Clamshell Lighting: Master The Perfect Setup for Stunning Portraits

Are you struggling to achieve that perfect, evenly-lit portrait shot? Clamshell lighting, a popular technique top fashion and beauty photographers use, could be your game-changer. This article will guide you through the steps to create stunning clamshell setups with minimal equipment for maximum results.

Ready to elevate your photography skills? Read on!

Key Takeaways

  •  Clamshell lighting involves two light sources or one light and a reflector.
  • Position the key light at a 45-degree angle above the subject.
  • The fill light or reflector is placed directly in front of the subject.
  • You can achieve the clamshell lighting effect with one light and a reflector.
  • Clamshell lighting is excellent for beauty photography and corporate headshots.
  • Continue adjusting your setup based on your subject for the best results.
  • Clamshell lighting is a popular technique used in portrait, headshot, and beauty photography to create flattering and radiant light.
  • You will need two light sources positioned above and below the subject to create a clamshell lighting setup. The key light is placed in front and above the subject, while the fill light is placed in front and below to minimize shadows.
  • It’s important to select suitable lights and modifiers for your setup. Softboxes or beauty dishes are commonly used as modifiers for the main light, while reflectors can be used as fill lights for subtle shadow filling.
  • With practice and experimentation, you can master the art of clamshell lighting to achieve stunning portraits with minimal shadows and softening effects.

What is Clamshell Lighting?

Clamshell lighting is a highly favored technique in portrait, headshot, and beauty photography because it produces flattering and radiant light. The term originates from the arrangement of two light sources around the subject, mimicking the silhouette of an open clamshell.

One light source is placed directly in front and above the subject. At the same time, the other is positioned lower and typically at a softer intensity or sometimes substituted with a reflector for bounce light.

This well-balanced setup minimizes heavy shadows while accentuating facial contours, resulting in stunningly illuminated portraits every time you employ this method.

Photography studio lighting

How to Create a Clamshell Lighting Setup

Creating a clamshell lighting setup is relatively straightforward. You’ll primarily need two light sources – the key light (or main light) and a fill light or reflector. The key light, often a softbox or beauty dish, is positioned at a 45-degree angle above the subject’s face. 

A reflector or another light, such as a softbox, is placed directly in front of the subject’s chin, acting as the fill light to soften the shadows created by the key light. Capture the clamshell image from a perspective that highlights your subject’s best angles while maintaining softness and flattering light.

Selecting the lights and modifiers

It’s crucial to consider the type of lights and modifiers you will use in a clamshell lighting setup.

  1. Choose your main light: The first light source is the critical element in creating the clamshell effect, which you can achieve using a studio strobe, speedlight, or continuous light. Depending on your preference, select one that suits your photography style.
  2. Decide on your fill light source: While a second light source like a strobe or speedlight can be used for this lower-positioned light, numerous photographers prefer a reflector for its subtlety and control over shadows.
  3. Select appropriate light modifiers: Softboxes or beauty dishes are commonly used as modifiers for the main light in clamshell setups. They help soften and spread out the light, reducing harsh shadows and creating even illumination across the subject’s face.
  4. Opt for suitable reflectors: Reflectors – particularly white or silver–work well to fill in shadows under the chin without overpowering primary illumination from above.
  5. Consider having additional lights ready: If you find that heavy shadows persist with two sources, having one or more additional lights on hand might be beneficial to minimize shadows further and deliver softer results.

Positioning the key light

In a clamshell lighting setup, correctly positioning the key light is critical. This primary light source typically sits directly above your subject, angled down at about a 45-degree angle to illuminate the face evenly and accentuate features without casting harsh shadows.

This upper light in the two-light configuration mimics the top half of an actual clamshell, hence the name. Adjusting your key light to be closer or farther from your subject allows you to control how soft or hard the resulting light appears on your topic.

Some photographers prefer using softboxes for their key light because they create softer shadows and flattering highlights – perfect for beauty photography, portrait photography, corporate headshots, and any other type of portraiture where you want your subjects to look their best.

Photo by Louis Hansel

How to Use a Fill Light in Clamshell Lighting

Your fill light or reflector’s job is to fill in the shadows created by your key light. Positioned directly under the subject’s chin, a white reflector or a softbox on lower power can act as the fill light. Its role is to bounce the light from the key light back onto the subject’s face, creating minimal shadows for a clean, flat light effect. Remember to keep the fill light power lower than your key light for softer shadows.

