How to Build Your First Photography Studio

How to Build Your First Photography Studio

For a lot of us who are chasing a career in photography, we soon come to a bit of a pinch point. We have thrown all our money into cameras, computers, lenses, and lights, so our house is a mess of kit clutter. Here's how to build your own dedicated studio.

Your incessant search for weather-safe locations is starting to take up as much time as the actual jobs. Perhaps you are fed up of working where you live or you hanker after somewhere that little bit more professional to hold meetings than your local coffee shop. Either way, it’s probably about time to find your first studio.

My first was very simple and cost me next to nothing to set up. I rented a large room above a bar in the city center and purchased a roll of white paper. Apart from that, I had four cheap speedlights, a few shoot-through umbrellas, a desk, and a cheap PC. That was it. From that space and with that limited kit, I shot bags of local work and even some national campaigns. That studio space was far more important than any of the equipment that I owned prior to setting up. Yes, it no longer made UK shooting a weather gamble, but it was much more emotional than that. Until then, when anyone asked what I did for a living, I'd explain carefully that I was a photographer, that I didn't need a studio really, and that I was happy with that. I was protesting too much! In the early days, that big step of hiring my first studio filled me with a confidence that was well worth the paltry monthly fee. But hey, I was very lucky to find such a cost-effective deal. Bankrupting yourself to boost your self-esteem isn't advised. Here are a few factors to consider when looking for your first space:

Location

Find a space that is of use to your clients. Yes, the geography needs to work for you too, but you are secondary. My first studio was in the city center, near the railway station. At the time, this was really important for me. I was quite rightly worried that people would not want to travel far, as I was only a few years into my trade. My current studio is a bit farther out due to my evolved needs. I have better parking, motorway access, and you don't have to deal with tight roads when bringing large vans or lorries to the studio. If you need a large space, having somewhere out of town can also save you a lot of money, meaning you don't have to work this into your fees. 

Space

Studios come in all shapes and sizes. If you are a tabletop photographer or work in certain small-scale genres, then you can get away with a window, space for a table, and just enough room to fit your camera in. If your work is a bit more varied, then you need to start running some calculations. For example, the highest object/subject, the widest group of subjects or object, and then the way that you like to light. Pull out the inverse square law and chuck a few percents extra in to make sure you can get around your modifiers. Most of us don’t actually need as much space as we think we do. My studio is around 220 square meters, and I always pine for more, but in reality, I would just store more junk in there.

Access

The biggest one is making sure that you can get a full-sized paper roll inside the space. I viewed several rooms before I found one that was both big enough and had access to get a 2.75-meter paper roll in. I couldn't afford anything on a ground floor, so lifts and staircases were a bit of a problem. Depending on the type of photography you do, it is wise to make sure you can get your products in easily.

Facilities

I work predominantly with industry people. Having pristine bathrooms, changing rooms, etc. isn’t overly high on my priority list. The heating isn’t the greatest and it is not a pretty place. But it does have two loading bays, which I could not live without. However, if you are working with families or private clients, having a warm, inviting space is important. You need nice bathrooms and well-lit changing facilities as well as a comfy space for the possible relatives of the subject to wait. 

Equipment

You really don’t need bags of photographic kit to set up a profitable studio. I started off with two Canon 5D cameras, a 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens, a handful of speedlights, and a lot of AA batteries. My current studio is far more heavily kitted out, but that has taken four years of slow investment and hard work. If you have a camera and a light, you have enough to get going. Don’t let photography magazines and peer pressure tell you otherwise. I know pros who still shoot with Canon 1DS Mark II cameras and the same 24-105mm lens they have probably had for a decade. Their work is still amazing.  

Cost

Chances are that if it is your first studio, you probably won't have bags of cash to spend on rent. See it as a stepping stone to being able to bring in more clients. In my simple head, I removed a few of my monthly outgoings, added in the potential income of one additional sitting a month, and came to the conclusion that I could afford £250 a month for a small space to get started with. So, for £3,000 a year (the cost of a full-frame camera), I had premises that allowed me to make far more money than upgrading to the latest pro camera would. Coincidentally, I still use the same Canon 5D cameras for 75 percent of my paid work today as I did back then. 

I have found that hiring a good working space has had more worth to me than any of the photographic equipment that I've purchased over the years. And this comes from someone who is fortunate enough to have access to some very exotic cameras, lenses, and lights. This year, I have put all of my spare time and money into making the studio an even more user-friendly space. It’s taking a while, as it has to fit in with my shoot schedule, but I am certain the work I produce will be better than if I threw another few thousand at kit.  

