Can you take professional studio-quality photographs in your home?
The answer is a very certain yes and living proof is my photographer/wife who has had a home-based professional studio since the 1980s and clients have consistently paid her as much as $997 to have a session in her very “down to earth” home studio. Actually studios. There have been a few locations including client’s homes.
Truth is, a home studio is the best place to get the best shots.
The reason is, it’s less intimidating than a big dedicated studio or a line ’em up and shoot ’em department store operation. And that is the real key to getting great shots — subjects that are relaxed and happy, look that way in the photos!
But best of all, doing this type of photography in your own home studio is simply a whole bunch of fun! When Pam does an extended batch of sessions, it’s like an ongoing party and we tend to view it that way. The big difference is, we get paid.
Setting up a “studio” capable of producing professional-quality images of people and pets is easier and less expensive than you may think. And it does not require a large room. In fact, you may be surprised at how well you can make a small space work, especially when you use the little “trick” I’ll tell you about in a moment.
You also do not need a full-time dedicated space. While that may be nice to have, it is definitely not necessary for having a home studio, or a home based photography business. Studio lighting and backgrounds can be easily packed up and stored when not in use.
So set aside any “I can’t do it” thoughts you may have, and let’s take a look at what Pam and I have learned over the past 25 years or so about “shooting pro” in a home studio (and other “odd locations!), so you can get started, too!
What you’ll need for studio space…
You will, of course, need some kind of room with a bit of open space, but it doesn’t have to be huge and you don’t need high ceilings or even a clear shooting path to the subject.
Pam’s first studio was in our basement (shown below) which had 7 foot ceilings and a pole in the middle of the room which she had to shoot around. It wasn’t the ideal setup for sure, but she did produce quite a bit of pro work and she made a good amount of money working in that basement. Shooting a pro basketball team in studio like that might have been a problem, but for an ordinary family, it was quite workable…
Your room will need to be wide enough to fit the backgrounds and lights you plan on using.
If you’re going to be photographing full families or groups, you’ll want to be able to fit a 9-foot wide backdrop and you’ll want some extra room on the sides for lights. 12-14 feet is a good width, although there are ways to work with less if needed. If you’re just going to be doing head shots, individuals, or pets, you can get away with a much smaller area.
As for the length, you will want to be about 12-17 feet from the subject, but your room does not have to be that long if you use Pam’s amazing room-extending trick which she learned out of necessity while working in her second studio…
Pam’s second studio was a rented room in a house that was downright dinky, but again, she did a lot of pro work in it, and the “trick” she used to make it work was shooting through the doorway from the hall outside the room — ore and see a video about Pam’s second photography studio.
She uses the same trick in our current home studio, and the extra distance from the subjects that is gained from this “trick” is all that is needed for even large families.
As you can see, chances are good you have a workable room in your home and it’s likely you have a better shooting situation than we do. Many people do.
But here is something to keep in mind if do have a huge space — bigger is not always better. When dealing with kids and loose pets, a smaller area will help contain them and keep them where you want them — in front of your backdrop.
Yes, like most of what we teach, we learned this the hard way!
What you will need for backdrops…
Part of what makes studio shots look professional is cutting background clutter with a backdrop. There are many choices for backdrops. For a variety of reasons — including putting the attention on the subjects and not the background — Pam only uses white or black backdrops, and most of the time — OK, make that almost ALL the time — she only uses white.
Special note — it is easy to select and change a white backdrop to something else in an image editing program if you like. There are some fun things you can do and Pam has some video tutorials for you in the Deluxe Not Your Normal Studio Photography Course.
Rest assured you can make a lifetime career out of just shooting on white and that really helps to keep things simple. And again, keeping things simple will help you concentrate on the most important skills — working with your subjects to help them feel comfortable and look natural!
There are a few choices for white backdrops. Seamless backdrop paper is one choice and a good one if you have the room and don’t mind the “consumable” nature of paper.
When Pam was doing a lot of location work, she had to haul around a 9-foot roll of backdrop paper that would stick out the back window of our car. If it was raining, she would use a garbage bag over the end of the roll to keep it dry! These days, however, there are better backgrounds available for on location work…
A better solution for mobile photographers and of particular interest to the home studio photographer is the Superlite backdrop. The Superlite is reusable, very light and crunches up into a small bag for storage.
