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.

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