Why a Home Studio Setup Makes Sense for Portrait Photography
When you think of a photography studio, you probably imagine a large space filled with white walls. It's a very basic setup and you have to fill it with your imagination.
Surprisingly, that big space surrounded by white walls can be pretty dark for your photos. That's why you need to bring lighting with you. Not just for your subject, but also to make those boring, dull white walls have some kind of energy.
If you don't light those white walls, they don't add much to the photo, and they aren't exactly white.
To be honest, there is nothing magical about going to a studio. You spend money to rent the place. You lug in your gear at the start of the day and you lug it out when you're done.
Your model and makeup artist need to use part of the time to prepare and you need time to setup your gear, which means you're paying for time when you aren't shooting. Don't forget that you have to leave time to break everything down and pack it up to leave.
Every moment in the studio is billable. You may get a day rate that's saves on the hourly rate (which often has a minimum time commitment). Mostly, you're paying to use someone else's space.
Don't expect that there are great amenities or choices of gear to use. There places are empty boxes, for the most part. If they have gear for you to use, it's an additional cost to rent.
Studios need to make money to pay for their overhead. It's a business and you have to treat everything you do there as another professional. That means shelling out your cash for space.
When you think about it, do you really need a dedicated photography studio to take nice portraits?
It could be that you could convert part of your home into a temporary studio. It could be your living room or a garage. Regina Pagles creates beautiful portraits in her studio of about 400 square feet.
Think of the advantages you have when you create a home studio for your portrait photography.
- All your stuff is already there
- You save a lot of money
- You can set your schedule
- No travel necessary
- It's probably much more comfortable than a rental studio
If you're doing a big shoot for a business that needs catering and a large team of people to make the photoshoot work, a studio is a great idea. It's also something to consider if you don't want your subjects coming to your home.
Of course, not everyone who loves portrait photography has those constraints. Many of us do it because we enjoy it. We like the collaboration with our subjects, and sometimes it makes sense to invite other photographers over. You can take turns assisting each other and shooting.
If you're still with me, here's how I create my home studio setup for portrait photography.
My Home Studio Setup for Portrait Photography
I don't have a dedicated space for a studio, so I have to improvise when I want to do some portrait photography. Fortunately, I have what I need.
It may seem obvious, but let's go over it anyway. You need room to shoot. How much room depends upon your style and the shots you want.
One of the things you've likely heard is that you want a long focal length for portrait photography. Ideally, you do. Shooting with a wide angle lens can create distortion. Well, so can longer focal lengths. The trick is to know what causes the distortions.
If you're shooting with a lens that is wider than you prefer, try to keep your subject on an even plane. If they move part of their body toward you, then that part of their body gets exaggerated with distortion.
Sometimes that can work for you, particularly if it's for comedic effect.
For the most part, don't get hung up on focal length if you don't have the room. It isn't impossible to take a nice portrait with something other than a 200mm lens. I can get a full length portrait with a 70mm focal length in my living room.
If I rack out to 200mm, I'll get something like this headshot of my wife, Lee.
I'm shooting from one end of the living room to the other, but I can go from full length to headshot with my Nikon 70-200mm lens in that space. My house is only 2000 square feet, so it's nothing huge. Plenty of people have a home studio setup in their garage. You can back up as far as your driveway will allow.
In my living room, I have 28 feet to use between walls.
Choose Your Background
When shooting from a home studio, you ought to have plenty of options for your background. There's no rule that says you have to shoot on a white wall or a backdrop. Some of my favorite shots were taken in a house.
Just a bit of window light in the master bedroom can work very well. Imagine if you had to decorate a rental studio for your shoot?
You can also go with a roll of seamless paper, like this one I use for my home studio setup.
This roll is a 107″ roll of Savage White Seamless paper.
Lighting Doesn't Have to be Expensive
You can work with small flash. It's not like the light has to travel very far. After all, you want your light source as close as possible to your subject for soft light, in many cases. The Elinchrom lights have a fast recycle time, but you don't have to be in a rush. If your small flash takes an extra second to recycle, it's not a big deal.
You can see my Nikon SB-910 in the background aimed at the white seamless. It's firing in slave mode, triggered by the Elinchrom flash of light.
Those white boards on either side are V-Flats that I made from foamcore boards that I got for free from a local printer. Your mileage may vary, but don't turn your nose up if it's white on one side and has a mistaken print job on the other.
For the portraits with a dark background, I just use a black V-flat behind my subject.
If you have small flash, try firing them into those white V-Flats. You get a very large, very soft light washing over your subject. It can mimic daylight or a seven foot octa box for a fraction of the cost.
Remember, you don't need ultra powerful lights indoor for your home studio setup. Most of the time, studio photographers are trying to reduce the amount of light coming from their strobes. Those small flashes are great and have plenty of power.
If you don't have flash or studio lights, look for good window light.
One of my favorite examples of someone doing great portrait photography in a home studio setup is Sean Archer on 500px (a bit racy and may not be safe for work). He uses available window light for most of his portraits, and the results are stunning.
Someone to Model
This is another obvious one, but essential. If you want to do some portrait photography, you need a subject. There are plenty of interesting people in every town. As I showed above, I've even dragged my wife in front of my camera.
You can hire a model, but there are other resources. There are great subjects all around. It could be anyone who has an interesting look. Practice on your family and friends. Get your dog to pose for you. I've done that, too.
There are plenty of opportunities around you, but you have to ask. Check resources on Facebook and Model Mayhem for models in your area, or for touring models who are coming to your town. Ask your neighbors. Talk to other photographers and ask for an introduction to models they know.
Keep examples of your portraits with you in case an opportunity comes up. If you can show your work, it may be something that helps someone decide that you're legitimate and not some creep asking them over to your house.
Almost Any Camera Will Do
If you have great light, pretty much any modern camera will give you great results. Anything from an iPhone to the new Nikon D5 is fair game. I don't care if you have a crop sensor camera or some entry level DSLR.
Working in a studio environment, and that includes your home studio, gives you control over the light. Even if you're using window light, you know when it's at the right intensity and direction. That control of light means you have the ability to set your exposure and then concentrate on your model, your composition and the details of your portrait.
Start Small and Grow Your Home Studio
If you're not sure about getting into portrait photography, a home studio setup is a reasonably inexpensive way to try it out. If you decide it isn't for you, then you aren't out of a large amount of money. You can probably use the light stands and super clamps for something else.
Should you decide this works well for you, then it's easy to expand. You can get different colors of seamless paper, add props, get some reflectors or add more lights. Take a look at my Resources Page to get an idea of the light modifiers you may want to use.
If you have a home studio setup already, leave a comment below with a link to show us what you use. You may have some different ideas than I do, and you never know who you may help.