Clamshell Lighting: An Amazing Two-Light Setup, Explained

Clamshell Lighting: An Amazing Two-Light Setup, Explained

clamshell lighting: a comprehensive guide

What is clamshell lighting? And exactly how can you master clamshell lighting setups for stunning outcomes?

In this article, I actually explain the ins and outs of this simple – yet incredibly powerful – two-light portrait setup. By the time you’re completed reading, you’ll know how to make clamshell-lit portraits like a professional (no matter your lighting gear).

When you’re ready to become a clamshell portrait master, then let us dive right in, starting with the basics:

What exactly is clamshell lighting?

Clamshell lighting is a basic, two-light configuration: You place both lights facing your subject at a 45-degree angle, a single angled up, one curved down. Note that your key light (i. e., your primary, brighter light) should stage 45 degrees downward, while your fill up light need to point 45 degrees upwards. Your camera should sit between the two lights, facing your subject.

When viewed from the side, the two lights resemble an open clamshell (imagination may be needed! ):

clamshell guide and tips lighting diagram

A clamshell setup provides beautiful, soft light along with faint shadows and glorious catchlights. Clamshell lighting is effective on pretty much everyone; I’d say that it’s flattering for guys and women of all ages, therefore it’s a great setup to get in your back pocket.

Note that clamshell lighting is just like butterfly lighting , except which you add the fill light below the subject (which eliminates any heavy shadows caused by the key light). So if you are already doing a butterfly setup, you can always add in a clamshell look at the end for some change!

clamshell lighting guide and tips

The best way to create a clamshell lighting setup: step-by-step process

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Creating a clamshell lighting setup is simple, make sure you have two working lighting, you’re practically guaranteed to draw it off. Here’s what you do:

Step 1 : Choose your lights and modifiers

Clamshell lighting requires two light sources, and these can be strobes or even continuous, modified or unmodified.

Personally, I’d recommend you use modifiers – these will help make softer the light for a more flattering effect – and getting a pair of similarly sized softboxes is a great starting point. Then, once you’ve mastered clamshell lights setups using the softboxes, you can begin experimenting with other modifiers, for example beauty dishes and remove boxes.

That said, if you don’t have modifiers or you prefer a harder seem, then work with an unmodified light! At the end of the day, it’s your photoshoot, after all.

Step 2: Position your important light

Grab your key light (i. e., your main light source). The goal is to place it in front of your subject plus slightly above; angle it down so it points directly at the subject’s nose.

If you want a much softer effect that features fast lighting falloff, bring the light in close to the subject’s face. If you want a harder effect that lighting the subject more broadly, move the light farther away.

Next, meter for the desired aperture (we’ll work with a hypothetical f/11) and have a test shot.

If everything is set up correctly, you should produce a decently lighted image with deep shadows under your subject’s nose plus chin. (If the image is actually dim, feel free to brighten your light, and if the image is certainly overexposed, do the reverse. )

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Step 3: Add your fill lighting

Now it is time to add in the second gentle; take your fill light and place it directly underneath your own key light, pointed up toward your subject from 45 degrees.

clamshell lighting guide and tips behind the scenes

Adjust the light’s brightness until it rests two stops below the important thing light. (If you wished to shoot at f/11, you could meter your fill light for an f/5. 6 outcome. ) Then take a 2nd test shot.

If the effect is too strong and your fill light is obliterating the shadows, ignore the light power. If the gentle isn’t doing enough, turn it up. The main thing to look out for may be the fill light overpowering the main element light, as that would cause a very unflattering image that is lit from below.

clamshell lighting guide and tips behind the scenes

Step 4: Catch your clamshell image!

At this point, you should have two lights sharing the same up and down space, and the light on the top should be roughly two stops brighter than the light to the bottom.

Stand behind the lights and shoot through the gap. Note: If there isn’t much of a space to work with, raise and/or cheaper both of your lights until you have enough room to capture in the middle. To be safe, you might want to take another meter reading through.

Of course , as soon as you’ve grabbed a shot or even two, check your camera’s FLAT SCREEN for exposure issues as well as other concerns. And if you have the capability, I recommend tethering your camera to your laptop; that way, you can review your images instantly in the big screen.

Plus that’s all there is to it! Clamshell lighting is really simple to do, and with a bit of exercise, you’ll be able to get the two-light setup running in a couple of minutes.

clamshell lighting guide and tips behind the scenes
Check out this clamshell setup, viewed from the side. Remember that there are three softboxes in the image, but only 2 – the ones in front of the model – are active.

Clamshell photography setup: a quick tip

Once you can create a basic clamshell set up without much difficulty, then do not stop – instead, turn to expand your lighting features.

For instance, try moving your lights closer and farther in the model and see how that affects the results.

Then test out various modifiers (I encourage you to experiment liberally, here! ). Have a pair of strip containers you want to use? Go for it. Wish to use a beauty dish as your key light and an umbrella as fill? Sure. How about a snoot as well as a small softbox? Absolutely. Make use of what you have at hand. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to improvise like a professional.

And you’re not limited to using just two lights, either. It is best to keep the basic two-light clamshell setup, but feel free to include rim lights behind your own subject to make them pop off the background. You can also try including a hair light for more depth, and you can certainly have a great time adding background lights (and swapping out backgrounds).

Clamshell lighting examples

Now let’s take a look at some clamshell examples. You can use them as motivation, though don’t limit your self – these are just a handful of the many clamshell setups you can create!

First, we have a nice black and white portrait . Notice the soft shadows on my subject’s cheeks:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Next, we now have a brighter, more upbeat clamshell image with a well-lit background:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Then another black and white having a slightly darker background:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

To pull the following shot off, I additional a third light, pointed toward the background. Note that you can test out different head turns:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Plus a few more clamshell lighting examples for variety’s sake:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Clamshell light: final words

If you’ve made it this significantly, you should understand the power of the basic clamshell lighting setup.

Naturally , you can always take your clamshell setups to the next level with additional lights and modifiers, but even the basics are going to get good results.

So head into your recording studio and try some clamshell lighting out for yourself!

Now over to you:

What subjects do you plan to take using a two-light clamshell setup? Share your thoughts in the remarks below!

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John McIntire

John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He examined commercial photography and is generally looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through plus through, John offers lights workshops and one-to-one expenses to photographers of all ability levels in Yorkshire.

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