Every photographer dreams about having a studio, but do you really need one? Can you justify the rent? What you really need is the ability to produce professional quality photos without the added expense of a commercial lease. For less than the move-in cost of a studio, you can buy the equipment you need to take professional quality shots at home.
If we adopt a more flexible idea about what a ‘studio’ is, we’ll find ourselves shooting more often and being pleased with the results.
What makes a studio different than a garage?
Most people agree that studio photographs contain two characteristics that differentiate them from casual snapshots:
Both of these elements are easy to achieve, and once you’ve done so your garage will be a studio. But what if you don’t have a garage? You’ll need an area of the house that affords enough room so you can step back from your subject at least six feet. Additionally, your subject should be another six feet from the background. That’s at least 12 feet of working area.
Perhaps the biggest room in your apartment is only 11 feet long. That doesn’t have to be a deal killer. You can stand down the hall or shoot through an open doorway to get the distance you need. As long as you have a direct line of sight to your subject you can get the shot, even if you have to stand out on the balcony to do it.
Backgrounds: Many photographers say that the best background for a portrait has little or no detail. The easiest way to accomplish that is by placing your subject in front of a blank wall. You’ll get the best results by making sure your subject is far enough from the wall that his/her shadow doesn’t appear in the frame. Most people have a blank exterior wall on the outside of their home or apartment that will work, but they haven’t thought about using it for portraits.
A simple one light setup against a white wall can make for an excellent photograph.
If you don’t have any blank walls, solid color cloth backgrounds are available quite reasonably from many sources and are much better than resorting to window drapes or bed sheets. Many beginning photographers will use a background cloth and wonder why their photos still look unprofessional. The reason is usually because the background is too sharp and the wrinkles are distracting. Begin by buying a background that is wrinkle resistant and steam out the obvious creases before you use it. Remove the remainder of the wrinkles in Photoshop.
Shooting with the largest aperture on your lens (i.e. lowest number such as f/2 or f 2.8) will help to limit the depth-of-field and soften the background. Fixed focal length lenses, particularly the very fast 50mm and 85mm, will allow you to shoot at f/1.8 or f/1.4. The results will astound you. If you’re not accustomed to changing the aperture settings on your camera, or you don’t have a DSLR, use the ‘Portrait’ mode on your camera to limit depth-of-field. Increasing the distance between your subject and background will also help to soften unwanted details.
North facing window light with the camera in Portrait Mode will produce a soft background
If you plan to use your home studio for photographing still life or products, it will be worthwhile to purchase a roll of background paper. If your subjects are smaller than a watermelon, a roll of butcher paper may suffice. For larger items, you can purchase rolls of background paper in widths of 4 feet or 12 feet at many art supply stores.
The last word on backgrounds: The definition of portrait photography has widened to include many different styles. Perhaps the blank studio background is not what you’re looking for. Many of us have areas in our homes that will serve as interesting backgrounds if we manage to render them in soft focus. These include book cases, shelves, corners, staircases, etc. Walk around the house and take some quick test portraits in various areas to see how they will appear in photos. If the backgrounds are dark, you’ll have better results. You’ll be amazed at how useful some areas can be for portraits.
Single bare bulb strobe lighting and familiar furniture in the background make this look like a spontaneous candid, but it's a posed shot. Set up time was less than 10 minutes. If you leave your lights set up, you'll be ready to shoot when your subjects are in a happy mood.
Lighting: It’s not as complicated as you think
1-Cameras are getting so sensitive to light that bright room light or window light is enough to make an image.
2-You’ve already done plenty of available light shots and you know you want something better, and that’s why you’re reading this blog!
3-You can get great photos with a small investment in lighting gear. If you’re on a budget, begin with just the items that control natural light described below.
4-If you can afford a modest investment, get some of the items described in the Artificial Lighting section.
5-Every time you use a piece of lighting gear, you justify its cost. Buy quality gear so it will last for years! The extra cost will quickly pay for itself.
Natural Lighting: The window portrait
One rule continues to guide image makers: KEEP IT SIMPLE. Window light portraits are quite attractive and easy to accomplish. Lovers of vintage imagery will be delighted with the window portrait because it resembles the type of photography that was done from 1865 through 1915. It is quite simple to achieve if you follow some simple rules:
1-The window should not appear in the shot! There are exceptions, but normally you should have it just outside the frame so it doesn’t distract from the subject or throw off your exposure.
