How to Build an Affordable Home Studio

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Working from home has become so ubiquitous over the past year that it was only a matter of time before photographers caught on to the trend. A home studio can serve as a cost-efficient, lockdown-proof means of creating work during the uncertain times through which we are living. The trick with any home studio is in creating a space that can be used to create images that do not betray the fact that you shot them in your living room, in your pajamas, using your pet dog as an assistant. Luckily, creating a home studio can be done fairly easily without breaking the bank. This article will help get you up and running.

Planning Your Studio

Before making any purchases, it is important to sit down first and answer some basic questions about what you want your studio to accomplish. First, what type of photographs do you plan on taking? For example, the typical portrait studio will require more space and light than the typical still life studio. It is essential to make sure that you have enough space to accomplish what you need from the very outset. Don’t forget to factor in the space necessary for lights, stands, and other out-of-image equipment.

Ideally, you can allocate a space in your home to use as a studio so you don’t have to set everything up and tear it all down for each shoot.
Ideally, you can allocate a space in your home to use as a studio so you don’t have to set everything up and tear it all down for each shoot.

Do you plan on dedicating a space to use as a studio 24/7 or do you need to be able to set up and tear down your gear quickly? If your home studio is really your living room converted into a pop-up shooting space, choose equipment that is compact and easy to store when not in use. For example, C-stands are excellent studio tools but terrible home decor. Luckily, there are many collapsible light stands that can be stored out of sight between uses.

A simple umbrella and flash can work well as a quick setup lighting option for small spaces.
A simple umbrella and flash can work well as a quick setup lighting option for small spaces.

Lighting on a Budget

It all starts with light. If you are working on a budget, be resourceful. Do you have windows that receive strong light during the day? You may be able to leverage this asset to provide a natural source for your images. Combine your window light with a collapsible reflector to provide fill and you have a quick, extremely compact studio for very little cost. For help choosing the right reflector, check out this article. Even with the best natural light at home, you will, eventually, want to add a more controllable source either to supplement your window or provide a key light when the sun is down. If you already have a flash that can be triggered remotely, look into purchasing a speed ring adapter to use with a softbox or a shoe-mount adapter to use with an umbrella.

Choose your lights as if your photos depended on them—because they do.
Choose your lights as if your photos depended on them—because they do.

If and when you decide to purchase a studio light, choose the best quality model that your budget will allow. This is not the place to skimp on the cheapest option. If you are shooting stills, this should be a strobe. If you will be supplementing your photos with video, consider an LED. This article discusses selecting your first studio light in greater depth.

No light source is ideal for studio photography straight out of the box. You will need to invest in modifiers to shape your light for best results. A great place to start is with a simple umbrella. Not only are umbrellas fairly inexpensive, but they also quickly collapse to a trim silhouette so you can easily store them out of sight. You can also combine an umbrella with diffusion to simulate the effect of a softbox without having to deal with the extra expense of a speed ring or having to fuss with rods.

If you are using your studio to make portraits, consider the modifiers discussed in this article. One more note about strobes: make sure that you have a way of triggering your light. The most common means of doing so is via a wireless remote and receiver. Some lights have wireless capabilities built in, so be sure to check if that is the case and then buy a compatible trigger. Finally, don’t forget to pick up a stand so that you can position your light where you need it.

Repeat after me: “All that matters is what is in the frame of the shot.”
Repeat after me: “All that matters is what is in the frame of the shot.”

Transforming Your Space

A successful home studio erases the “home” from the images made in it. This is fairly easy to do when you are working on a small scale. Tabletop setups are great for product, macro, and other small-scale projects. A shooting tent can create a clean, simple environment nearly anywhere and serves as an excellent, collapsible tool for creating product images. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of what you have around the house. Sometimes the best surface for a still life is right underneath a stack of magazines. Thrift stores, antique shops, and hardware stores are full of unique and often budget-friendly surfaces that can be used in your home tabletop studio. For more tips on tabletop shooting, check out this article.

Shooting tents can turn any space into a clean environment for product photos.`
Shooting tents can turn any space into a clean environment for product photos.

If you plan to shoot portraits, fashion, or any other large subject, you will, naturally, need to allocate more space for your studio but, otherwise, your options are pretty straightforward. Seamless paper is a popular background choice that can transform any environment into a studio while being cheap and easy to roll up when not in use. If you are handy, you can build a wall-mount storage system to organize your seamless without spending much money. You can also use fabrics like muslin, velvet, or any other material that you think will benefit your photographs. Cloth backgrounds can be folded up after use but may require steaming when you bring them back out, to remove wrinkles. Collapsible backgrounds are another option for creating a shooting environment that can be quickly put away. Finally, you may also want to explore floor drops as a way to simulate different environments. Note that plush carpeting may create wrinkles on seamless paper or floor drops. One way to solve this problem is to place thick-stock cardboard, foam core, or plywood on top of your carpet to provide a level surface upon which your background can rest.

Wall-mount systems are great space savers when working with seamless background paper.
Wall-mount systems are great space savers when working with seamless background paper.

Once you have a background, you need to find a way to hold it in place. Luckily, there are many background supports that collapse for easy storage. Autopoles are popular for their quick assembly and minimal footprint. If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated shooting space, you might also consider wall-mount supports, which will completely eliminate the footprint of your system, freeing up extra space for you to work with. Looking for a budget-friendly crossbar for fabrics and other “un-cored” backgrounds? Grab a PVC pipe from your local hardware store. Just make sure it is rigid enough to hold its form throughout its length.

Accessories

Home studios share the same “everyday” accessories as any other studio. Stock up on gaffer tape because its usefulness far surpasses its low cost. A-clamps and C-47 clips are nearly as essential as gaffer tape. Their uses are endless, and every studio should have at least half a dozen of each. Eventually, you will want to look into even more specialized clamps. For an overview of what’s available, check out this article.

Apple boxes are as useful in the studio as they are around the house.
Apple boxes are as useful in the studio as they are around the house.

Among the benefits of the home studio done right is that you can use items both for photographs and around the house. Chairs and stools can make for excellent seating for portraits. On the other hand, the studio standard apple box can be a great household item whether playing the role of stepping stool, side table, bookend—you name it! Stain or paint your apple box for a more polished household effect. Ladders, extension cords, and surge protectors are studio staples that are equally useful around the house. The trick is to be resourceful. You would be surprised how many options are already available around the house to get your home studio started.

Do you have a home studio? Share your tips and experiences or ask us a question in the Comments section, below!

2 Comments

In a studio what is the advantage of using a seamless background paper instead of using  cloth for the background?  I would think that the cloth background would be cheaper since it is reusable and would be better for our environment since we would be saving trees and reducing the amount of trash.

It seems crazy in this day and age to keep a non renewable resource such as paper for a background color.

Is there some kind of advantage for using the paper background over other options?

Hi Art -- Good question. As with all of this, it comes down to what you are photographing and how you want it to look. Seamless paper has become an industry standard over the years because it provides a consistent color, is virtually textureless, and cost-effective for jobs that are messy. Those are some of its advantages over fabric. However, you do make a good point about the environmental benefits of choosing a reusable background. Personally, I use both depending on the aesthetic/practical needs of the images I am making.

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