Placing the fill light in front and below the subject helps illuminate any areas that may be cast with shadows from the key light. It also adds depth and dimension to your images, ensuring a more flattering look.

Experimenting with different modifiers for your fill light can further enhance your results – try using a white or silver reflector for other effects. With this additional touch, you’ll achieve beautiful portraits and headshots with stunning clarity and professional appeal.

Capturing the clamshell image

It’s essential to position your lights correctly and pay attention to the power and modifiers you use to capture the perfect clamshell image. Start by placing your main light, the key light, in front and above your subject at a 45-degree angle.

It will create flattering shadows that emphasize facial features. Next, add a fill light in front and below your subject to soften any harsh shadows caused by the key light. Experiment with modifiers like softboxes or beauty dishes to achieve the desired effect.

When capturing the clamshell image, remember that every face is unique, so adjust the positioning of your lights accordingly for each individual. Take test shots to ensure that both lights are balanced in terms of power and placement.

You can also use reflectors as fill if needed.

Remember, Clamshell lighting is a versatile technique that creates beautiful portraits and headshots with minimal shadows and softening effects. Professional photographers use clamshell lighting in fashion and beauty photography due to their ability to flatter subjects’ features while adding dimensionality.

Adjusting Your Clamshell Lighting Setup

While the basic clamshell lighting setup is relatively simple, remember that every subject is different.

Adjust the angle of your lights, the power, and even the distance from your subject to achieve the look you’re going for. Don’t forget to take a test shot before starting your session to ensure you love the results.

Photo by Max Ravier

Creating Catchlights with Clamshell Lighting

One unique feature of clamshell lighting is the beautiful catchlights it can create in your subject’s eyes. Positioning your lights will create two catchlights – one from the key light and another from the fill light. These catchlights can make the subject’s eyes look lively and engaging, adding an extra touch to your portrait photography.

How to Set Up Clamshell Lighting with One Light

Not all photographers have access to two light sources, but you can still create the clamshell lighting effect with a single light and a reflector. Position your key light like in a two-light setup and place a white reflector directly below the subject’s chin. This setup is called ‘open clamshell’ and can produce a similar flattering effect on the subject.

Tips and Examples for Clamshell Lighting

To achieve a successful clamshell lighting setup, position your key light slightly above and in front of your subject while adding the fill light below and in front. Experiment with different modifiers to soften or direct the light as desired.

Here are some examples of stunning results achieved using the clamshell lighting technique.

Quick tip for a successful setup

Pay attention to the position and power of your lights to ensure a successful clamshell lighting setup. Place the key light in front and above your subject, angled at a 45-degree angle to flatter their face.

Position the fill light directly in front and below, filling in the shadows created by the key light. Experiment with modifiers like softboxes or beauty dishes to achieve your desired look.

Remember, every face is different, so adjust the power of each light accordingly. Following these tips and techniques, you can create stunning portraits with beautiful, flattering clamshell lighting effects that professional photographers love!

clamshell lighting example setups

To provide a better understanding of the versatility and effects possible with clamshell lighting, below is a table of possible setups:

Setup DetailsEffect Achieved
Two softboxes are used as key and fill light. Key light positioned above the subject and fill light below.Soft, glowing light fills in shadows resulting in clean and polished images that characterize clamshell lighting.
One softbox as key light, a silver reflector as fill light.This setup can create stunning beauty shots with catchlights in the eyes as a bonus.
Two light sources, one with a stronger power as key light positioned above, a dimmer fill light below.Dramatic shadows and highlights. Adjusting the power of lights in a clamshell setup can create a different mood in portraits.

Remember, these examples are just a starting point. The beauty of clamshell lighting lies in its flexibility; you can tweak the setup to achieve the desired effect based on your creative vision and the specific needs of your project. Clamshell lighting is effective for creating beautiful and flattering portraits. Its versatility also extends to other types of photography, making it a valuable tool in a professional photographer’s kit.

Advantages of Clamshell Lighting

Clamshell lighting offers several advantages for photographers, including flattering light for portraits, versatility in different photography settings, and the ability to create beautiful and funky effects.

Flattering light for portraits

Clamshell lighting is a fantastic technique for capturing beautifully flattering portraits. By positioning the key light source above and in front of your subject and adding a fill light below, you can create soft, even illumination that minimizes harsh shadows and highlights facial features.

