Ever dream of having your own home photography studio? This is the holy grail for many passionate photographers. A controlled environment in which you can practise your craft. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Here are some tips to help you get started.
A typical space suitable for professional studio photography.
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How Big Should Your Studio Be
You don’t need to have access to a 100 square metre venue to take studio portraits. You can convert a spare room in your house or a renovated tool shed in your garden into a studio.
Even the smallest home studio will help. You’ll master the many ways to work with the light, the equipment, and your models.
Working in smaller spaces can be quite challenging though. It demands a good deal of flexibility, an ability to make compromises, and a lot of creativity.
There are upsides to working in a photography studio setting like this too. It will teach you how to take good portraits in less-than-ideal locations.
High-key self-portrait inspired by a famous photograph of David Bowie by photographer Gavin Evans. Captured in less than 4 square metres of space in my living room.
Another portrait done in the space of a few square metres. The visible flash acts as a stage reflector, creating the feeling of a live performance.
Consider Your Portrait Photography Style
Think of your style and how you want to light your subjects. This should guide you in choosing the space for your photography studio setup.
Think about the types of portraits you plan on taking and what you want them to look like. Do you like working with natural light? Then you will need a place with big windows.
A self-portrait of the author in silhouette against the window of his living room.
Are you a flash photographer? An empty wine cellar or basement is great for shooting moody portraits.
Using flash, you can shoot almost anywhere. Even in a small, empty basement.
What to Keep in Mind When Setting Up a Home Studio
Fixed Location or Portable?
The biggest question will be how to set about building your own photography studio? Where should you start? Well, there is no single answer to this.
Do you have a place you can turn into a photography studio or do you prefer/need to create a studio on location depending on the situation (at a client’s location, in your living room, etc.)?
Do you have a dedicated space? One you can make into a portrait home photography studio setup? If so, then you need to invest in equipment that is portable, compact, and easy to store away.
If you’re not doing photoshoots on a regular basis, you can get away with a clean wall and window light. You won’t need to set up a photo studio.
But say you’re photographing product photography several times a week. You won’t want to tear down and rebuild your studio setup everytime. This is, of course, unless you need the space for something else.
Building a photo studio takes time, planning, effort and money. If you want to save money, then you’ll need to invest more time. Home photograph studios can be very beneficial.
The author’s main studio equipment, all packed up. Light stands, umbrella, two octaboxes, a 5-in-1, 1 m large reflectors and a 1.5 x 2.1 m collapsible background plus other small accessories. Lacking a place to turn into a studio, compact equipment is necessary for temporary studio setups.
How to Choose Your Photography Studio’s Size
Do you like to photograph groups or people in action? If so, look for big spaces for unobstructed motion.
For single-person portraits and head shots, a few square metres are enough. Portraits of newborns and toddlers are possible almost anywhere.
Newborns and young toddlers can be photographed in close quarters, with little equipment.
The size of the studio will affect both your photography and your equipment.
It’s easier to control the light in large photography studios. In very small places, or ones with a low ceiling, stray light can be more of a problem.
When it comes to how to build a photography studio, you want to ensure your equipment meets your needs. Do not spend a lot of money on a light that you’ll never use, for example.
If your photo shoots are simple, keep your equipment simple. As you learn more, you’ll want to branch out. Start small and don’t overextend your budget.
How to Get Rid of Ambient Light
Also, keep in mind that, usually, when you work indoors, you do not want natural ambient light. This can contaminate your photographic studio lighting setup.
This does not mean you should work in total darkness, as you need to be able to focus your camera. But it is good to have a low level of ambient light. This will improve your portrait home photography studio setup.
You can achieve this by shielding the windows with curtains or by using flags (any kind of black panel or tissue). This will stop unwanted light from bouncing around the set.
To ensure your ambient light will is not affecting the photo, test the environment. Set up your camera to take a photo without firing your flash. Make sure that the resulting image is very underexposed.
