Equipment Guide for Setting up a Small Home Portrait/Glamor Studio
Sailor Blue | Buying Guides | Published Mar 16, 2012
I have been through buying studio lighting and using a temporary home portrait/glamor studio twice over the years. It has been a real learning experience and I wanted to share what I have learned about buying equipment for a small home portrait/glamor studio in the hope of helping others.
I have tried to distill down what I have learned from experience and from other photographers, both amateur and professional, but the following guide is long because the subject is complex. Sections on various techniques are included because these techniques can have an impact on the studio equipment you buy.
I have tried to include enough details and explanations to make it clear why I am recommending certain equipment.
Portraiture is all about light AND shadows. As photographer Rick Sammon (http://www.ricksammon.info/) says, "Light illuminates, shadows define.". Without shadows portraits are flat and uninteresting. With shadows the contrast between light and dark (Chiaroscuro) cause two dimensional portraits take on a three dimensional appearance and immediately become more interesting.
If you look over the classical portrait lighting styles in this reference you will see that each is defined by not only how the face is lit, but also by the shadows on the face.
In portraiture the concept of chiaroscuro is generally linked with Rembrandt lighting, but applies to any lighting style where shadows and highlights work together to add depth to an image.
Glamor is basically nothing more than portraiture with more skin and a touch of sex, however glamor lighting is frequently flatter than portrait lighting to better hide wrinkles and skin blimishes. All the equipment, lighting, posing, and techniques that work for portraiture work equally well for glamor.
Basic Equipment Requirements
The basic equipment required is a camera, a lens, space for a studio, and lighting.
While strictly speaking they are not equipment, a model, wardrobe, hair styling, and makeup are also critical items.
There are various sources of professional or semi-professional models like Model Mayhem, Green Martini, and One Model Place. Amateur models are also all around you, all you have to do is convince them to be your model, which is an art in its self.
Wardrobe can range from the model's most comfortable clothing, to high fashion, to costumes, to nothing. The type of photography you are doing, the model's age, and their body type will effect the wardrobe. It is your responsibility to match the model to the type of photography and to secure any wardrobe required.
Always discuss your photographic vision with the model, especially if they are expected to supply their own wardrobe, then beg, borrow, or buy what you need in the way of wardrobe.
Hair Styling and Makeup
This can range from having the model au natural up to professionally designed and done hair styling and makeup. Since the vision of the final image is yours, it is your responsibility to secure the services required.
Use your imagination. Securing the services of someone studying hair styling and makeup or trading images for services is one way to save the budget.
I will add that keeping a few basic makeup items in your studio can be a good idea, just be careful to sterilize all application brushes and pads between models by soaking in rubbing alcohol and air drying.
CAUTION: Rubbing alcohol is flammable so take the necessary precautions including NO SMOKING!
Especially important is to keep some oil absorbing tissues, some neutral colored face powder, and a sterile soft brush to apply it with so you can kill oily skin shine. I keep Clinique 03 Transparency powder and when needed apply only the barest trace - if I can see it on the skin, it is too much. It is great for killing shine on both men and women.
The camera must be able to synchronize the shutter with the external off-camera strobes used for lighting the subject.
Point-and-shoot cameras: Most consumer point-and-shoot cameras can't sync with external flashes so simply can't be used.
Pro-sumer cameras: The capabilities of these cameras fall between those of professional cameras and consumer point-and-shoot cameras. Advanced point-and-shoot or "mirrorless" cameras that can use hot-shoe flash units, especially those with Manual Mode fall into this category. Some of the non-interchangeable lens DSLR's are also in this category. Each must be evaluated to see whether or not it will sync with an external flash.
Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras: Almost any modern DSLR will sync with an external off-camera flash. DSLR's are by far the most popular type of camera for portrait/glamor photography.
The right focal length of a lens for good perspective in portraits has been a hot topic of discussion since the first days of photography, and it still is. What is often forgotten is that it isn't the focal length that controls perspective, it is the distance between the subject and the camera.
If you get too close to the subject you get extension distortion. also called wide-angle distortion, of the image. When very close, if you focus on the eyes the size of the nose will be exaggerated and the size of the ears will be diminished. Subjects also get uncomfortable if the photographer gets too close and invades their personal space.
At 35mm on a FX or Full Frame 35mm camera, or about 24mm on a DX or Canon 1.6 camera, extension distortion becomes a major problem. In general you should avoid using lenses with focal lengths less than 50mm (or its equivalent) for portraiture, but in special cases shorter focal length lenses can be used for creative portraiture.
The further from the subject the greater the compression distortion becomes and the flatter and less 3D the subject will appear. Compression distortion is much less disturbing to viewers than extension distortion, but can eventually become a problem.
When we mentally recall people's facial features they appear to be about 15 feet (5 meters) away. Shooting from 15' will give the subject a nice perspective and will keep the subject/photographer distance sufficient to keep the subject comfortable. You can shoot from closer or further than 15', but it is a good idea to think of 15' as your base distance.
