What do I need to set up a little photography studio at home?
January 12, 2011 9:37 AM   Subscribe

I'd really like to be able to set up a corner in my basement to use as a little photography studio. Can you give me some advice as to what's needed?

I sell things online occasionally, things that range in size from brooches to chairs. I've outgrown using a lightbox (so please don't suggest a light box of any kind, I don't like them and they no longer suit my needs) and it's very frustrating waiting days at a time for the perfect weather situation (a sunny day, mid morning) to shoot on my porch, where it's also very cold right now. Ideally, I would love to set up the studio and keep all of my inventory and packing supplies and props and whatnot in the same place, which is in my warm, dry, finished basement. As it is now, little bits and pieces of what I photograph, and my props, are pretty much strewn everywhere and they'll slowly taking over our house.

I have a decently good camera that I'm very happy with. I'm going to use light sheets of fabric and large rolls of paper for the background (the background is not an issue), and will shoot smaller things on top of a wooden bureau, and larger things will be put right on the floor.

So, I'd like to set up a big corner for shooting items. I have tons of space, although lowish ceilings. Please tell me what I need in terms of lighting and umbrellas and whatever else. Please link directly to things you've used and found worthwhile, if you can. Many thanks!
posted by iconomy to Technology (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
A photo studio in a space with low ceilings probably won't work. If your objects are small enough then you could make it work with a small soft-box light. It depends on your budget for the type of lights and box you get but you can even get by with tungsten lights and a home built soft-box.
posted by JJ86 at 9:56 AM on January 12, 2011

Can you rig a hanging system for your backgrounds? Treat them like really big roller blinds and hang them from the ceiling so you can pull down the one you need when you need it and keep them stored out of the way. I'd imagine you could use some PVC pipe with a (strong enough) long wooden dowel to create something like the world's biggest toilet paper holder. You could probably do it in a way that would let you remove the dowel and replace it if necessary.

(Works especially well to keep fake-library backdrops from looking tilty...)

My mom is in a fairly similar situation, so I'll be checking up on future replies. Do you have a prep/staging area that is separate from your actual photo-taking area? Do you have a decent situation for electrical outlets (esp. newer, grounded ones that aren't all behind the backdrop) and possibly internet wiring/good wireless reception? Now's a good time to check that out, if you haven't already.
posted by Madamina at 10:04 AM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: I think I must really be crap at writing AskMe questions...maybe I made the question too wordy.

I want to know about lighting and possibly the umbrella things.

Madamina, good point about the outlets and wire access! I have tons so not a problem. I keep an old computer down there too so I can print out address labels while I'm packing. It's all coming together except for the photography part!
posted by iconomy at 10:35 AM on January 12, 2011

Have you read Strobist? That's the standard linked-to site for lighting/flash photography, and probably a good intro/overview of the issues and techniques.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:39 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a home studio for working with models, I use what are referred to as monolights also referred to as strobes. They are manufactured by many many different manufactures but what I use isn't important for your question.

Because you are taking photos of inanimate objects you do not need things such as a fast shutter speed and you can spend the time getting the light adjusted and don't have to worry about your chair getting ornery with you futzing with your lights. I would suggest you look at using continuous lighting aka hotlights. You can see a discussion of the differences in them in this video.

The continuous lights will allow you to use the ttl function in your camera and also see how the light is falling on the object before taking the photo.

An example of a hotlight is here, I've not used it but am only providing it as a reference.
posted by firetruckred at 10:49 AM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I understand, after reading several times, that your question is about lights and light modifiers like umbrellas. Honestly, it was a little tough, right away, to figure out what you were looking for.

Big umbrella things will give you diffuse light. Basically, you're doing exactly what you were doing with a little softbox, but on a large scale. Think of these light modifiers as taking the surface of something like a flashbulb or a halogen bulb and making it huge and diffuse. Now think again of the softbox -- that's the whole purpose of it, to make the light source huge and diffuse relative to the object being photographed.

Personally, I do these setups using cheap halogens and large white 4x4 sheets of GatorBoard (a hard-surface foamcore) as reflectors. What you do is position your gatorboard around and above the subject and bounce light from the halogens off of the sheets. This is inexpensive, packs away, super-flexible, and easy. You do need to shoot a custom white-balance once. When I say halogen, I mean lights like these. I use clamps to mount them to my tripod or wherever to get the light going in the right direction.

