Studio photography on the move…

29 06 2010

My core business is studio photography, be it capturing images of glamorous celebrities or toilet rolls for commercial use, and one tends to get into a comfort zone with your available equipment and studio facilities..

Recently however I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a lot of location work which involved traveling unencumbered and making do with available light in a lot of instances.

Let me paint a picture: in 2 weeks I traveled to over 40 shoot locations, some of these in the air, some on sea, some at high speed, some picturesque, all required a lot of traveling and the destinations were spread across the extent of our beautiful country.

Lugging around my D3 and a decent selection of lenses was difficult enough at times – try swinging through the Tsitsikamma forest or hanging onto a Jet-boat traveling at 120km per hr in choppy waters, all with one hand and trying to take shots at the same time! It’s all a lot of fun but imagine attempting to factor lighting into the equation as well!

Well unfortunately that’s exactly what I was being paid to do. The job didn’t allow for an assistant or runner so we were forced to cope alone (I say ‘we’ because fellow photographers Chanti, Mark and Sherissa were sent off in different directions on similar assignments for the same client).

In a studio type environment I have the luxury of adjusting my lighting and using specific modifiers to create the result I want from the shots, and often you get an effect that works and you tend to replicate.. This trip forced me to make do with what was available, shooting alongside a film crew and with a schedule from hell didn’t help as our set-up time was non-existent – fortunately I had professional models to work with which helped plenty and was able to direct them as required to ensure the light (whether sun, reflection or artificial) was as flattering/interesting as possible.

With the unavoidable extremes from midday sunlight to candle-lit dinners, equipment played a major role. While fill-flash was occasionally acceptable in midday sun to balance the shadows  it would have destroyed the ambiance of drinks beside a log fire for instance. Having the full-frame sensor with high ISO tolerance and good dynamic range meant that I was able to capture images that ordinarily would have had excessive areas of under/over exposure without having to compensate overly with additional lighting, reflectors or scrims.

At times I would have loved to have my Ranger battery pack with me but the shoot simply didn’t allow for that, nor was a CLS (Creative Lighting System) setup possible due to available space, hands and time. I thus found myself using lighting angles and alternative light sources to create ‘studio-like’ effects while retaining a natural authenticity I might not have achieved with a full lighting rig.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that we often take our surroundings for granted and pull out our available lighting equipment prematurely when sometimes we could achieve a better result by simply looking at the environment a little differently.

I know that I’m going to be trying to reproduce some of the natural lighting effects I discovered on this trip using my studio lights in future too.





Take it right so you don’t have to edit it to crap..

10 06 2010

I was recently asked to present at the ‘Adobe’ Creative Week which toured South Africa. Here’s a quick summary of my presentation…

“I’m here to discuss how to create a quality image to start with so that your task of editing is made so much easier and the end result retains the original integrity of the shot.

The flaw of over-processing is the greatest risk when working in editing software, and the amount of processing is often relative to the quality of the original shot taken – it stands to reason that an average snapshot will need more processing to make it stand out than a high quality photograph.

I’m not going to go into how to take a photograph as that’s completely open to interpretation and individual tastes, but I’m rather going to go into some tips which will improve the integrity of the image itself and help you save hours of processing.

The first thing you can do to get a good shot is of course getting the right equipment for the shot, megapixels help to increase the amount of information you have to work with but more important when editing is the quality of the information represented in each pixel;

A 12 megapixel cell-phone camera image will be the same size as a 12 MP DSLR image but your image quality will be drastically different – this is due to the quality of each pixel represented. Think of a packet of jelly tots, the jelly tots are the pixels and sensors can be equated to the size of the packet they are contained in. In a small packet the jelly tots get squashed together and distorted, while in a large packet they retain their original shape and integrity.

Images are the same… But sensor size is not the only thing you need to look out for;

Before the image even reaches the sensor it has to travel through several layers of glass in the camera lens. Lenses with a very large zoom capability generally tend to have more glass elements, each expanding and contracting the image within the lens before it’s imprinted on the mirror which then reflects it onto the sensor (or directly onto the sensor as the case may be). It stands to reason that as an image is distorted or has to travel though additional elements then degradation will occur. This is the reason prime lenses are usually the preferred tools of studio photographers who demand absolute clarity.

Your average 18-200mm lens for instance will have as many as 11 glass elements necessary to achieve the versatile zoom range while keeping the lens compact.

