For obvious reasons, photographers everywhere have been photographing at home more than ever. For portrait photographers who want the look of a studio that entails a bit of ingenuity but doesn’t involve much specialized equipment, here are two approaches to a simple home portrait studio. One requires a few simple elements such as a strobe, a stand and a background, and the other requires no special equipment at all.
Spare Room Home Portrait Studio
Whether you’re using a little extra space in the basement, living room or an empty guest bedroom, it doesn’t take a lot of space to create a suitable home portrait studio. One advantage to a living room or guest room is they’re more likely to have available natural light thanks to big windows—ideally windows that face north to provide all-day indirect illumination. But the advantage of a basement studio is usually a little more room in which to work.
I have a space in my living room that’s about five or six feet wide and 15 feet deep that works well as a place for portraits of my kids. I can set up there and make use of a north-facing window or move the couch a few feet and set up a studio strobe and background. One of my preferences for any portrait space is that it almost always works best to have a longer space rather than something shallow and wide. (The 15×6-foot space I have may be technically fewer square feet than a 10×10 guest room would be, but the added length makes it easier to put distance between photographer, subject and background. And that’s helpful not only for lighting control but also for using the kind of portrait lenses that makes faces look most flattering. (Rule of thumb: at least 70mm or more.)
Creating a proper home portrait studio requires just a few key elements: a background, a key light and a fill. Sure, you can get all sorts of helpful accessories, but they’re not required—especially at home.
If your space doesn’t have a big blank wall that works suitably as a background, a portable background such as the Westcott X-Drop or a collapsible pop-out background such as a Lastolite 5×6 is a great way to get a seamless background for simple portraits. The benefit of a pop-up background is two-fold: they’re often two-sided (gray and white, for instance) and don’t require a light stand if you’ve got a wall to lean them against. The portrait of the boy in the sweater shown below is just such a reversible Lastolite pop-up background leaned against the living room wall.
For the key light, a speedlight style strobe works just fine mounted to a light stand and shot through an umbrella or softbox for softness. In the example here, I used an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra—a 400ws battery-powered strobe that offers a bit more oomph but is still compact, portable and affordable.
For a fill light, a white wall can work just fine depending on the size of the room in which you’re working. Failing that, white foamcore, poster board or a pop-out white reflector on the shadow side of the subject keeps the lighting ratio from getting extreme. If you’ve got a second light to use for fill, try placing it as close to the camera as possible at an output that’s just barely enough to add a hint of detail to the shadows. Too much on-axis fill light can flatten an otherwise great portrait.
Garage Natural-Light Home Portrait Studio
The above setup requires just a background, strobe key and fill to act as a fully functional home portrait studio. But if you’re looking to make a studio out of even less lighting equipment, try this: turn your garage into a natural-light studio. Pull the car out of the way and instantly a garage provides plenty of room to work while the large opening is a surefire way to get plenty of light. As long as that garage door isn’t opening to the east in the morning or the west in the afternoon, it’s going to provide beautifully soft, indirect illumination all day long.
With the garage door open, place the subject just a couple of feet inside the opening and shoot a test. Then, have the subject step back another foot or two, and repeat the test until the subject reaches the middle of the space. This will allow you to see the fairly significant changes that occur based on the subject’s distance from the light source (the opening of the garage). Bright sun falling on the ground outside the garage may provide too much reflected illumination from below and necessitate the subject stepping back farther into the opening, but when the brightest illumination is coming from the open sky, a position closer to the garage opening is likely preferable. There’s really no wrong way to use this beautiful indirect light for a portrait.
You may be thinking, “But what about the stuff in the back of my garage?” Yes, my garage isn’t an ideal photographic background either. With the subject close to the garage door opening, the falloff in light reaching the back of the garage is going to darken what’s visible back there. Still, to create a truly dark area, a large sheet of black foamcore or black seamless paper would be ideal. To minimize the equipment, however, consider going for a lighter background by pinning up something as simple as a bed sheet.
The example shown above is a portrait made in my very own garage with a spare sheet clamped to the rafters in the background. The other shot shows the setup along with a bit of the mess at the back of my garage. Aside from worrying about dirtying the linens, I have no other equipment concerns in this setup. There’s no fill needed, no manmade lights, not even a reflector. Just the camera, lens, sunlight and subject. It’s a tremendous, low-impact and affordable home portrait studio setup that produces outstanding results.