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Actress headshot, studio lighting diagram

Actress headshot. Portrait of Swedish actress taken in photo studio. Clamshell lighting explained with diagram

Recently I helped an actress in Sweden with some headshots for her promotion material. The main idea was to take a couple of portraits in my studio without a lot of makeup and retouching, just her face, clean and simple.

As she has a calm face with a strong bone structure I opted for a classic clamshell lighting to focus on her eyes. Her black clothing and hair framed it nicely I think.

Studio lighting setup diagram for headshot

Studio lighting setup diagram for a clamshell portrait actress headshot

The basic idea of a clam shell setup is simple, just put on light on top and one below, and voila! And that is what I did.

A gridded beautydish from above

On a boom stand I used a AcuteB 600R flash head with a Softlight reflector from Profoto. To keep the light from going everywhere, I used a grid. That way I could keep the main light from hitting the background in my small studio. The distance between the model and the medium grey background was approx. two meters, I think.

I wanted the catchlight of the whole beautydish to be visible in her eyes, so I adjusted the height of the stand until it looked right. A little higher and the reflection would have been partially covered by her eyelashes. And it would have also created more shadows under her nose and chin (and other parts as well).

Photo studio clamshell portrait for actress headshot

A softbox from below

To reduce the shadows and make the eyes “pop” a bit, I added a medium sized softbox from below. It lights the iris and flattens the facial features a bit. If the light from below is too strong, everything becomes very very flat and boring, so it is trial and error until it looks right.

Earlier I had tried a similar technique, but with a silver reflector from below and a very large light source (relatively) from above (see Clamshell portrait with silver reflector), which is easier to get right.

It took some test shots to get the lighting ratio as I wanted it, finally I put some ND-filter on the softbox to lower the light output so it didn’t overpower the main light from above.

A little gradient on the background

As the main light and the softbox didn’t light the background, a medium grey seamless paper, I put the last light on a low stand with a gridded reflector to create a small gradient on the dark background. Just to make her silhouette and hair stand out a bit.

I enhanced the effect of the background light in post processing to make it look better in the different shots, just a little not to let the very dark hair blend in too much with the very dark background or disappear completely. Had she been a blonde, I think I would have done it without the background light.

Black and white clamshell portrait of Swedish actress

The problem with clamshell lighting

I don’t have that much experience of portraits of this kind, but what I have learned is that it takes a lot of micromanagement not to make it look completely artificial. A little to much light from below and you get a portrait that almost looks like as the do in classic horror movies, with shadows coming from the wrong direction.

A lot of light in the eyes is always nice and makes the subject look very sparkly. But the same light, when it adds light where there should be shadows, can make it look very strange. It is a matter of taste, of course, but I think it is easier to “understand” a portrait when you can feel the direction from which the light came from. We are more used to that, I think.

And too much light from below might completely remove the shadow under the chin, and that might not be flattering for your subject.

Equipment used

For this shot I used three Profoto lights (one AcuteB 600R and two Compacts) together with a beautydish, a medium sized softbox and a gridded reflector. The camera was my old Nikon D700 together with my favorite portrait lens, the 85mm/1,4. Post processing was done in Nikon Capture NX2 and some adjustments in Photoshop to convert it to black and white.

Next time I use this setup I think I will place the main light (the beautydish) a little higher, just to make the shadows under the nose and chin a little stronger and longer. Maybe also make the background a little bit more interesting as well. Or just light it evenly, so it doesn’t distract.

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