There are loads of other factors which can contribute such as the aperture you shoot on which can cause undue image refraction resulting in further degradation, as well as the ISO but that’s a whole discussion on its’ own.

One of the easiest ways to improve the quality of a photograph is to light it correctly, this is applicable to all styles of photography although each style will have their own methods for improving the amount of light intake. Wildlife photographers for instance are often at the mercy of their surroundings and are forced to use better equipment and angles to make the most of their only light source – the sun.

Other photographers are often able to choose their environments and can use flashes or additional lighting to create a well-lit image.

Studio photographers have taken this even further and have created modifiers that shape the light for different effects.

The most common lighting modifiers are umbrellas and soft-boxes that soften studio lights, but specialist accessories will create a range of different effects.

Snoots create a harsh spotlight effect, beauty dishes remove direct light and bounce it inwards to create perfect shadow free portraits, honeycomb grids and barn doors prevent light spill and ring-flashes create a surreal shadow free look for fashion.

The combination of accessories is endless and many photographers will go out of their way to push the boundaries to create an image that stands out from the rest.

Remember that having an image well lit does not mean everything is white and flat (many studios tend to churn out these sorts of images as they are very easy to set up) but a low-key shot with harsh shadows can also be well lit.

When it comes to editing a good quality shot you will immediately notice how much easier it is, remember that operations like cloning and content fill and even liquify all make use of surrounding information to generate the desired effect – the more accurate information you provide the software the better the action result will be.

In an absolutely ideal world you’d never need to edit images, any work done on them would be for artistic purpose only – realistically editing is here to stay, but if you have to retouch it makes sense to make the process easier for yourself.





PiX Article – cover photographer

5 02 2010

A recent article about us run in the PiX magazine…

“IVOK STUDIO has quickly become one of South Africas leading photographic businesses. Matt Raven & Chanti are the driving force behind the business and are as passionate about the industry as our team at PiX!

In addition to both of them being international award winning photographers, they also offer studio facilities to the industry, sell lighting equipment, manage photographic forums and are the driving force behind the Photo & Film Expo.

Despite their hectic workloads the “IVOKians” are always ready and willing to assist up-coming photographers with advice and are happy to share their experience and strategies with the industry.”

Garth Collins

This cover image was created in a portable studio setup during a photographic collaboration between Canon, IVOK, and the AVA. Part of the event involved a live demonstration shoot and additional sponsors included Spacelight rentals who provided the studio gear and CK Make-up who came up with the concept for the shoot and sponsored the make-up.

The idea involved stripping down celebrity muscle-man Garth Collins and covering his head and face in drawing-pins. We had a smallish area to work in so we created a make-shift studio using a backdrop support system and a black vinyl backdrop (as several shoots were taking place paper would not have been viable, additionally we wanted the additional width of 3.2m as opposed to the 2.7m paper rolls).

2 Elinchrom battery packs were used to power the 3 lights used and a softbox, beauty-dish and reflector were used as modifiers.

By placing the softbox and standard reflector at approximately 45 degree angles from behind we were able to create a hard contrasting feel to the image while reducing the amount of reflection off the metallic pins. The beauty dish was used to fill and enhance the eyes.

Chanti handled the post production and created a series of backgrounds which could be used with the original picture to create a supernatural environment which suited the theme of the image.

The overall feel was transformed to exaggerate the spiked gladiator in a cartoon like surrealism.

Career


Please tell us a little more about IVOK STUDIO? Where did it all begin?

In 2005 both Chanti & I took the plunge from our corporate careers to open our first studio premises in Randburg. I say plunge because up until that point we were both social photographers and had very little experience with SLRs and no studio experience.

We invested a fairly large sum into setting up the studio and buying the right equipment to begin with, this involved approaching numerous established photographers and seeking advice. A full business plan was created, budgets determined, outlay vs. returns calculated and a long term strategy put into place.

Although our initial outlay was more than triple what we had anticipated spending to launch the business, the growth of the business has been exponential and in only 5 years we’ve established ourselves as one of SAs leading photography businesses.
At which moment in your life did you realise your passion for photography?

Although we both had an interest in photography prior to opening the business, we only really started getting passionate about it when we pushed our own boundaries and started to experiment with lighting and varied equipment. For us photography has grown from an income generating business into a lifestyle, as opposed to the other way around.

Which shoots that you have been on have stood out most in your career?