You can then manipulate your lighting to achieve the exposure you want.
I usually photograph at f/8, ISO 200 (cannot go lower with my camera) and 1/125th of a second. I then use a flash meter or a trial-and-error process to set the power of the lights to match my target exposure.
A typical image from the author’s camera at f/8, ISO200 and 1/125 seconds. The ambient light in the room in the photo is almost completely suppressed.
How to Manage a Small Studio Space
Complicated lighting schemes can be trickier to do in small studios. This is because of the lack of space.
For the same reason, your expensive 70-200mm f/2.8 could end up being too ‘long’ for the place. Due to this, you will only be able to take headshots (at best).
In small photography studios, it may be better to invest in lenses with shorter focal lengths. These should be 80-100mm to be able to take larger portraits.
Finally, your home photography studio setup should have a few power sockets around.
You’ll likely have to plug in gear. These could be lights, laptop (if you shoot tethered), chargers. Or even fans (continuous lights produce a fair amount of heat).
Also a stereo (a bit of music can help your model to relax), and a coffee machine or water boiler for tea.
What’s a Basic Gear Setup for a Small Home Studio
Here is a handy list of basic gear setup for a small home studio:
Lights – One light and a reflector is more than enough to start practising. But three lights will give you the best flexibility. Those lights can be three cheap manual speedlights. Try the Yongnou 560 IV, or studio strobes such as Bowens Gemini strobes.
Lighting modifiers – A reflector and umbrella are a must. Neewer and Godox produce cheap umbrellas, softboxes, and octaboxes. These are quite good and fold into small, easy-to-store packages.
Light stands – You need one stand for each light. As a rule of thumb, the heavier your light is (along with the light modifier), the sturdier your stands need to be. Don’t invest in cheap gear or you will risk your lights being too unstable and wobbly. Prefer stands that extend to 2.4 metres and higher, as often the lights are above the model. It is also useful to have a small stand. This can light the model from below or to hide your rim/background light behind the model.
Background – A collapsible background is a good way to start. That is if you cannot install a permanent background. Impact and other brands are not too expensive. Especially when compared to Lastoline collapsible backdrops.
Here’s more info on what you need when building your studio kit.
How to Choose the Best Lighting Equipment for Your Home Studio
Perfect in small photography studios and for portable setups;
Lightweight and small;
Cheap, particularly manual units like Yongnuo, Phottix, etc.
Lack of modelling light makes you create your setup with a ‘trial and error’ procedure;
Can have long recycle time, particularly at full power, making hard to shoot in burst.
Some of the speedlights’ shortcomings can be overcome by using flash units such as the Godox AD 360.
These are much more powerful than speedlights, whilst remaining portable. Unfortunately, these units are quite expensive.
Photography Studio Flashes
Can have built-in a modelling light.
Heavy and bulky;
Need sturdy light stands;
Cheap units can overheat and stop working until they cool down.
Whatever lighting system you choose, you need light stands. And a way to trigger your lights when off camera.
Light stands are crucial, particularly if you work with heavy lights and large softboxes. Pictured here are the author’s sturdy Quadralite light stand (right). The more compact Manfrotto Nano (left) can safely support quite a lot of weight.
How many lights should you have? I would say three lights. These will give you a great deal of flexibility in your work.
Three flash units ensured this dynamic portrait. Two light the subject and one to light the background right behind the model, to help her stand out.
But don’t let the shopping fever get you. Start with one light, learn the basics and build up your equipment once you need more flexibility. You can also make great portraits with a single bare off-camera, speedlight.
One-light portraits are typically moody and in the low-key style. The hard light of the bare flash suits best male models.
Single-flash photography is also a great way to learn how to light your model in your portrait home photography studio setup. Different light schemes work better with a single light rather than a multi-light setup.
Must-Have Light Modifiers
Reflectors – They bounce light back into the scene. They act like an additional light source. 5-in-1 reflectors provide different kind of reflective surfaces. These are silver, gold, white, black and translucid.
