This is my go-to lighting set-up for shooting people because clients prefer its ultra-flattering light–it’s the set-up I use for the majority of the studio headshots I shoot.

This popular commercial lighting set-up is easy to do, and your clients will love you for its flattering effect.

The secret to clamshell lighting’s appealing results are: A soft main key, placed slightly above the subject’s eyeline, a few feet from the subject, in combination with a secondary source (the lower-fill), which fills-in any surface irregularities in the subject’s face, producing a smooth, youthful appearance.

clamshell lighting diagrams:

Again, it’s one of the most flattering types of portrait lighting set-ups there is, thanks to this two-source approach, which provides both vertical and horizontal “wrap,” minimizing any shadow on the subject’s face. Setting this up is easy:

1. Place your main key light above the lens, centered over your camera.
2. Place a lower fill light, directly under your lens, centered below camera.
3. Create a gap, or “window” between the two modifiers (see diagram below), just large enough to fit your lens’ angle-of-view through the opening, while still being able to frame your subject.


In the illustration above, you could use two white or silver umbrellas, two shoot-through umbrellas, two softboxes, or as shown below, a single umbrella or softbox for the upper key, plus a reflector for the lower fill.


example set-up 1: clamshell lighting with an octa + silk

In this section, I’ll detail the exact tools and techniques used to produce the headshot above. In addition to good skin, and some well-applied make-up, this highly complimentary lighting set-up will help to make your subjects look their best. While there are as many ways to light a clamshell portrait as there are photographers, as long as you follow the basic set-up, you should be able to produce similar results–this just one way to achieve a clamshell set-up.

a.) main key light:

In case this happens to be one of the first sections you’re reading here, let me briefly define a couple of basic terms: All lighting controls which are attached to a strobe head are referred to as “light modifiers,” or simply as, “modifiers.” These include softboxes, “octas” (octagonally-shaped softboxes), umbrellas, silks, diffusion frames, or just about any lighting control tool used to “shape,” “reflect,” “diffuse,” or “modify” a light.


For the upper key light’s modifier, a 3′ octa for the primary source, but could have just as easily used a square or rectangular softbox instead (we talk about strobes in much more detail here, but for the record, here I used a Dynalite Uni400 Jr., triggered by a PocketWizard PlusX transceiver). Note that the difference between an octagonally-shaped softbox, and a square or rectangular softbox is extremely subtle, and is only really observable in the shape of the catchlight seen in the subject’s eyes (below). Some photographers prefer round catchlights, but again, this is totally up to you.


In fact, if desired, both the primary key and lower fill light may use identical modifiers to a similar effect. Actually, using square or rectangular modifiers for both the main key and lower-fill would create the largest “window” to shoot through, while yielding the largest possible sources. However, the choice of modifier used for the primary key is really up to you. I’ve found that a 3′ octa is a convenient size, and is usually large enough for lighting head-and-shoulder portraits (remember, to produce adequate “wrap,” your source should be at least as large as the portion of the subject you’re framing).

b.) lower fill:

A lot of photographers simply use a reflector or a piece of Foamcore for the lower fill, but I prefer to use another strobe, complete with its own modifier, which provides both a lot more output, and a lot more control over the ratio between the main key and lower fill. Often, simply placing a bounce board, or holding a foldable reflector below the subject’s face just doesn’t give you enough output.

Since placing the lower fill light typically requires the source to be positioned fairly low to the ground, I’ve found it more convenient to use a framed scrim for the lower modifier, instead of a bulky softbox. Mounting the scrim onto a short C-stand really provides a lot of flexibility when attempting to adjust the height of the scrim.

Pictured below is a Westcott 39″ x 39″ aluminum frame with a Westcott 1.25-stop diffusion panel attached, mounted on a short C-stand with a 20″ grip arm. You could also substitute this with any of the following: a Photoflex 39″ x 39″ LitePanel with a Photoflex translucent diffuser, a small Lastolite Skylite Rapid with a 1.25-stop diffuser, a Matthews’ 4′ x 4′ Polysilk, or any other similar diffusion panel.


The source behind the diffusion panel used for the lower fill light could be either another studio strobe, or even just a Speedlight on a hot-shoe foot, since the output required for the fill illumination is typically less than what’s required for the primary key.

