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Simple home studio

Take great pictures in your own home


A playroom, television room - even a garage - can be converted to a studio. It must have a lot of window area if you are going to do natural-light photography. If you intend to take pictures using hot lights or flash, windows are not needed.
A playroom, television room - even a garage - can be converted to a studio. It must have a lot of window area if you are going to do natural-light photography. If you intend to take pictures using hot lights or flash, windows are not needed.

You probably already have a photo studio, and just don't know it. We are being a bit facetious when we say that because you may not have a true studio - a room completely dedicated to photography and equipped with backdrops, specialized lighting units, props and so on - but if you have a room in which you take pictures, then it is a studio. By definition, a photography studio is the workroom of a photographer.

For certain types of photography, a professional, fully-equipped studio is essential. If it wasn't, there would not be high-end studios. But a professional studio is not necessary for all good indoors photography. You can take beautiful portraits indoors using your digital or traditional film camera without the need for a full-blown studio or much studio equipment. Almost any room in the house can be used for photography, not just of people, but of many other subjects as well. But, for now, let's stay with people, and set up a simple portrait studio in your home.

The human body is not that big. You are not photographing a logging truck, an orchestra or a battleship. A person fits nicely into a small room, and if that room has a fair-sized window or a number of windows that let in a lot of daylight, you can make beautiful portraits using window light alone. Ideally, though you will enhance those portraits by adding the light from electronic flash or from simple reflectors to emulate studio lighting. You can go one step closer to the studio look by using a simple bed sheet, a length of fabric, a large towel or other fabrics and materials as a backdrop, and make impressive people pictures that will perhaps amaze even yourself by how well they turn out.


CREATING A SIMPLE PORTRAIT STUDIO AT HOME

(1) The room should ideally (but not necessarily) be long enough for you to photograph a tall person full-length, using a portrait-type lens or the portrait setting on your point-and-shoot camera. If you are shooting with a 35 mm camera that has interchangeable lenses, a portrait lens is one that has a focal length in the range of 85 mm to 135 mm.

With a 105 mm telephoto lens, for example, you'll need about twenty feet in camera-to-subject distance for a full-length shot of a six-foot tall model. Since your subject is rarely posed tight up against a backdrop (inferring that there will be space between the model and the backdrop, typically about 5 feet), the ideal room would therefore be a minimum of 25 to 30-feet long, and at least 10-feet wide, preferably wider to permit you to shoot from side locations.

With your portrait lens (or a zoom lens set to a focal length of around 105 mm) mounted on your camera, look through the viewfinder to see if a full-length person will fit comfortably into the viewfinder frame while you are standing somewhere in the room. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, set it at its portrait setting, and conduct the same test. If a standing person fits with a little space above and below, your room is minimally suitable.

However, in a pinch, you can take many a good photograph in a smaller room, even one that only affords a camera-to-subject distance of around ten to twelve-feet. At an absolute minimum, the room should permit full-length photography with a normal lens. A studio in a room such as this is crowded, but it can work; you will use your normal lens a lot, and telephoto lenses will be used for close-ups.

If the room you would like to use as a studio is really small, check to see if you can shoot through a doorway from outside the room in a hallway, or even backed into a closet. An extra three or four feet can make all the difference.

If the room is small or narrow, its wall and ceiling colors may affect your photography. Light reflected from a colored surface will be colored, and will in turn cast some color onto your subject. The walls and ceiling should ideally be repainted to either gray, for minimal reflectance, or white for greater reflectance. If you can't repaint, try hanging white fabric (sheets, for example) or even very dark material on surface areas that could reflect unwanted colored light onto your subject.

Ideally, the room will be large enough for a full-length photograph with a portrait lens.
Ideally, the room will be large enough for a full-length photograph with a portrait lens.

Seamless backdrop paper provides you with a plain color studio background. You will need a means of mounting the roll or of attaching a large piece of it to the wall.
Seamless backdrop paper provides you with a plain color studio background. You will need a means of mounting the roll or of attaching a large piece of it to the wall.