Using longer focal length lenses to control the area imaged or the depth-of-field for portraits is common. Many photographers use 200mm, 300mm, or even 500mm lenses for portraiture/glamor and shoot at subject/camera distances greater than 15', but at focal lengths longer than about 200mm compression distortion becomes very obvious.
Here is a table of subject sizes that roughly fill the frame for various focal lengths at a subject/photographer distance of 15'.
Focal Length DX or Canon 1.6 FX or Full Frame 35mm
35mm * 8.9'(2.7m) 14.7'(4.5m)
50mm 6'(2m) 9'(3m)
70mm 4.5' (1.3m) 6.5' (2m)
85mm 3.5' (1m) 5' (1.5m)
105mm 2.8' (90cm) 4' (1.3m)
135mm 2.2' (70cm) 3' (1m)
200mm 1.5' (45cm) 2' (70cm)
300mm 1' (30cm) 0.5' (50cm)
400mm 9" (20cm) 3" (35cm)
500mm 7" (18cm) 11'' (30cm)
*Added to the table from Ken Rockwell's site by this author. The table and more information can be found on this site.
As you can see you can shoot a full length standing portrait with a 70mm lens on a full frame camera or about 45mm on a crop sensor camera so there is little need to use shorter focal length lenses unless you are space limited.
If you are space limited and have to use shorter focal length lenses so that you can be closer to the subject always keep in mind the problem of extension distortion. You can minimize this by keeping your model to a single plane perpendicular to the camera as much as possible and avoiding extended limbs or poses with the model angled to the camera.
An important consideration in picking out a lens for portraiture is aperture. The maximum aperture size of your lens effects both the shallowness of the depth-of-field you can achieve with a given lens and the focusing ability of the lens.
A lens with a maximum opening of f/4.5 may have difficulty focusing if the studio strobe modeling lights are low watt lamps. I have found that the Auto Focus of my Canon 7D works fine with my Tamron SP AF28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di lens and the 60W modeling lamps in my studio strobes but Auto Focus simply doesn't work with a Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Kit Lens.
Lenses are generally at their best sharpness between 2 stops less than their widest aperture until diffraction starts to dominate.
Full frame sensor cameras can use a smaller lens opening than a crop sensor camera before diffraction starts reducing the quality of the image. The aperture at which this happens is dependent on the number of pixels and upon print size. For an 8"x10" print, Nikon's new 16.2 MP D4 would be diffraction limited at about f/14. For a Canon's 17.9 MP 7D it would be about f/8.2.
You can find a diffraction limit calculator, along with lots more information about sensor size and lenses on this web site.
Bokeh, "the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light", is important in portrait lenses. Bokeh is related to spherical aberration of the lens and the number and shape of the aperture blades.
The better spherical aberration is corrected the more pleasing the lens bokeh is. More aperture blades and the rounded aperture blade edges produce rounder and more pleasing out-of-focus points of light, thus producing better bokeh.
Prime Lenses Or Zoom Lenses
Top quality prime lenses will produce sharper images than zoom lenses. Top quality zoom lenses, however, will produce images that are of high enough quality for all but the most critical of users.
Zoom lenses offer several advantages over prime lenses. A pair of high quality zoom lenses can cover the entire range from 24-28mm to 200mm, reducing your need for switching between multiple prime lenses. Zoom lenses also reduce the need for the photographer to move closer and further from the subject as much as with prime lenses, and in my case I'm old enough that I appreciate that fact.
Zoom lenses tend to perform better in the middle of their focal length range than at the extremes. Constant aperture zoom lenses generally are of better quality than those where the aperture varies with focal length.
Depth of Field
The depth of field is very important tool for directing the viewers attention in your images. The depth of field at a given subject/camera distance is effected by three things - sensor size, aperture, and focal length of the lens.
The larger the sensor, the less the depth of field for a given aperture, focal length, and subject/camera distance.
The larger the aperture, the less the depth of field for a given sensor size, focal length, and subject/camera distance.
The longer the focal length, the less the depth of field for a given sensor size, aperture, and subject/camera distance.
Here is a Depth Of Field Calculator that will do all the calculations for you as long as your camera, or one with the same size sensor, is in the list of available cameras.
If you want to maintain a given depth of field while increasing the focal length of the lens used then smaller apertures will be required. This means increasing the ISO and/or the strobe power to maintain the correct exposure.
With a modern DSLR you can work up to ISO 800 with few problems, which reduces your need for strobes that are higher powered than normal ones (see below), but as the focal length increases and the aperture size decreases eventually you will need higher powered strobes.
A small home studio is frequently a shared space. Mine, for instance, consists of a little used dinning room and a strip down the middle of my living room created by removing a coffee table. Remodeling or even repainting my rented condominium to convert it into a full time studio is not possible. Compromise is frequently required.
The ceiling height is of concern. It should be high enough that you can place your main light diffuser at an appropriate distance from the subject (see the "Main light diffuser" section below) and angled downward 45ºs. An 8' high ceiling is very restrictive for standing portraits but it is generally possible to work with this ceiling height for most lighting styles. Higher ceilings are better, but most of us don't have any choice but to work with what we have.
