Monday, July 13, 2009

Setting Up A Home Photo Studio

I just finished my first venture into food photography, as part of the Strobist Boot Camp assignments.

food shots

I shot my entries in my home studio. So I thought it would be interesting to write about what goes into getting a studio set up.

Home Studio

Most people probably think of me as a "nature guy" mostly. But, I am starting to branch out more. Product, people, food, etc. We moved recently, and we got a 2-bedroom specifically with the intent of setting up a home studio in the 2nd bedroom. It's definitely great to have an extra room dedicated to photography. But really, this same setup could work anywhere there is a little extra space.

At any rate, here's a brief list of what anyone looking to set up a home studio will need:

- Space: At a minimum, enough for a background, a table and a tripod. Depending on the lens you want to use, you may need more or less space. In a small space, a good wider-angle lens can help you work closer to your subject. If you have more space, a longer lens can be used. Or if you're doing macro or like small product to sell on Ebay or Etsy, there are complete studio-in-a-box kits such as this one. However, you will probably need additional lighting (see below).

- A Table: If you want to shoot product, food, etc. However, if portraits or head shots are your thing, then maybe you just need a stool for your subject to sit on.

- Background(s): Bigger camera stores, such as Samy's Camera, sell and rent backgrounds. Since styles change all the time, I recommend keeping it simple. Buy a roll of white seamless and a roll of black or gray seamless. A 4.5 foot-wide roll is in the $30-$40 range and lasts a long time if you take care of it. Then, if you're doing a portrait shoot and you need a more stylish, textured muslin background, just rent it (because they sell for $100 and up). That way you're not getting locked into a style that may go obsolete before you break even.

- Background Support: Something has to hold up the roll, right? A couple of different ways to approach this. At my old place, I mounted brackets on the wall, ran a big dowel through the middle of the roll, and hung it up that way. At my new place, I wanted a more flexible approach, so I bought a Portable Background Stand. Basically two light stands with a variable-length crossbar, so you can change the height and width, as well as disassemble the whole thing and take it with you anytime. About $150-$200, or there are certainly higher-end options as well (ones that let you hang more than one roll at a time).

- Lighting: When I first started shooting studio-style about a year ago, I was surprised by how much light was needed to get a good shot. Way more light needed than I had anticipated when I first got started. But it doesn't have to break the bank. You can see from the shot above, I use a combination of lighting. I use a mix of static (always-on) lighting, as well as Strobes (aka Speedlights) (aka off-camera flashes). For the static lighting, it's just two cheap floor lamps from IKEA with 150 watt CFL light bulbs. The "Blue" CFL bulbs (called day-glow or something like that) give off a similar color of light as the flashes. There is an awesome blog called Strobist dedicated to using flashes - I highly recommend checking out the Lighting 101 section if you are just getting started.

- Lighting Support: Again, something has to hold up the lighting right? Light Stands can be picked up at just about any camera store. I found some light-duty stands for about $35 each at Samy's Camera. Perfect for in-home use, and they have a very small "footprint" in terms of taking up floor space. Heavier-duty light stands can be $75 and up. But if you plan to take them outdoors or need additional height or load-bearing strength, it may be worth it.

- Diffusers: A flash or a 150-watt CFL by themselves are very harsh and will lead to a lot of nasty shadows. In the picture above, you can see I use a combination of things. Shoot-through umbrellas are available at many camera stores, and help soften the light of a flash. I also use "diffusion domes," which are inexpensive white plastic caps for the end of a flash, which helps soften the light. The flash in the lower-left corner of the picture above has a "snoot," which focuses the light into a tight beam. For all of this stuff - definitely check out Lighting 101 on Strobist - very helpful!

- A Tripod: Of course. I mean, I suppose you could try to shoot hand-held in the studio. But let's say you get that shot exactly how you want it, except your exposure was just a hair off and you need to do another click. If you're shooting hand-held, good luck getting the exact same composition again. On a tripod, it's guaranteed to be the exact same composition you just had. Just tweak a couple of settings and click. Because in the studio, composition is an arduous process, a tripod is (in my opinion) an absolute must.

That's about everything I think. No doubt, it's a long list of stuff. And honestly, it took me months to build it all up. But the great thing about all this gear is it's designed to last a very long time if you take care of it. So with every piece you pick-up, your studio just gets better and better.

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