The Killer Clamshell - A Two Light Setup Guide

The Killer Clamshell – A Two Light Setup Guide

Awesome Two Light Clamshell Setup - A Real Beauty


If you’re just getting started in off camera flash and studio photography then single light setups are a fantastic, uncomplicated way of getting to grips with lighting techniques.  Despite the wide range of effects that can be achieved with a one light setup, working with multiple lights provides even greater range of creative options and my favourite multi light setup has to be the clamshell.  This lighting setup can be used to produce a soft wrapping quality of light; a perfectly white background and stunning catch lights resulting in a classic beauty look ideal for photographing female models.  Best of all it’s incredibly easy, so hopefully with the following guide you can also have a go at this great lighting setup.

Setup & Equipment

The basic idea behind this setup is to use a single large light source both as a backdrop and to provide wrap around light.  The subject is then illuminated from above using a second light with any remaining shadows filled in using a flat reflector.

For this setup you will need two light sources; ideally strobe heads although speedlights are also fine but might take slightly longer to recycle given the higher power required.  To achieve the soft quality of light both lights should be shot through large soft boxes, although if you don’t have these then you could us a large sheet as a background and something like an umbrella for the main light.

The basic setup is as follows; the key point to remember is to ensure the backlight completely fills the background.

Lighting Diagram - A Simple Two Light Setup


Metering for this shot is actually fairly simple and whilst a light meter can be helpful in speeding things up it’s easy enough to set the exposure for this shot by eye.  The main steps are as follows:

  • Start by leaving your flashes off and start with your camera settings.  Set a small aperture, (something like f8 or f11), a fast shutter speed (around 1/200 to 1/250) and set your ISO to its lowest setting.
  • Turn your back light on and starting with a low power take a test shot and check the image preview on your camera to see how ‘white’ the background is, a properly exposed background should be solid bright white.  A good way to check is to take a look at the image histogram, most of the reading should be to the very right hand edge of the graph indicating that the tones in the image are tending towards solid white.  If the background isn’t exposed properly increase the flash power and repeat.
  • Now it’s time to get your model in position and check the amount of wrap around light from the background.  Place your model in front of the back light and take another test shot.  Vary the distance between the subject and backlight to change the amount of light wrapping around your subjects head and shoulders.  The purpose of the wrap is to provide some separation and help add definition, so all you need to do is highlight the edges of your model.
  • Now turn your subject light on and take a test shot.  Check the overall exposure and vary the power/position of the light until your models face is correctly exposed.
  • Finally position a reflector below your subjects jawline and use this to bounce fill light into any dark areas of the shot in particular under your models chin, nose and eyes.


Hopefully the steps above are simple enough to convince you to give this lighting setup a try.   Not only is this a great way to try working with multiple lights but it also results in a really satisfying and flattering image and of course double the lights means double the creativity!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Russell Masters 'is a photographer, blogger and international man of meetings. Check out his work at and drop him a message via twitter @russmasters.

Some Older Comments

  • Kirk Grodske July 28, 2013 12:09 pm

    Could you be a bit more clear with what you "don't agree with"?

    I made several different points and explained the reasoning behind them. In fact, each point can be readily verified by independent investigation by anyone with these tools to verify the correctness of my statements.

    You could also read about it on various blog posts, books and watch it on Creative Live, Of course I just think it is so much easier to do the test yourself. Take a stretched white bed sheet out into the sun or a stucco wall and you can fine out if I am right in a couple of minutes.

  • Russell July 28, 2013 11:05 am

    Thanks for your comment. I don't agree but thanks for posting it anyways.

  • Kirk Grodske July 26, 2013 05:18 am

    Just a point of clarification.

    You DO NOT want to "just put two more stops of light on the background" or "make it two stops brighter than your subject". These statements are too vague and leave too much room for error. These are hold over comments from the film days.

    So, IF you have a white background, put 1/2 to 1 stop more light on it to make it white. The smoother and wrinkle free and clean white color material background, the less light you need on it. You want to evenly illuminate the entire visible area in you shot. This could take anywhere from one to 4 lights, depending on how much of the background shows.

    Unless you have a great distance between the background and model you will get flare and image degradation if you use more. This is assuming you think flare is degradation. :) If you are close to the background, you may have to shoot it a little gray and then clean it up in post to avoid flare.

    A background has to read 255 and no more. In fact it can read a little less. I should mention that by "read", I mean a reflected light meter reading or a Photoshop Info pallet reading of two stops or 255 respectively. One stop, if a white material background and metered with incident meter.

  • Sergio Garcia December 18, 2012 02:22 pm

    Great article Russell,

    I just wrote a post talking about my recent cover shot and how I lit it. It's pretty similar to this.

