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Clamshell portrait setup – Swedish writer

Author portrait using a clamshell setup in photo studio

For good portraits I really like to get in close and have big lights reflected in the eyes, that is why portrait photography is so much easier in the summer. You can always find a nice, big reflecting surface and place your subject in the shade so you get the soft, wrap-around light and natural looking shadows.

Mimic soft summer light

But, here in Sweden we don’t have the luxury of daylight that often, the best solution is to create some studio lighting that can be a good alternative to that soft light. In my experience, what you need is a big light as you main source of lighting, and a lot of soft fill. And maybe a little bit of white light from behind to get that warm summer feeling.

3-light clamshell setup diagram

Lighting Setup - Clam-shell diagram 3-light portrait of author with shallow DOF

A big octa softbox and a silver reflector

That’s the main part of this setup, the Profoto Compact 600R above in a 5′ softbox Octa for a big, soft light and a silver reflector below (just an ordinary round 5-in-1 reflector on a stand) for a hard a crispy fill. You could of course use any big light source from above, but I really like the Octa and you get (almost) round catchlights in the eyes, which is a plus, I think.

A big white screen for fill

Camera right a had a big white cardboard screen to act as fill light and reduce the shadows as I shot from an angle and not directly on-axis from the main light. My main reason for not putting the camera directly below the softbox was to avoid having a flat look which is what the clamshell can do to a portrait sometimes.

Strip softbox with a mask

Behind the model of the day, camera left, I placed a Profoto Strip Softbox fitted with a mask that made the opening in the softbox just 7 cm wide (about 3 inches). Just to control the light so it gave a small rim light and lit the hair a little bit. In my small studio, when using reflectors everywhere, the light tends to bounce all over the place, so every way I can control it is welcome.

Softbox behind diffusor

On the other side behind the model I had a medium sized softbox behind a large diffusor with a white semi-transparent material on a frame to create a big window-like light from behind.

Portrait photography of Swedish writer using a clamshell lighting setup

Different angles for different portraits

I’m quite new to this kind of lighting, having mostly used studio lighting that creates very distinctive shadows and trying to avoid having light from every direction.

But I like it.

Especially with a model like this, with a lot of wrinkles and tanned skin, it feels like summer in the Swedish Archipelago. He could have been a sailor or something like that, but he isn’t. But he is a very good writer.

The really good part is that using this kind of setup, a slightly different angle will create a very different portrait, so it seems very useful that way. The first portrait was taken a little from above but more from the side, and the other one more straight on.

ND-filter for shallow DOF

Mostly, when I take portraits in my small photo studio using studio flashes, I have a problem with getting to much light everywhere. But this setup together with using a ND-filter on the lens that reduces the amount of light in the camera by 3 f-stops, it gets much better. And I can use f/3.2 for a much more pleasing portrait.

Now I just have to add a layer of ND-filter on the main light to try out some really short depth of field portraits. But that’s a project for a future session.

Please leave a comment if you have any questions or just to say hello.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Robert M March 2, 2010, 19:38

    Thanks for the write up and diagrams. Looking to applying this guide to my next shoot.

  • Keith October 31, 2014, 17:09

    I love the lighting setup here. One thing that you can do when you have toO much light is to only use the modeling lamps with a tad higher ISO. I have a small studio also, and I’ve found that it works really well.

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