This setup helps to highlight the subject’s eyes and creates a lovely glow on their face. Many professional photographers swear by clamshell lighting as it brings out the best in their subjects, resulting in stunning portraits with an air of elegance and radiance.

Versatility in different photography settings

Clamshell lighting is a highly versatile lighting technique that is used in various photography settings. Clamshell lighting offers incredible flexibility and adaptability, whether you’re shooting portraits, headshots, or even beauty photography.

By adjusting the positioning and power of your lights and experimenting with different modifiers, you can create unique and stunning effects to suit any style or concept. Additionally, the soft and flattering light produced by clamshell lighting is particularly effective for capturing beautiful images in corporate headshots or creating eye-catching portraits in any environment.

With its versatility and ability to enhance the subject’s features, it’s no wonder that professional photographers love using clamshell lighting to elevate their work.

Clamshell Lighting for Beauty Photography

Clamshell lighting is a go-to setup for beauty photography. The soft light perfectly illuminates the subject’s face, accentuating their features while reducing hard shadows. Photographers can create stunning beauty shots using a beauty dish as the key light. Remember, the type of modifier can also affect the final image, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting modifiers.

Beauty Photography

Clamshell Lighting for Corporate Headshots

The flattering light from a clamshell lighting setup is perfect for corporate headshots. It softens features, reduces shadows, and creates a professional look that is perfect for the corporate world. You can modify the clamshell lighting pattern slightly for a different lighting effect.

clamshell lighting Corporate Headshot

Creating beautiful and funky effects

Clamshell lighting provides flattering and glowing light for portraits, allowing photographers to get creative and achieve beautiful and funky effects. By adjusting the position of the lights and using different modifiers, you can experiment with different looks and styles.

For example, by using colored gels on one or both lights, you can add a pop of color to your subject’s face or create a unique ambiance. Another option is to use a patterned modifier, such as a grid or honeycomb, to cast interesting shadows on your subject’s face.

The possibilities are endless for creating captivating images with clamshell lighting.

Common Mistakes and Troubleshooting

– Positioning and power of the lights can significantly affect the overall look of clamshell lighting, so it’s essential to experiment with different angles and intensity levels to achieve the desired effect.

– Using the right reflector as fill is crucial for maintaining a balanced and flattering light. A silver reflector can provide a more contrasty look, while a white reflector will create softer shadows.

– Balancing between hard and soft light sources is vital in achieving the perfect clamshell lighting setup. Adjusting the modifiers or distances between lights can help control the hardness or softness of the light.

– It’s important to remember that every face is different, so adjustments may need to be made based on individual features. Don’t be afraid to make minor tweaks during your shoot to ensure optimal results.

Positioning and power of the lights

 It is essential to consider the positioning and power of the lights to achieve the perfect clamshell lighting setup:

Positioning the lights:

  • Place the key light in front and above your subject at a 45-degree angle. That will create beautiful catchlights in their eyes.
  • Position the fill light in front and below your subject at a 45-degree angle. It should be lower than the key light to fill the shadows.

Power of the lights:

  • Adjust the power of the key light to ensure it is brighter than the fill light. It will create a pleasing contrast between highlights and shadows.
  • The power ratio between the two lights can vary depending on personal preference and desired effect. Experiment with different settings to find what works best for your specific situation.

Using the right reflector as fill

Using the right reflector as fill is essential to achieve the best results with clamshell lighting. The reflector bounces light back onto the subject’s facereducing shadows and creating a more balanced and flattering effect.

A white or silver reflector is commonly used, placed below the subject at a slight angle. That helps to soften harsh shadows and create a natural-looking illumination on their face.

Experimenting with different sizes and positions of reflectors can help you find the perfect balance between light and shadow in your clamshell lighting setup.

Balancing between hard and soft light sources

The right balance between hard and soft light sources is crucial in creating a successful clamshell lighting setup. By carefully selecting suitable modifiers for your key and fill lights, you can control the intensity and quality of the light falling on your subject’s face.

A larger light source like a softbox or beauty dish for the key light will create softer shadows and a more flattering look, while a smaller modifier like a reflector or bare bulb for the fill light will provide some contrast and definition.

Hard And Soft Light Sources

Experimenting with different combinations of modifiers and power settings allows you to achieve the desired effect, whether a natural and subtle look or something more dramatic. Remember, every face is unique, so feel free to adjust and fine-tune your lighting setup until you achieve the perfect balance between hard and soft light sources for stunning results.

