Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tech Talk Tuesday - Setting Up a Home Studio (Part 1)


If money and available room size were not an issue, then the answer to "How much space do I need to set up a home studio?" is simple....at least double the size of the biggest subject or number of subjects you wish to photograph!  O.K. I know that doesn't help, especially since I'm talking to those of us, (probably all of us), who have limited space and limited resources.  So, understand that all through the process of setting up a home studio, we will be making compromises.

The first step is to consider both the space you have available or can convert for this purpose, in connection with the type of photography you want to do there.  If you are a portrait photographer, you may only have a large enough space to do just single person head shots, or seniors, or engagements or maybe a group of 3, but maybe not enough for a family group.  On the other hand, if you are a food photographer, or maybe specialize in macro work, you'll very likely have plenty of space to do all your photography in your 'studio'.  Another thought, if you really love 'location' work or 'natural' settings, and live in a warm climate where you can be outdoors year round, then maybe you would feel too confined and bored inside, so a home studio isn't right for you at all.  So, the very first step is to decide if you really want or need to do photography inside, what kind of photography are you planning to do inside, and, do you have enough room inside to do it! 

By now you've figured out that as far as size goes, there is no right answer, because we all will be using our home studios to shoot different subjects.  Again, if you are shooting macros or food, for example, a space not much bigger than a walk in closet may be all you need.  It will have to be large enough to fit a table to place your work on, a backdrop,  a light or two, and space for you and your camera to move about freely.  That's it, probably not much compromising here!

If you are shooting people, however, size becomes much more important.  If you would like to shoot full length portraits, then your room needs to be at least 2 feet taller than your subject.  Lengthwise, ideally, you should have 3-5 feet between the subject and the backdrop, 15-20 feet between the subject and your camera, and enough room behind you and the back wall to maneuver easily.   The width of your space will determine how large a group you will be able to accommodate, and that must also include your light setup.  You might have to compromise and use some creativity here because most of us don't have rooms that big.  Maybe you'll have to give up on the idea of full length portraits, or groups of 10, or maybe use your home studio just for close up shots, or have your subjects sitting. One more variable to add to the mix is what size lens will you use.  If your favorite portrait lens length is a 100mm to 200mm, you may not be able to use that lens in the space confinement of your studio. 

So where will you find your space.  Well, the obvious choices are:  a spare bedroom; a basement; a garage or maybe attic.  If one of these options is readily available, and accessible, then you are off to a great start.  But many of us may have to work harder at finding space.  Maybe you'll have to make some changes that could be difficult.  How about cleaning out the basement you've used to store a lifetime of stuff then having a big garage sale......ouch!  Or maybe you could put your two daughters into the same bedroom, to free up a room.....double ouch ouch!  Or, how about telling your husband he has to give up one side of the garage and move his power tools to the shed....triple ouch ouch ouch!  Another idea, if you are using the spare bedroom as an office, how about consolidating  all your office stuff and relegate it to a corner of the family room.  (Why do you need a whole room dedicated to paying bills, when you'd have so much more fun using it to enjoy photography!!!)   Well, if there's a determined photographer, there's a way!

I am lucky in that I do have a spare room to start with.  It is what we call a 'bonus' room and built in the attic space above our garage which is attached to the house, so there is a stairway leading down to the main floor.  (This is my very own room, to compensate for the separate 3 car garage my husband built for his car hobby!!)  At the time we built the house I was planning on using this room as a craft/hobby room, so windows on every wall were a plus.  The room is fairly big, about 25 feet by 18 feet, and has ton of storage space and a bathroom attached, but as you can see, because of the sloping ceilings and windows on 3 of the 4 walls, I'll have to do some compromising in set up and how many people I can photograph at the same time.  And as you can CLEARLY see, right now it is the family's junk room, and has never been cleaned or totally unpacked since we moved into the house which has been about 3 years ago.  (Did I just admit that????)

But if there really is no space at all, then your option might be to set up a temporary studio as I did in the following shot:
This is my brother and sister-in-law and their handsome family.  Since they were all home for Thanksgiving it was time for a long overdue family picture.  Because it was snowing and cold outside, our only option was an inside photo shoot.  We tried to think of a 'public' building we could use, but with all the kids, we opted for the basement family/game room of their home instead.  Luckily the room is in neutral colors and has a nice long wall on one side that would accommodate this large group.  I plugged in my one studio light mounted on a stand, and placed it to their right.  (I bought this light 5 days earlier at the workshop and really had no idea how to use it).  Then I put my speedlite on another stand just behind and to the left of where I had my camera on a tripod.  The last of my sophisticated setup was to put two household utility lights on the carpet close to the back wall.  We moved the game table out of the way, found a bunch of chairs and some buckets to sit on, and we were in business with a temporary studio of sorts.  This really was a lovely room to use, but the compromise was that the ceiling was fairly low, and the men in the back row are really tall, like between 6'2" and about 6'5", and there was a ceiling fan between me and them.  When they were standing, the fan was blocking part of their heads, so I had to have them sit on stools.  I feel pretty good about how this turned out considering my inexperience and lack of equipment.


Once you have your space, you need to do some preparation work.  First you'll need to to do some painting with latex paint.  You will probably want to paint the walls and ceilings white to avoid unwanted color casts; however, some photographers prefer neutral beige or brown tones.  If you have a bigger room and a bigger budget, you might want to paint a 'custom wall' to resemble a textured backdrop, spray paint a camouflage look,  or design any background scene that suits your fancy.  

When choosing flooring, the best choice is a hard, flat commercial carpet in a medium brown tone. Never choose a thick, high pile carpet, as it makes moving lights and props difficult.  

A very important preparation is how you are going to control your lighting.  If there are windows in your room, you may want to leave them uncovered to use natural light on bright days.  But you also need to be able to seal off all the light in order to accurately use studio lights, so you must find a way to attach some kind of light blocking blinds that can be opened and shut.

You will also need adequate power and electrical outlets to plug in your lights.  Also, if your space is small, and you are doing portrait work using 'hot' lights, your room will get very hot and you and/or your subjects will become uncomfortable very quickly unless you have adequate ventilation or air conditioning.

If you will be doing portrait work with people other than your family, there are some additional considerations to think about when looking for and preparing your studio space.  Is there easy access or an easy way for people to get to your 'studio' when they come to your home?  Is there a bathroom located close by where your clients can check their makeup or change their clothes or whatever?  Do you have room or closet space to store props?


Today we really haven't talked about anything that costs a ton of money, unless you are planning on remodeling or building an addition to your house.  (Don't we all wish!)  Finding and cleaning out your space will mostly take 'elbow grease'.  I do have a tip if you are planning on painting the walls and ceiling.  Go to your local Lowes or Home Depot or other large hardware store and ask if they have any 'miss tint' gallons of paint.  This is just what it says, special order paint that was tinted wrong which stores sell for a reduced price.  If you are able to change the flooring you can look for a remnant or bolt end and save money.  And for your windows, you can always be creative and tape or hang up something solid like foam board or thick fabric, until you can afford those light blocking blinds.

I know this all has been pretty basic, but I hope it has given you some things to think about.  Next week I'll include photos of my friend's studio and we'll talk about the lighting equipment you will need to get started. 

P.S.  Did I mention there's a price to pay for reading all this great information??  I'm still waiting to see more of your Christmas light photos, so if you post yours  HERE  I'll consider it payment in full, and a great way to let me know you are still interested in me continuing 'Tech Talk Tuesdays'.