How to set up your home photography studio
Est. reading time: 10 minutes
For many photographers starting out in studio photography their first studio may be a room in their house, a garage or even a small rented space.
Setting up your own photography studio is an exciting step, but there’s often a lot of questions and considerations. How big does the space have to be? What colours should the walls be? What equipment do you need and where do you keep said equipment?
You’ll find the answers to all of these questions here, along with some of the best advice and tips from our members to help you successfully set up your first home studio.
Setting up a small photo studio at home
If you're considering setting up a small photography studio at home, you probably have a lot of questions. Before you go rushing into things, take some time to do your research and plan exactly what it is you need.
Start by asking yourself what you'll be shooting in your home studio. Will it be people or products? This will largely guide you in your decisions when it comes to space requirements and equipment. Product photography, for example, often requires less space than portrait photography, but more equipment (this is explained in more detail later).
Once you've answered that question, look at examples of other studios, this could be rental studios or even studios owned by professional photographers. This will give you a good idea of what you need to get started and how to make a studio space work.
Believe it or not, not all professional photographers have large studio spaces (even Karl started shooting in his dining room with a paper roll as his backdrop).
Spare bedrooms, dining rooms and even garages can easily be turned into home photography studios.
How much space is needed for a home photography studio?
How much space you need for your studio largely depends on what you are shooting.
For example, a food photographer could probably work in a 3m x 3m shooting area, but a product photographer or portrait photographer may need a little bit more space. For these, a space of approximately 3.5m x 4.5m may be a good starting point.
Karl’s previous studio was 7m x 11m, which allowed him to shoot just about anything (other than cars) and before that he worked in a 5m x 8m studio, where he could also shoot most things.
When it comes to studio size, you don’t necessarily need a very big space. It’s perfectly possible to make a small studio space work for you and you can easily control light if you have the right knowledge.
Karl Taylor Education member Pete Harper shoots in his 2.5m x 3m garage and shared this tip for those working in a small space:
“As frustrating as a small space like that can be, there are plenty of others who don't even have that much space and would kill for what you've got. Same with equipment. So make the most of what you've got and don't use your limitations as excuses not to shoot!”
Equally important as the size of the space is the height of the ceiling. Low ceilings not only make it harder to control light, they can also limit the type of lighting you can use. While you can overcome the challenges of shooting in a small space with a little ingenuity, there’s not much you can do if you don’t have enough space to put your lights up!
Fellow member Maxine Lock uses the 2m height ceiling in her mini home studio to help with her lighting, which makes a big difference in her tiny 1.5m x 2m space.
Most photography studios are filled with a myriad of gear, from lighting stands to background options and endless other small bits and pieces. The good news is that you don’t need a fully equipped studio to start shooting.
What equipment do you need to set up a home photo studio?
- Lenses: A selection of lenses always come in handy. You probably already have at least one or two, but if you’re thinking of setting up a home photo studio you need to consider the lenses you do have and how they’ll work in your space. For example, one of the best lenses for portrait photography is the 70-200mm, but this may not work in a very small studio. A shorter 50mm prime lens or 24-70mm zoom lens may be a better option.
- Studio lights: Studio lights allow you far greater control than natural light and even speedlites, and they also allow you to shoot at any time of day. A single studio light is a great place to start if you’re just starting out, and you can easily add to this as you progress. You can get really creative with one light for portrait shoots, and even product and food photography.
- Lighting modifiers: One of the most important things to consider when choosing lighting modifiers (besides the type of work you’ll be shooting) is the spill of light. Softboxes, for example, are far better at containing light than umbrellas, and reflective umbrellas are better at containing light than transparent umbrellas. If you’re on a real budget, start by getting some form of large soft lighting and some form of hard lighting, for example a large octabox or softbox and lots of polyboards or foamboard.
- Lighting stands: You’ll need some lighting stands to hold your lights. When choosing lighting stands, consider the floor space they take up and well as the strength and height.
