My Go-To Lighting For Professional Portraits

My Go-To Lighting for Professional Headshots

Everyone is unique.

A lighting pattern isn’t the end of a process, it’s the beginning. The lighting setup you use for a 5ft 8 male may not be suitable for a 5ft 8 female. It might not work for someone with glasses, it might not work for your next client despite working for the current one. Treat everyone who walks into your studio as a fresh challenge; your lights will have to change, even if that change is subtle.

Having said that let me also say that I always start my lighting pattern the same way unless I know the client is looking for something specific.

The lighting arrangement is called “clam shell” and for obvious reasons – there’s a light above the subject angled down and a light (or reflector) below the subject angled up.

Clam shell lighting

Clam shell lighting (click to zoom in)


You’ll need to adjust the lights up and down depending on the subject. I do a few checks. Firstly, catch lights, if there’s no catch light above the pupil, perhaps the light is too high. The light below is less important, it’s there to fill in shadows in the eye socket, below the nose and below the chin.

Another thing to look for is collars and their shadows. You may need to adjust the lower light (either power or height or angle) to make sure the collars don’t produce an overly strong shadow on the neck.


The distance from the subject to the lights should be relatively short, an arms-length is a good start for medium size lighting modifiers.Part of your decision making might be related to the inverse square law. I’ll avoid getting technical here but the distance from the light to the subject will impact the amount of light that hits the background, so if you want f8 on the subject but you want no light hitting the background, you may want to move the light relatively close to the subject so the light fall off is relatively quick. If you have a large space vs a small space you may have different constraints that you have to work with, experiment before your client arrives so that your set-up is ready to go.


You may also need to adjust the power of your lights. Your client may be wearing a white shirt or blouse that will act like a reflector, they may be wearing something dark and textured which may act to absorb more light. During my sessions, clients are free to change their outfit and when they do, I often find myself bumping the lights up or down to compensate for the fabric. My clients also move, not drastically but even after I’ve positioned my lights and we’ve got a good idea of the kind of pose we’ll be working on, I may make subtle changes to the light to compensate.

Example of clam shell lighting on a portrait of a female.

Clam shell lighting produces even lighting across the face.

How many lights.

In theory you can do a clam shell with just 1 light. The key light would be the light above the subject. You would then need a reflector of some sort to bounce light back onto the subject from below. Please note, if you use a grid on the key light, the amount of light able to hit the reflector will be very very little, possibly none. If you need white behind the subject, a white wall will do, or any white material, ideally close to the subject so similar light is hitting both the subject and the material.

If you get it right, make a note of the height and relative position of the lights (you can also take a short video or a few photos of the arrangement so you have a record), but remember, where we came into this discussion : everyone is unique. Get yourself a good starting point and then tweak, individualise, adjust and make the arrangement perfect for the personality in-front of your camera.