While it’s great to shoot in a controlled environment, we don’t always have the luxury of having our subject come to us. In fact, most would rather we came to them. With that in mind, I’ve put together a compact, portable studio that can easily be managed by one person, delivering studio-quality shots from virtually any space, from a living room, windowless boardroom to a basement.
This post is aimed at fellow photographers, with a focus on some gear that makes it easy to have a studio travel with you. For any photo, I go through the same thought process, considering:
- The concept I want or need (simple head shot, props, group, etc.);
- The light needed and light source(s);
- The background; and
Only you and your client can define this. Sometimes they know what they want (e.g., I need a profile picture for my LinkedIn account where I am seen as business-like and approachable), other times it’s completely up to you (e.g., I need a Christmas card photo of the kid). Start by determining what the message is you want to convey with the photo, and start to work backwards from there.
Make sure everyone is in agreement on the concept, before you start setting up. The key to a well received final product is a subject that’s built a comfort level with the photographer. When photographer and subject click, the connection comes through the lens, and makes for a far more compelling image.
This is the also the time to consider any props, or other items of interest. A writer gets a pen, an athlete holds equipment related to their sport, etc. Since babies are not great at taking direction, props are great way to get them in the general vicinity of where we want them to be.
When considering the light, there will always be at least one light source; I’m going to want to light the subject.
First, I assess the quality of light that is already present. Is there a fantastic large diffused window, or will I overpower the ambient with flash? Your subject can also determine this, as I never use flash for baby portraits, instead looking for living rooms with large windows, and compensate with stabilized lenses and high ISO capable camera bodies.
If ambient is not going to be sufficient, I start pulling out the flash bag, starting with the primary light on the subject, maybe add some fill on the opposite side, maybea hair/edge light to separate them from the background and maybe even light the background for some different effects. I’m not going to go into detail of all the lighting patterns, but here’s my typical gear list:
- Nikon SB-800 for the key (main) lights on a subject
- Nikon SB-600 for the fill, or hair light
- Nikon SB-80 (in wireless slave mode) for a background light, or to double up the power of the key
- Nikon SU-800 to trigger everything wirelessly
- 2 or 3 light stands
- 28″ softbox for the key light (I like the Wescott Apollo softbox, designed specifically for speedlights; it’s just so useful, and provides control over where the light does/doesn’t go)
- Convertible umbrella (shoot-though or bounce, but often used shoot through if lighting a larger area than just head/shoulders)
- 42″ 5-in-1 reflector and reflector arm to hold it (usually used to provide fill opposite the softbox)
- Roscoe gels (colour plastic, that allows control over the light emitted from the flash)
While the client goes about their normal activities, I setup quietly. With experience, I can get the lights place and lighting ratios fairly close to where I want, before introducing the subject. Using the Nikon SU-800 makes life easy – I can adjust lighting power individually or as groups, right from where I stand with the camera. For most portraits, I’m usually using an my lens stopped down to f/5.6, ISO at 200 and a shutter speed of 1/160” (these setting give me the ability to fine-tune exposure +/- quickly, without need to fiddle with the lights).
It’s a great feeling when you find the perfect backdrop for a photo, to really put the subject in context. The businessman in front of an office tower window, for example:
But, that’s not always possible, and it may not even be what the client needs. Maybe the only space to work in is a medium size boardroom with no windows, or they want a pure white background for clean looks on a website… Whatever the case, there’s always an easy solution.
Whenever I’m shooting single portraits, I use the Westcott X-drop system; a handy 5’x7′ backdrop that I can pop up in less than 5 minutes, and provides far better results than the builder’s beige that we see in so many corporate boardrooms. You can find several coloured / textured cloths to use with this, or even make you own by dropping into a local fabric store. Here’s an example, taken I a windowless meeting room.
When I have a larger group, there’s a few options I use. If I really need to, I have a 9′ seamless background that provides great results (pure white from head to toe), but for simplicity I often just use the builders beige wall, and flood it with a background light or two, to remove any colour. The trick is to not go so far overexposed that it bounces light back at the subject.
Alternatively, if you remove all light from the background, and move the subject away from it, you can completely darken the rest of world around your subject.