We get to shoot numerous celebrity bands, actors, models, politicians and business people; while there isn’t a particular shoot that stands out above the rest, it is always interesting getting to meet them face-to-face and developing a shoot around their individual charismas.

What is the most valuable criticism you have received?

One of the first crits I got was from the late Mark Thomas (whose funeral I attended this past weekend) in early 2006; he told me I was under-charging for my shoots and that I would only undermine my own business reputation by doing so. At the time I thought that as a newcomer to the professional photography scene I should not charge as much as the “pros”.

I followed his advice though and doubled our rates, instead of bookings slowing down they actually increased – it appeared that customers now felt they were getting a quality product. By making each shoot worthwhile for us we were able to concentrate on improving quality and overall service delivery rather than chasing numbers.

Technique


What style of photography do you prefer?

Non-conformist. Although Chanti had some basic formal training in photography, both of us really learned (and are still learning) by experimentation and practical experience. We’ve developed our own style of photography which regularly adapts as we try to vary our shoots to offer each client something different.

What is your position on the debate of digital vs. film photography?

Digital sensors have developed to a point where quality is no longer a discerning factor and most professionals are now making use of the newer technology due to the fact that images can be previewed immediately, editing software has become very advanced and images can be enhanced/altered without spending hours in a darkroom. Now processing and archiving of images is all done electronically and the industry has become very accessible.

There will always be those who prefer the intimacy of developing their images manually and find the digital route all a little too clinical for comfort, but personally I’m all for technological advancements.

Where do you turn when you need a little inspiration? What inspires you?

The internet. I’ve subscribed to numerous international photographer blogs and it’s inspiring seeing the creative images that these industry leaders are producing. Similarly photography networks on the web are flooded with an abundance of undiscovered talent and some of the most interesting images I’ve found belong to hobbyists.

South African libraries unfortunately seem to keep a very limited selection of good photography books; those they do have are usually discussing basic established principles of photography and recommendations on “how to take a picture”. Can you imagine how little creativity there would be if everyone read those books.

Equipment


What camera hardware was in you first camera bag?

When I took up photography professionally the first camera I got myself was the Nikon D200 with battery grip and 18-200VR kit lens. I soon included a few prime lenses and this camera became our studio work-horse. I still have the camera, over 200 000 actuations later and won’t likely get rid of it anytime soon.

What do you use today?

Our equipment nowadays depends largely on the type of shoot we’re doing. This cover shoot for instance was a demonstration shoot which took place at an electronics retail show using the Canon 7D shortly after it had been launched. We shoot medium format when required but generally we use our Nikon systems as we’ve built up a selection of lenses and equipment which allow us the versatility needed.

In the studio and out in the field, what lighting equipment are you never without?

As we are primarily regarded as “studio” photographers we’re seldom without our lighting equipment, whether on location or at our studios. I’d say the most underrated piece of equipment which we use on almost all of our lighting accessories is the “honeycomb”.

A honeycomb is a grid which controls the direction the light travels, limiting spread of unwanted light and allowing so much more overall control of your studio flashes. We have honeycomb grids for our reflectors and beauty dishes as well as “egg-box” grids on most of our soft-boxes.

What lens do you shoot with most often?

That depends on the sensor size of the camera used. On a cropped 35mm sensor camera our most commonly used lens is the 50mm f1.4, on full frame 35mm sensors the 85mm f1.4 is preferable and on medium format sensors the 135mm f2.8.

The Cover


What was the inspiration for the drawing pin shoot with Garth Collins?

Cicilia Kaufmann of CK Make-up came up with the concept to create a reference to Garths’ days as Granite the “Gladiator”. By using simple office stationary Cicilia was able to create a representation of a gladiator helmet by painstakingly gluing tacks to his head and face for the shoot. Definitely not a job for the inexperienced or impatient!
What where some of the challenges you faced during the shoot?

This was a live public demonstration shoot so apart from having a crowd of spectators looking over our shoulders asking questions our shooting space was also fairly limited. Garth was very easy to work with though and followed direction perfectly, coming up with literally hundreds of facial expressions with ease. Using reflective drawing-pins on his head meant the lighting position needed to be right to avoid excessive “burn-out” (over exposure) of the pins while having enough light on them to create the effect desired. In post-production Chanti wanted to create a fantasy (almost super-hero) feel to the image which was taken on a black background. In order to do this she had to create an image which worked with similar light sources and had an unrealistic, surreal feel to it. Both images were then processed together to create the final product.