For those of you who are looking to make the leap to renting a studio, what are the barriers that are currently holding you back?

Log in or register to post comments

14 Comments

David T's picture

Thanks for this! Also started renting out my own space the other month to use as a studio.

What are some accessories you never knew you'd need? Do you have any advice on painting the walls for the make up are? Just white, or grey or something warm?

Scott Choucino's picture

wall colour would depend on the size. If its very small, I would avoid white as it could be hard to control the light. Grey is always a safe bet.

I am putting together an article about all the things that are of use in a studio. Should be up in the next few weeks.

Vincent Alongi's picture

This is great food for thought, considering my living room is pretty small would like to think about getting studio shots.

Scott Choucino's picture

I would highly recommend getting a space, maybe find some friends to share the cost?

Vincent Alongi's picture

That's an option, yes. I may also inquire with a couple of local dance studios to see if they're willing to rent me out some space / time. But ideally, a dedicated space - and shared would be fine- shared expenses, perhaps on the studio-dedicated gear, etc.

I think 4x6 meter room is minimal requirements. I have two rooms kind of, and if need I have 5 x 10 meter, but most work are done in a room 4 x 8 meter.
In a small room you need 4 speedlights with some flashbenders or something diy to get a white wall, the sell on eBay for 40-50 USD.
You need a main light, I use 2 Godox AD 200 together, but the Interfit honey badger with 60 w led pilot light is nice, so are others. A plate of styrofoam 2 meters tall can be both reflector and flag. I like umbrellas and only use softbox if I want a dark background. A large shoottru used as a
reflective gives soft and nice light for a beginner, but try different. If roof hight is normal a larger umbrella then 120 cm will not work good.
Only get modifiers you can open and close easy, in a small space that is important.
I also have a 24-105 but if you use a crop factor camera a full frame 24-70 gives you 35-105 and you use best part of the lens. (Like Sony 6000 with kit fe 28-70 is great)
Keep the floor dark and the walls and roof neutral white or light gray.
I only do portraits and that is what I talk about.

Scott Choucino's picture

Those Godox lights are really good for the price. I recently used some on a job and I was very impressed!

Yes I just sold my Elinchrom strobes and moved to Godox. 2 AD200 pared as mainlight. 4 Godox speedlights with Flashbenders for the white walls, I bought manual with chargeable battery as the work faster and longer. Now they stand by the wall on each side, and I have a even light.
Then a speedlights for Mag Mod modifiers and I am good to go. My studio looks much larger and no kables to trip on.
I would like a good pilot light in the main light so the AD 600 pro is the only Godox portable option. Still a led light with battery from the hardware store is 30USD and a option.
Anyways to me Godox made me much more flexible. I now can do HSS in the studio, it's kables free and much more spacy and orderly. And I can use it outside.

Mikael Grahn's picture

Nice article. Perfect timing as me and my friends are on the way to rent a place as a photostudio. The downside is the height of the room for using lights overhead. We are also not sure which background to use, paper or cotton.
Got some input on that? I guess paper is nice for whole bodyshots?

Paulo Juarez's picture

Thanks, Scott. Two questions:

1) I like the way you're holding the grey backdrop on the second picture. Can you tell me more
about that setup? Is that just a C-stand? Any brand you'd recommend?

2) I assume that's just foam core to the right of the subject; but how are you holding it in place? What is that metal frame at the bottom?

Paulo, that looks similar to what I do which is to simply slip a short roll over the boom arm of a c-stand and let it hang mostly on its own. I'll occasionally clip some clamps on the bottom to pull the paper straight if needed. The arm needs to be slightly higher at the end btw. I use Kupo stands but Mathews and others should work just as well. Make sure to have the long leg under the paper and sandbags on the legs.

Paulo Juarez's picture

Thanks, Quincy.

Steven Lelham's picture

I recently setup a home studio to do headshots. http://www.lelham.com/portfolio-item/professional-headshots/

I shoot with a 5d m3 but my lighting and other equipment is mostly DIY projects (home depot lights...)

What recommendations do you have to have people choose my DIY studio over an actual spacious studio with high quality equipment?

Marc DeGeorge's picture

I'm in NYC, do photography part-time currently, and the cost of a small closet is about $1,000 per month. There are options - plenty of hourly studio space to rent (Peerspace is cool too, albeit not cheap) and there are often photographers willing to share a studio rental with you.

Anyone think of any other options besides moving to the countryside? I shoot mostly performing arts, so being in the city is really kind of important to my work, and for getting clients.