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One light clamshell studio portrait setup

Simple one light clamshell setup for studio portraits and headshots using an Octa

When shooting a portrait session for the ad campaign I mentioned earlier on this blog, the 4-light clamshell portraits in black and white, I tried to reduce the setup to the bare minimum required to get a good portrait.

And, this is what I got. A really simple setup for a nice portraits using only one studio light, a big light modifier (the 5 foot/150 cm softbox Octa from Profoto) and a silver plus a white reflector. And a grey paper background of course.

Setup diagram, one light clamshell portrait


After removing the other three lights I used for the other portraits, and putting away most of the reflectors and flags, this must be the simplest portrait setup I have used (even simpler that the one light studio portrait setup.

Keep it simple

In many ways, one light lighting is what we are used to see, at least outdoor. But what makes light outside so special is the reflections from every possible angle, sometimes hard and sometimes just something barely visible. I didn’t try this lighting without the reflector, but my guess is that it would have been a bit boring.


Just one light to get right

Lighting a portrait in a small studio with just one light is quite easy. Adding one silver and one white reflector makes it a little bit more complicated, but not that much. Just use a very large lightsource (relative to the subject) and there is just a question of position and angle.

And effect, of course. But with a digital camera, getting the exposure right is not that hard. Just take a couple of test shots and check the histogram on the LCD-screen. Or open the files in Photoshop/Lightroom/Capture NX2 and have a look.

Add some reflectors to spice it up

After the main settings feels good, move the reflectors closer or more far away, or angle them differently, to change the feel of the portrait. Much simpler than having to check light ratios for different light sources.

These portraits were shot for the ad campaign I mentioned here (Setup for black and white clam shell studio portrait) but I simplified the lighting just to not have all the portraits look the same.

How to make it better (without more lights)

One of the things the ad agency wanted was that some corners should be dark, later they would crop the portraits and add a frame to them. The dark corners made it all fit nicely in the layout of the ads, but if I would have shot this as ordinary portraits, I think I would have added a small hair light to the last portrait.

The shadows of her dark hair and jacket almost disappears into the shadow of the background, so a little hair light would have been useful. A silver reflector attached to an arm on a stand, or something like that, would have produced enough reflections from the main light to separate it better from the background.

You could, of course, add reflectors on any side of the subject to create a more interesting light, just using one light. I might try that next time, just to see if it works. The problem is if you want to use the same setup for a lot of different subjects, then it might be easier to use more lights. I think.

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