Photography can be quite an expensive hobby or career. Needless to say us photographers love our gear and always want more of it - or at least I do! Over the past couple of years, I've been transitioning from being primarily a wedding photographer to incorporating more studio photography in my business. I don't plan on leaving weddings, but I love having a couple more thousand dollars a month doing quick and easy headshot photography. Here's how I built my studio with both simplicity and quality in mind.
As I mentioned, I'm primarily a NYC and NJ Wedding Photographer, so I wasn't starting from scratch building my studio gear. I wanted to make the most of what I already had so I could get started shooting and making money. Here are things to consider not buying if you already have something suitable.
Is the Canon 5DS a great studio camera? Yes, it's a great DSLR choice for a studio camera with its super large files and great quality. Would my Canon 1DX do the trick? It sure does. If you have a camera that'll give your clients the size and quality files they need (which for headshots really isn't that big because they're primarily using them for 8x10's and LinkedIn profile pictures), then there's no need to invest in another one. Not yet anyway. If you know you have a client coming in that'll need more, just rent what you need for that one shoot.
At a minimum, I recommend having three lights at your disposal, but starting with one and then two is an option as well, it just limits a little bit of what you can do and how easily you can do it.
For weddings, I was using the Profoto B1 and B2 system because it's portable and powerful (full list of my wedding gear here). Did I want the Profoto D1/2's that are more suitable for studio work, especially because I didn't have to worry about dying/charging batteries? Yes, I so badly wanted them. But in the beginning, I used what I had and it worked beautifully. I even bypassed the battery problem B2 by having the charge continually plugged into the wall.
If you don't have strobes of any kind, I do recommend investing in them. But since I don't recommend going into debt for them (or anything else), using Canon Speedlites with modifiers like MagMods of Flash Benders will do fine until you can upgrade. Make that money before spending it!
If you're moving from non-studio work, there are some things you'll likely need to buy that you just can't do without.
Sticks and Stands
Unless you've got some really strong friends that want to hold really still with heavy gear, you're going to need some light stands, and likely you'll want a tripod for yourself as well.
For a tripod, go with something that'll go as high as 7' or so (you probably won't have too many people taller than that in your studio). Sure you can go without a tripod, but why not save your shoulders and back? A tripod that has an easy-to-move ball-head is also a must so you're not fumbling around with your gear while trying to get expressions. Grab some apple boxes as well so you have something to stand on to be level with your camera's viewfinder.
There are a ton of light stands, and it's easy to get something that isn't what you need. When looking at light stands you want at least two tall ones for main lights, and one short one for a background light. Ideally, the two taller ones will also be on wheels as you'll be repositioning the lights fairly often and rolling is much easier than lifting. Most importantly, you want heavy-duty ones since they'll be holding heavy studio strobes, which brings me to my next gear must-have.
I don't care if you use sandbags or fancy-schmancy counterweights like I have, just get something to attach to your light stands so the unthinkable doesn't happen. No one wants to hear the sad sound of a $2,000 light crashing to the ground, or worse, crashing into your client's head. They may seem like an unnecessary item, but it's 110% needed!
One of the great things about doing studio work is tethering. Tethering to better see what you're shooting is great, but also having your client see their images right away is wonderful for on-site proofing and a shorter post-shoot process.
Personally, I love all things Tether Tools brand, but at a minimum you need a USB cord connecting your computer to your camera and a place to put your computer near your camera. I use Lightroom to import my images and proof to my clients on the spot. By the time they get in their car I've already sent the images to my retoucher and couldn't be happier with the process.
These babies are what make the difference in your studio work. Having the tools necessary to bend light to your will is an absolute must. Naturally, I want every lightshaper known to man, but here is the list of lightshapers that I would buy, in the order I would buy them, with the first three being bought all at once)
- (2) 3x4' Softboxes
- (1) 1x3' Softbox
- (1) Beauty Dish
- (1) Zoom Reflector
- (2) 2x3' Softboxes
- (1) 5' Octa Softbox
- (1) 1x6' Softbox
As great as it would be to just be able to afford a cyc wall first thing in your studio (assuming you even have the luxury of a dedicated studio space), it's likely not realistic. You may be renting studio space for each shoot, which is a great option when you're starting out, just make sure you work it into the cost of the shoot.
When I first started I loved using small, portable backgrounds like the 5x7' Savage Universal black and white. I do a fair amount of on-location shooting for clients so having something portable is a must for me. Graduating to a background system with hanging paper backdrops is the second step, with the full cyc wall being a great ultimate goal.
When you're first starting out, you may want to own all of the toys, but just remember to work with what you have first and then build from there. We all start somewhere and then with hard work and paying clients get to work our way up to all the toys we've always dreamed of. Be sure to check out the video in this post to see what my studio looks like a few years in.