Creating your own home studio for photography - Part 1

So, recently I have had a few friends visiting me and my home studio to play around with studio lights and setups. And most photographers want to have a studio, even if only a small home studio like mine. But there are obviously some pros and cons to making a home studio.

Here are some consideration and ideas that I have run into during the setup of mine, and I thought I would share with others looking to setup their own home studio.

Photography is a great hobby, art and profession.
But sometimes the lack of nice natural light, or simply nasty weather, can be an obstacle, and getting a studio space, can solve many of those issues. You are no longer contending with the sun and clouds and timing of day, and rain is no longer an issue. 


First considerations

Here is a little secret one learns when you convert a room in the house to a small home studio. You start thinking that once you have a dedicated room you can leave the setup one day and continue the next. But in reality, unless it is a very big room, the studio will only fit one setup at a time, which means that one has to pack everything away after usage or a shoot, to make room or simply in order to get around. (there is also the concern that if the lighting setup is left as is between shoots, that many things might break if an earthquake hits, like here in Japan. (More on securing your expensive stuff in part 2.)  However, in the end this only means that the small home studio should be treated as any other workspace really, cleaned up/stowed away after use.
All that is fine, but it leaves the question; “if I need to clean everything up after every shoot, is the advantage of having a dedicated room big enough that it outweighs just doing a temporary setup for a shoot in the living room when I need it, essentially saving space and time” ?

Obviously I still think it is worth it, but many might not. Especially not if there are other uses for the room in question that the family might want. Definitely something worth considering before you get started. 

Space considerations

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My home studio is approx. 2,5m X 3,5m, and I have 2 door-size windows a the end of the room, which lets in a lot of natural light. This is all great and all, but really you will want to limit that with black-out curtains to be in full control of the light for flash use.(or as best you can), the rest we can kill with a high aperture setting, but ideally you will want to know that whatever light is in the picture, is what you added there.

I bought some heavy black curtains at the online Nitori shop, which was pretty cheap and did the trick nicely.

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They are in fact also what I use as black backdrop, so using the inverse square law I can generate a completely dark background by being approx. 1m away from the curtain, and by controlling light spill from the strobes, so nothing hits the background. 


If you don’t know what the inverse square law is, basically it is a physics law that states if you move 1 “length” away from the source of light, only 1/4 of the light will reach you.

Inverse square law

Inverse square law

More on the subject when applied for photography here.

For the 3,5m long wall I have a 1.8m white seamless backdrop screwed into the ceiling. 
I highly recommend mounting whatever backdrop you get, as 1, if mounted on light stands, the base of the stands will take up a lot of space, and 2, its one more thing that can tip over, or that you will trip over in an already tight space. And 3, once rolled up, it has no footprint in the studio and is out of the way.

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Recap! this gives me a black background on one wall, and a white background on another. And as added bonus, the curtain rails doubles as attachment point for other color cloth backgrounds. (more on good cheap alternatives to standard expensive cloth backgrounds in part 2)
Unfortunately I have a door on both of the remaining walls, one is entry to the room. The other is the entry to my workspace, where I do post-processing. a.k.a “The Bat-cave”.

Size of the room

I would argue that anything below 3m X 3m is too small, to practically use for anything but head and shoulder portraits. Filling a room with light is easy. The smaller the easier, as light will bounce around the walls and give you light form wanted and UNWANTED angles. This is for some reason especially the case when you don’t want it to, so softboxes that help you get more directional light and especially grids for the front to avoid the light spill is a must for small home studios in my opinion.
This will give you the control to add shadow and depth to a photo, and if you are looking to do the black backgrounds, it becomes really hard in a small room with only shoot through umbrellas.

Colored walls?

You will need to paint the room in a more neutral color, like a white(or a variation of white) if you do not, what ever light hits the walls, will bounce and pick up some of the color and hit your subject, and correcting color casts (not white balance) in post can be more difficult that it sometimes is made out to be. And again the smaller the room, the more light gets bounced.

Light bounce/spill light and control.

The choice between studio lights and flashguns I will get into in part 2, but lets assume for a second that you are starting cheap, and want to keep cost down. (surprise eh?)
Here is my take on the minimum required to give great results and still have endless possibilities in terms of setups.

  • 3 simple light stands.
  • 3 speed lights.
  • 3 Shoot through umbrellas(or preferably speed light softboxes*)
  • 1 wireless trigger. (at least one, as the remaining light can be triggered as slaves.)
  • 1 (5-in-1) reflector. Folds up neatly and has 101 uses.
  • 1 background. (can be a bed sheet, paper or?)
  • (obviously a camera and lens, tripod is not necessary, but very helpful)

“But wait! with only one speed light you can…”

Yes! you can do AMAZING things with only one speed light, but taking the step and getting you own dedicated room, get 2 more speed lights, and you will have close to no limitations on the amounts of setups you can do, and with a reflector in the mix for shadow fill and bounce you are good to go.  For instance if you are trying to do the pure white background, you will need at least to speed lights.
And if you get a big enough reflector, they are also really useful as backgrounds as they are stretched out and therefor have no wrinkles that will show up in the photo. ;)

You can use your on camera flash as trigger, but in a confined space, it is more likely to show up unintended in the picture despite the low output settings, and chances are good you do **not** want cables across the floor or hanging in the air to your flashes.  And with wireless triggers being dirt cheap these days, I highly recommend you get one. Remember you don’t need the expensive pocket wizards that will fire a flash 300m away in your home 3x4m studio. 
I recommend Yongnuo 560 MKII manual flashes and the Yongnuo wireless triggers, works like a charm, and have amazing value for the money.

Amazon link here —>  about 60USD a piece. (please note I have no affiliation with Yongnuo or Amazon, just linking to show what I am talking about)

Softboxes?

Again some advantages to using a soft box over an umbrella is that spill light is contained and in a small space, this is really key if you want to do anything but high key photography ;) This is particularly true once you get soft boxes with grids, so not only is your spill light contained on the box, but your light becomes directional and thereby much more controlled. The real down side is that packing away a soft box with grid is a pain in the ass, and as a light modifier a soft box is really something you will want space enough in your studio to not have to pack away in its case every time. Seriously! Personally I have a 120cm Octo soft box with grid that is never packed away, but is is also one of those modifiers that is just a joy to work with and I use all the time. This obviously takes up a large amount of space in my studio, but I have found that the best way to secure it is lowering the light stand as far as it will go, and rest it flat facing the wall  when not in use.

"With room to stretch your wings, soon you will want to fly"

- Alf

 

So now that you have a room, (if you have G.A.S.* like me) you will start to get more gear, and the big empty room you intended for backdrop, model freedom of motion is suddenly not so big when you need a shelf system for all the stuff that does not go into you current light setup. (in fact, you end up thinking it would be nice with a dedicated storage room for light modifiers like soft boxes and beauty dishes, light stands etc. but who has that luxury when you are living in a rented apartment? …in Japan no less) 

Okay well if you are just using shoot through umbrellas you should be okay as they obviously fold up nicely and do not take up much space, but more on why umbrellas might not be the best solution for you small studio later.

*G.A.S.(Gear acquisition syndrome) 

 

Please have a look back at this page soon, or grab the RSS feed so you don't miss the Part 2 of how to create your own home photography studio. I will go into further details regarding studio strobes and the differences in light modifiers.

 

If you have questions, regarding the setup or ideas you would have liked to hear more about, please let me know in the comments. I might get a chance to include your questions in Part 2 (or Part 3?)