Stocking Your Macro Studio on a Budget

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Macro photo studios share many of the same basic needs and equipment as traditional photo studios—just on a smaller scale. This reduction in size both lowers the cost of entry into the genre while inviting creativity from resourceful DIY photographers. Below are some tips for expanding your macro studio using items around the house or easily obtained from local art, craft, or hardware stores.

Figure 1: Small clips from around the house or office come in handy.
Small clips from around the house or office come in handy.

One of the most versatile tools in any photo studio is the A-Clamp. While the smaller versions of these rugged tools can certainly be helpful in macro studios, their bulk can turn into a hindrance when working with small sets or delicate materials. In the film industry the smaller brother of the A-Clamp is the C-47, or, at home, a clothespin. Perfect for gently but securely holding items in place, they are as invaluable as they are inexpensive. The utility of the C-47 can be doubled by simply disassembling a clip and reversing its components, forming a makeshift set of tweezers in a pinch. Need a little more width or strength? Grab a binder or a bulldog clip from your home office and use it to secure bounce cards or large props. Office, art, and craft supply stores carry a wide range of sizes and strengths to choose from for more specialized applications.

Figure 2: You can invert a C-47 around its spring to create a makeshift pair of tweezers.
You can invert a C-47 around its spring to create a makeshift pair of tweezers.

You don’t need to be a food photographer to recognize the utility of toothpicks in the macro studio. Use them with cardboard to build scaffolding over which to place lightweight items on a set. Ever wonder why the burgers in advertisements look so much nicer than the ones you get at the drive thru? Toothpicks and cardboard are often used inside of the burger to make it appear evenly spaced, creating a more appealing look for the camera. For more elaborately constructed compositions and sets, balsa wood serves as a sturdy yet malleable building material. In addition to providing more support than a toothpick, it can be easily carved into the exact shape that your job requires. For those with the patience and skills, balsa wood can even be used to create a macro-scale cyclorama for product photography. Finally, when working with very small items, sewing pins can be used to position them with precision. Just remember to exercise caution when working with sharp objects and make sure anyone helping you on set knows where they are being used.

Figure 3: Foam core or even rigid cardboard can be used to make a v-flat for macro usage.
Foam core or even rigid cardboard can be used to make a V-flat for macro usage.

V-flats are much easier to create for the macro stage than they are for larger studio environments. Two pieces of foam core or painted cardboard can be taped together to create a homemade V-flat. For more detailed instructions, check out this article—the rules are the same whether you are making an 8-foot flat or an 8-inch flat. If taping together two pieces of foam core sounds like too much work, you can purchase tabletop V-flats, prefabricated, here. You can easily create silver bounce cards or reflective V-flats by attaching household aluminum foil to cardboard or foam core. Experiment to see which side of the foil produces the best effect for your image. To make a gold-toned reflector, go to an art or craft store and pick up some artificial gold leaf to adhere to any of the materials mentioned above. Homemade diffusion for the macro studio can be created using nearly any translucent material. Build a frame using a wire coat hanger and stretch a white T-shirt around it or attach paper. Not the prettiest design, but it will do the job. One important safety note: If you are using hot lights—or any light that produces heat—you should only use heat-resistant materials designed for use with studio lighting as diffusion to avoid creating a fire hazard.

Figure 4: Wrap your miniature V-flat in aluminum foil for a homemade silver reflector.
Wrap your miniature V-flat in aluminum foil for a homemade silver reflector.

Another benefit of working on a macro scale is that you only need a fraction of the space to create an environment that you would need for a typical photograph. Make an inventory of the surfaces available around your house to use in images. Alternatively, go to the hardware store and look at building materials for inspiration. Keep an eye out for textures that can add to your compositions. Reclaimed wood, cinder blocks, and floor tiles are just some of the materials commonly incorporated into macro sets. Even the simple act of staining a slab of scrap wood can lend a sophisticated air to an image without breaking the bank. Mirrors and Plexiglas are also popular set materials for macro and product photography that are readily available at many hardware or craft stores.

Figure 5: Fabric stores are excellent places to find materials for macro backgrounds.
Fabric stores are excellent places to find materials for macro backgrounds.

Another great place to search for macro materials are fabric supply stores. Whether you are looking to incorporate texture or pattern into the background of your images, you will be able to experiment with different fabrics at a fraction of the cost that photographers working on a larger scale shell out. Vintage and thrift stores can also be gold mines for unique patterns and designs that you can adapt for your shoots.

Finally, one more approach to backdrops that macro photographers can easily scale from larger studios is painted canvas backdrops. Pick up a roll of primed canvas and give it a try. Alternatively, you can print your own canvas backdrops that are large enough for use in a macro environment. This can work for simulating a painted backdrop or simulating a background environment without leaving home.

Figure 6: Staining wood can simulate a furniture surface.
Staining wood can simulate a furniture surface.

If your aim is to create a more natural environment, sand, rocks, moss, and driftwood all serve as excellent props for the macro studio. Go to your local plant nursery or search for terrarium suppliers online who offer a whole range of natural materials that can be used for simulating the forest floor or any other environment. This is a much more ecologically sound means of obtaining natural items than going out into the woods and taking them yourself, which has the potential to disrupt existing ecosystems and/or introduce unwanted pests into your studio.

Do you create macro photos at home? What are some of your favorite tricks and tools for creating images? Share them with us in the Comments section, just below.

4 Comments

On fabric backgrounds:  most fabric stores offer fat quarters (18x22") or half yards in the cotton fabric section, plus remnant bins in the other fabrics - for just a few dollars you can get more than enough for a macro background.  FQ's are also readily available by order.

Excellent tip, Jeannie. Thank you for sharing! 

Thanks for this very useful article!  I am getting ready to setup a better macro tabletop area and will use these tips.  I have most of the materials already.

Good luck, Jeannie!

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