For a 10' wide background, lit by two studio strobes located outside this background, you would want a space about 16' to 20' wide. You can get by with less space if you are creative. Many amateur photographers make do with spaces in the 12' to 14' wide range. Wall and ceiling mounting for the background, hair. and accent lighting can gain you the equivalent of three to four feet of width.
If your background is less than 10' wide you should try to use longer focal lengths to keep the angle of coverage such that areas outside the background are not included in the image. If outside areas are included in your images you can remove them in post processing, but this just adds to the work you need to do.
You normally keep a subject at least 6' from a background to prevent shadows from your main and fill lights being visible on the background. Greater separation is even better in many cases.
With stands the background is about 2' from the wall. Add the 6' separation between the subject and the background and a 15' separation between the subject and the photographer plus maneuvering room and the length of your studio space becomes about 25' at a minimum.
You can make do with less space if you use shorter focal lengths, but remember the closer you are to your subject the greater the extension distortion will be. Using shorter focal length lenses close to the subject will also make keeping areas outside the background out of your images very difficult or impossible.
When shooting close to the subject be very aware that your subject should occupy as little depth as possible to minimize wide angle distortion. Arms and legs extending toward or away from the camera can take on some strange proportions. See the Focal Length section of this reference.
Studio Wall Color
Strictly speaking, for the best light control a dull black floor, walls, and ceiling would be best, but the working environment would be incredibly depressing.
Light gray or white walls and ceiling are the most common in dedicated small home studios. The floor can be covered in various ways if necessary. Light control can come through the use of black drapes that can be pulled across the walls or windows and the use of flags such as sheets of black foamcore.
As mentioned above, a small home studio is frequently a room that has other duties such as a dinning room or a garage. If remodeling and/or repainting is not possible we have to find ways to live with the floor, wall, and ceiling colors.
If the floor, walls, or ceiling are brightly colored it is worth investing in some black fabric for a temporary floor covering and for drapes as well as in flags to prevent stay light reflection off these surfaces causing color contamination of your subject. Setting a Camera Custom White Balance usually helps, but unfortunately it can't always completely correct for this type of color contamination.
Nothing will make a model question your ability and professional approach as a photographer faster than a messy or dirty studio.
Keep your studio space clean, neat, and uncluttered. A messy desk in the corner, extra equipment leaning against the walls, or shelves full of nick knacks or props will give the wrong impression to any model.
For safety's sake, if for no other reason, always make sure cables are out of the way and secured against being tripping dangers.
Keep that critical space the model and you as the photographer will occupy free of clutter to make your shooting easier.
Studio Strobes, Not Continuous Lighting
Either continuous or strobe lighting can be used for portraiture and glamor photography but in reality continuous lighting is fine for inanimate objects but a pain with animate ones.
With continuous lighting long shutter speeds and large apertures with their shallow depth of field are basic requirements. This combination frequently results in blurred images of animate subjects like people.
Strobes are much more powerful than continuous lights and are the lights of choice for portraiture and glamor photography. This guide is based upon using strobes.
Studio Strobes, Not Hot-Shoe Flash Units
Learning to see the light and the shadows is critical to portraiture. Studio strobes with good quality modeling lights, who's brightness varies with the flash power adjustment, make this possible.
Hot-shoe flash units lack modeling lights so seeing the light and shadows is impossible with them. Obtaining good portrait lighting with hot-shoe flash units is a case of lots of trial and error, and very wasteful of your time and energy as a photographer.
Quality Of Studio Strobes
Quality studio strobes will last you for decades. Cheap low quality studio strobes will quickly wind up in the trash and are a total waste of money. I speak from experience here. My first set of studio strobes were cheap low quality strobes, virtually unusable for quality work, and yes, they wound up in the trash so they were a complete waste of money. Spend a bit more on quality strobes and you will never regret it.
Be sure you buy your studio strobes from a company with a good reputation for customer relations.
Quality doesn't mean high prices for the amateur. There are several brands of budget priced studio strobes available from reputable companies. Two excellent choices are AlienBees from Paul C. Buff (PCB) and Flashpoint from Adorama. Impact from B&H is of good quality but only offers 4 stops of power control, too few in my opinion. Also popular are the Elincrome D-Lite 4 lights and the Bowens Gemini lights. I'm sure there are others I'm not familiar with.
Of course if you can afford it, feel free to buy higher quality professional grade studio strobes. You will reap the benefit of faster recycle times and more stable power and color output.
Number Of Studio Strobes
You can do excellent portraiture with one studio strobe and a good large light diffuser. Several professional photographers have made their reputation with a single light and diffuser.
As you gain experience you will want more lights to give you greater flexibility. Add the fill light, background lights, and accent/hair lights as you develop a need for them. It is not unusual to eventually wind up with 5 or more lights. Three lights - a main, a fill, and a hair/accent/background light - is a good starting combination.
