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Studio sets

Create and control your own scene


A set can be as simple as a wooden backdrop and a column on which a model can pose.
A set can be as simple as a wooden backdrop and a column on which a model can pose.

A studio set is a construction representing a place or scene. It generally comprises a background and props that are thematically suited to it. A set can be as simple as a single prop and a neutral background - for example, a column and seamless backdrop paper - or as complex as the deck of an old sailing ship, the interior of a spacecraft or a jungle scene.

Sets can be small, or huge and elaborate. The photography of food, jewelry and other products can often be accomplished in a small, tight set, whereas the sets needed for vehicles and other big items are relatively enormous.

There are many different approaches to set design. When photographing mundane, everyday, commonplace items, for example, the photographer generally aims for a particularly distinctive, visually-interesting set design in order to attract the viewer's attention to the otherwise ordinary-looking item. Imagination is often the principal tool used by photographers for such a set. Skill comes into it, too. Small objects can be made to look huge and imposing by dramatic lighting, camera angle, positioning and set design. Objects that are interesting in and of themselves can usually be treated less dramatically in a more simple set.


STILL LIFE SETS

Studio still life photography can be described as a series of adjustments based on an initial concept. The initial concept is the photographer's idea for how the image will ultimately look. This provides him or her with a visualization of the set needed for the object to be photographed. The concept may be rough, but it's enough to begin creating a rough set and to light it.

Rarely will the first lighting and set arrangements be those that are photographed. They will need adjustments, such as moving the lighting to eliminate unwanted shadows, blocking off flare, elevating an object to give it more prominence, arranging things for the best composition, adding or discarding elements, creating or removing reflections, and so on. The adjustments generally get smaller and smaller as the set, lighting and camera angle are refined, until the moment when no further adjustment is needed. The initial concept is now a final set, ready to be photographed.

A set for food photography can be quite simple and small, often nothing more than a corner of the studio where a relatively-plain table setting is arranged, or quite complex, with many elements involved.
A set for food photography can be quite simple and small, often nothing more than a corner of the studio where a relatively-plain table setting is arranged, or quite complex, with many elements involved.

A curtain, a simple chair with a sword for a dramatic prop and a period costume are all that are needed for this set to give the illusion of a medieval princess.
A curtain, a simple chair with a sword for a dramatic prop and a period costume are all that are needed for this set to give the illusion of a medieval princess.

SIMPLE SETS

Often the set for portraiture is kept plain in order to focus the viewer's attention on the subject. It could be a seamless paper backdrop, an out-of-focus background, a curtain of fabric, just plain old darkness or an ordinary wall - anything that doesn't distract the eye from the person being photographed. A plain background isolates the subject, but contributes little to the portrait.

Adding a prop can change the nature of a portrait. Seating the subject in an elegant, old chair, for example, can add a historical perspective and influence the viewer's perception of the subject. Sometimes the simplest prop can make you think differently of the person being photographed. Adding a number of props in front of a backdrop that gives the illusion of being in a different place can have an enormous effect on a portrait. It can place the subject in a different era or provide the scene with a whole new ambience. Photographing the same person using the same pose but in different sets can cause the viewer to have differing opinions about the subject. The set itself can therefore contribute strongly to a portrait, in the same manner as a set can influence our perception of a mundane product. Place a young person in graduation robes in front of an elegant bookcase, then photograph the same person in tatty jeans in the same pose in front of an old motorcycle, and you will have two different perceptions of that person. The person hasn't changed, but the setting has, and you feel differently about the person dependent on the set.


THE ELABORATE SET

When creating an elaborate set in which to photograph people, the set is designed and constructed much in the manner of a theatrical stage or a museum diorama. Unlike still life photography, the set is not built around the subject, but is rather designed to bring one or more subjects into it when the set is complete and ready for use. In other words, the subjects must fit into the set; the set is not made for the subject (except in unusual circumstances).

A Christmas set, for instance, may feature a fireplace with stockings hanging from it, and a decorated tree off to the side. The people who are photographed in such a set must fit into it, and this means they should dress and pose appropriately - i.e. to match the set.

A set may look like the interior of a submarine or the space shuttle, or like an old barn or an abandoned shed. In order to complete the effect, the subject(s) may even need to wear a costume or a particular hair style suitable to the set.

This set is made up of a barnwood wall backdrop and western props. It is suitable for costumed cowboys, a competition rider, family pictures or even a pretty model.
This set is made up of a barnwood wall backdrop and western props. It is suitable for costumed cowboys, a competition rider, family pictures or even a pretty model.

This set is simplicity itself - a combination of an old outhouse door and a fog machine. But, it does the job, providing mood without distracting from the subject. Always keep simplicity in mind in set design.
This set is simplicity itself - a combination of an old outhouse door and a fog machine. But, it does the job, providing mood without distracting from the subject. Always keep simplicity in mind in set design.

THE SET IS SECONDARY TO THE SUBJECT

Even with the most elaborate set, the photographer should never forget that the subject of the photograph is still the most important part of the scene. Everything about the set should be designed to focus attention on the subject, and to be complementary to the subject. Generally, the more you add to a set, the less your subject will be emphasized. Simplicity is the watchword. A simple set that contains just enough to convey the illusion that you are seeking, without overdoing it, is generally best. Clutter is the photographer's enemy in set design. Simplicity can be stunning.

Surprisingly, many props can be mostly cropped out of a scene to improve a picture. A corner of a pool table is often better than showing the entire table, for instance. Viewers get the idea that the subject is in a billiards room, but know that the subject is the center of interest - not the pool table. Keep your set uncluttered and choose camera angles that emphasize the subject in the setting, not the setting with the subject lost from view somewhere in it.


A SET IS THREE-DIMENSIONAL

When designing a set, think in terms of foreground, middle-ground and background so that your pictures will have depth and hopefully drama. The background should usually be simple - something that doesn't contain a lot of detail. It can be a painted backdrop (a waterfall, a forest scene, clouds, foliage) or something constructed (a "stone" wall, barn wood, a book case). The middle-ground should contain the main prop or props that contribute the most to the atmosphere of the set - an old bathtub, a library bookcase, an office desk, bales of hay. The foreground is often thrown out of focus or partially out of focus, or only partially shown, so that objects in it are only suggested, but not fully shown. Your subject will generally be placed in the middle-ground to take full advantage of the set's design.

Once you begin to create sets, you will probably find yourself accumulating lots of different props. It's easy to go overboard, yet it's great to have them available. Just be sure you have sufficient storage and can keep them in good condition.
Once you begin to create sets, you will probably find yourself accumulating lots of different props. It's easy to go overboard, yet it's great to have them available. Just be sure you have sufficient storage and can keep them in good condition.
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