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How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget

Here are a few simple tips and tricks on setting up a home studio without spending a fortune.

| General Photography

How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model against dark background, showing  the setup


You’ve been to a couple of club sessions or group shoots and you reckon that it would be much cheaper to take portraits at home. But then you realise that you’ve got to organise it, have the right kit and generally make it all work.

So, what do you actually need for a basic home studio? You could go wild and spend a couple of thousand pounds on high-end kit or, you could start with the absolute minimum, and build the studio up as and when you want to shoot more complicated things (and have the funds).


Choosing Lights 

How many lights? When you go outside, there’s one light, the sun, and objects lit from several different directions have a really unnatural appearance: think of a car park at night with multiple bright floodlights. 

Therefore, one light will be fine to start in a home studio. Later on, you can aim for shadowless light, or dramatic lighting effects: for now, a single softbox or umbrella will be fine and will give much the same sort of result as shooting outdoors in cloudy daylight (which is often considered the best portrait light).

If you want to go wild, you can buy a kit with two or three lights and all the basic accessories as this will probably cost the same as two individual lights – and it will give you plenty of scope for developing your lighting later on.

There’s a bit at the end about how you can use a camera-top flash unit if you have one of the sophisticated ones designed to do this stuff, read the instructions, but you will be missing one important thing – the modelling lamp. This means that you will need to look at the pictures you take to see how the light looks – with a modelling lamp and the room lights off, you will have a really good idea of how it will look before you release the shutter.


Picking Backgrounds 

It’s an easy mistake to shoot against a domestic background.  The problem is that it will probably be relatively cluttered, and that will distract attention from your model.  However, if you’ve got plain dark velvet curtains or a blank white wall, both of these can work really well as backgrounds.

If you don’t have either of these, look for some dark velour at a cheap drapery shop.  Tack one end of it to a broom handle or a piece of dowel and use this to hang it on the wall, or even hang it from a couple of clothes hangers, as I did.  If you are only taking portraits, material that's 4 or 5 feet wide will be ample and it doesn’t need to reach the floor. If you want to take full-length shots you will need it to be both wider and longer, because a floor/wall divide is usually rather unsightly if you’re going for a 'studio look'.  If you have the budget, you can buy ready-made backing cloths and systems to support them.


How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model against dark background, showing  the setup

How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model against dark background, showing  the setup


Setting The Shot Up

Do you need a flash meter?  These days, not really as with a digital camera, you can just snap away and adjust the exposure until the histogram looks right.  I’ll say more about the histogram later on.

To get started, set your camera to Manual, ISO to 100 or 200, white balance to the flash setting, shutter speed to 1/100 second and try the aperture at f/8. Take a shot, look at the result, and alter the aperture if necessary – smaller (higher number) if it’s too light, wider (lower number) if it’s too dark. And, to make sure, look at the histogram. The curve should stretch right across the graph, and not be bunched up at one end.

The histogram is the scientific part of checking that you exposed the picture correctly. It doesn’t just apply in the studio, where your camera’s autoexposure system won’t work.

When you look at the first picture on the screen, choose the view that brings up the histogram and look carefully! If it’s dark, open the aperture, if it’s too bright, close it down. Don’t be fooled by light or dark backgrounds – the aim is to get the face, body and clothes properly exposed.

Once you’ve got a setup that works, you can note all of the settings, distances etc. and the exposure check will only be a check to make sure it's all working, rather than a big experiment to find out what you need to do.


Test Shots

Now, I bet you thought I’d start talking about the model now but you'll want to be relaxed and in command of your lights, your camera and your background before you try to take pictures of a real person.  There’s nothing more off-putting for a model than somebody who faffs around adjusting things that nobody in the room understands.

Since it’s difficult to take the picture and be in it at the same time, you need a makeshift test subject.  It can be anything: a vase with some flowers in, one of those polystyrene heads you see in shops, or even a full-length dummy should you happen to have one kicking around the garage.  Be warned, though, that your spouse will have less patience than any other model you can dream of so don’t ask until you have sorted all the technicalities!


A Little Bit About Lenses

There’s a temptation, especially if you’re shooting in a confined space, to choose a wide-angle setting but please don't; it distorts the perspective of a face when using a wide-angle lens close up. You're better settling for a smaller area of view, a tight head portrait, and a longer setting. On Micro Four Thirds, around 45mm, 50mm to 60mm on APS format, and 85/90mm on full frame. Also, don't forget to focus on the eyes.


The Shoot

So, your flash is on a stand, softbox, trigger and camera are ready and your exposure is perfect. All you have to do now is wait for your model to arrive and start directing them. 

It will be tempting to back the model right up against the background if space is limited. If you can, though, allow at least a couple of feet, so that their shadow isn’t an obvious part of the picture. This is especially important with a light background – see the below example.


How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model with obvious shadow

Model with obvious shadow 


How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model further from background

Model further from background 


Final Result:


How To Create A Home Photography Studio On A Budget : Model against dark background


About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been a keen amateur photographer for nearly 50 years and has specialised in portraits, figure work, and monochrome. He wishes he was a better landscape photographer, and still uses film some of the time.

He’s been a member of the ePHOTOzine Critique Team for the last few years, and visits the site daily, providing he’s got an internet connection!

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CozPics Avatar
CozPics Plus
14 12 1 Scotland
21 Nov 2017 11:16AM
Great article.
JackAllTog Avatar
JackAllTog Plus
14 6.4k 58 United Kingdom
21 Nov 2017 12:02PM
Super article John, loved the details like the coat hangers, and also " your spouse will have less patience than any other model you can dream of "
sitan1 Avatar
sitan1 Plus
15 1.3k 1 United Kingdom
21 Nov 2017 12:54PM
Excellent write up
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
21 Nov 2017 6:08PM
I really hope that this will prompt a few more people to give studio lighting at home a try!

It gets simpler with practice...
mistere Avatar
mistere Plus
10 37 8 England
20 Jan 2019 12:25PM
Excellent article John. Really useful, straightforward, cost
effective DIY home studio. Lots of potential to adapt and experiment.
The most important advice being, use the histogram and Practice....
Off to raid the wardrobes for those hangers now SmileSmile

dorsetdozenportraitgroup Avatar
Thanks for your tutorial on simple, home studio potraiture, I am a experienced portrait photographer & founder member of The Dorset Dozen Portrait Group (DDPG).
I appreciate that this tutorial is specifically for beginners, but the end result portrait does not emphasise the correct modelling for a natural female portrait, i.e.. nose modelling, soft facial skin tones, sharpness of eyes & lips & hair highlights, back lighting, fill in lighting, camera height in relation to model, using a soft focus interesting background etc. I would be pleased to offer advice in these regions. Best regards Brad Matthews LRPS.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
8 Nov 2020 10:06AM
Thank you for the input, Brad.

Why not post a few examples, with explanations of how to perfect the image? As a member of this site, you can post a new image every day, and you can also write and post a blog to go into greater depth - I con confirm that anyone posting thoughts on photographic subjects gets a lively response!

My emphasis here is on getting up and running from a standing start, rather than polishing the results: and my own view is that there's scope for a range of approaches to photographing any subject...

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