Hair/accent/background lights can be of lower power than the main and fill lights, but if you buy lights with sufficient power adjustment in the beginning you can stick with identically powered lights.
For the greatest versatility, interchangeability, and backup in case a light fails I recommend all of these lights should be identical.
You must be careful when buying studio strobes. Studio strobe power needs to be matched to the type of photography you are doing, the modifiers you have, and the space you have to work in.
The strobe power required will vary with the type of diffuser, the size of the diffuser , the diffuser to subject distance, and the aperture chosen to give you the desired depth-of-field in your images.
The most common problem with studio strobes for the small home portrait studio is having too much power, not too little. Small home portrait studio strobes should generally be in the range of 300 Ws to 600 Ws for the greatest versatility.
Higher power studio strobes frequently require the use of neutral density filters or stacked diffuser panels to lower their power in a small home studio. Having to do either is inconvenient and simply slows you down.
A modern DSLR will give you good quality low noise photos at ISO values ranging from the base ISO, generally 100 or 200, up to about ISO 800. This greatly reduces the need for more expensive high power studio strobes.
300 Ws strobes will alloy you to shoot at ISO 100 to ISO 400, apertures that give you a good useful depth of field such as f/8, f/11, or even f/16, and will allow you to use small to medium-large diffusers up to about 2500 sq. inches (1.6 sq. m) in size. If you want to use an even larger diffuser such as a 4'x6' softbox then you will need a more powerful 600 Ws light. If you want to overpower the sun outdoors at mid day you will need at least a 1600 Ws light.
All studio strobes should be power adjustable down to at least 1/16th of full power, and 1/32nd is even better. This will allow you to use small diffusers such as 24"x24" softboxes close to the subject with reasonable apertures or to use larger apertures for less depth of field with medium-large diffusers.
I don't recommend the purchase of non-power adjustable studio strobes. You can only vary their power by moving them closer or further from what they are lighting and by adding layers of translucent fabric, diffusion plastic sheets, or neutral density gels. The amount of money saved isn't really worth the inconvenience.
Other Important Factors In Choosing Studio Strobes
Small home studio strobes should use a common speedring to hold diffusers and accessories. The most common speedrings are those of Paul C. Buff (AlienBees, etc.), Bowens, and Elincrome.
Never buy any light that lacks speed ring connectors or uses a so called "Universal" speedring.
Universal speedrings consist of a ring with several bolts through it. You tighten the bolts down against the head of the studio strobe to hold it on. The only way to get a universal speed ring to hold even a small softbox in place is to drive the bolts right through the strobe's outer casing and into the light. This tends to have a detrimental effect on the operation of the studio strobe. Lights that use universal speedrings are basically junk.
A built in optical slave sensor and a connection for a sync cable are basic requirements for any studio strobe.
Studio strobes should recycle in no more than 2 to 3 seconds at full power.
You should be able to turn on the modeling light and strobe individually. The modeling light should vary its intensity as you vary the strobe power. A 60W to 75W modeling light will work but it is pretty weak. 150W modeling lights are nice and much more useful.
Umbrella shafts range from 6mm to 8mm in diameter. If the studio strobes have a built in umbrella holder make sure that they will take an 8mm umbrella shaft. In order to be able to properly adjust the umbrella to flash distance be sure that the umbrella shaft can go right through the studio strobe and out the other side.
Non-power adjustable hair/accent/background lights are of very limited value. Frankly I advise against buying them. You will find that you want to adjust the power of your hair/accent/background lights just as much as you want to adjust the power of your main and fill lights. Doing this with distance, neutral density filters, or layers of diffusion material is a pain in the butt.
It is impossible to eliminate stray light when using an umbrella. Stray light reduces your ability to control the subject lighting. Stray light can also pick up the color of the walls or ceiling and produce an uncorrectable color tint on your subject.
Umbrellas have two advantages over classical softboxes - they are much less expensive and they are easy to open and close.
It is possible to buy a good quality 60" white shoot through umbrella with a removable black backing for $30. Most portrait photographers eventually have several different sized umbrellas in their inventory because of their low cost and easy of transportation for location shooting.
If you do buy umbrellas the white translucent ones that can be used in shoot through or reflective mode and have a removable black backings are generally the most useful. The light from a silver umbrellas is more specular. That can be good for a portrait of a rugged male, but is almost never good for portraits of females. Gold reflective umbrellas are specialty items.
New umbrella opening softboxes (see below) are just as easy to open and close as umbrellas and will give you much better light control, but are more expensive than umbrellas. Buy these instead of umbrellas if possible.
One more use for photo umbrellas suggested by Bobby Deal is that they can keep the rain off your camera and other expensive photo equipment.
Softboxes are generally preferred over umbrellas since they produce much less stray light and give you greater control over subject lighting. Egg crate grids on softboxes will give you even more control over subject lighting and reduce stray light even further at the expensive of about 1/2 to 1 stop of light output.
Double diffuser softboxes will give you softer and more even lighting than single diffuser ones.
