How to shoot overhead butterfly beauty lighting in a confined space

Jan 8, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to shoot overhead butterfly beauty lighting in a confined space

Jan 8, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Butterfly lighting is a common technique in beauty and portrait photography. It’s so-called because of the butterfly-shaped shadow it creates underneath the subject’s nose. Typically, a softbox or beauty dish is used on-axis above the model, just low enough to light up the eyes and produce a catchlight, but high enough that it creates a lot of shadow and depth on the nose, cheekbones and to define the jawline.

In a confined space, though, this can be a difficult setup to replicate. In this video from The Photographer Academy, Elinchrom ambassador Simon Burfoot walks us through a slightly unconventional way to be able to shoot this look.

What makes it unconventional is that instead of having the subject seated or standing, the subject is lying down on the floor, with the camera positioned directly overhead, and the light is shifted to compensate for the subject and camera movement. Essentially, the entire setup has been rotated 90 degrees.

Simon does have plenty of space in the studio, so he uses a ladder to get over the top of his subject and shoot straight down. And, well, if you’ve got the room for a ladder to be able to shoot straight down on your subject, then you’ve probably got the space to setup butterfly lighting in the usual way. But that’s not the only way you can get a camera over the top of your subject.

There are plenty of tripods out there, like the Manfrotto Befree GT XPro above, that will allow you to extend the centre column horizontally over the top of your subject and then you can remotely control the camera either USB tethered to a laptop or over WiFi to your smartphone. This allows you to get the camera all the way up to the ceiling without requiring the extra space for you to actually be looking through the viewfinder.

Of course, it’s not a complete replacement for the regular butterfly lighting method. After all, you still have to deal with gravity. In a traditional setup with a seated or standing subject, things (like hair) will fall down towards the bottom of the camera’s frame. In this sort of a setup, it will fall away from the camera until it hits the floor.

But this sort of thinking, rotating the entire setup to make the light work at different angles, can lead to some cool creative options beyond just taking inspiration from the American Beauty movie poster.

A cool twist on a popular technique.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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