Malia Campbell Photography

Seattle Real Estate Photography by Malia Campbell

Headshot recipe

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.

Lit with a basic clam shell setup

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.

Nakema standing in for photographer

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?

Added rim light

Clam shell with Rim Light setup

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.

Clam shell with Rim Light and Hair Light

Added hairlight at CL

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!

Written by Malia Campbell Photography

December 10, 2009 at 12:46 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Wow! Killer post, great job all around. I’d love to see what a gelled rim light would do here.


    December 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm

  2. Excuse me for being OT but what wordpress theme do you use? It looks stunning.


    December 12, 2009 at 7:21 pm

  3. Nice clamshell shots! Very pro!

    Squire Starsquid

    January 3, 2010 at 3:49 am

  4. Thanks for nice, simple set up. I have a Realtor wanting me o do their entire office headshots. Your post really gave me some good guidelines.

    Dale Clark

    February 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

  5. Thanks for this tutorial.
    I want to use this set up with a reflector instead of the second lower light. I will be using the Alien Bee B800 so I will have plenty of power.
    How far away from the subject should you be? I have experimented from about 7 feet from the subject and seems the reflector is not doing anything but the subject seems to be fairly well lit. Thanks.


    Peter Yu

    October 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    • Hi Peter! The distance from your subject would depend on how much light your AB is putting out. Either use a light meter (I have the Sekonic L-358 and like it) or just shoot and chimp until you find something that works. A reflector would need a light source to reflect so, unless your AB is putting out a massive amount of light or you have a light source coming from somewhere else, you probably won’t see the reflector doing much. I’ve seen a lot of really beautiful and striking portraits using only one light, I just prefer the ease and even-ness of the clamshell set up.

      TulipChain Photography

      October 19, 2010 at 7:35 am

  6. Great article and tip! Loving it!

    Do you get any ghost spill on the subject from the lighting in the back?

    Also, what about other lighting in the room? I had a photo shoot and I can’t leave the room pitch black. The kids and the parents would have had a fit.

    Anyway, great article and will follow u! thanks


    February 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

    • Thanks, Jackie. Glad you found it useful.

      Ghost spill: technically the fringe of light around her hair (the part that’s all golden) is ghost spill but that’s exactly the effect I was going for.

      Other lighting in the room: if you take a look at my set up shots you can see the room is pretty bright. Tungsten lighting all over the place. The trick is to either get your flashes to overpower the ambient and/or to work with the ambient and gel your flashes accordingly.

      Malia Campbell Photography

      February 19, 2011 at 11:15 am

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