Square and rectangular softboxes cause catch lights in the eyes of the subject that look like windows. Tape strips on the face of the softbox can increase this resemblance. Octoboxes, Parabolic Light Modifiers, umbrellas, and Softlighters produce rounder catch lights that more closely resemble the sun. Either type of catch light is acceptable to most people.
Many budget softboxes are available with the common PCB, Bowens, or Elincrome speedrings at lower prices than those from the major manufacturers. If you have or can buy extra speedrings almost any softbox can be used with your speedrings regarless of the speedring it came with.
Budget priced softboxes are usually, but not always, less well made and/or made of lower quality materials. Care should be used in buying them but many of them will last the amateur for years. Look for recommendations and buy from a source with a good return policy.
Professional fashion and glamor photographer Bobby Deal suggests is that you extend the lifetime of budget priced softboxes by re-enforcing the tension rod pockets at the open end of the softbox with soft leather patches. This keeps the tension rods from wearing through the pockets.
With softboxes be sure you assemble and disassemble them as little as possible since this is when you will damage them. If you need to assemble/disassemble your diffusers frequently for storage or location shooting then umbrella opening softboxes, Softlighters, and Parabolic Light Modifiers with socks are preferable to the classical softboxes.
Many consider strip softboxes as specially items, some consider them as invaluable additions to the studio. They range in size from about 8"x24" up to 21"x84".
Strip softboxes are great for lighting the background, and are especially good for seamless white photography. They are also great for hair/accent lights if used with grids or flags.
Strip softboxes with grids are must have items if you are shooting fitness, glamor, or athletes where side lighting is desired.
Lighting a subject with strip softboxes from the sides or slightly behind the subject is called slash lighting. Slash lighting is popular for male athletes since the bright highlights and dark shadows make the subject look very rugged. It can also be used to accent the musculature of either male or female athletes.
If used for the main lighting, strip softboxes can produce some interesting images. One example is an inverted "V" over the camera combined with a reflector or fill light under, which can produce beautiful clamshell lighting that looks very much like the classical Hollywood lighting.
Main Light Diffuser
The softness of light is defined by how diffuse the edges of the shadows AND highlights are. Sharp edges are caused by a hard light, i.e. one that is small with respect to the subject. Diffuse fuzzy edges are caused by a soft light, i.e. one that is large with respect to the subject.
The sun is a huge light source (100 times the diameter of the earth) but it is so far away that it is small relative to the earth so direct sunlight is hard light. A cloudy sky diffuses the sunlight over a very large area compared to a subject so the light from a cloudy sky is soft light.
The main light diffuser should be as large or larger than your subjectfor the best quality of light. You can get by with a main light slightly smaller than the subject but the light won't have quite the same soft quality.
Use your diffusers at distances from the subject equal to 1 to 2 times the measured diagonal of an opened softbox or the measured diameter of an opened umbrella for the best balance of light softness and light/shadow ratio.
The light softness and the light/shadow ratio from a diffuser decrease with distance. You can use your diffusers out to about 3 times the diagonal/diameter with some softening of the light but it is rapidly becoming a hard light source. At that distance the light is also very flat, i.e. there is little intensity difference in the light on the closer and further sides of the face (see the inverse square law for light intensity). Beyond 3 times simply use the metal 7" bowl reflector.
If you use a diffuser closer than 1 diagonal/diameter the light will be extremely soft but the ratio between the light and shadow intensities on the sides of the face closest and furthest from the light will be very large since the light is falling off rapidly (see the inverse square law for light intensity). This light can be useful for portraits of rugged men, but is rarely good for women.
I recommend a softbox in the 3'x5' size range for your first diffuser. It can be used horizontally for head or waist up shots of 1 person or a small group. It is a bit small but it can still be used vertically for most standing subjects.
If you choose an umbrella as your first diffuser, get one like the 60" translucent white one with a removable black backing referenced in the umbrella section above.
Fill Light Diffuser
The fill light is used at a reduced intensity and generally closer to the camera. Because it is close to the camera the softness of this light isn't as important as that of the main light so a smaller diffuser can be used.
A good combination is the 3'x5' softbox or a 60" white reflective/shoot through umbrella with black backing for the main and a 24"x24" softbox or a 43" white reflective/shoot through umbrella with black backing for the fill light.
For background/hair/accent light look into getting accessories like strip softboxes with grids, snoots, honeycomb grids, barn doors, flags, and gobos for light control and gels for tinting the lights.
Flags are devices that are used to block light from going where it is not wanted. One example would be to place a flag between a hair/rim light and the camera in order to prevent lens flare.
"A gobo (or GOBO) derived from "Go Between" or Goes Before Optics -originally used on film sets, is a physical template slotted inside, or placed in front of, a lighting source, used to control the shape of emitted light."
A gobo can be a plant, a piece of lace, a glass or vase, or a template such as a sheet of solid material with one or more cutouts.
One example of cutouts would be a series of slits in a sheet of cardboard or Coroplast. Placed between a light and the background or the subject this cutout will throw a pattern similar to that produced by light passing through Venetian blinds.