- Tripod: A good, solid tripod is an essential piece of kit in any studio, particularly if you’re photographing products. Things to consider include the sturdiness, the maximum and minimum height and also the floor space. In some cases it may be worth considering a camera stand such as the Manfrotto Salon 230 that Karl uses as these can take up less room than a fully extended tripod.
- Backgrounds: When it comes to backgrounds, keep things simple. A solid wall in your dining room or garage provides a great background that you can repaint whenever you need and doesn’t ripple like paper rolls do. If that isn’t an option, other affordable types of backgrounds for small spaces include paper rolls, pop up backgrounds, or sheets of MDF.
- Computer/laptop for tethering: There are numerous advantages to shooting tethered, including more efficient workflow and greater accuracy. Having a laptop or monitor that you can tether your camera into while shooting can make a big difference and you don’t need any specialist software. Nikon and Canon’s software both offer a tethered shooting feature, as does Lightroom, and there are many other tethering softwares to choose from.
- Other accessories: There will, of course, be other useful accessories that will come in handy during studio shoots. For example product photographers often require diffusion material or scrims while portrait photographers may need general makeup bits like hair spray or body cream. Think logically about what you already have, what you need, and what you can buy later.
While this may seem like quite a list, keep in mind you don’t have to buy everything at once. You can start with just the basics and build up from there. Or, like Karl Taylor Education member James Pastiche, you could look at buying second-hand.
James, who shoots in his basement living room, bought a lot of his kit from a couple of retiring photographers, including a camera stand and softboxes. This is what he had to say:
“I bought everything off Craigslist or eBay, so I've been able to put everything together on the cheap.”
Types of studio lighting
When it comes to choosing what type of studio lighting is best for you, it’s important you first understand the basics of studio flash lighting. This includes understanding the difference between continuous light and flash; different power systems like monobloc lights or power packs; flash power and how to adjust it; and how flashes are triggered.
Types of studio lighting include speedlites, studio lights, and continuous light. Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Speedlites: Speedlites can be a good option if you’re new to studio flash lighting. These small flashes, which can be used on or off the camera, are great for freezing motion, due to their fast flash duration, and are fairly affordable. However, they don’t have a very high power output and are not as easily modified as studio lights.
Continuous lighting: Continuous lighting offers a continuous light source that can be used for both photography and video. Because you can see your lighting results in real-time, many photographers new to studio lighting find these easier to use and understand than studio flash. However, continuous lighting does not offer the same level of power output as studio flash and is not very well suited to freezing fast-moving subjects.
Studio flash lighting: While continuous lighting versus studio flash may be a hot topic right now, the reality is that many studio photographers still prefer to use studio flash lighting. This is because studio flash lighting offers a much higher power output and therefore greater creative flexibility. They also offer a much greater level of control, with some lights having the ability to change the power by as little as one-tenth of a stop. Fast flash duration is another benefit, particularly for photographers looking to freeze motion and photograph fast-moving subjects.
To help you choose the right studio lighting equipment for you, there are six important questions you need to ask yourself:
- What sort of photography do you want to be shooting five years from now?
- How many lights do you really need?
- How much location work do you think you will shoot?
- What budget can you actually stretch to?
- Are cameras and lens budgets more important than your lighting budget?
- What can you do with the light, what is the choice of modifiers?
How to control light in a small studio
Photography is all about light and controlling light to get the best results. This can be tricky at the best of times, but working in a small studio comes with its own unique challenges. To overcome these, there are three important considerations:
The inverse square law (and why it matters)
The inverse square law is an important concept for any photographer to understand, regardless of whether you’re shooting in a small studio or not.
One of the common problems that photographers often encounter in a small space is light bouncing around their studio, adding light where they don’t want it. When working in a small space, if you put your light too far from your subject then you will have more bounce around your studio than if you placed your light close to your subject.
To learn more about the inverse square law, make sure to take a look at our ‘Introduction and understanding light’ class.
The best modifiers to use in a small space
What modifiers you use largely depends on what you’re shooting. Do you mainly photograph products or people? Portrait photographers often use modifiers such as softboxes or parabolic reflectors, whereas product photographers often use scrims with additional modifiers such as reflectors or softboxes.