What advice do you have for any photographer working with models?

While posing a model is sometimes necessary, when made to feel comfortable a model can often come up with better poses based on their understanding of themselves and experience. I’ve seen many photographers fall into the trap of becoming too dominant in a shoot and causing the model to feel awkward which is evident in the finished product. Direction is good and a good explanation of what needs to be achieved needs to be conveyed but maintain flexibility, the unplanned shots regularly look better.





UNDERSTANDING EXPOSURE – The Essential Lesson

17 01 2010

I’ve decided to stray from the business tips that this section usually offers to address a critical issue that I have been approached about regularly by up-coming photographers in the past few months.

This being the fundamental basics of understanding how the camera works and why advanced cameras have ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed settings and what the difference is between manually changing these settings and letting the camera automatically adjust them.

My advice when getting a new SLR or advanced compact is always to switch it to Manual and experiment with it so that you have a proper feel for its capabilities and restrictions.

Learning these basics seems difficult when starting out but with this knowledge you’ll be able to set your camera instinctively to get the type of shot you want and have an overall understanding of its’ capabilities.

I initially tried to just find an article that was simple and concise that explained these basics using terminology that an average person would understand but I’m still looking, so here’s my explanation:

ISO (ASA), Shutter Speed (or “Time Value” for Canon users) and Aperture are the 3 primary variables on your camera which contribute to a correct exposure, each one when used affects the overall image so it’s important to understand the relationship between them. An overexposed image is white, an underexposed image is dark. There are no “correct” exposures; this is simply a guide to understanding how to control them.

ISO (ASA) refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor (digital cameras) or film.

As your sensitivity level raises (ISO value increases), your image will be more exposed (lighter).

Shutter Speed refers to how long the shutter is open when taking a shot.

The shutter opens to allow the image to be captured by the sensor, how long it is open determines how much light gets in.

Shutter speed values are often measured in fractions of seconds, so a “higher value” on your camera might mean an increased speed which results in less light.

Aperture Value refers to the amount of light that a lens allows into a camera.

As the lens is “opened” it allows more light in.

Aperture values are also measured in fractions so the “higher” aperture settings mean that there is less light being allowed in. Measured in “f/stops”.

By understanding the relation between the 3 settings above one can quickly adjust the settings based on the type of image to be taken.

A good analogy is the one of sun-tanning:

The ISO would be the sensitivity of your skin, some people have a low sensitivity and won’t burn (expose) easily. Others have a high sensitivity to light (high ISO value).

The Shutter Speed relates to the length of time your skin is exposed to the sun (light), a long period will increase exposure.

The Aperture would be the sun-block level. A high sun protection factor (f/stop) would allow less light to expose the skin.

A picture depicting an open (low F number) and closed (high F number) aperture.Similar to SPF factors in sun-block, a high “f/Stop” number will allow less light to penetrate.

There is of course a 4th variable which is the intensity of the light source, which in this instance would be the sun.

If any of the 4 factors are altered then one or all of the others would need to be equally adjusted to ensure the EV (exposure value) remains the same.

When your camera is set to shoot on “pure” Manual then you can adjust each of the 3 settings individually based on the strength of the light source (whether light is from the sun or an external source such as a flash). Be sure to check that “auto ISO” is turned off.

Once you understand the relationship between all three settings you will find that with the same light source (in this example F13) it’s possible to get a similar exposure from numerous different settings: e.g.

ISO 100 + S/S 200 + F5.6 will give you a similar exposure to ISO 400 + S/S 100 + F16 or ISO 200 + S/S 800 + F4

You will soon find that there are numerous setting options available to create the same exposure; now all you need to do is decide what settings work best for the type of image you need to create.

An interesting do-it-yourself chart can be found here http://www.stacken.kth.se/~maxz/files/jiffy.pdf

Now that you have these varied setting options available to you it is possible to adjust your settings according to your subject; each setting has its’ own set of uses and restrictions:

Freezing action: You may want to increase your shutter speed in order to “freeze” moving objects, a slower shutter speed will experience motion blur. Often a controlled slower shutter speed can give life to the image however.

Depth: Lower f/stop values (aperture) create a shallower DOF (depth of field), often used to blur out subjects in the background of an image. Similarly zoom and sensor size can also contribute to this phenomenon. Higher f/stop values are necessary when everything needs to be in focus. Very low f/stop values are often only achieved with specific lenses, primes and professional series lenses.