Umbrellas – The cheapest light modifiers, soften light from the flash. With umbrellas, though, light will spill everywhere. Thus reducing your ability to control the light, particularly in small studios.
Softboxes/Octaboxes – more expensive than umbrellas, they allow you to have better control over your light
Grids – Grids concentrate the light in tight beams, making light very directional.
Gels – Gels are sheets of semitransparent materials. They come in different shapes (to adapt to your light source) and colours. They change the background color, when used on a background light. And they introduce light effects in your portrait. They are cheap too.
Flags – They stop stray light from bouncing around the set. Flags can be from anything that is black. A panel, a cardboard, a curtain, a cloth, etc. work really well. 5-in-1 reflectors have a black side allowing you to use them as flags.
A selection of the author’s light modifiers. A 2-in-1 umbrella, 1 medium octabox, a large octabox, a 5-in-1 circular reflector and a much smaller one. Brands like Neewer and Godox are not too expensive and provide decent quality for amateur photographers.
Bear in mind that, for a given flash output power, the larger the light modifier is, the softer (but weaker) your effective light will be.
How to Choose a Background for Your Home Studio
There are two kinds of studio backgrounds you can choose from. A collapsible portrait backdrop. Or a professional studio backdrop on support or on a rail/roll system fixed to a wall or ceiling.
A 1.5 x 2.1 m, black and white, Impact collapsible background (author’s height, for scale: 1.70 m)
Fold in a compact, portable package;
One face black, for low key portraiture and the other one will turn it into a white photo backdrop for high-key photography.
Small, most suitable for headshots or single person portraiture;
The tissue can have creases;
Folding them is an art difficult to master.
Professional Portrait Background
Can be paper, vinyl or tissue backgrounds;
Can fit many background sizes.
A heavy system to carry around – not so compact;
Cheap models will not support heavy backgrounds, such a 3 x 11 m paper roll.
As per the background colour, they come in black, white, and grey. For small studios, a grey backdrop is the best solution. It can be black or white depending on your lighting setups.
Gels can also work to change the colour of the background in your images.
If you have a Speedlite, why not try some DIY. Store bought modifiers can be expensive to buy, and you might find you don’t use them all the time.
Creating them at home means that you get to try different ways to light your portraits. All without spending a lot of money. You can try before you buy, or keep the ones you made.
With a few small pieces of plastic, you can create a few different modifiers. Other items you might have laying around the house.
You might need to buy a pack of Pringles, but then you can enjoy them too!
Other Optional Gear
When you build your portrait home photography studio, don’t look only into photography materials. Consider getting these everyday accessories that will make your life easier:
Step ladders – Ladders are useful to change your point of view on your model. But also to change the orientation and settings of your lights.
Fans – A fan can introduce some motion into your portrait (think wind-blown hair or clothes). But they can also make it comfortable to work in hot studios. Continuous studio lights and strobes with modelling light generate a fair amount of heat. A fan can help provide some comfort. (In a small studio, you may prefer to use small speed lights.)
Extensions and power strips – If you use studio lights other than portable lights, think about getting extension cords and power strips. You’ll need space to plug in your lighting equipment.
Furniture – If you are going to do portraits larger than headshots, you should consider having some furniture around. Chairs and stools are must-haves.
I hope these tips give you a good idea of the basics you’ll need to build your own home/portable studio.
My advice is to not get too stuck on the idea of the perfect, ideal studio and equipment. What counts the most is your creativity and your willingness to squeeze the most out from what you have to work with.
‘After spending some quality time introducing my oldest son to Space Jam, I got inspired to do a portrait session. I have parquet in the living room, so I naturally turned it into a basketball court.’ — Andrea Minoia
Some Space Jam-themed self-portraits taken at the author’s home studio
Before you go, check out this video from Hoey on using bed sheets as photography backgrounds.
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