Creative studio photography can be both challenging and rewarding. In the beginning, when we just start taking the first baby steps to improve our photography skills, we always start out by utilizing available light. It does not take very long for most people to figure out that it can be extremely difficult to create beautiful photographs in low light environments, especially indoors. Naturally, we start looking for answers on how to get around the low light problem and we end up buying faster lenses and better cameras. Only to find out later that even better and more expensive camera gear cannot properly capture a badly-lit scene. The last resort then becomes flash photography – a subject that scares the heck out of many photographers out there.
Being in photography business, I met numerous professional photographers that have never touched flash. They call themselves “available light shooters”, because they have never explored artificial lighting. Some of them could not do it for financial reasons (unfortunately, it is quite common among pros to think that flash photography is extremely expensive), some were too afraid or too busy to try, others felt like they never needed it. But what do you do when you come to photograph a wedding with a badly lit ballroom, extremely high ceilings and a mix of tungsten lights? Are you going to walk away from the job or come back with really bad photos? Most photographers are going to mount a speedlight onto their cameras (in Auto/TTL modes), point the camera at the subject and take pictures that will look no better than bride’s cousin with her $100 point and shoot. And when their flash dies after firing 20 shots, they will blame Nikon for making a bad speedlight that overheats. Sounds familiar?
If you are getting paid to do photography work, it is your responsibility to know how to work in various lighting situations. And the best way to learn flash photography and get good at it, is to continuously work and experiment with it. Building a small, affordable photo studio at home is a great way to get started. You can learn a lot just from photographing your family and kids at home. That’s how I got started with flash. Even if you do photography for fun, why not experiment and learn something new? Wouldn’t it be nice to know what to do in challenging light? In this article, I will show you how to build an affordable photography studio at home. First, we will go over some basic, must-have tools and then we will expand into more options for studio lighting. And if there is enough interest, we will expand our coverage of flash photography to indoors, outdoors and studio environments.
1) The Light Source
The very first thing you will need to decide on, is what light to go with. A dirt cheap way to get into studio lighting is to use continuous “hot” (tungsten) or “warm” (fluorescent) lights. You can buy two light stands with umbrellas and continuous light for roughly $100 combined. But this kind of setup has its own problems (more on the subject in a separate article) and it certainly won’t teach you how to deal with those low light environments outdoors or in locations where a power source is not available. If you have interest in continuous light, I would recommend to get into it after you learn how to use flash. Then you will know exactly what you need and you will be able to get the best out of your equipment. Many high-end studios utilize continuous lights, because they can shape the light exactly how they want it. Precision and consistency is often required for professional studio photographers. But for someone like you, who is just starting out, there is no need to get into that territory. At least not yet.
So despite its relative complexity, I would encourage you to learn how to use flash first. We have some basic tutorials on flash photography, which we will be expanding on in the upcoming months. Now here are the bad news – this will be the most expensive part of the purchase. “Speedlights” or “Speedlites” (depending on whether you use Nikon or Canon), are compact flash strobes that can be used for both on-camera and off-camera setups. If you own a DSLR or a higher-end mirrorless camera, you have a hotshoe on top of the camera that is designed to be used with speedlights. For an on-camera setup, you mount a speedlight directly on the camera and you can use the flash head in various configurations to bounce the light (see my very old video on indoors flash photography, where I go over various bounce configurations). For an off-camera setup, you take the speedlight off your camera and mount it on light stand to be used away from your camera. This is the configuration we will be using for building your first studio.
The nice thing about speedlights, is that they pack enough power for most day to day needs – from lighting a single person to a group of people. They are also expandable – you can start out with a single speedlight and add more flashes in the future for more creative photography. For now, we will start with a single light setup.