Low light: Usually high ISO settings are required for low light conditions when very low shutter speeds are not possible (i.e. moving subjects, no tripod etc). A high ISO will allow enough light to get a shot that would otherwise be underexposed. Generally however as you raise your ISO level the image quality tends to degrade, often becoming “noisy” (think of the example above, sensitive skins exposed to sunlight often develop freckles). Some camera ISO ratings can already go as high as 102400!

To test the effect of different settings I suggest doing the following:

In daylight (with a digital camera) set your ISO to 200, your Aperture to F8 and adjust your Shutter Speed previewing every image as you go.

Now set your Shutter Speed to 400 and adjust your Aperture in the same way, finding a correct exposure but also exploring the extremes (over-exposed and under-exposed).

Do the same with your ISO.

Now move into shade and do the same experiment.

By doing the above a few times you will quickly get used to the relationship between the settings and how they affect the exposure.

A light meter will advise what settings to use based on the amount of light on your subject, but an understanding of the above variables will enable you to use the meter reading to obtain different results.

In some situations you may find it impossible to achieve a satisfactory image using just your Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed…

For example: you’re shooting your children playing on the swings in the garden at sunset, you cannot reduce your Shutter Speed too much as they are moving quite quickly and you want a sharp image, your Aperture is open as wide as possible and pushing the ISO level causes too much noise. In this situation you may need to use flash or switch on the garden lights to increase the light on your subject to an acceptable level in order to reach a suitable exposure.

Don’t be shy to experiment though, try to use a tripod (or rest the camera on something solid) and reduce your shutter speed considerably to take in as much light as possible. Still objects will remain sharp while moving objects will blur.





Building a reputation and consistency

10 11 2009

All too many business owners rush into trying to make their company as profitable as possible in as short a period as possible – but many of these forget the importance of a solid framework and vision upon which their business model can grow successfully.

Photographers starting out their businesses are prone to falling into the trap of sending their business into a specific direction based on initial demand and failing to look at the bigger picture and the long term sustainability and growth potential of that sector of the industry.

I personally know several photographers with a passion for studio photography who are now forced to spend most evenings shooting events against their will in order to sustain a basic income which just pays the bills. Because they didn’t plan the groundwork to establish them as reliable and professional photographers in their field of expertise they still operate on a freelance basis, desperately accepting any work that comes their way, meanwhile their business stagnates and others eat into their market-share.

By determining a definite plan and rules for the business one can focus efforts toward a recognised goal and construct a stable platform for growth.

Developing an initial plan should be based on personal expectations, appeals, locality and relevance and not solely upon prospective earning capabilities. One soon finds that unless individual needs are met, including your own, your ability to motivate yourself to maintain a mundane work routine will be seriously impeded and your creative abilities and progression thwarted.

In an earlier article I discussed establishing a brand and a marketing plan, this forms an integral part of positioning yourself within your desired market as a photographer or related industry professional. Similarly I discussed “living the brand”; doing so may however require a lifestyle adjustment.

Advertising is a good way to get your brand out there, but branding is only a small part of establishing yourself within the market – a brand is only as good as the experience attached to it, by experience I mean client satisfaction (or dissatisfaction), word of mouth (or written) testimonials from people that clients can relate to and the overall image presented by the business.

It’s unlikely, for instance, that a company profile displaying primarily nudes will get much support from parents sending their kids for model portfolios. Similarly someone with only pictures of wildlife may struggle to convince a client to allow them to shoot their studio pack-shots.

It’s important that the overall “image” presented is representative of the type of work you would like your photographic business to be focussed on.

There’s a saying that “the best client is the one you already have”, this is very true in our industry – as a service based industry it’s important that your clients leave satisfied as a large percentage of your future work will likely come from referrals generated by them. These people are also your key to getting your name out to relevant potential clients, whether they advertise you or slander you will depend on how satisfied they were with the service they received.

Many believe that advertising, branding, marketing, and sales are all the same thing – well building a solid reputation successfully will likely require that you fulfil all the above functions correctly and maintain good after sales relationships. Only by doing that can you ensure that you grow a recognised and respected brand that is synonymous with quality and value.

