Thursday, December 2, 2010

Photo Spot Lesson: Do it yourself studio

Lesson #8 from The Photo Spot:  Do it yourself studio

Setting up a studio the professional way can break the bank.  Is it really necessary?  If you're going to open a business and do studio work, hell yes.  But if you're a mom who wants kick ass photos of her kids, hell no.

So what do you need to set up space for yourself to shoot "Studio Quality" images?
It's easy peasy lemon squeezy!

Yes,  you CAN watch eBay, watch the sales, pick up a backdrop stand and lights and umbrellas and backdrops and seamless paper and props etc or you can choose to do it in a way that doesn't break the bank, at least until you know what type of equipment you want.  There are so many choices with hot lights and strobes and slaves etc etc etc that my suggestion is, find a studio photog to learn the ropes from first (or spend some time with a sales rep at a photo supply co that knows their shit and can show you how things work) so you know what you want before you spend a small fortune.

So what do you do in the mean time if you want to get great studio shots?  Here's my guidelines for a home based pseudo-studio:

For starters, you need a few things for a studio set up:
1.  Space
2.  Backgrounds of some sort
3.  Ideally-decent flooring (this is not necessary depending on how you crop your images)
4.  Lighting

I hear hearts dropping already.  It's not as hard as it sounds!  Lets take it one thing at a time.

1. You need SPACE.  That doesn't mean you have to set an entire room aside for shooting!  Obviously WHAT you hope to shoot will dictate how large the space needs to be, but lets assume that most moms starting out who have fairly standard camera are shooting with a 28-55mm kit lens; you can be as close to your subject as 3' and when photographing kids and babies you don't need anymore space than 4' wide. 
Try to choose a space close to a window (preferably southern exposure)-that helps with your lighting issue which we will touch on in a bit.  When I am not photographing at my studio, I have a corner area set up in my son's nursery that I use.  I reserve this space for my close friends who don't feel like driving to my studio or for pics of my own children because it's not a good place to bring paying clients to but the images are just as good as images from my studio location.
This is the corner of my son's room that I use most often.  There is a large window with southern exposure and a wall that has a great paint job which can be used as a background sometimes.  The floor isn't ideal.

2.  Backgrounds sound very intimidating.  There are muslins, papers, velvets, and more.  Prices range from $30 for seamless papers to hundreds for specialty backdrops. can hit your local fabric store and pick up yards of different types and textures of fabrics and do it yourself!

Every one of the backdrops pictured above is a fabric purchased at Joann's.

When purchasing fabrics for backdrops think of things that will not be too distracting.  The above blue anti-pill fleece was an excellent purchase.  It was been used and washed more times than I can count and only cost me $8 for 3 yards when it was on sale...BUT because it has a busy pattern, it has to be used carefully in images with no other distracting elements.   Two of my favorite photos using that background are these:

The possibilities with fabrics are endless.  Velvet is much cheaper at a fabric store, you have faux furs...faux leathers.  I HIGHLY recommend those photographing children and babies look into the fleece fabrics, they're durable, washable, cheap, and come in TONS of colors and patterns.  
If this isn't in your budget, pick up a can of paint and a roller and make your wall whatever color you wish it to be.  If you have photoshop, I would recommend sticking with white...there are tons of programs out there now that allow you to digitally add a backdrop in, white and 'green screen' backgrounds in images make this easiest.  I myself am just starting to play around with these programs, so I will reserve recommendations on those for a later time.
You can even get creative and pick up other items to use as backdrops.  One of my favorites is a grass beach mat that I picked up for $0.50 (that's right FIFTY CENTS) on clearance at the dollar store!
Still out of your budget?  Dig through your house...even something as simple as a beach towel can be all you need for a cute photo background!

Ok I have my backdrops, now what?  There are 2 easy ways to use them: 
1.  Screw a 2x4 board into your wall (a single screw at each end will suffice and it's easy to spackle the holes in later).  Then A, use these:
to fasten your backdrop up for each shoot ... or B, buy 2 curved hooks like this:
and some shower curtain hooks:
and clip your backdrops to the shower curtain hooks, and toss the hooks over the wall hooks and VOILA!

So you have space set aside and some 'backdrops' what?

3.  Flooring.  If you don't plan to drape your backdrop or crop the floor out as seen in the above images, then you need to take into account your floor.  The easiest fix for ugly flooring or flooring not becoming of photos is this:  go to Lowes/Home Depot/Menards...pick up ONE box of laminate wood flooring in a neutral color.  Sometimes you can even buy individual boards instead of a whole box.  A box of the cheap Tarkett brand stuff will run you about $18.  It snaps together and is beautiful not only as a floor for full length images but also as a backdrop for images if you want to get creative:

Space...check!  Backgrounds...check!  Floor &/or backgrounds that drape...check!  Last but most important of all, lighting!  *GASP!*  It's not as scary as it sounds!  "But there are slaves and hot lights and..."
And, and, and...forget about ALL of that!  Yeah, having studio lighting will allow you to manipulate shadows and high lights and throw extra light on can use colored lights...but wait!  You can do all that (not to the same extent but somewhat) without lights.  Get this...not a single one of the above images was shot with ANY studio lights, flashes, or strobes.  They're all shot in a natural light setting.
What is a natural light studio setting?  It's exactly what it sounds like!

A natural light studio (which is all the rage right now:  with clients because the images are beautiful and with photogs because its CHEAP overhead!) is essentially a photo studio that utilizes NO artificial lighting.  Some photogs use a combination of natural and artificial, but to be a true "Natural light studio" there must be no lights other than that of our one and only sunshine.

So how does this work?  Simple.  Remember that southern exposure window I talked about?  Depending on the time of day, you will either get bright direct sunlight:

or soft bounced light (the direct light will be hitting the other side of the room from the wall you shoot on, or higher up in the room than your photo area):

How do you get some light on the side of the face that the window isn't on (or on the background for added punch)?  Reflectors, baby!
I have this one:

Which will run you between $50 and $80 depending on where you get it...but you don't even need that!  Ever heard of white poster board?  It's totally reflective and works GREAT!  This photo, was shot with plain white 10 cent poster board as a reflector::
How did I do it?  The sun was coming in a window that was on the wall behind him and off to the left a little bit.  It was shining off to the left.  I took the poster board, stuck it in the direct light, and put it at approximately a 45 degree angle to his face, moved it around a little until it was perfect, and shot!

Skeptical if any or all of this really works?  Every single photo in this post with the exception of the color image on the blue background and the last image above, were shot in my son's bedroom, using Joann fabric or dollar store backgrounds, natural light, and most likely a hammer and nail directly into the wall type of fastener for my backdrops.  The shot of the baby on the blue backdrop in color, was photographed at my studio location but not actually IN the studio, it was in a sitting room upstairs and was shot with indirect natural light and no reflector.  The last image above was in my kitchen (as you can see, we were eating carrots at the time).

It REALLY IS as simple as all this.  Some of these images have been edited in Photoshop because I believe that most images require a little tweak here and there, some of them have not.  Keep posted for tutorials on tweaking your images in Photoshop to get the most out of them!  As always if you have questions or comments, please feel free to post on here or email me at notsodomestic at

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