, provides the name for this lighting technique.

Katelyn has a slightly shorter nose, so that dictated that the light be moved a bit higher to create that shadow. The modeling light also allows me to adjust the intensity of the light to equal the intensity of the flash.

Step 4
The only thing left is to determine the distance the flash should be from the model. It is important to remember that flash is controlled by 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.

My shooting preference for aperture is f3.5 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 f3.5 = distance), I know that at full power the flash needs to be 28’6” (100/3.5 = 28.57) away from Katelyn at full power. The distance was not feasible due to where I was working as well as a flash that far away will light the surround areas as well. In my images of Katelyn, I was photographing her and not the area around her. I needed to position the light closer to her to minimize light spill onto the unimportant areas around her.

Each time we divide the distance in half, the flash output power is able to be decreased by the same amount – one half. My initial calculation showed that at full power the distance is 28’6” at 14’3” I would use ½ power, at 7’ 1 ½” I would use ¼ power and at 3’6” I would use 1/8 power. I moved the flash to 3’6” from Katelyn and directly in front of her.

Step 5
I handed Katelyn a Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1 Reflector with the gold side reflecting light. My choice of the gold side of the reflector was decided 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 and under my direction, she adjusted the angle of the reflector to fill in the area under her chin that would have been darkened by shadow. I kept the modeling light on for one last check and adjusted for the butterfly shadow under the nose.

Step 6
It is important here to evaluate the shadow as you go through the sequence of shots you have decided on. With butterfly lighting, as you change shoulder angle and body positions, your model should always be looking into the light to keep the shadow under the nose correct.

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

In images 3 and 4, I have again turned her back towards me, but I have asked her to tilt her head slightly to add a more comfortable look to the image. In image 4, the only change I have made is asking Katelyn to put the palms of her hands on each elbow. This creates a slight curve to the shoulders creating a slightly more comfortable feel to the image.

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 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 also helps your model be successful in helping you create great images.

Written and photographed by George Wilson.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,


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