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Getting Stylized Shots with Clamshell Lighting


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BY Dirk Fletcher September 10, 2014 · Published by Wiley Publishing

Dirk Fletcher explains how to set up and meter clamshell lighting for a clean, glamorous look in this excerpt from his Wiley Publishing book Digital Photography Lighting for Dummies.

This excerpt from Digital Photography Lighting for Dummies is provided courtesy of Wiley Publishing. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Wiley Publishing website.

Clamshell lighting has been a popular lighting technique since shortly after the wheel was invented. It can be seen on the cover of any number of monthly fashion magazines and is every bit as attractive today as it was when it became "in vogue" years back.

This highly stylized glamour lighting gives your model a clean, fresh-looking face with very minimal shadows and smooth, shiny hair. It works best with models who already have high or defined cheekbones, because the lack of shadows will flatten out an already flat face. In addition to using this technique for glamour and beauty photography, it’s fantastically popular for high school seniors.

I’ve heard it referred to several ways, but the most appropriate term is simply clamshell lighting, because it looks like a clamshell when you set it up. The image at the top of this page shows the setup, and the image below shows the results.

You need a portrait lens, a strobe system with two heads, and two medium soft boxes to set this up. I also recommend using this in conjunction with the powered white background technique discussed in the preceding section.

Have your model sit on a stool instead of standing for the shoot. Glamour photography depends on careful, small moves that make or break the photo. You can have fantastic lighting set up, but if the model’s head is tilted just a tad in the wrong direction, you’ll have created just another photo. Get the head positioned just perfectly—the perfect look on the model’s face coupled with perfect light—and you’ll have created something truly special. Slowing down for this technique gives you the opportunity to concentrate on creating that perfectly amazing photo. Follow these steps:

  1. Using the height of a seated model as your reference, rough in your camera position. Position the lens about even with the model’s eyes. The height of the camera will accent the feature it’s even with, so if, for example, you’re shooting a lipstick ad, you may want to place the lens on the same level as the model’s lips. For a more creative look (as opposed to trying to recreate a "standard" look), keeping the camera below or above eye level tends to open up new creative doors and eliminate a commercial or institutional look.
  2. Position the top soft box at an angle that extends from the lens to the model’s head. Depending on how tight you’re framing and the exact lens you’re using, the soft box may not reach back to the lens. This is fine; you just want to ensure that the soft box is suspended over the model’s face evenly so that you achieve the smooth skin equated with glamour lighting.
  3. Set up your second soft box or a sheet of white foam core symmetrical to the top light so it covers the underside of the face evenly. You’ll probably need to use a floor stand or background stand to get the light low enough. These stands are basically light stands that go lower than a regular light stand. You can also prop the light in place on a box and secure it with a sandbag if you don’t have a floor stand.
  4. Meter and set the power ratios. For this technique to work properly, you need to get the two light sources within 1 stop of each other, if not closer. The exact ratio is a combination of personal taste, facial structure, and skin tonality (more on setting the ratio in the next section). The goal is to have the neck and the areas under the chin, nose, and eyes just a shade (barely, almost, a smidge, a touch) darker than the model’s cheeks, forehead, lips, and so on.

    Hold the meter so it’s pointed at the camera and approximately in the same place and angle as those of your subject’s face. Make sure the bulb sees both the top and the bottom soft boxes. Hold the meter so the half dome, where the light is measured, stands in for your model’s face. Get the aperture that you should set the camera to, set the camera, and do a test shot.

The easiest way to achieve clamshell lighting is to use a studio strobe system, because you need ample power to stop the lens down from f/11 to f/16 or so to ensure the model’s entire face is in focus. This also gives you the advantage of being able to send the exact same amount of light to each of the two soft boxes. Then you can physically slide the model a smidge closer to the top box to achieve the ratio you’re looking for. When you use your incident meter to read this scene, point the meter directly at the soft box while shading the meter’s bulb from the other light. This ensures that you’re only reading the light from the one soft box. Repeat this procedure with both the top and bottom soft boxes, and make whatever adjustments are necessary until the bottom soft box is putting out a little less light than the top.

Coloring the Background with Gels

Once you’ve set up a portrait shot, try putting colored gels on the strobes in the background. You can make the background any color you like with colored gels. You can control how deep the color is by turning the power up or down on the background. If the background reads f/8 with a red or blue gel on the background strobes, and the light on your model reads f/11, your background will essentially be a stop underexposed. This gives you a very deep and saturated color. If the background reading is f/16 and your model reading is f/11, the background will turn brighter than the gel itself, so it will be a light blue or red. Digital photography makes setting up this lighting so much easier, because you can see exactly how the color looks at the time of the shot.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Remelius.

The image above shows this technique in full effect. Here, photo student Stephanie Remelius matches the color of her model’s dress to the background perfectly in-camera without any postproduction work.

Copyrighted material. Excerpt used with permission, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Featured photographer: Dirk Fletcher, Stephanie Remelius

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