Strip softboxes, especially with egg crate grids, are great for background and hair/accent lights.
You can make snoots with any size or shape opening out of matte black cinefoil. A small roll will last you a lifetime and will cost much less than a snoot from the light manufacturer. It also has a myriad of other uses.
A set of 10º, 20º, 30º, & 40º grids are well worth the money.
Gels are relatively inexpensive or you can even make your own.
A 1/4 CTO gel can add a nice warm tone to a Caucasian face but should never be used with Native Americans or Asians since it will make their skin look too yellow.
Deeply colored gels are great for gelling the background light to turn a dark gray or black background into almost any color desired.
How To Use The Hot-Shoe Flash Unit(s) You Already Have
Hot-shoe flash units lack modeling lights but if you have a hot-shoe flash it can be used on the camera, or just off-camera, as a fill light. It can be used as a background light, but it makes an even better hair or accent light. You can modify it with a DIY snoot (cinefoil or a thin cardboard tube painted black) or honeycomb grid. The honeycomb grid can be made from soda straws or black Coroplast.
Commercial modifiers are also available. The ExpoImaging Rogue Grid 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid and ExpoImaging Rogue Gels: Lighting Filter Kit for Rogue Grid are especially nice.
Buy good heavy duty light stands. Air cushioned stands or C stands are the best to use in a studio.
Wheels are a huge bonus in the studio. Be sure the stands are tall enough so that you can place a light with it's 7" metal bowl reflector at ceiling height.
Buy a couple of extra stands to hold reflectors, flags, or gobos. A short boom arm with clips to hold a reflector, flag, or gobo is nice but you can usually just clamp the reflector or gobo to the stand with a cheap "A" spring clamp costing about $1 US.
You may also want a couple of shorter stands so that you can place lights close to the floor. One way of lighting a background is to hide a light on a low stand behind the subject. You can also rim light a subject from a light placed behind the subject. An bare bulb studio flash (without a reflector) can do both at once.
One way of adding fill light is to place a horizontal strip softbox on a low stand below the camera and aim it at the subject. If the floor is white, such as in seamless white photography, you can aim it at the floor to make sure the floor stays white, and the light bouncing off the floor will act as a fill light.
A boom arm can be very useful but BE VERY CAREFUL. The weight of a strobe and modifier on the end of a boom arm can make the light stand very unstable. A light on a boom arm crashing down on a model is a disaster.
Be sure to use sand or weight bags to stabilize your light stands if there is any chance of them tipping over. Fill your sand bags with zip lock bags of rounded pea gravel, sand, or even cat litter. Scuba diving weights or ankle/wrist exercise weights are even better than sand bags for many uses. Look in thrift shops or yard sales for used ones at low prices.
A reflector can frequently be used for a fill light. Collapsible white/silver reflectors are the most useful but there are times when black, gold, or gold/silver zebra reflectors are good to have.
Larger is better. If you can only have one I recommend a collapsible 4'x6' translucent white or white/silver reflector. It can be invaluable outdoors as a main light, fill light, or scrim (if translucent) as well as serving as a reflector or diffuser in the studio.
The cheapest reflector or flag is a large sheet of white or black foam core board or Coroplast.
Free standing "V" reflectors/flags can be made by taping two 4'x8' home insulation Styrofoam sheets together with gaffer's tape. Unfortunately this foam tends to be very friable and little balls of foam wind up coming of and showing up in photos. The tape hinge can easily tear off too. High density foam sheets are a bit more expensive but are much better. Low cost hinged hollow doors, such as those used for closet doors, are also easy to use and very sturdy.
Paint the foam or hollow doors with white and/or black texture paint as required to make your reflector & flag.
You can also make V's out of Coroplast from the local sign maker shops. Laminate two 1/4", 3/8", or 1/2" thick 4'x8' black sheets to two white ones with contact cement and they are strong enough to make a free standing V reflector/gobo when taped together with gaffer's tape.
Background Size And Support
For the greatest flexibility you want a 10' wide by 18' to 24' long background so you can do portraits with the subject standing or lying on the background. With a 35mm lens on a DX or Canon 1.6 crop sensor camera in the horizontal orientation and at 15' from the subject the field of view is 9'8" wide. For a full frame camera it is 9"10" wide at 55mm.
Both paper rolls and fabric backgrounds are popular, or you can paint a wall or even create a cyclorama as your background.
You can use backgrounds that are less than 10' wide but to do this successfully you generally have to use a longer focal length to limit the angle of view. You also need lots of space between the camera and the subject for long focal lengths.
There are numerous ways to hold paper rolls and fabric backgrounds. Background stands should be fairly study. A telescoping poles that holds the background is easier to use than one that is in sections. Be sure the pole is strong enough not to bend much under the weight of the background. Wall mounts range from a couple of hooks screwed into the wall joists to roller systems with chain drives to raise and lower multiple backgrounds.
With a super clamp you can also attach a hair/accent light to a background stand or to the pole if the pole is strong enough.
