I remember walking into Bathhouse Studios in New York for the first time. Stretching out before me was 4,000 square feet of shooting space, including a 30-foot white cyclorama cove you could drive a Ferrari onto. One of New York’s premiere rental facilities, this massive studio (originally a bathhouse) was what photographers fantasized about. Multiple backgrounds, an outside deck, full kitchen, shower, lounge, Bose sound system—this studio had it all. I shot some portraits against the white cove and it seemed like the models were floating on air against the background.
But my reality is more like this: Wake up in a tent, scrape ice off the camera bag, warm up batteries so they work, and start the camp stove for coffee. Granted, I photograph a lot of adventure sports, and being on location in a remote area is something I enjoy, but occasionally, I’m asked to shoot studio portraits for a client, and the fact of the matter is, I don’t have a studio. What to do?
My solution—and one anyone can use—is to set up my “garage studio.” I’m not talking about expensive studio lights, overhead rail systems and a vast array of softboxes. Instead, with a few speedlights and light stands, I can turn a small room or a garage into a comfortable studio for shooting portraits. Here’s how I do it, and the handy accessories I use to make it happen.
Almost any space can work as a small studio. I have a two-car garage with a nine-foot ceiling that provides more space than I need. I have plenty of room to set up a background, light stands and softboxes.
If you don’t have a garage, consider using a small room in your house as a temporary studio. Almost any room will work; your model could be sitting down, so you don’t need much height or width.
The depth of your space is more important. If you plan on lighting your background separate from your subject, then it helps to have more depth so your lights won’t spill onto your subject. Also, I like using my 70-200mm for portraits, so I need some distance from my subject to get the right composition.
An advantage of using a room inside your house is that it will be warm. I live in Colorado, so shooting in my garage in winter requires an external heater to keep the garage warm.
This is where the fun begins. By using a little creativity, you can simulate a location in your garage that looks like a grungy alley in Detroit or a locker room at a gym. The simplest option is to put up seamless paper and shoot your subject against this. Seamless paper is inexpensive, and works well to create a clean background in a cluttered garage.
Seamless paper is only the beginning. I like to explore my local thrift stores and see what materials I can find to use for my background. Old curtains, fabric, Venetian blinds and even building supplies like corrugated metal all make interesting backdrops for an image. Finding backdrops that have texture and dimension will allow you to create shadows with your lighting. Imagine shooting a hard light across corrugated metal—it will have strong shadows and highlights from the grooves.
Lastolite makes the Urban Collapsible Background, a gritty background that sets up in seconds. These backgrounds pop open into a rigid sheet. All you have to do is lean them against a wall and you’re ready to go. Or, if you really want to change it up, try a printed background like those from Denny Manufacturing Company, Inc.
Denny offers hundreds of muslins and printed backgrounds on a variety of materials. Their printed backdrops are amazing. Want to shoot in a prison cell or on a seaside pier? Denny has those backdrops. How about shooting in the woods? Check, they have that option, as well. These backdrops will convince the viewer the shot was taken at a real location, not in your garage.
You want to know one great advantage of shooting in your garage studio? You’re working in a small, controlled space, so you don’t need powerful lights for your portraits. All you need are a few simple lights and you’re ready to shoot.
Most photographers already have one speedlight, and this is all you need for simple portraits (we’ll look at techniques shortly). Add a second speedlight, and you have plenty of power and options to create stunning portraits. Speedlights offer a lot of advantages. Small, powerful and portable, these flashes can be used in TTL mode for proper exposure every time.
You’ll want to trigger the flashes off-camera, which will require a wireless transmitter. Some cameras have a pop-up flash that can be set to “commander” mode, allowing you control of your speedlights right at the camera. I like to use a Nikon WR-R10 wireless remote controller with my SB-5000 speedlights. The radio signal from the WR-R10 doesn’t require line of sight to work, so no matter where I put my flashes relative to my camera, they always fire. And, I can still control output right at the camera using the flash commander menu on the LCD screen.
The other lighting option to consider is studio strobes. Since you’ll be near AC power, simple strobes should work well. I have a pair of Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 strobes I use in my garage studio. Studio lights are generally more expensive than a couple of speedlights, but offer more power and faster recycling times. Studio lights are also easier to use with large softboxes. But, if you’re on a budget, start with a couple of speedlights. Mastering speedlight technique in your studio also will be useful when you take them on the road.
Now that you have two or three speedlights, what else do you need? Light stands and clamps are next on your shopping list. I use inexpensive Manfrotto 366B light stands to hold my speedlights. I also use my tripod and a Manfrotto 175F Justin Clamp to hold a third speedlight. Using these stands and the clamp allows you to position three speedlights with the bare minimum of accessories. Use the Justin Clamp to hold a flash on your tripod.
I like to use an overhead light for many of my images, and this requires a few more stands. First, I need a stronger light stand to hold an overhead boom arm. I use the Manfrotto 368B 11-foot stand as the vertical stand and a 042B mini-boom to attach the light over my subject. Having an overhead light allows me to shoot from any angle in front of my subject without equipment in my way.