Both seamless white paper backdrops and the Superlite system are available in the Old Barn Emporium.
What you will need for studio lights…
Actually you don’t really need studio lights, you can get some great shots with a black backdrop and an on-camera flash. The black backdrop will soak up the shadows.
But if you want the pro studio look, you will want a studio lighting setup.
Choosing a lighting system is one area where it is very easy to spend way more than necessary. And there is a natural tendency among photographers to make the setups far more complicated than they need to be.
Below are some diagrams of Pam’s basic lighting setup. She’s used this studio setup for years to produce photos that clients love and pay high fees to get. Nope, it won’t win any awards for technical achievement, although maybe it should. And the reason is, it’s so simple you can “set and forget it” which allows you to concentrate on what’s most important… working with your subjects to make them relaxed and look natural, not stiff and posed.
And for a home studio especially, this type of lighting setup is ideal because it’s relatively compact and easy to manage.
Special note — We use studio strobes (flash) as a light source. You can use this same setup with continuous lighting instead of strobes, but we highly recommend using strobes — you’ll get more lighting power, less heat (even with “cool” lights), they will help stop the action (fast moving pets and kids!!!), and they are less intimidating for the subjects.
Use one main light with an umbrella or softbox…
and 2-3 lights on the backdrop…
If you like, you can use umbrellas or other diffusion material to even out the light and coverage from the background lights, but it’s not completely necessary. Here is how Pam’s home studio looks from the photographer’s perspective…
The only other lighting items you’ll need are an inexpensive flash meter to help set the exposure on your camera and a way of connecting your camera to your lights (you can use a sync cord, but we highly recommend a wireless flash trigger).
You will find both of these items along with specially-designed lighting kits in the Old Barn Emporium.
What you will need for a camera…
People agonize over what camera to buy. I do it, too… we all want to get the best stuff at the best price, but for home studio purposes, any current DSLR will be fine. So don’t overdo the camera buying process. Get something and get shooting. And don’t get hung up on resolution either. Pam and I shot with a 6MB camera for many years, and with the right software, we produced 2×3 foot prints from those files that made clients very happy and still look great.
Special note — compact cameras with built in zooms and other types of cameras can be made to work in the studio if they are able to sync with studio flash, however, a DSLR will be the best choice for this type of work and worth the investment if you do not have one now.
Note that in studio photography, you will be using a separate flash meter to determine exposure (not the meter in your camera) and you will be setting your shutter speed and f-stop manually. Consequently, your camera’s light meter and all those fancy shooting modes that come with cameras these days are worthless in the studio.
Setting up your camera to work with studio lights, by the way, is very easy. Just connect via a PC terminal or hot shoe. Your exposure is set manually, and you only need to do it once when you setup your lights. As long as nothing in your system changes, the settings will remain the same. In many ways, photographing in a studio is easier than photographing outside because the environment it is completely controllable and consistent.
What you will need for a lens…
For most photographic work, I personally like to get the best and fastest lens available.
In the studio, however, it’s a different matter. The high-end “fast” lenses tend to be big and heavy and will cramp your style. You don’t need “fast” in the studio… your studio strobes will give you plenty of light and you’ll want to stop down anyway to get a better depth of field.
You also don’t need the “good glass”… in fact, a little softness can help on the people shots. Back in the old film days, we used a light soft filter to get this effect. Critical “tack sharpness” isn’t always what you want when photography people.
Yes, there is a visible difference in lenses, but these days, all the lenses are pretty good and for what we do in the studio any 28-200mm or similar zoom lens should be fine. You do want a zoom that covers a fairly decent range so you can get full group and body shots, and then be able to zoom in to get head and other closely-cropped shots.
And that’s really all you need to set up your home studio.
As you can see, the technical part of getting pro quality shots is fairly simple. Where the “rubber meets the road,” however, is your ability to find and select poses, plan a session, and ultimately work with your subjects to get the shots you want.
If you need help in this area and/or want more in-depth information about the technical end of things, be sure to take a look at the full NYN Studio Photography Course. It will give you a lifetime of creative achievement and satisfaction, and if you decide to do this as a business, there may be monetary benefits in your future!
In any case, I hope this article has answered some questions, and opened up some new possibilities for you!
Jeff Farr, co-founder and director
Not Your Normal School of Photography