Using halogens instead of flashbulbs gives you the added advantage of not having to learn to "imagine" your lighting (which is what Strobist is ultimately about - previz). Don't like where that highlight is sitting? Just move it and watch how it moves, rather than shooting and re-shooting.

You can also use smaller halogens like these as spots to sculpt and highlight interesting parts of your subjects.

If you're interested in the commercial gear you can't really do better than Strobist and the associated Flickr group for reviews and stuff. That whole world is totally opaque and filled with weird bullshit and hugely expensive stuff, though. Obviously I have a real DIY bias and can't be bothered with a $500 umbrella.

If you have a budget you should share that with us because every single piece of lighting kit can be purchased at different pricing levels from $DIY to $TOO MUCH.
posted by fake at 10:56 AM on January 12, 2011

If you're shooting mostly smaller objects, Lowel Ego tabletop lights might work for you. They're made for just that sort of thing. I have a pair I use for food photography. Check out their tips for tabletop lighting, portrait lighting, and more. I definitely recommend getting at least two - using just one casts strong shadows. Pros: Once assembled, they're extremely easy to use.

If you're looking for studio lighting for larger objects, you probably want some kind of strobes. I've heard a lot of good things about Alien Bees but haven't used them myself.
posted by geeky at 11:03 AM on January 12, 2011

Don't forget mirrors. When photographing objects in glass/shiny it can be quite fun to spruce it up a little by having a small mirrors throw back some light from the diffused light onto the object. Scenario, you have the umbrella on the right, up high (tripods are a godsend), object on matte white paper and/or matte white glass/plastic, and a mirror on the left, down low, catching the light and reflecting it onto the objects dark side. Mean looking clamps like these are really useful for holding up various bits of mirror, matte paper, shiny glass or whatever else you might use to aim and bounce light. Get a whole bunch! & tripods, or just sticks, backs of chairs, or anything else you might use to clamp things onto.
posted by dabitch at 12:13 PM on January 12, 2011

Umbrellas are not the best for shooting small objects, a soft-box would be better and easier to work with. Soft boxes will you give you better lighting and they come in a variety of sizes for working with different objects. I use a huge 3x4 Chimera for portraiture on my studio flashes but that would be unwieldy and excessive for anything small.

If you want artistic then a small maglight can be used to paint light at bulb settings. It takes some experimentation but can be very effective.
posted by JJ86 at 12:23 PM on January 12, 2011

Scott Kelby did a week of posts about lighting gear a few years ago. While they were for portraits and weddings, I think you might find some useful information in there. He starts very basic and then moves up to a very comprehensive studio lighting set up.
posted by Silvertree at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2011

If you're shooting on a tripod, lighting can be almost anything (because you can lengthen the exposure to compensate). Flashlights, desklamps, worklights etc, are all viable and much cheaper (real camera lights are pretty pricey). One thing to remember, if you're shooting to jpg or tiff, you'll need to set your white balance to match your light source. If you shoot Raw, you can adjust it in processing.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:36 PM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. I have to process all of this info.
posted by iconomy at 7:44 PM on January 12, 2011

If you want to do the whole flash-and-modifier thing, you first need a flash that you can get off of your camera. On-camera flash is unflattering and unnatural looking and boring. Get the flash off to the left or the right of your camera and up above your object.

Using a bare flash will give you harsh and ugly light with harsh and ugly shadows (a larger light source is a softer light source), so you need to modify that sucker. Modifiers can be an umbrella, softbox, beauty dish, or even bouncing the flash off of a white wall/sheet/ceiling. I have lit small things (dice) and giant things (myself) with the same solitary flash and modifier.

MPEX has some nice starter strobist kits that I recommend to people just starting out with off-camera flash. The kits have everything you need to get you started, then you can just start playing. How comfortable are you with your camera? Can you shoot in Manual mode? Because off-camera flash requires you shoot in manual mode to control the amount of flash and ambient light.

All that said, when I was first-first starting out and wasn't comfortable with shooting in Manual I bought some work lights from Home Depot. A constant light source was easier for me to work with, plus they were in my budget. These work lights will heat up your room like nobody's business, and you could easily burn yourself on them if you don't follow all of the safety precautions. But once you set you camera's white balance you are good to go.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:16 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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