Whatever your choice of subject, if you’re working in a small studio then modifiers that contain the light are the best option, as mentioned previously.
Some common modifiers for studio photography include:
- Standard reflectors - These dish-like modifiers produce very hard, sparkly lighting and can be used with honeycomb grids for even tighter spots of light.
- Softboxes/Octaboxes - Softboxes are a common choice of modifier for many different types of photography. Available in a range of different shapes and sizes, grids can be attached to the front to further control the light.
- Umbrellas - Although not the best choice when working in small studios, umbrellas are still a popular modifier for studio photography. If you’re working in a small space but still want to use umbrellas, consider using reflective umbrellas instead of shoot-through umbrellas to control the light spill.
- Snoots - Snoots create a very small, controlled patch of light with little to no light spill.
- Beauty dish - Beauty dishes are a popular choice for portraiture and beauty photography. However, they can be difficult to use in small spaces with a low ceiling as they’re commonly used from overhead.
- Scrims/diffusion material - Diffusion material and scrims are commonly used by product photographers to create gradient lighting on products with glossy surfaces.
- Mirrors/reflectors - Having mirrors or pieces of white foamboard or card to use as reflectors can be used to add additional light without actually using another studio light, which can be a great way to save space when working in a small studio.
- Flags - Flags can also be a great way to control light, so it can be useful to have a few pieces of black card or foamboard on hand to block light in certain areas of the shot.
There are, of course, other types of lighting modifiers, such as parabolic reflectors, but these are not always practical to use in small spaces due to their size.
For those looking to start working commercially, a great selection of modifiers that cover a range of different types of photography include a large 120x180 softbox, an Octabox 150, a 30x120 softbox, a selection of standard reflectors with grids, and some scrims or diffusion material.
Wall colour in a photography studio
Dark grey walls are the best colour choice if you want to be able to control light in a small space, but not everyone wants to work in a dark box.
A more practical solution is to have white walls and ceiling but with the ability to darken them when needed. This could be black draw curtains or black foam board that can be stuck up with Velcro when needed.
Large pieces of black material (velvet is best) can be laid on the floor to further control any bounce back from the floor.
Having blackout curtains or blinds in front of the windows will also help reduce unwanted ambient light if you’re working in a studio that has windows.
Further things to consider when setting up your studio space includes storage space. Do you have enough space to store all your lighting, equipment, backgrounds, and accessories or do you need a separate space?
Look for creative ways to store everything, as Karl Taylor Education member Vera Change does. In her studio (which also serves as her office, video corner, and living room) Vera stores lights under couches, backgrounds behind doors and accessories in organised boxes.
Keeping things organised is a great way to effectively store things. Try sorting related items into dedicated storage boxes or cupboards, as Karl Taylor Education member Pierre Nli does.
Depending on what you’re shooting, there may also be additional features that could benefit your space. One such consideration for portrait photographers is a dedicated space for doing makeup, or a separate room for the model to change.
If you still aren’t sure about whether you want to set up your own studio, renting a studio might be a better option. Professional photographer David Lund, who is a former student of Karl Taylor Education, has his own small studio but he often hires studios as and when the need arises, as do many other professional photographers.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when setting up a home photography studio. But don’t let yourself get too caught up in the details. Try and find a space that works for you and then start building up from there.
Work with what you have and don’t get discouraged if you don’t have everything you need. When it comes to photography, knowledge is far more important than equipment. As long as you have the right knowledge, you can produce stunning images in almost any space!
To learn more about lighting, make sure to watch our “Introduction & understanding light” class. This is our most-watched class and will help you better understand light so that you can confidently work with studio lighting in any space.
Key to working in a small studio is an understanding of light. You'll find a wide variety of classes covering how to use and control studio lighting, along with demonstrations of how to photograph various subjects in small spaces, throughout our site. Below are just a few recommended classes and articles you may enjoy.