Anyone who has modeled for me and/or followed my flickr photostream for any amount of time knows that I love using the clam shell lighting technique. This is my “go to” set up for most headshots. I love the simplicity of this basic lighting setup! Two lights and a subject. That’s all you need.
I invited my friend and ever-ready model, Nakema, over a couple days ago to help me demonstrate this lighting technique. This photo is an example of the basic clam shell setup. One light, high, with an umbrella at 1/8 power (this is your key light) and one umbrella, low, also with an umbrella at 1/16th power (this is your main fill light). These lights should be relatively close together, the bottom of the key light umbrella and top of the main fill umbrella should be almost touching, resembling an open clam shell. The photographer stands behind the lights and shoots through the opening, between the umbrellas.
This lighting setup creates nice, even light on your subject. By adjusting your power settings slightly you can create a more dramatic look or a soft glowing complexion. I’ve found that this setup works for all face shapes and skin tones beautifully.
You can experiment yourself but I’ve found that I like having a slightly larger umbrella on my key light. It helps wrap the light in a soft but more complete way.
For a basic clam shell setup like this it’s important to think about your background. For someone like Nakema, who has very dark hair, a dark background wouldn’t work as well as you’d lose a lot of the detail in her hair in the background. What do you do if your subject has dark hair and only a dark background is available?
To create a separation between your subject and the background you can add a rim light. I like to get the maximum glow, or angel look, so I blast mine pretty close to the back of my subject’s head. In this example I fired the rim light at at 1/4 power. Because she had so much hair I also used the WAD to spread the light. You may have to play around with the position of the rim light slightly to avoid having the flash peeking out from behind the subject and/or getting the light to spread evenly (or not, depending on what kind of halo you’re looking for). From here I wanted a little more directional light from the front so I broke out one more light.
This last flash was added only in the name of experimentation. I wanted to eliminate the shadows on the neck and pull a little more hair detail from my subject’s bangs. I added the hair light, gridded, high at CL, at 1/32nd power. This created just enough of a kiss of light to accomplish what I set out to do. If you notice from the setup shot, though, I did have to swing my main fill light a little wider (CR) to compensate for the hair light. Even at 1/32nd power and gridded the hair light was still strong enough that I needed some fill from CR. If I had a reflector I would have kept my main fill where it was and filled from CR with a reflector.
My last note on this setup: I normally have my subjects standing for headshots and portraits. I used a chair for this session as I was constrained by low ceiling height. Though a sitting subject can be pretty dynamic, posing-wise, for headshots I find subjects’s posture is more natural and it’s easier to avoid slouching.
That’s it. Hope this was helpful!