For my set-up here, I chose an old Quantum Qflash Model ‘T’ to use for my lower fill-light (below). I power my Qflash with a high-voltage Quantum Turbo battery (which I bought used for $50, and re-celled for only about $20; click here to find out how). To get the Qflash low enough to spread its beam evenly over the 39″ x 39″ Westcott scrim, instead of using a stand, I mounted the Qflash onto a Matthews baby nail-on plate, which I’ve attached to a small 1/4-apple box. The Qflash is triggered by another PocketWizard PlusX transceiver.


Quantum Qflashes are really great values, since the older, non-TTL models can often be found for only between $100-$200 used (download user manuals for older Quantum flashes to use as a buying guide here). They make for excellent supplemental flashes to any home studio set-up, and also make great location flashes when you need a bit more punch than a Speedlight.

In fact, at 150 Watt-seconds, Quantum Qflash units put out about twice the light of a Canon 580/600EX or Nikon SB800/900/910 (each of which puts out the “equivalent” of about 80 Watt-seconds). Qflashes also benefit from larger built-in reflectors, and use the same high-voltage Quantum Turbo batteries than can also power Canon or Nikon Speedlights with high-voltage inputs. One of the main benefits to Quantum Qflashes is that they don’t suffer from any of the over-heating problems typically associated with Speedlights. A Qflash can be fired repeatedly for hours with no over-heating problems whatsoever.

c.) backlight:

While not specific to clamshell lighting, here, a Profoto 1.3′ x 2′ rectangular softbox with a Profoto 50-degree softgrid was used, hung from a Matthews mini-boom. The softgrid is often required for backlights, since these are backlights are most likely to cause flare and reduce contrast by spilling light onto your lens. A Nikon SB-800 Speedlight, and mounted into the softbox using a Profoto Speedlight speedring (older version). Hung on the light stand is a Quantum Turbo high-voltage battery, powering the SB-800. The Speedlight is triggered by a PocketWizard Flex TT5 tranceiver, and sits in its built-in hot-shoe.


d.) background light:

For the background, another Nikon SB-800 was used, again, powered by a Quantum Turbo high-voltage battery for quick recycling. This Speedlight is also triggered by a PocketWizard Flex TT5 tranceiver and sits in its built-in hot-shoe on an umbrella bracket/stand-adapter. To create a soft glow onto the Savage “Thunder Gray” seamless background paper used in this set-up, I attached the Nikon diffusion dome made for the Nikon SB-800 onto the flash head (a Sto-Fen diffusion dome would also do the trick).


example set-up 2: clamshell lighting with two umbrellas

Umbrellas are highly efficient modifiers. They’re lightweight, easy to set up and inexpensive. The biggest downside to umbrellas is that they have a very wide output pattern (for more controlled lighting, a recessed-lip softbox with an attached softgrid is best). That said, umbrellas are still capable of making beautiful soft light.


Shown above is a simple two-Speedlight set-up (triggered by PocketWizard Flex TT5 tranceivers), using two identical 45″ Westcott soft silver umbrellas. Westcott’s unique “soft silver” umbrellas put out an even light pattern, yet are more efficient than white umbrellas. These are also constructed with more robust fiberglas struts, rather than steel struts which are more easily bent or broken.


Note that these umbrellas are covered with an opaque black backing. I generally recommend only using silver or white umbrellas with black backings to prevent lens flare, and is also the reason I don’t recommend using shoot-through umbrellas in this application. The potential for incurring lens flare, or simply reduced contrast by having stray umbrella light hitting your lens is too great. I also prefer using silver umbrellas since they tend to photograph cooler in color temperature, while white umbrellas often warm up your strobes by several hundred degrees Kelvin.

example set-up 3: clamshell lighting with a rectangular softbox + silk

Here’s a virtually identical set-up to the octa example earlier, except instead of an octa for the main key, I’ve set a 24″ x 36″ rectangular softbox, powered by a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight. For the lower fill, I’ve set a 24″ x 36″ Polysilk, again on a short C-stand, also powered by an SB-800. Everything is triggered by PocketWizard Flex TT5 tranceivers.


And, again, to ensure the the lower-fill’s source has enough throw to fill the 24″ x 36″ Polysilk above it, I’ve set the Nikon SB-800 Speedlight onto a Matthews nail-on plate on a board. If a slight adjustment in height is necessary, I can also stack the nail-on plate on top of a half- or full-apple box. I generally keep a pile of full- and half-apple boxes around when I’m shooting since they’re so useful.


I also used filter holder from an old Vivitar 283 filter kit to use as a snoot for the SB-800, restricting its light to the approximate dimensions of the 24″ x 36″ Polysilk.