    I used a 51" umbrella behind the model as a backdrop/wrap around light, while placing to v-flats (white side) on either side and using a reflector (silver side) underneath her face for fill.

    I usually prefer more harsher light, but the editor was requesting something 'softer'.

    This ended up looking beautiful and hopefully I can use in the future.


  • Dan December 5, 2012 11:37 am

    Cool Idea, it gives me a couple of other ideas to try as well. Thanks!

  • Russell December 2, 2012 10:14 pm

    Hey guys, think I have just figured out my problems with commenting. Thanks for the great feedback, glad that some of you like the shot and really appreciate the feedback from those of you with ideas on how to make this better. I have a studio shoot planned soon so I will be bearing this in mind. Please, please, please let me know if you try this it would be great to see your images.

    There are a couple of comments here on the power used for the background, here are some follow on thoughts:

    @alexs - You are right, if you blast the background with too much light you run the risk of flare. Turning the power down is a good way to avoid this, also you can use black cards (of flags) to shield the lens and prevent stray light bouncing into the lens.

    @alan - Yes your are correct, a lot of people try and have the background 2 stops brighter and in fact I have done this several times. A good tactic is to select your ideal aperture for the subject, stop down by two stops and set your exposure for the background. Then you can adjust your settings back to the original aperture and your background will be two stops brighter than the subject. Failing that you can use a light meter.

    @SteveP - I used a silver reflector as it gave a bit more punch and the model had quite olive skin which was fairly warm to start with.

    Thanks again for all the great comments.

  • Brian December 1, 2012 06:40 am

    Clamshell..... Now I have some photos to try AND I'm hungry....


  • Alan December 1, 2012 01:19 am

    Unless I'm reading a new version of the post, looks like its "its/it's" grammar is just fine.

    Read this:

    Nice work Russell

  • ccting November 30, 2012 06:31 pm

    Great article with simple but yet effective diagram... i love the way you write the article.. and a great article.!

  • Ivan Mindas November 30, 2012 01:27 pm

    Love the shot! "Spilling" doesn't bother me at all; I would go even further...Russell clearly wanted to emphasize model face so focus is on eyes, nose...

  • AlexS November 30, 2012 12:56 pm

    Nice post and very informative Russell. I get that it's meant to be a simple introduction to high key and clamshell but I thought that it is worth mentioning that metering that background light is very important IMO. If the power of the background light is too high, it will affect the colour saturation of your subject.

    The background itself will look the same (pure white) because it has been over exposed, however all that light falling onto your lens will cause the subject to go chalky too. A lens hood/flag may help if this is encountered, but the important thing is to not feed that BG light too much power, unless you're going for that :)

    Keep these coming!

  • Ali November 30, 2012 11:05 am

    I love simple light setups because they give the model and photographer freedom and comfort.

  • Barbara November 30, 2012 08:08 am

    Great shot, great article. I agree I would love to see a lower key version with some details, just to compare.
    (And Tim, I agree, the use of an apostrophe in "its" drives me nuts ... I thought I was just showing my age!)

  • larry November 30, 2012 07:21 am

    It's true this a great form of lighting and off to shot this style.

  • Steve P November 30, 2012 03:32 am

    What color reflector are you using for fill, white, silver?

  • Alan November 30, 2012 03:12 am

    I've been told that 2 stop grader for your background light than the main light will give you an almost perfect white background. Has anyone tried this?

  • Steve P November 29, 2012 02:09 pm

    What color reflector do you use with this? White or silver?

  • Mei Teng November 29, 2012 11:18 am

    I like the image and the spilling over of light effect on the subject. Great tips and thanks for sharing.

  • peka November 29, 2012 04:34 am

    I love clamshell lighting. I have to agree that you might want to post another lower key shot to show the versatility of this lighting. The first commenter mentioned that he doesn't like that look unless he makes the decision to use it... I love high key but people might get confused that this is the only look that clamshell lighting will give you, which is absolutely not the case! I did a great beauty shoot a while back using clamshell that was much lower key than this. Still, beautiful shot and great article!!

  • Russell November 29, 2012 03:15 am

    Thanks Tim. Sorry for the grammar, it was a late night when I wrote this. I'll try harder I promise. In the meantime I hope you try the lighting setup and get some great images.

  • Tim November 29, 2012 02:56 am

    Great read! I like the lighting and will probably have to try it for showcasing some awesome MUA work. Sidenote: You guys really should really fix the grammatical mistakes in this article to make it easier to read. Your and You're are not interchangeable, nor are it's and its.

    Keep up the great articles!

  • Jai Catalano November 29, 2012 01:24 am

    There appears to be too much light spilling onto the subject which probably doesn't do this post it's complete justice.

    Unless I make it an artistic decision I don't like that look.