2-Begin by placing your subject’s shoulder against a NORTH FACING window or any window without direct sunlight passing through it. We’ll deal with direct sun windows later.
3-Face your subject and put your shoulder right up to the window. You should now have a pleasant ‘split’ lighting pattern on your subject’s face. (half shadow and half highlight)
4-Have your subject turn their face a bit towards the window, but keep their eyes on the camera. That posing and position is the basis for a simple fool-proof window portrait.
5-You can reduce the contrast of the shadow side of the face by using a reflector. My favorite reflector for this is the 42 inch LiteDisc® from Photoflex®. I also like the Photoflex® First Studio 39inch x 39inch LitePanel Kit with the White fabric. Just hold it up to the shadow side of the face, just outside the frame, and you’ll see the lighting ratio improve right away.
6-Experiment with different posing and focal lengths.
Make a floorplan of your house with indications of where the sun travels throughout the day. Do a series of test shots in eachof the rooms that have large windows so you'llfamiliarize yourself with the character of light at 10AM, 2PM and 6PM. WHen the time comes for an important photo, you'll be ready.
What if the big window in my house is south facing and I get direct sun?
1-To make it easy on yourself, you should have soft light for the traditional window portrait. There are a number of things that will work, but my favorite is the Photoflex® First Studio 39inch x 39inch LitePanel Kit. The kit comes with diffusion material and a reversible white/soft gold fabric to use as a reflector. Use the diffusion fabric to convert harsh sunlight to perfect soft light for all types of portrait and still life shooting. There's also a 39 x 72 inch and 72 x 72 inchsize LitePanel for big windows or outdoor use. Free lesson on LitePanel.
Artificial Lighting: Constant lights or strobe?
1-The two popular types of artificial photographic lighting are strobe (flash) and constant lights. Strobes store energy and release it in one bright burst of light. Your camera probably has a little pop-up flash on it, but we’ll be talking about the more powerful off-camera strobes in this blog.
2-Constant lights, such as incandescent, florescent and LED burn with constant output. Various ‘vapor’ lights like sodium and mercury used to illuminate parking lots and exteriors are also constant lights, but they’re not suitable for general purpose photography.
3-Artificial lighting enables you to schedule shooting sessions at all hours, not just when the sun is cooperating. Constant lights work well for both still photography and video.
4-No matter what type of lighting you decide upon, be sure to invest in a reflector. My favorite is the Photoflex® 42 inch MultiDisc®. If you get the LiteDisc® Holder Kit, you’ll be able to position the reflector exactly where you need it for natural or artificially lit portraits.
1. If you’re planning to photograph adults (that are willing to pose) you can do quite well with medium output constant lights such as a 150watt compact florescent or a 1000watt tungsten. I recommend the Photoflex® StarLite® fixture because it has a large mogul base socket for high wattage bulbs and a built-in swivel for attaching it to light stands. NOTE: I don’t recommend inexpensive clamp-on hardware store lights – they aren’t safe with high wattage bulbs.
Photoflex StarLite fixture accepts tungsten or fourescent lamps. Free lesson on StarLite portraits
2. If you’re planning to occasionally photograph children I recommend getting a kit with two StarLite® lamps to deliver ample illumination and enable you to shoot with fast shutter speeds. Kids are active, so you’ll need to use a shutter speed of 1/100 second or faster to get sharp images. A two-light kit will also be great for high quality videos.
Example of portrait taken with StarLite fixture
1. If child photography is your main objective, you should get strobe (flash) lighting. Photoflex® sells several strobe kits and all of them come with a wireless radio transmitter and receiver so you’ll be able to follow the kids around the room and get great action shots without tripping over cables.
2. The Photoflex® StarFlash® strobes come with a 250watt modeling lamp, so if you’re switching between still photography and video you’ll have good lighting for either.
3. StarFlash® strobes run on household AC current, so they’re not convenient for location shooting. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of strobe shooting on location, you should consider getting two Photoflex® ShoeMount Location Kits that use FlashFire® battery powered strobes.
This photo was taken with a combination of natural light and a ShoeMount strobe. Free ShoeMount portrait lesson
Casual portrait taken through an open doorway with StarFlash® strobe kit. Free lesson on how to get this shot
Summary: That's all we have time for now. Look for Home Studio Part 2 in the future. In the meantime, visit the many free lessons on PhotoflexLightingSchool.com®!