The Lighting Accessories
The next items you’ll want are some lighting accessories to alter the direction, quality and color of your lights. You can start by shooting with bare-bulb speedlights, but very quickly you’ll want to soften or reflect the flash to change the quality of light on your subject.
Two items I can’t live without are the Lastolite Ezybox II Switch and the Rogue Honeycomb Grid. The Ezybox is a clever softbox for speedlights that creates soft, wraparound light. This box can be configured to be a strip box or traditional square softbox. One or two speedlights can be used with the box, giving you more power and faster recycle times. The Ezybox also has a grid panel that can help alter the spread of light.
Rogue makes a variety of speedlight flash accessories, including snoots, grids, flags and gels. One thing I like about the Rogue accessories is their integral fastening strap—no more searching for Velcro® bands in my camera bag.
The Rogue Honeycomb Grid focuses my speedlight where I need it, and their small reflectors do a great job of flagging (blocking light) to prevent lights spilling into the scene. Rogue also makes a speedlight gel set for changing the color of your flash.
Another inexpensive, but handy garage studio item is a reflector. Numerous companies make great reflectors. A simple white reflector will fill in shadows and add catchlights in a portrait. I also like to use the soft gold color to add some warmth to my images.
If you only have one speedlight and want to create stunning headshots, consider getting a Lastolite TriLite reflector. This reflector is actually a panel of three reflectors that’s positioned close to your model. The TriLite reflects overhead light back onto your subject’s face, creating a striking portrait with bright catchlights in the eyes.
Okay, your garage studio is complete. If you’re frugal, you can create your studio for minimal time and money. No studio rental fees, just a background, a few speedlights and some basic lighting accessories. Invest a little more, and you open up more creative possibilities with your garage studio. Now, it’s time to shoot!
One Light. One simple speedlight can do a lot. At its simplest, put the flash slightly left or right of your subject, and shoot away. This will produce hard-edged light with strong shadows on your subject. Not the first choice for a beauty shot, but this light can work well for edgy subjects and gritty backgrounds.
To control the brightness of your background, move your subject closer or farther away from it. If you’re using white seamless, then shooting with your subject a foot away should give you a white background. Move your subject six feet away from the background, and the flash illumination decreases, creating a gray background.
Try shooting through a translucent reflector or an Ezybox to change the quality of the light. Now the light will be softer, filling in skin imperfections and creating a luminous glow to your subject. The softness of a light is directly proportional to how big it is to the subject and how close it is. Move your softbox as close as you can for the softest light.
Try positioning your light at different angles. I like putting my light directly overhead and in front of my subject for beauty shots. With your light positioned overhead, add a silver or TriLite reflector directly under your model. This “clamshell” lighting will fill in shadows and add interesting catchlights in your subject’s eyes.
For a completely different look, try putting your flash behind the model aimed at the camera. Place a white or silver reflector in front of the model to bounce flash back onto the subject. The result is a portrait with flared light behind the subject and moody low light on his or her face.
Two Lights. Adding a second speedlight to your setup creates many new possibilities. With a second light you can control the background light separately, create a bright accent light or add fill light. The key here is that you control this light independently; you can make it brighter or darker than the main light. I like to use cross-lighting when I have two flashes. I’ll shoot one speedlight through a softbox at a slight angle to the front of my subject and use a second speedlight on the opposite side aimed at my subject’s shoulder and hair. I put on a Rogue grid to keep the light focused where I want it. Controlling the flashes wirelessly using my WR-R10 wireless remote controller, I make the accent light one stop brighter than my main light.
Another classic technique is to light your main subject with one light and your background with your second light. For a moody portrait, try positioning one speedlight in an Ezybox almost directly over your model. This will cast strong shadows downward on your subject’s face. Next, use a Rogue 25-degree grid on your second speedlight. Place this behind your subject, aimed at the background. This light will create separation from your subject. Try adding colored gels for different looks.
Three Lights And Beyond. With three lights you have as much as you need for many portrait styles. One light can be a main light on your subject, a second light can be an accent light, and your third flash can light your background. Add in a few reflectors, grids and gels, and you’re set.
What if you have more lights? The only limit here is your creativity! One technique I use a lot for sports portraits looks like this. First, my main (or key) light is a Lastolite Ezybox positioned high and slightly in front of my subject using a boom arm. Next, I use two speedlights, one directly to the left and one directly to the right of my subject. These are shot through Lastolite 12×48-inch Hotrod strip banks. These narrow softboxes produce long accent lights on my subject’s sides. My fourth light is a speedlight shot through a Rogue 25-degree grid aimed at the background.
To control the lights with my WR-R10, I set my main light to group A, strip banks to group B and background light to group C. By previewing the images in my LCD, I can adjust output of each to get the right look. The trick with this shot is having your main light add just a little fill to soften the shadows created by the strip banks. Experiment adjusting the main light and strip banks for different looks.
The next time you’re pulling into your driveway, stop short of your garage. Do you really want to park your car inside? Instead, start sweeping out the garage and storing all those forgotten projects somewhere else. It’s time to open your own “garage studio.” Once your studio is set up, the only thing holding you back is you. Find a model and start shooting!
To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at tombolphoto.com