(2) The backdrop should be plain and close to featureless. A wall painted in a neutral color will work fine, except that there will be a sharp corner where the wall meets the floor. Be sure the wall has a non-reflective finish. You can also tack a large bed sheet, canvas or a huge piece of material to the wall, but in most professional studios the background is often seamless backdrop paper that can be purchased from a local camera dealer. If you can afford to buy a roll, it will give your images a much more professional look with its uniform color and curved base.

  • Seamless backdrop paper comes in rolls of varying widths, beginning at nine-feet wide.
  • It's fairly expensive, but there's a lot of it on a roll and, with care, will last through many photography sessions.
  • You will need a way of supporting it - generally some means of attaching it to a wall near the ceiling - so that it can be rolled out onto the floor.
  • A portable seamless paper support system (two adjustable stands that hold a rod which goes through the roll) can be purchased at reasonable cost.
  • One fabric that produces a dark and dramatic backdrop is black velvet or velveteen, which seems to just absorb light. If you can lay your hands on a very large piece, sufficient to cover the wall and the floor, you will be delighted with the results it provides. You may need the reflective value of bright white paper, though, if the amount of available light is fairly low.


    (3) The floor must have an even, flat surface.

  • Smooth concrete, linoleum, vinyl tile and terrazzo are ideal.
  • A smooth wood surface is also fine.
  • A level surface is the key for seamless paper. If the floor is covered with carpet or ceramic tile, a model's high heels will puncture the paper. Even low heels and bare feet will cause it to look "bumpy."
  • Masking tape is generally used to hold the paper in place on the floor, and to keep someone from tripping on its edges if they begin to turn up.
  • (4) The window or windows should be large and let in a lot of light. Ideally there would be more than one window, preferably on both sides of the room. A skylight, especially a large one, can be very effective. The more daylight there is illuminating the studio, the more choices you will have in photography.

  • The window or skylight cannot be blocked by the seamless backdrop paper if daylight is your primary light source.
  • The window or windows must be located where their light strikes the model when in the proper position.
  • Bright window light is essential with a simple point-and-shoot camera, since its camera-mounted flash is less than ideal for your pictures to have a "studio" look. The lighting from on-camera flash is too flat, and it often results in red-eye. Moreover, it will probably cast a strong shadow on the backdrop.
  • Place a white sheet over the window if the light coming in is direct sunlight. This will diffuse the light. Unfortunately, it will also reduce the brightness.
  • A large sheet of tracing paper will be more effective since it is thinner and, therefore, brighter.
  • On overcast days or if the sun doesn't shine directly through the window, you can probably get away with no window light diffusion.
  • Masking tape attaching the seamless paper to the floor holds it flat and will keep anyone from tripping on the edges.
    Masking tape attaching the seamless paper to the floor holds it flat and will keep anyone from tripping on the edges.

    The light from even a large window can be deceptive. Its brightness falls off rapidly as it moves away from the window.
    The light from even a large window can be deceptive. Its brightness falls off rapidly as it moves away from the window.

    Window light can be deceptive. The room may appear to be very bright, but when you use that light for your photography, you may find it is insufficient for proper exposure at hand-held shutter speeds, or that the light falls off too rapidly towards the middle of the room.

  • Use your light meter to measure the amount of light that would strike your subject on an average day before you create a studio from a particular room.
  • Measure the light in several spots around the room.
  • If the amount of light is borderline on an average, bright day, keep in mind that there will be much less light in the winter months and on overcast days.
  • If you are using window light as your principal source of illumination, your best room may be the one that normally has direct, bright sun shining through its window(s), since you can diffuse this strong light and end up with sufficient soft lighting for your photography.

    (5) A reflector to bounce the window light back onto your subject's shadow side or onto the back side of your subject for a rim lighting effect is your next consideration. A reflector is really important to give your pictures the studio look of more than one light source.

