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clamshell-lighting-for-high-key-portrait Tips & Tricks

Use Clamshell Lighting To Create Beautiful, Flattering Light

By Max Bridge on November 19th 2015

One of our biggest tasks as portrait photographers is to make our subjects look flattering. There is a long list of factors we need to consider, from posing to our camera settings. High up on that list should be lighting. The way we light our subjects, or the way we modify existing light, has a drastic impact on the final image.

There are a thousand (or near enough) different ways to create flattering light. When you also factor in the never-ending variations of facial structure, it can quickly become a very difficult task to know what lighting to choose.


Clamshell Lighting: My Favorite Portrait Lighting Setup

When recently tasked to take some corporate headshots, I knew exactly what lighting setup I would use. How I was going to transport all of the necessary equipment on the London tube was another matter; one which I shall be covering in a later article.

Given that I rarely have an opportunity to use clamshell lighting, I decided to do a few tests before the shoot. It didn’t take long for me to be reminded of why clamshell lighting is one of my favourite configurations. The photo you see above was the final test shot I took using this technique.

The beauty of clamshell lighting is in its simplicity. It is so easy to accomplish. Honestly, anyone can do it. Here’s a short list of the bare minimum you will need in terms of kit.

Of course, there are lots of other things you will need; triggers, light stands, etc. But those are a given and the above items are the main things required. In a followup article, I will show you exactly what equipment I used to create a high key, clamshell lighting setup which I was able to take on the tube.

Having acquired the necessary items, we need to get on to light placement, the key to any successful lighting setup. For clamshell, you will need one light source placed above your subject angled at 45 degrees (I like the bottom edge to be just above their eye line). Mirroring this placement, you then put your reflector underneath. The gap that is created in the middle is where you place your camera. Refer to the diagram below to get a better idea.


I find it works best to have your lights as close to your subject as possible, just outside of whatever your frame may be. This will, of course, depend on what look you are going for, but it’s what I am drawn toward.

Why Is Clamshell Lighting So Good?

Due to the positioning of the lights and the distance to subject, we’re able to create a very flattering light which can enhance facial structure. Soft shadows are created under the cheekbones, and a slightly deeper shadow appears under the chin, extenuating the jaw line. The second light source, be that a reflector underneath or another modified light source, will allow you to control the intensity of those shadows.

The real beauty of this is that it will work and be flattering for pretty much anyone. With minor tweaking of the light positions, it will even work for people wearing glasses, avoiding any nasty reflections.

For those that don’t know, any glossy surface will reflect light. Due to this, glasses can be a little tricky. Position your lights in the wrong place and suddenly you’re seeing them reflected in the glasses. Because the angle of your light sources are so extreme with Clamshell lighting, we’re able to ensure that any reflection is not seen in the camera. I found that by simply adjusting the angle of the bottom source of light, we can eliminate any reflection. Refer to the diagram below.


Clamshell Lighting: Surprisingly Versatile

One of the things I love about clamshell lighting is its versatility. Photographers use this kind of lighting setup for many types of photography. Using the simple method I mentioned above (using just a modifier and reflector), you can produce some very different results.

With the modifier placed at a 45-degree angle and a silver reflector, we are filling more of those shadows in, thus creating a more flat light. Switch that up and use a white reflector and the shadows become more pronounced. Take a look at a couple of photos I took while testing this out.


If you compare these two photos, you should be able to see a big difference in the intensity of the shadows. The top photo is using a white reflector, and as such, the shadows are much deeper. Compare that to the photo below, using a silver reflector, and we can clearly see the difference.


In the next two photos, I adjusted the angle of the lights to roughly 20 degrees. This position made a tunnel of light; very even and very flattering.


This “tunnel of light” has cut down the light spill; notice how dark the background became. It also appears to have focused the light more toward the center; the cheeks fall more into shadow. There are so many possible outcomes with this arrangement. Imagine if you were to change that reflector for a second softbox. You could then have ultimate control over those shadows!



Summary and Sneak Peek At Next Week’s Article

Clamshell lighting is a wonderfully simple, versatile, and beautiful lighting setup. When I first discovered it and tried it out for myself, it was one of those moments where you’re suddenly smiling. Almost like when you took that first photo you were proud of. If you’ve not tried it before, I encourage you to give it a go. You won’t regret it.

As I’ve mentioned, my next article will revolve around how I put together a portable lighting rig that allowed me to produce high-key corporate headshots. If you haven’t already got all the kit you need for clamshell lighting, then maybe hold off on your purchases until next week. I’ll show you exactly how I did it and let you know all the pieces of kit you’ll need to create photos like the one below.


It’s impossible for me to condense all this information into a short, easy-to-digest article. I’m always having to leave things out to avoid these articles becoming too lengthy. If you want to learn more about lighting, then please take a look at the lighting courses SLR Lounge have created, they’re great. You can find Lighting 101 here and Lighting 201 here.

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Peter Stout

    Hey Max, not to sound impatient, but high key clam shell is exactly what I’m looking to learn at the moment for a shoot in 2 weeks. When do you expect your next article? I’ll need to do this without a backdrop, so I’m assuming you’re using the softbox from behind? I’d love to see some actual photos on how you set up this look, not just a diagram.

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Peter. I’ve just finished the 1st draft now. Fingers crossed it’ll be up on the site tomorrow but it has to go past the editors etc. first.

      I did indeed use a softbox as the background. Sadly, I’m a little short on BTS photos of this, the article was an afterthought. When you read the article, let me know if you need any clarification and I’ll be happy to help.

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  2. Guy Ivie

    RE: “It’s impossible for me to condense all this information into a short, easy-to-digest article. ”

    I get it. But really, would it have taken more than 100 words to describe the portable kit? If SLR Lounge limits the word count, the existing column could have been condensed somewhat.

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Guy,

      Thanks for the feedback. SLR Lounge don’t impose any kind of word count. I self-impose a rough one so I’m not spending all my time writing. Although even with that I very often go over.

      In this case, I wanted to spend a little longer chatting about the kit that I chose to use and why. Essentially, not simply another “hey go buy this” article but a little more theory.

      I’m writing it up now. Hopefully, it will make sense when you read it.

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  3. Matt Owen

    Agreed on suddenly smiling at the results. Although in my case it was more like running around and waving my arms, screaming “YES!”

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