Setting up a simple home studio can be extremely beneficial to any photographer. Whether you’re a professional portrait photographer or a graphic designer who needs product shots, a home studio gives you a place to work, experiment and learn new things. Below we’ll take a look at a few considerations to keep in mind when creating your own studio.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in July of 2010.
The first thing to consider is obviously space. You’ll need to empty out the garage or convince your spouse to let you convert the spare bedroom.
Ideally, you’ll want something nice and spread out with plenty of room to move around after it gets filled with equipment. Realistically, your home is probably full enough without a studio, so you’ll have to overcome claustrophobia and squish it in wherever you have room.
You’ll want to choose a room where you can tightly control the lighting environment at any time of the day or night. Natural light can be a great tool but if your studio has a window, make sure you have a way to completely block off the light coming from it for the many cases where you won’t want it interfering with the shot.
Another thing you’ll want to consider is whether or not the room is climate controlled, especially if you’re going to be storing your equipment there permanently. Here in Phoenix, the typical garage can get well above 120 degrees fahrenheit in the Summer; not the ideal place to store thousands of dollars in photography equipment. Also, unless you’re going for that sweaty look, this wouldn’t be the best environment to take photos in!
One final consideration is sound. If you only shoot still photos than you’ll be fine with any room but if you’re ever going to shoot video you’ll want to choose a room far away from noisy appliances like a washing machine. You also might want to invest in some soundproofing materials.
Any good studio has a few backdrops to take photos against. It’s probably a good idea to avoid cliche photographic backdrops like you’d expect to see at a shopping mall photo studio and instead opt for something simpler. Solid colors work, as well as something with a little texture (as long as it’s not too busy).
Backdrops commonly come in a variety of different materials and textures including muslin (cotton), canvas, vinyl, or just plain old paper. The cheapest versions are obviously the paper backdrops and typically start around $24.
If you want to go a little more professional, you can typically expect to spend $100-300 on a tougher and more interesting backdrop. You can get a decent backdrop kit complete with stands from Backdrop Source for around $175.
Of course, to start off you could take the poor man route and grab a bed sheet or some butcher paper and build a stand out of PVC pipe like in the picture above.
Lights are probably the most complicated and costly piece of the studio puzzle. I recently went over great deal of what you need to know in our tutorial on high key lighting.
To quickly reiterate for those that missed it, there are essentially two primary choices for studio lighting: continuous or flash. Continuous lighting rigs tend to run cheaper but burn a lot hotter and aren’t as versatile as flashes. With flashes you tend have much more power, increased quality of light and a much wider range of possibilities.
You can pick up a basic lighting studio kit for a couple hundred bucks, but can also easily spend upwards of $2,000 if you’re really serious about your setup. I recommend starting off small and purchasing a kit with two or three flashes. This should be plenty to achieve excellent results in a number of different styles and you can always add to it a piece at a time.
Umbrellas or Softboxes?
Looking at various lighting kits might have you wondering whether you should go for an umbrella or softbox setup for your studio. Which is better? There’s no absolute solution to this question as they both have pros and cons. Both essentially modify and filter light to make it softer and less harsh when it hits the subject.
Umbrellas are usually cheaper and fairly versatile. They often come with a reflective cover that allows you to shoot light into the umbrella and have it bounce back out or simply filter the light right through the material with the cover removed. Umbrellas can spread light out over a wide area and are therefore great for large rooms or groups of people. Finally, umbrellas are quicker to setup and tear down than softboxes, which can be quite complicated!
Softboxes tend to be a little pricier but they allow you to focus and control your light in a small area a lot better than umbrellas. These are perfect for when you’re shooting a single subject or are confined to a smaller area. Softboxes also make for much less distracting reflections than the shape you’ll get from the umbrella.
Most professional photographers would prefer to have a few of each but if you have a limited budget and are just getting started, umbrellas are a perfect first step.
Props and Costumes
Something you might not think to include but really should consider picking up is a bunch of crazy props. Having your portrait taken is a painfully boring process for many people and having silly stuff for them to dress up and play with can be a great way to loosen everyone up and inject a little fun into the situation.
Even the most stubborn model can become quite humorous with giant sunglasses and a fake mustache. Be sure to have plenty of different options to choose from: baseball bats and sunglasses for the tough guys, huge fake diamond rings for the ladies, and wildly fluffy toy monsters for the kids.
Even if the ultimate goal of the shoot is a serious portrait, starting off with some funny props encourages your subjects to relax and be themselves.
You’ll also want to consider some more practical props as well such as a few pieces of stylish furniture you can quickly move in and out of the scene. Anything you can do to break the typical mold of studio photography will help you stand out as a photographer.
There’s almost no end to the goodies you can put into your studio, but before you start considering mini fridges and plasma televisions, think about the things you’ll absolutely need. For instance, you’ll definitely have to pick up a decent tripod or two. You’ll also need extension cords and surge protectors to rig all that equipment up.
If you’re using flashes, you should consider some wireless flash triggers so you’ll have the freedom to move around. Finally, get a ladder to snag some above shots (and to help hang your backdrop), some curtains that people can change clothes behind, and a mirror or two for those last minute makeup and hair checks.
The costs of all this can mount exponentially and quickly leave you penniless. Don’t feel like you have to get everything at once, plenty of photographers take years to build a respectable studio. Be careful of investing too much money into a hobby that isn’t generating revenue. As you start getting paid gigs you can reinvest some money back into your equipment fund.
Show Us Yours!
Now that you’ve read our guide to setting up a home studio, get out there and build your own. Snap a photo of your setup, upload it to Flickr and leave a link in the comments below.
Also be sure to tell us if there are any items you find essential that we didn’t mention above.