  • A full-length mirror is handy. It will reflect a harsh light, which can be ideal for rim lighting.
  • A sheet of white styrofoam gives a much softer reflection, but will have to be positioned quite close to your subject for maximum effect.
  • You can even use white poster board or a white sheet that is held open and reasonably flat, but these items have less reflective value and will not brighten your subject's shadow side too effectively.
  • You can also purchase a professional reflector from your camera dealer that is usually more efficient than home-made types.
  • In some cases, a mirror fixed above and behind your subject can be used to bounce light onto the top of your subject's head, emulating a studio hairlight.

  • (6) Flash for the final touch - If your camera has a removable flash unit, now is the time to remove it and use it off-camera. Off-camera flash can be angled from a position that is different from the camera position to create professional-looking, studio-type lighting, especially when combined with window light and/or a reflector.

  • You will need to purchase a sync cord to connect the remote flash to your camera's hot shoe so it will fire when the shutter is tripped.
  • The flash unit can also be triggered manually, without a cord connection to the camera, when the camera's shutter is open. This is effective in time exposure photography, with the camera attached to a tripod or other firm support.
  • Aiming the open flash directly at the subject will deliver harsh, direct lighting.
  • Its light, however, can be diffused by either placing a diffusion material in front of the flash head (even a handkerchief) or by bouncing the flash's light off a reflective surface.
  • If you are able to acquire an umbrella reflector, you can aim your flash at it and bounce the light onto your subject for a very pleasing and professional look.
  • If your flash unit is built into your camera and cannot be removed to fire it a distance away from the lens, it can still be used to fill in shadow areas, provided there is a good deal of ambient light falling on your subject. It should not, however, normally be used as your main light source. See fill flash for more information.

    (7) Putting your mini-studio to work - Now that you're set up, you'll want to know how to use your studio to make quality pictures. Here's a surprise. It's not all that difficult. You have the basics - window light, reflectors, a good backdrop, perhaps a removable flash unit. Shooting film? Be sure your camera is loaded with film of sufficient speed to avoid blur in the available light. Start with ISO 400 film or choose ISO 400 as the sensitivity setting in your digital camera to be confident. Now, you just need a willing subject to get started.

  • Ask a friend to sit in as your model, positioned and posed in the window light.
  • Set up your reflector(s) to cast light on your new model's shadow side.
  • Use your camera's light meter to obtain an exposure reading for the light falling on the window side of your model - the brightest side. (You may have to move in close to get the reading, then go back to your shooting position to take the picture.)
  • If the exposure requires a shutter speed that is too slow for hand-holding, be sure to use a tripod to avoid blur.
  • Now, take the picture.
  • You'll probably be surprised at how nicely the picture turns out, and will want to run back into your new studio for more, and to experiment with different reflector angles, different poses, and ultimately using studio flash for either your main or fill lighting.

    Experimentation and frequent use will lead you to advancement in understanding studio lighting techniques, and to better and better pictures. Take it one step at a time, and add a new element once you are confident with the effect of others you have already used.

    An important note about daylight

    As your sole source of illumination, daylight through a window or skylights is inconsistent, unreliable, usually not as bright as you'd like, and not always available when you wish to take pictures. Using its light alone may be economical, but it is very limiting.

    Unless you have big, very bright windows and lots of sunshine on most days, you can very quickly become frustrated by the restrictions of having to rely on daylight only. You should plan to purchase studio lighting equipment if you expect to be using your studio frequently.

    The light from an off-camera electronic flash unit can be bounced from a studio umbrella for a surprisingly-pleasing effect.
    The light from an off-camera electronic flash unit can be bounced from a studio umbrella for a surprisingly-pleasing effect.
    Related topics...

    Basic studio lighting

    Hanging a fabric backdrop

    Fill flash

    Film choice & lighting

    Film speed characteristics

    Off-camera flash

    Painting with light

    Food photography for the novice