When most photographers envision their dream studio, they usually imagine a big, scary dollar sign next to it. The good news is that with a little resourcefulness, putting up your own studio doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg.
A little ingenuity goes a long way in putting together your photo studio. Say you found a great place for your studio, but you’re not willing to spend thousands on the rent—save money and time by setting up your studio in an unused room at home.
Instead of spending on a backdrop and lighting, you can make use of old sheets and materials you can buy from your local hardware store, such as PVC pipes, bulbs, and lamp holders, which will definitely cut your budget by more than half.
Many of the things you thought you had to invest on, you can make from things you already have at home. What’s even better about making your own equipment is that you can customize them so that you get exactly what it is that you need for your studio set-up.
If you’re up to the challenge, keep on reading to find out how you can put together your own DIY photo studio on a budget.
01. Carve out a space for your future studio
The first thing you need to decide on is where you’re going to set up your home studio.
The most important factor here is the subject you plan to shoot: are you shooting full body portraits or furniture? Do you want to just take headshots or photos of products? You can set up your studio in an unused room or a storage room if you need a big space. On the other hand, if it’s just a small space you’re looking for, you can simply free up a corner in your living room.
When it comes to space, bigger can mean better for two reasons: the light won’t bounce off the walls as much as it does in smaller spaces, which means better control over your lighting. You’ll also have greater versatility in terms of the focal lengths you can use. With this in mind, try to look for somewhere you can take full-body portraits with at least a 50mm lens.
Another detail you might also want to add consider is where your models (if any) can wait and change. Their comfort should always be your priority. A space for them to change clothes, no matter how small or simple it may be (think of a folding screen and a chair), can do just the trick.
2. Source and create your backdrops
As is the case with your studio space, you don’t need to splurge on an elaborate backdrop. While having several is best, there’s nothing wrong with starting out with just one.
Ideally, your first backdrop should be a neutral color like white, gray, or black. If you happen to have access to a plain white wall in your home, you can even use this rather than purchasing a backdrop.
For a basic backdrop, hanging up plain-colored sheets will work—even ones you already have at home. You also have the option to buy plain fabric from a local retailer. Keep in mind though that fabric is almost impossible to keep wrinkle-free, so this could mean more post-production work.
For a textured backdrop, you can hand paint a piece of fabric (preferably one made from a rough material, such as canvas) or a wooden board. Use matte paint and be creative with materials you can find at home—such as a sponge—to add texture. You can also make use of worn, naturally corrugated walls at home to add some character to your backgrounds.
For colored backdrops, you can either hang up solid colored fabrics or use color gels that you put over your light source to change the color of the light. Apart from their creative uses, gels can even out the white balance, helping you achieve proper color representation and avoid dominating colors when using lights with different color temperatures.
The next step is hanging your backdrop. Instead of buying a cyclorama frame (which is a considerable investment) you can make your own alternative using materials from your local hardware store. The cheapest materials you can use for either a hanging or a standing frame are CPVC and PVC pipes and fittings, but you can also use galvanized pipes if you want something sturdier. The sizes will depend on the space that you have.
A hanging frame might be easier to make as you only need to attach the rod to the ceiling, but this could also make changing backdrops more challenging in the future.
03. Identify your lighting set-up
When it comes to lighting, you can choose between either natural or artificial light sources.
If you’re fortunate enough to have windows in the space you’ve chosen for your studio, natural light is the cheapest, simplest, and, often, best light source available.
You can control natural light with materials you can find at home, such as white cloth or cardboard to diffuse light. If you don’t want too much light, you can easily cover the windows with a thick, black cloth (a velvet-like fabric is a good option).
Note that if you do decide to cover your windows, the cloth should exceed the edges by around 30 cm to block out as much light as possible.
On the other hand, if you prefer to shoot with artificial lighting, you will need to invest in equipment, for which you have two options: continuous or flash.
Continuous light is typically used for filming videos, but it can also be used in photography. Hot continuous light sources like a photoflood or quartz, are cheaper but can be uncomfortable for both you and your models. On the other hand, cold continuous light sources powered by fluorescent or LED bulbs are, of course, more comfortable but are also a lot more expensive.
An advantage of continuous light is that you can see the effect of your lighting in real time. The disadvantage, however, is that it’s usually a lot less powerful than flash lighting.
While flash lights are the most commonly used in studio photography, this is where you can really break the bank. But, truth be told, if you have good technique and a little creativity, you don’t need the most expensive flashes to achieve extraordinary lighting effects. After all, good lighting isn’t about having the most expensive equipment—it’s about understanding light and handling it properly, whether it’s natural or artificial.
Before buying a flash, you should have a clear idea of what you need to illuminate, so you have a solid grasp on your personal studio needs and buy just the right piece of equipment to suit them.
Now, it’s happened to the best of us at some point: you don’t have enough natural light for your shot, decide to use your new flash, see the results and are hardly impressed (to say the least).
Just like natural light, you can learn to control artificial light with some basic equipment—some that you might need to invest in and others that you can make yourself.
An umbrella is great for creating a wide variety of lighting effects, such as wide-reaching reflected light, soft light, and directed light. For many studio photographers, this modifier is the most essential in their lighting kit.
A flag helps you avoid lighting up areas that you want to keep dark. You can make your own light flags with black cardboard. Using clothes pins and a tripod, place it next to any light source and block it out whenever necessary. Remember that the black side should face the light source so the light does not reflect.
A softbox is useful in diffusing very harsh light. One way to make your own softbox is by covering a standing lamp with a white cotton or silk cloth. Some photographers even create DIY softboxes using card scraps and paper.
Do keep in mind, however, that if you are using hot light, you need to be more mindful of materials, so they do not end up getting burnt.
A beauty dish works like a softbox but will not make light as soft—leaving more texture and form. You can make your own beauty dish with an aluminum baking pan and your existing light. Simply cut a hole as big as your light source in the middle of the aluminum pan and attach it with duct tape.
A reflector can be a great ally when working on a tight budget because it can be used as a second light source. There are plenty of options for homemade reflectors, and the results are pretty decent. Basically, any surface that is white and flat enough can be used as a reflector—white cardboard paper, polystyrene, a cut-up box, a sheet, or even aluminum foil.
04. Don’t forget the finishing touches
Your home studio is almost ready, so don’t forget about the following accessories to round out your space:
Stool and/or Small Table
This may seem obvious, but having a stool or table in you studio space will always come in handy. Whether it’s for your model to pose on or for you to set up your laptop and review images after your shoot, these little touches will help professionalize your DIY set-up.
Clamps and Clips
These versatile tools can be used for just about anything. Whether to hold up your backdrop, attach a continuous light to a tripod, or put a flag in place to block out the light, there’s a reason they are a must-have in every studio.
A remote shutter is another great addition to your new studio. You can use it to minimize camera movement and get the sharpest images, allowing you to capture amazing action shots. It will also allow you to focus your eyes and attention directly on what is happening on set, instead of on the viewfinder.
In closing, it goes without saying: when it comes to putting together your own photographic studio, creativity beats budget any time. Take this article as a possible starting point—add your own ingenuity to the mix and turn that forgotten room into your new muse.