Clamshell Lighting for Beauty Photography

In my last article, we discussed proper reflector placement for natural looking fill light in food photography.  This time around, I’m going to break those rules and discuss a lighting technique that is anything but natural.  It’s called Clam Shell lighting, and it’s a great way produce flattering beauty and glamour portraits…

Studio portraiture usually emulates natural sunlight by placing a key light above and at an angle to the left or right of the model.  Reflectors or additional lights are placed at opposite sides and angles to lightly fill shadows.  But with beauty work, we’re aiming to flatter our subjects and make them appear something above and beyond their natural, every day look.  And that’s where clam shell lighting (along with makeup and hair styling) come into play.

The magic behind creating this style of lighting comes from how and where the lights are placed: one above and one below, very close to the model, and directly in front of him or her. When using large soft boxes, this set up looks almost like an open clam shell, ready to chomp on the model.

In our tutorial images, a beauty dish was used for the top light and a shoot-through umbrella below for fill.  They’re only about 2 feet from our subject, making them relatively large light sources that produce soft shadows and flattering light.  You can see the results in the image at the end of this article.

Clamshell Lighting

Clam shell can be setup with any two light sources or modifiers.  When working with 2 lights of different sizes, the smaller should be placed above and the larger below.  I’ve continually found soft boxes and beauty dishes offer a more flattering key light above for beauty work compared to shoot-through umbrellas.  They’re also easier to control light spill onto backdrops.

Remember: the Laws of Optics dictate that as a light source is moved farther away from the subject, it becomes relatively smaller and produces more contrast and harsher shadows.  Moving my beauty dish and umbrella back 6 feet would totally kill the effect we’re going for here.  Larger light modifies should be used when more distance between the subject and lighting is required.

Lighting ratios also affect your results.  For clam shell, I begin by setting both the top and bottom lights at equal intensity.  This produces a very low-contrast, “flat” light which is honestly, a little boring at times.  But not only does that wash away shadows and contrast, it also vanishes wrinkles and blemishes and makes our subject look good from any angle.  This is beauty photography, after all!

Every face is different, so I’ll shoot a few test shots to see if I like flat light for my subject.  Too much fill from below can make him or her look like an alien, so if adjustments are needed then I’ll leave the top light alone and begin powering down the fill light below.  Again, examining test shots along the way lets me know when I’ve got what I’m looking for.

Feathering the light can be helpful as well.  “Feathering” is the technique of pointing a light slightly away from and past the model, rather than directly at him or her.  My beauty dish was initially set at a 45 degree downward angle, pointed right at the model’s face.  But this produced bright hot spots on her forehead.  We resolved this by pointing the light downward more, aiming below chest height.  The fill light was feathered as well, aiming the umbrella up to a point slightly above her head.

It’s very common for photographers to use a reflector below for fill, rather than a second light source.  Reflectors may not be as versatile as lights and modifiers, but they’re inexpensive, quick and easy to set up.  And it’s much more difficult to over-expose using reflectors compared to adding more light sources to a set up.

Clamshell Lighting TutorialModel:  Mary W.

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This entry was posted by Jim Jurica.

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