For a long time as a photographer, I did not have access to a studio nor did I have the necessary lights to help create a studio setup indoors. And let’s not talk about renting studios! So, in absence of a studio, I came up with one easy way to create the studio feel, which you will find is pretty cheap.
Starting out, I would always look for an excuse to use natural light, but I changed my mind over time. It really was just me being too stubborn to admit that I was simply not comfortable using studio lights as I did not understand them. But even if I wanted to use a studio, the costs of building one and buying all the equipment necessary to run it are huge (as I am learning right now). Renting a studio is another option, but it can be expensive if you are on a tight budget or just want to experiment. My solution to that was an outdoor studio. Now, while you may be thinking of an outdoor studio with lots of fancy lights setups, let me stop you right there. I chose natural light.
Here are the things you will need:
- Backdrop stands
- Backdrops or seamless fabric
- Scrim (and its stands possibly)
- Clamps or clips
When it comes to backdrops, you can find good ones like the Savage seamless background paper or the muslin reversible background online for a good price. But for those who want to experiment on a whim without investing too much, consider the cheap alternative that is fabrics. At the start, I did consider buying backdrops in store, but it turns out they were not so cheap in Mauritius where I live and the ones that were in store were particularly ugly. So, I went to a fabric store where I found some amazing suede-like fabric or velour as it is also called. It is available in an array of gorgeous colors from grey to pink. I bought some five meters of blue, green, coral, grey, and black fabric, all for $125 roughly. I even got the shop owner to stitch across one end of each fabric so that I could insert my bar and have the fabric hang without any trouble. Now, you can get any other fabric, but do choose one that does not reflect light too much and that’s not easily wrinkled. In my case, I chose suede because it comes in great colors but also because I was looking for the creased look. I did not want something clean and plain. I washed them once in a machine, and I got the look I wanted. And last, to hold the fabric in place on my stands, I bought some clamps to use along with the backdrop clips I already owned.
When setting up for an outdoor studio, I would strongly recommend you find a place where there are no high buildings around to project shadows or where windows around won’t reflect strong lights during the time you are shooting. Find a spot with little wind where the sun will shine all around. If you want to achieve a sharp and dramatic look with the harsh sunlight, it's best to place your backdrop and stands in a spot where the sun is shining on the left or right side. The shadows can always be softened a bit with a reflector or diffuser, and the direct sunlight can be diffused with a scrim placed above. If you got the stands for the scrim, then you can likely carry out a shoot with little or no help at all.
But if you don't have an assistant to help you out and you feel you badly need some help, there is something else you can do. I am very often on my own for my personal projects, and I usually like to have the sun behind my backdrop so that I can use a reflector or diffuser right in front of my subject. Depending on what you prefer when you are working alone, set your studio on a terrace, in front of your house, or even at the entrance of your garage, where the light source is either on top of your head, or slightly behind your backdrop. If the ground is of light color, it can reflect nicely. With the sun shining on top, you can light up your model in different ways: you can simply put a reflector or a diffusion panel flat on the ground in front of your model or even add another one slightly tilted at an angle on the side of your model. What I like with this setup is I can easily get a rim light in my model’s hair. There are many possibilities you can experiment with and come up with on your own.
However, shooting outdoors or with only natural light comes with a few disadvantages. You will have no control over the weather. Even if the forecast for the shooting day was a sunny one, you might still have overcast weather, and if you were looking for harsh sunlight for a dramatic look, you will be stuck with a softer look. It could also rain or it could be extremely windy. In the last scenario, one thing you can do is use sandbags to keep your stands from crashing on the ground. But for the rain, there is nothing much that you can do, and if you are using fabric, you can bet the rain will soak it in no time. So, choose your shooting day wisely.
I’ve been using the same setup and suede backdrops for my personal projects for a couple of years now, and while I have grasped how to use them effectively, I am still surprised sometimes by how an outdoor studio can help me learn more about natural light itself and how some "flaws" can be appealing like in the image below:
All in all, buying the fabrics for a backdrop did not cost me much, and while I already owned the stands, I am sure you can find some decent ones for a good price. The results from an outdoor studio shoot can be pretty rad if you take time to understand your light and manage it. It also shows that you can do so much on your own without bearing the costs of a renting a studio. Feel free to share your own results if you’ve experimented with an outdoor studio before.