Related Video on Clamshell Lighting

Mastering clamshell lighting can be a game-changer for your portrait photography. To continue expanding your lighting knowledge, check out this related video on different lighting setups and how to use them effectively:


In conclusion, clamshell lighting is a simple yet powerful way to add a professional touch to your portraits. Professional photographers use this versatile and effective technique to create beautiful, flattering images. With the proper setup of two lights positioned above and below the subject, this lighting pattern can enhance facial features and create a glowing effect.

Whether shooting headshots or beauty photography, mastering clamshell lighting can elevate your images to the next level of professionalism. So don’t be afraid to experiment with different light modifiers and positioning to achieve stunning results with this popular lighting pattern.

Remember, practice makes perfect. So, grab your camera and start experimenting with clamshell lighting today!


Clamshell lighting is commonly used in photography and videography to create flattering, soft light on the subject’s face. It involves placing two lights at approximately 45-degree angles, one above (key light) and one below (fill light) the subject’s face. The key light provides the primary illumination, while the fill light helps reduce shadows and provides even lighting.

Clamshell lighting offers several advantages, including:

– Softening facial features: Combining the overhead main light and underfill creates an even distribution of soft, diffused light that can help minimize imperfections and smooth out skin textures.

– Reducing shadows: By positioning a fill light below the subject’s face, clamshell lighting helps to fill in any harsh shadows cast by natural or other artificial lights.

– Creating depth: The strategic placement of lights can enhance facial contours and add dimensionality by creating highlights and subtle shading.

– Versatility: Clamshell lighting is versatile and works well for various subjects ranging from portraits to beauty shots.

To achieve clamshell lighting, you will need the following:

– Two suitable sources of continuous or strobe lights (e.g., studio lights or speedlights)

– Light modifiers such as softboxes or diffusers

– Light stands or boom arms to position the lights

– A reflector underneath the subject’s face to bounce back some of the main light

It is important to adjust these elements according to your specific shooting conditions.

While standard clamshell involves placing both lights at equal angles above/below eye level, some variations can alter the lighting effect. For example:

– Adjusting angles: Changing the angle of either light can create different shadows and highlights, offering more control over the overall look.

– Adding a hair light: If desired, you can incorporate an additional light source positioned behind or above the subject to create separation between the subject’s hair and background.

– Modifying intensities: Experimenting with varying power settings on each light allows greater flexibility in controlling highlights and shadows.

These variations can be explored to achieve specific creative objectives based on individual preferences or project requirements.

Clamshell lighting is one of the most popular lighting setups in portrait photography. It typically consists of two light sources above and below the subject’s face, with the upper light as the key light and the lower light as a modifier to fill in shadows.

To create clamshell lighting, you’ll need to set up two light sources – one above and one below your subject’s face. The key (upper) light should be placed at a 45-degree angle and above your subject, while the modifier (lower) light should be placed directly underneath, aimed at your subject’s face. Set the lower light to a lower power than the upper light to avoid washing out the image.

Clamshell lighting is a versatile lighting setup that can be used for various photography genres, but it is most commonly used for portrait and beauty photography.

Yes, you can create clamshell lighting using just one light source by positioning a reflector below your subject to bounce light back up and fill in shadows. It is known as a “simple clamshell lighting” setup.

You can use light modifiers such as softboxes, diffusers, or umbrellas to soften the light in your clamshell setup. Placing a diffuser over the main light can help create a softer and more flattering light.

Experiment with different light modifiers and reflectors to take your clamshell setup to the next level. Adjust the power of each light source to create other lighting effects.

You can use a reflector arm or have an assistant hold it to keep the reflector in your clamshell setup. Alternatively, you can position the reflector on a stand or use a clamp to attach it to a nearby surface.

Yes, a lower light can help fill in shadows created by the upper light and create a more flattering portrait. However, keeping the lower light at a lower power than the upper light to avoid washing out the image is essential.

The settings you use for your camera when using clamshell lighting depend on the specific setup and lighting conditions. Generally, you’ll want to use a low ISO, a medium shutter speed, and a wide aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field and create a pleasing bokeh effect.

To avoid light spill in your clamshell setup, position your upper light source at a higher angle and the lower light source at a lower power. You can also use black flags or barn doors to prevent light from hitting unwanted areas of the image.

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