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 how can you master clamshell lighting setups for stunning results?

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

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

What is clamshell lighting?

Clamshell lighting is a simple, two-light configuration: You place both lights facing your subject at a 45-degree angle, one angled up, one angled down. Note that your key light (i.e., your primary, brighter light) should point 45 degrees downward, while your fill light should point 45 degrees upward. 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 required!):

clamshell guide and tips lighting diagram

A clamshell setup provides beautiful, soft light with faint shadows and glorious catchlights. Clamshell lighting works well on pretty much everyone; I’d say that it’s flattering for men and women of all ages, so it’s a great setup to have in your back pocket.

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

clamshell lighting guide and tips

How to create a clamshell lighting setup: step-by-step process

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Creating a clamshell lighting setup is simple, and as long as you have two working lights, you’re practically guaranteed to pull it off. Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Select your lights and modifiers

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

Personally, I’d recommend you use modifiers – these will help soften the light for a more flattering effect – and grabbing a pair of similarly sized softboxes is a great starting point. Then, once you’ve mastered clamshell lighting setups using the softboxes, you can start experimenting with other modifiers, such as beauty dishes and strip boxes.

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

Step 2: Position your key light

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

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

Next, meter for your desired aperture (we’ll use a hypothetical f/11) and take a test shot.

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

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Step 3: Add your fill light

Now it’s time to add in the second light; take your fill light and place it directly underneath your key light, pointed upward toward your subject at 45 degrees.

clamshell lighting guide and tips behind the scenes

Adjust the light’s brightness until it sits two stops below the key light. (If you wanted to shoot at f/11, you could meter your fill light for an f/5.6 result.) Then take a second test shot.

If the effect is too strong and your fill light is obliterating the shadows, turn down the light power. If the light isn’t doing enough, turn it up. The main thing to look out for is the fill light overpowering the key light, as that would result in a very unflattering image that’s lit from below.

clamshell lighting guide and tips behind the scenes

Step 4: Capture your clamshell image!

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

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

Of course, once you’ve grabbed a shot or two, check your camera’s LCD for exposure issues and other concerns. And if you have the capability, I recommend tethering your camera to your laptop; that way, you can review your images instantly on the big screen.

And that’s all there is to it! Clamshell lighting is really easy to do, and with a bit of practice, 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. Note that there are three softboxes in the image, but only two – the ones in front of the model – are active.

Clamshell photography setup: a quick tip

Once you can create a basic clamshell setup without much difficulty, then don’t stop – instead, look to expand your lighting capabilities.

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

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

And you’re not limited to using just two lights, either. You should always keep the basic two-light clamshell setup, but feel free to add rim lights behind your subject to make them pop off the background. You can also try adding a hair light for additional depth, and you can certainly have fun 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 inspiration, though don’t limit yourself – 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 have a brighter, more upbeat clamshell image with a well-lit background:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

Then another black and white with a slightly darker background:

clamshell lighting guide and tips

To pull this next shot off, I added a third light, pointed toward the background. Note that you can experiment with 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 lighting: final words

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

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

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

Now over to you:

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

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John McIntire

John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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Updated: April 23, 2022 — 5:00 pm

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