Basic Studio Photography 101: Getting Started

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Are you a photographer that’s looking to add studio images to your offerings? In this article I’ll share with you the items you’ll need to start shooting professional studio images in just about any space!

To begin, let’s look at some of the must-have items you’ll need to start shooting studio images. In many cases there are a variety of products and brands that will work perfectly well, but to save you time I’ll recommend the products that I personally use in my own studio.

Products To Buy List

Backdrop Stand 
One essential piece of equipment you’ll need to get you started is a backdrop stand. This is where you’ll hang your paper or fabric backdrop for your images. There are a variety of companies out there selling stands but out of all the items on this list don’t go cheap on this! A quality backdrop stand will last you several years if cared for correctly. For almost 2 years now I’ve been using a stand made by Linco (http://www.amazon.com/Linco-Single-Crossbar-Background-Support/dp/B003WAVIZ6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382719457&sr=8-1&keywords=linco+backdrop+stand) and it’s still going strong. It will accommodate a variety of backdrops of various sizes. Another option is to get a collapsible backdrop stand. These are typically quicker and easier to setup, require less space, and are great if you want to take your studio setup on the go. In the past I’ve used some made by Savage that are of excellent quality and a real value for the money. The one I found to be very useful starting out is this (http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Double-Collapsible-Background-complete/dp/B005BUR6QA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1382719639&sr=8-2&keywords=savage+collapsible+white+backdrop+stand) double-sided white/black collapsible backdrop. Used correctly you can pull off a bunch of popular studio looks.

Price Range: $60-$200

Seamless Paper Backdrop
Now that you have your backdrop stand you’ll need your actual backdrop. If you’re getting one of the collapsible ones you can skip this section. In my own studio I use seamless paper from Savage. I believe these to be the industry standard for quality seamless paper . My favorite colors to use are super white (http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Seamless-Background-Paper-yards/dp/B0002ER2YQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1382719947&sr=8-3&keywords=savage+paper), fashion grey, and black. You can buy them starting at 4ft wide up to almost 12ft.

I own 4ft and 9ft versions of each of the colors mentioned. If you’re limited in space the 4ft paper works great for use in small spaces. Most of the tighter shots you see in my portfolio were done on the 4ft, while the full body wider shots were done with the 9 footer. The same company also makes muslin, vinyl, and canvas backdrops so don’t feel like you can’t use other types of backdrops. Seamless paper is just my personal preference as it’s what you see most often in magazines.

Price Range: $38-$100

Strobe/Speedlight With Modifier
So your backdrop is up and ready, now you’ll need 1 (or more) light(s) to light up your subject. There are an infinite number of products and combinations that can be used to achieve great quality studio images so forgive me for not covering them all. I am going to provide you with 2 setups. One will be the more affordable option that gives a good result, and the other will be a more professional option that I’d recommend if you plan on doing this for your business.

Setup 1: Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlite + Fotodiox EZ-Pro Softbox
This setup will set you back around $120 but will be great for taking headshots all the way up to 3/4 length portraits. I recorded an unboxing/review for the Yongnuo speedlite a few months ago that you can see here.
Yongnuo YN-560 II: http://www.amazon.com/Yongnuo-YN-560-Speedlight-Flash-Nikon/dp/B0079M711S/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1382720803&sr=8-2&keywords=yongnuo+yn-560+canon
Fotodiox EZ-Pro Softbox: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DBB7Q02/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=2NPBL622MKAFX&coliid=I5VBNU6941J7G

Setup 2: Alien Bee B800 Strobe + Fotodiox Softbox
This was my very first studio setup and I still use these products in my current work. Alien Bee strobes are a tremendous value and you’ll see thousands of professional photographers out there using these products. One of the big benefits of these lights over speedlites is that they are much more powerful and offer a better quality of light. There are also higher quality modifiers available for them. The manufacturer of Alien Bee strobes (Paul C Buff aka PCB) also offers softboxes that are super handy since they setup in in less than a minute, but they are also pricier. One option I found that works just as well but requires a bit more setup is the 32×48 inch softbox from Fotodiox. They come with the adapter that you’ll need to mount it onto the strobe and works just as good as the PCB option. Best of all you can buy 3-4 of these for the price of one PCB softbox!
Alien Bee B800: http://www.paulcbuff.com/b800.php
Fotodiox Softbox: http://www.amazon.com/Fotodiox-Softbox-Speedring-Alien-Strobe/dp/B003EWKG3M/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1382721239&sr=1-3&keywords=fotodiox+alien+bee

Price Range: Depending on which setup you choose, $120-$350

Radio Trigger/Cable
In order to fire your strobes, you’re going to need something that will let them know when it’s go time. The most basic way to do this is to use a cable. I would only recommend this route if you’re toying with the idea of studio photography and don’t want to get too involved. Outside of that I would definitely recommend you go with a radio trigger. It’s 2013 people, cables are so old school! I will again present you with two (technically 3) options.

Option 1: Yongnuo Wireless Trigger
This was my first radio trigger and for basic usage it works great. I say basic because there were some times where I pressed the shutter on my camera and it would not fire the flash, but it typically only happened when the battery levels were low. The other drawback is that the transmitter uses a CR2 battery that runs about $10/piece. Other than that this nifty trigger gets the job done and does so at a reasonable price.

Option 2: Pocket Wizard X/Plus 3
Either of these two triggers would be my option of choice. I am currently using the Plus 3’s but you could easily get away with using a Plus X if you’re just using one light. You’ll need to purchase 2 of whichever one you like best to start out with. One is to put on your camera and the other is to put on the strobe/speedlite. It comes with the cables you need to use with either lighting setup above and are super reliable. Best of all they work with AA batteries which you can find anywhere if you’re in a pinch.

Price Range: $20-$280

Light Stand/Light Holder
Last but not lease you’re going to need a light stand. This is where you’ll mount your strobe or speedlite. Again there are many options to choose from here, but the big differences you’ll find from one to another is how thick the rods of the stand are, how tall it gets, and whether it’s air-cushioned or not. I prefer to have air-cushioned light stands because if you happen to loosen one of the knobs while you’re lights are on it they won’t slam down. This will extend the life of your light stand. Savage makes a great heavy-duty, air-cushioned light stand that fits the bill quite nicely. If you are using the strobe setup this will be all you need as far as light stands go. If you’re using a speedlite and you decide to go with a different modifier make sure you get a holder for your speedlite.

Price Range: $30-$100

Reflector
Whether you go with one or more lights, having a reflector will definitely come in handy. Placed correctly you can create interesting looking catchlights in your subjects eyes. You can also use it to fill in shadows as I did in the headshot image above. They come in various sizes and range in price, but the one I use most in studio are 20×30 foam boards that I picked up at my local craft store. They are very inexpensive and work great. The link below is to give you an idea of what they look like.
http://www.michaels.com/20in-x-30in-x-1/2in-White-Foam-Board/gc0883,default,pd.html

Price Range: $4-$100

So there you have it. This is your down and dirty shopping list to get your studio setup going! I’d love to see the images you create if you decide to follow these recommendations. Feel free to post a link in the comment section below to those images!

Author Miguel Quiles (82 Posts)

Miguel Quiles is a commercial portrait and wedding photographer based out of New Jersey.


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