The holy grail of every passionate portrait photographer is having a portrait photography studio of their own, a controlled environment in which they can practise their craft and freely create the kinds of portraits that they want to take.
If you are a keen amateur, renting a pro photo studio from time to time is great solution, particularly if you have an important portrait session to do.
A typical space suitable for professional studio photography.
But because renting a professional studio is expensive, if you’re an amateur you may also be interested in home studio setups and creating your own DIY photography studio to do photoshoots at home.
You don’t need to have access to a 100 square metre venue to take your 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 master the many ways to work with the light, the equipment, and your models.
Working in smaller spaces can be quite challenging; it demands a good deal of flexibility, an ability to make compromises, and a lot of creativity. The upside is that working a studio setting like this will almost certainly 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. This was done in less than 4 square metres of space of the author’s 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 on a stage.
This guide provides some key tips to help you create the best home studio setup for your portrait photography needs while keeping to a budget and dealing with limited space.
Consider your Portrait Photography Style
Your style and how you want to light your subjects should guide you in choosing the space for your studio.
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 could make for a perfectly good location for shooting moody portraits.
Using flash, you can shoot just almost anywhere, even in a small, empty basement.
Tips on Choosing a Studio Location
Fixed location or portable?
Do you have a place you can turn into a 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.)?
If you cannot have a dedicated space you can make into a portrait photography studio, then you need to invest in equipment that is portable, compact, and easy to store away.
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.
Do you like to photograph groups or people in action? If so, look for fairly big spaces with areas for unobstructed motion.
For single-person portraits and head shots, a few square metres are enough. Portraits of newborns and toddlers can be taken almost anywhere.
Newborns and young toddlers can be easily photographed in close quarters, with a minimum of equipment.
The size of the studio will affect both your photography and your equipment: in large studios it is generally easier to stay in control of your light, while in very small places, or ones with a low ceiling, stray light can be more of a problem.
Also, keep in mind that, usually, when you work indoors, you do not want your natural ambient light to contaminate your 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 relatively low level of ambient light in your portrait photography studio.
You can achieve this by shielding the windows with curtains or by using flags (any kind of black panel or tissue) to 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 in such a way that when you take a photo without firing your flash, the resulting image is severely 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.
Complicated lighting schemes involving more lights can be trickier to do in small studios 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 and you will be forced to take only headshots (at best). In small studios it may be better to invest in lenses with shorter focal lengths (say around 80-100mm) to be able to take larger portraits.
Finally, your portrait photography studio, wherever you create it, should have at least a few power sockets around. You’ll likely have to plug in gear such as lights, laptop (if you shoot tethered), chargers, fans (continous lights produce a fair amount of heat), stereo (a bit of music can help your model to relax), and perhaps a coffee machine or water boiler for tea.
Choose Gear that Suits Your Style and Your Space
Here is a handy list showing what I consider a 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, like the Yongnou 560 IV, or studio strobes such as Bowens Gemini strobes.
- Lighting modifiers – A reflector and umbrella are the first light modifiers you must have around in your home studio. Neewer and Godox produce relatively cheap umbrellas, softboxes, and octaboxes that 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 and professional 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 to light the model for below or to hide your rim/background light behind the model.
- Background – A collapsible background is a good way to start if you cannot install a background permanently and if you can limit yourself to portrait a single person. Impact and other brands are not too expensive, as compared to Lastoline collapsible backdrops.
Below you’ll find a bit more information on how to select each of these components when building your studio kit.
Selecting the right lighting equipment
- Perfect in small studios and for portable setups
- Lightweight and small
- Cheap, particularly the fully manual units as Yongnuo, Phottix, etc.
- Low power
- 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, which are much more powerful than speedlights, whilst remaining portable. Unfortunately, these units are quite expensive.
- Powerful light
- 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), and the more compact Manfrotto Nano (left), which can safely support quite a lot of weight.
How many lights should you have? I would say three lights will already give you a great deal of flexibility in your work.
Three flash units have been used for this dynamic portrait: two light the subject and one is used 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 built up your equipment once you need more flexibility, as great portraits can also be made 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 photography studio, as different light schemes are better understood with a single light rather than with a multi-light setup.
Must-have light modifiers
- Reflectors – they bounce light back into the scene, effectively acting as an additional light source. 5-in-1 reflectors provide different kind of reflective surfaces: silver, gold, white, black and translucid.
- Umbrellas – the cheapest light modifiers, are used to 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 to have a better control over your light
- Grids – grids are used to concentrate the light in tight beams, making light very directional
- Gels – gels are sheets of semitransparent materials and comes in different shapes (to adapt to your light source) and colours. They can be used to change the background color, when used on a background light, and to introduce some light effect in your portrait. They are fairly cheap too
- Flags – they are used to stop stray light from bouncing around the set. Flags can be made by anything that is black: a panel, a cardboard, a curtain, a cloth, etc. 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, larger the light modifier is, the softer (but weaker) your effective light will be.
Choose Your Backgrounds
There are two kinds of studio background 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)
- Relatively cheap
- Fold in a compact, easy portable package
- Can have 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 head shots or single person portraiture
- The tissue can have creases
- Folding them is an art difficult to master
Professional portrait background
- Can be used with paper, vinyl or tissue backgrounds
- Can fit many background sizes
- 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, classically they come in black, white, and grey. For small studios a grey backdrop is the best solution, as it can be rendered 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 without spending a lot of money. You can try before you buy, or just 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 photography studio, don’t look only into photographic materials, but consider getting some 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 easily change the orientation and settings of your lights.
- Fans – A fan can be used to introduce some motion into your portrait (think wind-blown hair or clothes), but they can also be used to make it comfortable to work in hot studios. Continuous studio lights and strobes with modelling light generate a fair amount of heat, so 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 so that you have multiple places to plug in your lighting equipment.
- Furniture – If you are going to do portraits larger than headshots, you should consider having some pieces of 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, as 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
If you want to know more on how to create a studio anywhere, I suggest you to read this book from Nick Fancher and, if you need to boost your creativity while working in a small home studio, check out Gavin Hoey’s videos on Adorama’s YouTube channel.
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