You don’t need a fancy studio to take fancy photographs. Sometimes, all you need is a garage.
When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to think that great photography requires a big space, expensive gear, the best camera body, and thousand dollar lenses. In the process of learning, we often look to our idols, those incredible photographers making beautiful work and sharing their process. We get to see beautiful studios, slobber worthy gear, and set ups we could only dream about. But that’s only part of the story. No one starts out with fifteen foot ceilings and a closet full of two-thousand dollar strobes. Our idols earned their stripes in the trenches of garages, too.
For the first half of my career, I lived in Washington state and as a young mother I made do with whatever space I could find. Sometimes that meant renting a studio if I had the money, but most of the time it meant squeezing people into a spare room while trying to keep my cat from nesting in the makeup artist’s kit. I used whatever I could to create the light I wanted; I bounced speedlights off walls, used bed sheets as diffusers, and built modifiers from milk jugs. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of experimentation, but I learned some incredibly valuable lessons about light during that time.
Later, living in Colorado I had the extreme pleasure of having a studio close to my home, and it was easy to get used to having a well appointed space so close... one that didn’t include toddlers or slobbering pooches or curious cats. One that had high ceilings, modifiers, and all my little photographer’s heart could dream of. Then I moved from Colorado to New Mexico, lost access to the studio and people I had grown to love, and had to get back to my roots. Luckily, with our new house came a new garage.
When you have lots of goodies to use and big spaces to shoot in, it’s easy to forget how much you can actually do with a simple space, knowledge of how to manipulate light, and a few tools of the trade. To create these photos, I started with the garage, a single light, and a modifier. I knew I’d want more control of the light, so I headed down to the local Dollar Store and grabbed twenty-four 3’x4’ foam core poster boards. I duct taped them into v flats, with each V-Flat taking requiring boards a piece. That’s a whopping twenty-five dollars and some change to create two V-Flats.
Sandwiched between the Christmas ornaments, the tool box, and the camping supplies, I set up my backdrop, V-Flats, and AlienBees 1600 fitted with an Elinchrom Rotalux deep octabox. The Rotalux has an inner diffusion panel, which gives it two layers of diffusion, and it’s deep, so the light spill is a bit more controlled. But it won’t light up shadows on it’s own, so I added my cheap, DIY white V-Flat camera right to keep the shadows nice and open. The black V-Flat was added camera left to stop too much light from bouncing back in off the junk in my garage.
Here is a BTS shot I took before we started shooting.
With this one light setup, I was able to get multiple looks, simply by changing angle and position, or by opening the garage door and using it for fill light.
You don’t need seamless paper to pull off shots like this either, so don’t get the idea you have to run off and buy a backdrop stand, even though they’re pretty affordable. My first backdrop stand was created with PVC pipe and shower curtains. It will work.
Now, none of this is to say that huge spaces or expensive gear aren’t great. They totally are. And if you can get your hands on that Rotalux Deep Octa, you definitely should because I’m kind of in love with the light. But you don’t have to update your modifiers or find a grand space to shoot in to start getting great photos, so don’t let lack of space or other cool goodies stop you. Don’t let the fear of ‘not having’ stop you. All the most important photography lessons are learned during the times when you’ve got to be creative. Then, when you have space and cool stuff, you’ll get the most out of them. And if you happen to stay in a garage forever... well, that’s not so bad, either.