Techniques by Bruce MacGregor Photography:  The Butterfly Effect

Techniques by Bruce MacGregor Photography: The Butterfly Effect

A recent corporate shoot at KeyBank in downtown Portland gave me the opportunity to integrate corporate portraits with a classic lighting style.   Emerging from Hollywood’s golden era of the 1930’s,  Butterfly lighting dramatized Hollywood stars in black and white publicity stills.  Silent film star Marlene Dietrich is often given credit for branding herself- and the lighting style that would soon be called Butterfly lighting- during her contract with Paramount Pictures.

The effect is simple to create.  When a single studio light shines on a face from high above, the shadow cast just underneath the nose evokes a butterfly with its wings spread, giving the lighting style its name.  

Styles – including lighting styles- come and go, but Butterfly lighting endured because of its ability to sculpt the human face.  It’s signature element is a single light positioned close to and high above the face, dramatically highlighting cheek bones and the contours of eye sockets and mouth.  In Marlene Dietrich’s case, the lighting technique was applied to both publicity stills and to cinemagraphic effects in her movies, helping to define her persona as an actress.

In its original, 1930’s form, butterfly lighting provoked the image of a moody, sultry femme fatal-  an image Dietrich cultivated in films like Shanghai Express (1932).

Long outlasting its early association with female super stars, butterfly lighting brings some unique advantages to modern portrait lighting.   It’s sculpting effect on the human face is as slimming and flattering to men as well as women, emphasizing cheek bones and expressions.   Elevated lighting will darken the neck area, hiding wrinkles and double chins.   Because the sharply angled light can be blocked by eyebrows, the eyes themselves will sometimes go unintentionally dark, a downside that can be fixed by adding a reflector below the face to kick some of the downward light back up into the eyes.  Modern versions of butterfly lighting often seek to soften the drama and mystery the effect was first designed to create, while still emphasizing strong facial features and expressions.

This balanced version of butterfly lighting was the magic blend behind the executive portraits taken at KeyBank this past week.   Lighting assistant Kerri Garfield and I set up our own version of the classic lighting, including a secondary reflector and a giant four foot umbrella towering  high above the work space…. shown in the last photograph, below.

The balance between direct and reflected light moderated the cliché “Hollywood 1930s” look, instead emphasizing the strength and character of each person we photographed.  Itzel (above), Jacob, Steven and Rachel, below,  provided lovely examples of how butterfly lighting works in current business settings.

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