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Clamshell Portrait By The Sea

Clamshell lighting is something I used to do a lot before, then I took a break and almost never used reflectors outdoors. Now I think it is time to bring back that style, as it is gives a very flattering and nice portrait light with very simple equipment.

All you need, in its simplest form, is your main light and a reflector. If you want, you can always switch the reflector to a fill light, but that is maybe not as simple on location as it is in a photo studio.

Start with exposing the background right

This assignment was for a Swedish publishing house that needed new authour portraits of Camilla Sten.

We met up by the sea in Stockholm on a place I knew had good cliffs where people use to sunbathe. Luckily most people were working at the time we were there, so we had a small portion of the area for ourselves.

I started as I usually do, with dialling in the ambient light of the scene. The small photo shows a quick test shot where Camilla was in the shadow of my main light and its large lighting modifier.

As you can see, if I want a decent exposure of Camilla in the shadow, the background gets almost blown out. My idea was to make this look like we were on a small and remote island in the Stockholm archipelago, so this angle would not work.

Almost white backgrounds can be nice, but I would rather have a deep blue sea for these portraits. So I stood up, with Camilla still sitting, and placed my Profoto B1 with a Deep Umbrella Large White and the Front Diffuser on my right.

It was never my intention to get these portraits to look real and not lit by flash, but placing my main light camera left served two purposes here. First, it shielded Camilla from the sun, and second, it didn’t create conflicting shadows if I wanted to crop the portraits differently and get more of the scenery into the picture. All light at least comes from the same direction.

Regarding the exposure, I used aperture f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/4000 second to get the background as dark as I wanted it. Here it is very convenient to have a modern battery powered light as for example the Profoto B1 with HSS.

Should I have tried this with my old equipment, it would have been a lot more complicated. Even if I have used these lights for a couple of years now, I still think about how much easier things have gotten. Thanks for that, progress.

Clamshell Lighting explained

The photo above describes this lighting setup in a simple way. Just have you main light as the upper part of a clam, and a reflector below. Put your model near the “mouth” of it, and you have a nice portrait lighting that both creates shadows and fill.

The main thing I use to look out for is that the reflector (or fill light, if you rather add a second light from below) doesn’t ruin your contrast. If you don’t place the reflector correctly (a matter of taste, of course), you might wind up with too much light from below.

Using the white surface of a reflector gives, in my opinion, the easiest fill that looks most natural. Silver tends to look a bit too shiny, and gold has never been something I would understand the function of. Silver/white might work sometimes, especially when used alone on a cloudy day.

In the last portrait, I had the reflector attached at the lighting stand but a bit higher up so it only reflected light onto her face.

That makes the shadows under her chin a bit deeper and keeps the contrast a bit higher.

A better reflector holder?

As I use this more and more nowadays, I am looking at smarter ways of attaching the reflector onto the lighting stand. But, after having tried the very complicated and unnecessary big reflector holders, I am working on a smarter solution.

Hopefully I am done with that soon and can show you the results. It is very effective to have a complete setup attached to a sturdy lighting stand that you can move around and adjust easily.

If you have a clever solution for holding a reflector that is easy to use and doesn’t require to much space in your bag, please let me know. I am open for any suggestion to work smarter.


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