All major DSLR manufacturers make speedlights that are proprietary to their cameras. Nikon calls its flash system “Nikon Creative Lighting System” with lots of built-in automation. Canon and Sony also have their own comparable flash systems. All three provide different options for speedlights – from basic to high-end models used in commercial photography. Nikon currently offers three speedlight options for DSLRs: SB-400, SB-700 and SB-910. If you are wondering about differences between these, take a look at my Nikon Flash Comparison article. Since we are building an off-camera setup, skip the SB-400. The SB-700 currently sells for $326 and the SB-910 is $546. While SB-910 packs a lot of great features, it is an expensive flash unit. Personally, I would start out with the SB-700 and if you ever need to trigger it with a different trigger system such as PocketWizard, you always have the option to buy a cheap hot shoe adapter. The SB-700 is a pretty advanced – it can be used both as a “master” or a “slave” unit. For a single light setup, the cheapest way is to use the SB-700 in an off-camera configuration and use your built-in camera flash to trigger it (see this article on using your pop-up flash in commander mode). If you have an entry-level Nikon DSLR, then you have several options. The first option is to buy a commanding unit like SU-800. The second option is to buy a set of PocketWizard Plus III units (my personal preference, since radio technology is better than infrared), which will cost you $50 more (plus the cost of adapter mentioned above), but will give you a much more flexible and robust setup. This is one of the reasons why it often makes sense to buy a higher-end DSLR with commander capabilities.
If you own a Canon DSLR, you can start out with the 320EX or 430EX II speedlite units, both of which can act as “slaves”. Many of the newer Canon DSLRs such as the 7D also have the capability to act as flash unit commanders. If your Canon DSLR supports this, then you do not need to purchase a commander. Otherwise, Canon also provides the ST-E2 commanding unit, which is similar to Nikon’s SU-800. Canon recently released a set of speedlites and triggers with radio transmission capabilities, but it is very expensive.
Total Cost: Between $250 to $550.
2) Light Stand, Umbrella and Adapters
Similar to cameras, there are all kinds of light stands out there to choose from. For triggering speedlights in a controlled environments, I typically pick the most affordable light stands I can find. My favorite brand is Impact – they make great lighting gear that often beats even top of the line products in quality, reliability and features. And I certainly cannot complain about the price! You do not need anything heavy duty for triggering speedlights, so get the 6′ Impact Light Stand for $20.
Next, you will need an umbrella adapter that will sit on the light stand – it will hold both your speedlight and an umbrella (to soften the light that comes from your flash). The best affordable “two in one” adapter is the Impact Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Shoe for $25. It is of excellent quality and it is in no way worse than an equivalent adapter from Manfrotto.
The last is the umbrella itself, which again is very cheap. Impact’s 45″ convertible umbrella for $15 is excellent.
If you are building a two light setup, consider buying the Impact Digital Flash Umbrella Kit, which is currently on sale for $70. It is a steal at that price. But it comes with smaller umbrellas and a lower-quality umbrella bracket.
Total Cost: $60
3) Background Support System
A background support system is not necessary, if you are willing to do some extra work. You could use a white bed sheet or a colored muslin as your background, which you can hang off your walls. But if you want something nicer and portable (say for taking it to photograph corporate clients), then I would also recommend to buy a good background support system. We have already reviewed a couple of background system and I personally find the Impact Background Support System to be of great value (see my review here). Savage also makes a really nice “Port-A-Stand” support system and it is a little more expensive than Impact’s.
You will need a couple of other things with the background system. First, you have to decide whether to buy paper background or muslin. Personally, I prefer paper, since it is smooth, cheap and if it gets dirty you just cut the dirty piece and roll down more. Plus, you do not have to worry about wrinkles and ironing. On the flipside, it takes a lot more storage space. I would start off with 53″ Super White and 53″ Gray paper. If it proves to be too small for your needs, you can get larger 107″ versions for bigger projects or group shots.
Don’t forget to get a couple of adjustable clamps for holding the paper.
Total Cost: $155
I consider these to be the most basic tools you can get started with. Later on, once you start getting into more advanced flash techniques, you can start exploring better light modifiers, shaping tools, flags and other tools for total control.
Once you get to know how to use flash, you can utilize it in any environment and shape it however you want!