Setting Up a Home Photography Studio

I’ve been using my living room as a make-shift photo studio for about 6 months now. It has served me well for the most part, but I’ve decided to kick it up a notch, turn it into a studio rather than a living room. I still have some work to do before it’s fully functional, but I thought I’d share the process with you so far.

First is the (hopefully) obvious stuff:

  • Decide what type of work you want to be doing in the studio and plan accordingly.
  • Consider your light source –north facing windows are ideal because they never receive direct sunlight.
  • Measure everything. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you know exactly how much space you have to work with.

The two most important things for me are 1.) having an open, adaptable space to do creative portraits and personal projects, and 2.) being able to precisely control the light.

Before studio paint The first goal is a combination of several smaller decisions which I will highlight in Part 2 once I actually finish them (ie. the next time I’m procrastinating). For now I want to focus on my second objective. To properly control the light you’ve got to minimize bounced light. Shooting in a small space with white walls makes it nearly impossible to isolate your light because white is so reflective even if it’s a matte paint. The best way to get around this is to darken things down.

Take a photographer’s Color Checker to Home Depot and tell them you want middle gray in flat paint. Don’t get confused by the term “18% gray” which is often used in reference to metering and exposure. The percentage refers to the reflectivity of the material, not the brightness. In other words, there is also 18% black and 18% white and 18% green, etc… You don’t want your walls to be reflective at all; they are much easier to work with if they are completely flat. The important thing is to get a medium gray color. I opted for a shade halfway between black and white. It’s light enough for a livable space, but it’s also dark enough to soak up most of the light.

LarryDriver-6542Avoid any color in your paint. If you have a green wall, for example, any light that hits it will bounce back as a green color. It may be cool for a shot or two, but it will annoy the crap out of you in short order. If you need color, you can add a gel to your flash. The whole point of creating a neutral (gray) space is that you can make it whatever you want. Also, the darker walls will respond better to color gels than a white wall. In other words, if you’re trying to create, say, a blue background it’s much easier to do this by pointing your blue-gelled flash at a gray wall than a white one. White walls tend to make colors more pastel.

I only used one coat of paint. Even though it seems good enough I can see advantages of having a second coat, mostly because I would’ve been less stingy with the paint and had fewer visible strokes. Then again, I can always re-paint later.

I left the ceiling white. Some people suggest painting it black for a photo studio but personally I like having the option to bounce my lights off the ceiling for a large overhead light source that doesn’t take up any space overhead. Secondly, I don’t want my clients to think I’m some goth emo freak who lives in a cave with a black ceiling. You’ve got to consider the psychology of the space as well as the efficiency of it.

It took me a while to make up my mind about which walls I would paint. Should I leave one white? Maybe paint one black? Eventually I realized that it would be best to paint everything gray and use the backdrops to change things up as needed. My setup allows me to cover two walls with backdrops (more about that in Part 2). If I want a pure white background I simply use my giant white paper roll. If I want black I can underexpose the gray walls until they appear black in the photo or just use a black paper roll. In the end it’s much easier to have a neutral space that can be changed quickly and easily.

After studio paint

All of this cost me less than $40. One can of Behr Premium Ultra gray paint put me back $32. One roll of 2″ painters tape was another $6. I was able to borrow painting tools from my brother who recently finished painting his own studio. Chances are pretty good that one of your friends has some painting supplies you could borrow too.

Check back for Part 2 of this post for tips on finishing your home photography studio on a budget.

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