An important point to remember is that your “name” is only as good as the persons representing it – just this morning I decided not to make use of the services offered by a company based on the personal experience I received from the representative. Ensure that your employees (including yourself) are well educated about the industry within which you operate and the equipment you use, also that all understand your business strategy and those of your competitors and respect them.

Slandering competitors will not get you business, nor will aggressively marketing to their client bases – those strategies can do a business extensive damage in the long run.

By generating non-threatening quality relationships with fellow members of our community (otherwise known as competitors) our business has managed to generate numerous outgoing and incoming referrals based on our relevant expertise within the industry, and we’re working together with other photographers on several projects.

Networking within your industry and attending regular training workshops is a good way to keep in touch with the trends and advancements in your field and you will gain the benefit of collectively learning from others mistakes and realising the successful initiatives as they happen. The photographic community similarly needs the support in numbers to empower it to fight issues like copyright infringements and decreasing fees and usage rates – by standing together on these issues we all profit.

Database building is a great tool for establishing long term relationships with your clients, be careful not to be too exclusive with your database either – often the person you least expected will refer you a solid client. Keep your database up to date and try to maintain regular contact with them.

Be careful however that all contact is meaningful and interesting, it’s often best to separate these “contact messages” from your advertising initiatives to keep the messages personal.

Try not to overwhelm your customers with too many messages either as they may view this as spam.

By keeping in touch with them and reminding them about the positive experience they enjoyed and displaying your accomplishments you’re likely to generate additional work.

This consistency is difficult to maintain without professional systems in place and staff to assist with the admin involved, this is where social networking sites have made this sort of contact much more personal and unobtrusive. Social networking has been rated as one of the most powerful advertising mediums by simply creating a portal for “friends & relatives” to keep in touch, by maintaining a professional relationship with your customers via these networks it becomes easy to remind them about your services.

Of course it’s equally important to maintain consistency within your business too, as businesses get busier they often slack a little on their overall service offering – whether it be the quality of the photography itself, the standard of equipment used, the general upkeep of office facilities or just the personal touch – customers will grow to expect a certain standard which will need to be preserved or improved upon.

Similarly it’s inevitable that customers will of course hear about other businesses offering similar services, and keeping “ahead of the pack” may require some initiative and creativity on your part – remembering once again that reducing pricing to become competitive should be an absolute last resort. It has been proven again and again that customers will rather pay more for quality.

Following the above guidelines may not always be easy as businesses have a tendency to have inconsistent surges of business as well as quiet spells, particularly in their first few years of operation, and it could take what seems like an eternity before it settles – by remaining consistent in your processes though a consistent overall growth is likely. Remember not to get desperate and jeopardise your business integrity by offering ridiculous specials in the quiet times, but equally important is not to get over-confident and slack on marketing initiatives and relationships during the peaks.

A few more tips to remember:

Try not to rely solely on individual clients, key clients are important as they generate a substantial portion of your monthly income – but it’s important not to “put all your eggs into one basket” either.

Keep overheads manageable and don’t overspend when the business picks up.

Ensure you don’t lose focus, keep reminding yourself of your initial overall goals and ensure you haven’t strayed from the business plan. But also re-evaluate your plan from time to time to ensure it is still relevant and improve upon it if necessary.

If you get stuck along the way then don’t be afraid to ask for advice or assistance, there are several photographic organisations willing to help as well as forums such as www.saphotography.ning.com – or ask a business owner that you know has been successful for tips, most successful business owners are quite happy to share their experiences.

In closing remember that building a solid business foundation can take time and patience, but in the long run your business will be more resilient and valuable with proven stability.





Want to become a studio photographer?

21 09 2009

Considering the word photography means “drawing with light”, studio photography is the best means to be able to control your lighting to create exactly what you want to achieve.

By having absolute control over your lighting in studio you will soon have a very good understanding of the properties of light and its’ capabilities.

We get calls regularly from photographers setting up studios, the common questions are:

How much space is needed?

What background to use?

What type of lighting?

How many lights?

Camera settings?

What lighting modifiers?

Why is everything so expensive?

There are no set answers for any of the above; if there were then likely every image would look the same. I’m going to work on mean averages though and provide answers based on a versatile solution that will cover most bases.

