When it comes to lighting, there is an infinite choice on how you can light your portrait subjects. That’s great and it’s addicting, but when you are starting out it can also be overwhelming. To counter the inevitable information overload that you will get researching lighting, it is a good idea to know a few basic setups that you can fall back on should you be pressed for time or should you need a backup. This article will introduce you to a basic two light setup often called clamshell lighting.
It will provide you with a beautiful soft light with faint shadows and glorious catchlights. Clamshell lighting works very well and it is very flattering for men and women of all ages and it could be a very useful technique in your toolkit.
What is clamshell lighting?
In a nutshell, clamshell lighting is a configuration where two lights are placed facing toward your subject at a 45-degree angle. Your key light is facing downwards at a 45-degree angle and your fill light is a facing upwards at a 45-degree angle. The resulting appearance of your lights from the side somewhat resembles an open clamshell (imagination may be required).
If you start with your main light on axis (directly in front of your subject), raised up and pointed downward, you have a basic butterfly lighting set-up. Adding the second light from below serves as fill and eliminates any heavy shadows caused by the key light. This combination results in soft, flattering light that works well with almost any subject.
What you need
To create a clamshell lighting setup, you need two light sources. If you have modifiers to soften your light, all the better, but as long as you have two light sources you can get started with clamshell lighting.
I do recommend starting with a pair of softboxes roughly the same size. Once you’ve mastered that, you can then start experimenting with other modifiers such as beauty dishes and strip boxes.
Setting it up
Start with your key light (your main light source) and place it in front of your subject. Go closer for softer light and faster light fall off, or further away for a harder light. Place it above your subject, pointed directly at their nose. Meter for your desired aperture (we’ll use a hypothetical f/11 from this point) and take a test shot.
If everything is setup correctly you should have a decently lit image with deep shadows under your subject’s nose and chin.
Now, take your fill light and place it directly underneath your key light. Point it upwards toward your subject at 45-degrees and meter this light for two stops below your preferred aperture, which would result in f/5.6 for our hypothetical aperture of f/11. If the effect is too strong and your fill light is obliterating the shadows, turn the power down. If it isn’t doing enough, turn it up. The main thing to look out for is that you need to ensure that your fill light is not overpowering your key light. This would result in your image being lit from below with your shadows being filled in from above. This is not a good look to go for.
What to watch out for
The main thing to look out for is that you need to ensure that your fill light is not overpowering your key light. This would result in your image being lit from below with your shadows being filled in from above. This is not a good look.
Now that you have two lights sharing the same vertical space, stand behind them and shoot through the gap. If there isn’t much of a gap, raise and/or lower both of your lights (change the angle of each and take another meter reading if you need to) until you have enough room to work in the middle.
That’s all there is to it. Clamshell lighting is really is easy to set up and with a bit of practice you will be able to get it up and running in a couple of minutes.
Although I suggested using two evenly sized softboxes, to begin with, that is by no means a restriction of any kind. Feel free to use any kind of modifier you want and experiment liberally. Have a pair of strip boxes you want to use? Go for it. Do you want to use a beauty dish as your key light and an umbrella as fill? Sure. How about a snoot and a small soft box? Absolutely. Use what you have at hand.>
Also, you are not limited to just using two lights from the front. Feel free to add rim and hair lights and a background light as your images require.
If you’ve made it this far, hopefully, you can see how useful a basic clamshell lighting setup is, and how it might serve you. It’s easy, fairly compact and produces lovely, flattering light. If you’re still not sure, I urge you to try it for yourself. You may very well fall in love with it.