The most "universal" background is a mottled dark gray one, roughly the grayness of an 18% gray card or a bit darker. By using gels on your background lights you can change the color of this mottled gray background to just about any color desired.
Eventually you will want pure white, pure black, or cvolored backgrounds. Paper is easiest for pure white and colors since it can be torn off the roll and discarded if it gets dirty. You can use fabric but creases and wrinkles will be a concern. White fabric will reflect less light than white paper, requiring higher background light power.
The use of one or more sheets of white tileboard on the floor will protect your background from wrinkling under the subjects, getting torn or dirty, and give your subjects a nice dim reflection so they don't look like they are suspended in space without support. Zack Arias describes using tileboard in his seamless white tutorial (see below).
Larry Becker describes a 4'x8' solid plastic polywall panel that can be used on the floor for seamless white photography. It is a bit more expensive (about $20 US/sheet), but has several advantages over tileboard such as being thinner, having a second side that can be used if the first gets scuffed or dirty, and it can be rolled up for transport.
You can use gelled background lights on white backgrounds but the colors produced are washed out pastels.
Light control and background to subject spacing are critical for getting a pure black background in your images. With a large subject/background spacing and tight light control you can even turn a white background pure black.
Velvet or Velour fabrics are popular for black backgrounds because they are pretty much non-reflective. Black paper is not as good since it is still fairly reflective.
You can use black tileboard or a sheet of clear acrylic plastic to add the dim reflection of the standing subject. Acrylic sheets are easily scratched. Have your subjects clean their bare feet or place strips of the blue painter's masking tape on the soles of your subject's shoes to protect the acrylic against scratches.
You can produce a more saturated background color by using gelled background lights with a black background than you can obtain with a gray background. The trade off is that you need much more flash power.
You can tape a fabric or paper background to the floor to keep it from moving or wrinkling when a model moves on it. Two inch wide blue painter's masking tape is great for this purpose. If removed within a couple of days it will not leave an adhesive residue like regular tan colored masking tape or duct tape. Gaffer's tape can also be used, and won't leave an adhesive residue, but it is more expensive and the stronger adhesive has a greater tendency to tear paper.
White Balance And/Or Camera Color Correction
Setting the correct white balance or obtaining a camera color correction is critical to getting top quality images. If you shoot JPG's you absolutely should set a custom WB in the camera. If you shoot RAW you can set a custom WB or you can set the WB in post processing.
Never use Auto White Balance with studio strobes. Using Auto White Balance will guarantee that the WB will change every time the subject to background ratio changes. Correcting for this in post processing will drive you nuts.
If you are shooting JPG's set the camera custom WB according to the camera instructions using either a gray card or a white card.
Setting a camera Custom White Balance is also best if you are shooting RAW. You should also include a proper gray card in one or more images or use a camera color correction device like the Datacolor ColorChecker Passport in case you need to tweak the WB in post processing. If you use a gray card you will actually get better results if your image of the gray card is fuzzy, not sharp, since small variations in color or dirty spots get averaged out.
The Kodak 18% gray/90% white card is still the standard but there are plastic alternatives to the Kodak gray card that are more rugged. These can be cleaned with soap and water if they get dirty, or even sanded down to expose a new clean surface. Here are some examples.
Adorama Gray Card Exposure Aid, Pack Of(3)
Robin Myers Imaging Digital Gray Card
You can also make your own plastic white card for setting the WB, which is what I did. See Note #3 in this reference.
For the best WB and camera/lens color correction you should use a standard color chart. The X-Rite ColorChecker Passport comes with easy to use software that will automatically generate the camera/lens color correction from an image that includes the Passport.
Judging Exposure With Your Camera LCD
Having the lights set up and adjusted before the model arrives will save you time and money - models are expensive. It will also give the model the impression that your are professional in your approach to photography, not just a snapshot shooter.
The limited dynamic range of a digital camera means that getting the correct exposure is critical to getting the best quality image.
Judging the exposure by simply looking at the LCD on the back of your camera (chimping the image) just doesn't work well enough for a serious photographer. The image shown is from a JPG image generated within the camera and will look different with different camera settings such as WB or style (Vivid, Portrait, Scenic, etc). Critically the image will look different as the brightness of the ambient light varies. Also critically for portraits, the red channel may appear to be blown out in the camera's JPG histogram but may actually be slightly underexposed in the RAW image.
Multiple lights, each adjusted to a different flash power are generally used in portrait/glamor photography. The proper power setting of each light must be determined individually and then final tweaks made to get to the desired aperture for the desired depth-of-field with the combined lights.
It is reasonably straight forward to set the power of the main, fill, and background lights using the camera histogram, or better yet the Highlight Alert.
Unfortunately for the main and fill lights a model or test subject is needed. You also need lots of test shots, lots of running back and forth between the camera and the lights as you adjust the power, and lots patience. No model is needed for the setting the background exposure, just lots of test shots, running back and forth, and patience.
The only way to set the power of the hair and accent lights using your camera is by chimping the image and making a judgement call on whether or not the power level "looks right". It is all very subjective.
