This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from John McIntire and Russell Masters.
Lighting can make or break a portrait. In my experience, it’s often what turns an ordinary snapshot into a professional-looking image. Clamshell lighting is a technique that’s simple yet powerful, and it can take your photography to the next level.
But 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. From experimenting with different modifiers to playing with light positions and beyond, I’ll explore all the details to help you master this wonderful lighting technique. 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!):
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!
How to create a clamshell lighting setup: step-by-step process
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 studio strobes or speedlights, modified or unmodified.
Personally, I’d recommend you use studio strobes. Although speedlights are also fine, they take slightly longer to recycle between shots, so you won’t be able to do rapid-fire portrait photography. (Another benefit to strobes is that they generally include modeling lights, which are low-powered continuous lights that illuminate your subject while you get set up and can help you identify the perfect lighting angles.)
I’d also 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. (If you don’t have softboxes, you could try using an umbrella for the main light, instead.)
That said, if you don’t have any modifiers or you prefer a harder look, then work with an unmodified light! If you really embrace the effect and sculpt it as needed, you may get a great result. Plus, it’s your photoshoot!
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.)
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.
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.
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 vs butterfly lighting
Butterfly lighting and clamshell lighting are often discussed together, but they’re two very distinct lighting patterns.
A basic butterfly lighting setup uses just one light, positioned above and angled down toward the subject. Since there’s no fill light, the shadows on the nose and chin remain heavy, giving more dramatic and intense results. It’s an effect that can be particularly well-suited for fashion photography.
Now, let’s compare this to clamshell lighting. Clamshell lighting involves placing a second light below the subject, softening the shadows. This produces a gentler, more soothing effect, so it’s often seen in conventional headshot photography or applications with far less drama.
Pro tip: If you’re uncertain about the final look you want, you can always start with butterfly lighting. Experiment with the shadows and angles, then simply add a fill light to achieve the clamshell look if you desire something softer. This way, you can play around with two different lighting styles with very little effort. It’s a convenient and creative approach to portrait lighting.
Clamshell vs Rembrandt lighting
Another classic lighting technique to consider? Rembrandt lighting. The Rembrandt pattern involves placing a light off to the side of the subject – often around 45 degrees – to create a clear triangle of light on the subject’s cheek.
Because it covers so much of the face in shadows, Rembrandt lighting is known for its dark and moody qualities. It’s a favorite among those seeking a dramatic, theatrical style in their images.
So how does clamshell lighting stack up against Rembrandt? Clamshell lighting is the better choice if you want a more cheerful, detailed shot. By positioning lights both above and below your subject, you can illuminate the face more evenly and reduce harsh shadows. This brings out more of the facial details and gives the image a livelier, more approachable feeling.
In short, if drama and moodiness are your goals, Rembrandt lighting may be the way to go. But for a more uplifting and detailed portrait, clamshell lighting fits the bill. Understanding the nuances of these lighting techniques will allow you to choose the right style for each unique portrait session. Experiment with both, and see what you think!
Clamshell photography setup: a few quick tips
You know how to capture a basic clamshell image. But how can you take your shots even further? Here are a few of my top tips to help you out:
1. Experiment with different modifiers
When you’re first starting with clamshell lighting, softboxes can be your best friends. They provide a gentle touch that’s perfect for beginners. But as you get more comfortable, you might find yourself wanting to explore other options. This is an excellent idea.
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.
Beauty dishes, for instance, create a harder look that can add drama to a portrait. Their focused light can accentuate textures and details. On the other hand, umbrellas can really soften up the shadows. By throwing around a lot of light, they make everything feel more diffused and ethereal.
By testing out different modifiers, you’ll learn how they affect your images. So don’t be afraid to try something new. Just remember to keep the essence of clamshell lighting in mind: that beautiful, flattering glow that makes portraits shine.
2. Try repositioning your lights
Light position matters in clamshell lighting, and even an adjustment of a few inches can dramatically change the final image.
Move the lights closer to your subject, and the shadows will soften and become more gradated for a gentle and delicate look.
Move the lights farther from your subject, and the shadows will harden and become sharper. This can add a sense of depth and drama to the image.
But it’s not just about distance. You can move your key light higher to create longer shadows or lower to create shorter shadows. You can do the same with the fill light.
Just be cautious not to go overboard. The 45-degree positions that I discussed in my initial step-by-step section are designed to look flattering. Playing with the positioning is great, but don’t lose sight of your original goals!
3. Add more lights
Once you’ve set up your clamshell lighting just right, you might think you’re done. But there’s more you can do to enhance the scene and create striking images.
For instance, you can add rim lights behind your subject, either on one side or both, to create a delicate sliver of light around the head. This effect will help your subject pop off the background and make the image more dynamic.
A hair light can add depth to your photograph. Positioned above and behind the subject, it shines subtly on the hair to separate it from the background.
Don’t hesitate to experiment with background lights, as well. Placing a light behind the subject (that’s pointed at the backdrop) can create a beautiful cone of light that adds extra depth. It’s how many photographers combine a well-lit subject with a well-lit background!
Bottom line: By adding these additional lights, you give yourself more creative freedom and open up a world of possibilities in your clamshell lighting setups.
4. Convert to black and white
Clamshell lighting produces wonderful images that can look stunning in both color and black and white. Converting your shot to black and white will emphasize the interplay of shadows and highlights while potentially adding a layer of three-dimensionality to the photo.
If you shoot in RAW, and I highly recommend you do, you have the flexibility to photograph using your camera’s Monochrome mode and still convert back to color if needed. Or you can start in color and convert to black and white later on.
The black-and-white conversion can make the features of the face stand out in a unique way. It might bring out textures, emphasize contrasts, or even create a mood that color doesn’t capture. Experimenting with this conversion allows you to explore a range of visual expressions within a single lighting setup, which is always a good idea!
5. Watch the catchlights
Catchlight is that magical spot of light in the subject’s eyes, one that’s created by a reflection from the light source. It brings life to the eyes; without a catchlight, the eyes – and the entire portrait – can appear flat and lifeless.
Therefore, it’s important that you always make sure your clamshell photos include catchlights! If a catchlight isn’t present, you may need to ask your subject to angle their head, or you may need to make slight adjustments to your lights. Make sure to review each test shot on your camera’s LCD to ensure that the catchlight is just as you want it.
Note that with clamshell lighting, since it involves two lights rather than one, you might notice a double catchlight. This is a feature some photographers love, while others are less enthusiastic.
If you’re not a fan of the bottom catchlight, don’t fret! It can always be cloned out during post-processing.
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:
Next, we have a brighter, more upbeat clamshell image with a well-lit background:
Then another black and white with a slightly darker background:
To pull this final shot off, I added a third light, pointed toward the background. Note that you can experiment with different head turns:
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!