To answer the question regarding how much space is needed we have to first ask what you will be shooting, if it’s vehicles or large sets then of course you’re going to need a lot of space but for individuals or small groups you could probably get away with a studio width of about 4m. The length of the studio is more important however and should preferably be at least double the width if you don’t want distorted images. It’s also preferable to be able to keep your subject a few metres in front of the backdrop to have better control of rear lighting. Lenses with longer focal lengths will provide you with a more natural perspective when shooting people. As your focal length increases your required background size can decrease.

It’s advantageous to have a higher ceiling too but often not possible in home studio setups.

When setting up a studio it’s very handy to have an “infinity curve”, this is a background curve which blends the floor directly into the backdrop creating the impression that the floor continues into infinity. In home studio setups it may not be possible to build a fixed curve so people generally use backdrops which can be rolled up when not in use. Paper backdrops are very effective as they have very low reflective qualities but are not very durable, a handy alternative is a vinyl backdrop (usually black/white reversible) which you can wash clean with soap and re-use.

Fabric backgrounds are also an alternative but must be kept crease free.

Please bear in mind I’m talking about a general versatile solution here, there may be instances where you specifically want a creased background for a special effect.

Now you have a space and a backdrop you need to think of external influences that could affect the images. One such influence could be a window letting in natural light; while natural light combined with flash can create a very nice effect you will still want to be able to control it using either block-out curtaining or blinds. Next you need to ensure that there are no reflective items within the studio (big pictures, mirrors etc) which could reflect light. And lastly ensure that the walls, furniture and even to a degree what you wear when you shoot are neutral in colour (preferably white, grey or black and consistent throughout). Red walls for instance will reflect light back and cast an unwanted red hue on your subject while a white wall with a black object in front of it could cause an unwanted reflection which will be visible on metallic items or in your subjects’ eyes. Keep your studio as uncluttered as possible, when you start adding lights then space becomes limited enough as is and you’re bound to trip over things.

White walls will reflect light a lot more than darker walls, in a small area it’s recommended to have dark grey or black walls so that you have better control over your lights (your backdrop can still remain white). Be warned that the studio area will appear smaller with dark walls however.

Your studio is now ready to shoot, now to get the lighting:

While any lighting will work – from torches to builders’ lamps or fluorescents, most photographers prefer to use studio flashes because of their high power yeild and consistent “daylight balanced” outputs. Flash outputs are generally between 5400k and 5600k (colour temperature) which is similar to that of sunlight and gives a broader spectrum of colour, because they “flash” they are not as hot as constant lights which can cause make-up to melt and generally blind the subject. If you want constant lights then rather look for HMI lights which are colour balanced, cooler and consistent.

Most decent flash units come with built in model lamps, these help you setup the lights correctly and can assist the photographer with focusing (AF struggles in the dark) and give an approximate feel of what the light is doing. Flashes can be triggered directly via a sync cable (if your camera supports this), or via a wireless trigger which is preferable to avoid extra cabling which can be tripped over.

Some flashes have built in “photons” (light sensors) which will pick up a flash and trigger, this allows you to trigger one flash unit and the rest can “slave” off the primary flash. It’s also possible to trigger them all directly from your camera flash – be careful however that your flash is set to manual and that pre-flashes are turned off.

When shooting in studio with flashes your camera should be set to manual and shutter speed should not exceed 200 (to be safe), ISO is generally low (100-200) when using flashes due to their power, and aperture can vary based on the effect you want from the shots (bearing in mind of course that your flashes will have to be adjusted accordingly). How many flashes you use is really up to you but most traditional light setups require 2/3 “heads”. We often shoot with just 1 and sometimes shoot with up to 15, depending on what we want to achieve from the shoot.

All flashes will give you light, the difference between different brands of flashes is how quickly, reliably and consistently they do so. More important is what you do with that light, this is where light shaping tools come into play.

If you’re in the market to buy flashes but don’t know yet what to get then consider the following before buying the first bargain you see. Have a look at the flash heads themselves, if it looks cheap and flimsy it probably is, check what mounting system it uses as this will determine what accessories you’ll be able to use on the head, check if you have local support (warranty, servicing, spares?), find out what range it has (most good flashes can go from full power down to a 16th or further) and whether it has stopless power adjustment. Then ensure it’s of a suitable power for your requirements and will recycle quickly enough for your needs, if you’re planning on using it regularly then it’s advisable to get a model with built in fans too to prevent overheating.

Get solid stands to go with the lights (preferably air cushioned) and weight them with sandbags, this should curtail most studio accidents. Try to manage cabling well as tripping is a major cause of studio damage. Speaking of tripping, most flash heads have built in fuses to prevent damage to circuitry but it never hurts to add surge protection plugs.