Any light change during a session means lots more test shots and time wasted.
What it all comes down to is that setting portrait exposures with the camera LCD is a time wastful exercise in frustration.
To make setup easy and fast or to find out the effect of a lighting change during a shoot, you want a flash meter. Once you have one you will never again want to set your flash exposures by using the camera LCD. A couple of test flashes with a meter will let you adjust the power any studio strobe. Properly done you will obtain the desired overall exposure within 1/10th of a stop.
It is critical that you calibrate your meter to your camera, lens, and subject matter. The exposure for portraits may not be identical for persons of different skin tones or to the out-of-box calibration.
You want the facial highlights to fall within a certain fairly narrow range for the highest quality prints. The brightest part of a broad facial highlight (not a small specular highlight) should to read in the 220-240 range in Photoshop (88% to 95% in Lightroom) for the best looking prints. The exact value is printer dependent so what works best with your printer may not be best for a different printer.
Retired professional photographer Ben (Benji) Jones describes this technique in this tutorial.
Another way to calibrate your flash meter that works very well is the FaceMask Histogram technique of Will Crockett at SmartShooter.com. Registration is required for you to see the smArticle, and many other useful smArticles, but it is free.
It is worth noting that the flash meter calibration for shooting only JPG's may be different from that for shooting RAW. This is because of the greater dynamic range of RAW files.
All flash meters will eventually drift and while their calibration out of the box may be technically correct it may not be correct for your use. I recommend that you buy a flash meter that can be recalibrated (Calibration Correction in Sekonic speak). The two I recommend are the Sekonic L-358 (it is available without the Pocket Wizard RF transmitter at a lower price) and the Gossen DigiPro F.
If you already have a flash meter that can't be calibrated then make up a card of exposure offsets and attach it to the meter.
The first time you try to do a seamless white background shoot you will give thanks for your flash meter. Here is a great tutorial by Zack Arias on the seamless white technique.
I do caution you that you should ignore his advice that you can overexpose the background by 2 or 3 stops. With your subject 6' from the background, if you overexpose the background by more than about 1 stop then you will get excessive light from the background bleeding around the edges of the subject and your images will lose contrast due to lens flare from the bright white background.
You can reduce or eliminate the light bleed problem by increasing the subject to background distance but it is best to avoid it all together by limiting the amount of background overexposure to begin with.
Using black flags to block light from the background outside the image area from reaching the camera lens is always a good idea. This will reduce lens flare but it is best to avoid flare by not overexposing the background by more than 1 stop to begin with.
All is not lost if you are unable to evenly overexpose the area of your background that will be in the final image because you lack enough lights with proper modifiers or you have the wrong kind of lights and/or modifiers. As long as you get the area of the background that just surrounds your subject to go pure white it is easy to increase the exposure of the rest of the background during post processing. If you take this approach then overexposing by 0.5 ± 0.2 stops is generally sufficient. Of course this extra post processing is work that should be avoided if at all possible by using the right background lighting to begin with.
Here is a smArticle on shooting seamless white by Will Crockett.
If you shoot RAW your images will have a greater dynamic range than an 8-bit JPG image. The only way to find out how much overexposure is required to make the background pure white with a properly exposed subject with the RAW format is to test.
If you find that the background still comes out a tiny bit gray at the correct exposure for the model and with 1 stop of overexposure on the background in your RAW images, you can use the Exposure slider in ACR or Lightroom to increase the exposure slightly until the background surrounding the subject goes pure white then bring back the model exposure with the Recovery adjustment. Enabling the Highlight Overexposure Warning (click on the small box in the upper right corner of the Lightroom or ACR histogram) will make it clear when your white background is pure white. Pressing Apple's Option or Window's Alt key while moving the Exposure slider will make this even easier.
Pixel Perfect Isolation
Extracting the subject and placing them on a different digital background is very popular. Many think that using a green screen is the way to do this. Using a green screen is fine for video but it is the worst background for still images.
Light reflecting off a green background will bleed around the edges of your subject and through translucent areas such as thin fabrics or hair. It is virtually impossible to remove this color contamination. It is not seen in videos because of the subject movement, but shows up clearly in still images.
For pixel perfect isolation of a subject in still photography using a white or a gray background is best.
Post processing programs like Photoshop include some excellent extraction tools. There are numerous tutorials available on extraction using these tools. Many of these are free on Youtube and excellent in depth tutorials either on-line or on DVD's are available from KelbyTraining.com and Lynda.com at reasonable prices.
Chip Springer's free Photoshop Action Tools include an excellent gray background extraction tool.
Professional photographer Bobby Deal describes his dodge tool method of doing pixel perfect isolation with white backgrounds in the following three articles on his blog. This dodge tool method has some advantages over using Photoshop extraction tools as shown in the articles below. Bobby tells me that with a gray background he can obtain a pixel perfect isolation with his dodge tool method is 3 to 5 minutes, but only seconds are required with a properly shot white background.
CAUTION: Bobby Deal's blog contains glamor and nude photographs so it is Not Suitable For Work.