Lighting kits usually offer more value than buying individual items, remember to calculate in extras such as reflectors and stands.

Finally we’re at a point where you can start shooting; we can assume you have a decent SLR camera (if you can afford a full frame it will give better results in studio, high frame rates are seldom needed), some good lenses (prime lenses in general are preferable), a decent studio setup (as per above) and some lights. Now you need to decide what you want to do with the light, this is where modifiers (or light shaping tools) come into play.

The most common modifiers are reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. There are however numerous variations and accessories each allowing you to achieve a different lighting result. For instance snoots give a small spotlight type effect while beauty dishes give a very flattering light for portraiture, striplights work well for full length shots and octos give a very even light. You also get accessories which fit onto modifiers such as honeycomb grids, barn doors, coloured gels and diffusers.

It’s best to have a wide variety of modifiers so that you can experiment with different setups which suit the specific shot you’re taking.

If you’re wanting to control your lighting properly then stay away from umbrellas in studio – umbrellas are however handy for travelling due to their ease of use and size.

I haven’t gone into any details regarding editing hardware, software and storage devices which are essential items – a good monitor with a high resolution and contrast ratio is also a must.

With the above gear and a bit of experimentation and practice you should be well on your way to being a studio photographer but if you’d like to take it further and offer your services commercially then there are a number of other considerations you may need to take into account such as a dedicated change room, bathroom, reception area, production area, printers, wireless networks and much more.

It’s important to factor in all these costs and to understand that once you’ve started with studio photography you won’t be happy till you have all the “toys” and it’s important to keep upgrading regularly to keep ahead.

It’s certainly not a quick and easy way to make money and it will likely take a few years to cover your initial investment, but the satisfaction you get from achieving the specific lighting result you wanted makes it all worthwhile in the long run.

If after reading the above you’re still keen to set up a studio then I’d advise contacting established photographers, networking with them on sites such as www.saphotography.ning.com or www.pixmag.ning.com and try to get out to their studios to view their setups and learn from their mistakes.





College marketing assignment

15 06 2009

We often get requests from photography students working on assignments to assist them in filling in their questionnaires – one such questionnaire is attached..

Pretty boring answers but what time permitted.

Marketing Assignment:

  1. Name of the photographer: Matt Raven
  1. Name of the business: IVOK STUDIO – Home Of Photo
  1. Photographer’s details:
  1. When did the business start and what were the first steps taken to make it successful and how long did it take to make the business a successful?

The business was officially opened in 2005. First step was creating a corporate identity (name, marketing material, website etc.) and investing in the necessary equipment. A fair investment was made to establish a full studio.

We’re still growing the brand (a never-ending job), now have studios in Randburg, Hatfield, Silverton, Kyalami and Wynberg, run Africas largest photographic event (the PHOTO & FILM EXPO) and expect to be “successful” sometime soon.

  1. What areas of photography does this business specialise in?

Studio photography mainly, but we also provide photographers for events, shoot stills and location shoots as per customer requirements.

  1. What kind of photography is greatly enjoyed?

Travel and wildlife.

  1. What area of photography produces the most income?

Pack-shots

  1. Does the business advertise? Where, when and how.

We get our clients by marketing wherever possible, we have no less than 5 magazine adverts every month, we sporadically advertise on radio stations (like Highveld, 5FM and community stations like Tuks FM), we are all over the web (directories, networking sites, paid advertising and links) as well as having our own websites and viral campaigns (such as www.photofilmcomp.co.za). A large portion of our work is referral based but it’s essential nonetheless to maintain visibility.

  1. Does this certain way of advertising benefit the business?

We’re regarded as one of the best branded small businesses in SA so yes.

  1. What are your marketing strategies? (Promotions, specials etc)

We have a very fluid strategy and tend to run several promotions at a time; currently we have shoot package deals, band promos in magazines and we’re promoting the show in July.

  1. Who is your target market?

Upper LSM brackets.

  1. Do you have a brand identity? (Logo’s etc)

Yes – it’s very important to create a good corporate image when starting a business. IVOK are known for their branding and our red shirts are clearly visible wherever we go.

  1. How is this brand identity used?

Everywhere, clothing, web identity, printed material etc.

  1. Any other tips / advice that will be useful in the marketing area which is used by your business?

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