Easy Tips for Setting Up Your Studio

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.

Multi-Use Gear

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.

Camera

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.

Lighting

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!

New Gear

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.

Counterweights

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!

Tether Tools

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.

Light Shapers

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

Background

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.

Summary

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.

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14 Comments

william mitchell's picture

Charging and using a B1 or B2 battery at the same time will ruin the battery. Better to buy extra batteries.

That's correct, but she's using "D1s" isn't she? And they plug in the wall.

Vanessa Joy's picture

yup - these are D1s... and I don't know anything about ruining the battery by doing the B2 work-around. I've done it lots of times on-location and before I had my D1s and haven't noticed a difference.

Patrick Hall's picture

How do you know this for sure? The B1 battery doesn't allow it to be charged and used at the same time. I've talked with a lot of battery companies who are looking into making a battery that might be able to charge while inserted into the B1 heads but at the moment that cannot be done.

Ariel Martini's picture

How can you call this "simple" ?

Not really tips. Just product placement.

Michael Comeau's picture

Eh, I'd just go to Craig's List and type in "moving" or "studio sale."

Seriously, there are usually people selling entire studios' worth of gear for pretty cheap money.

"Easy tips for setting up"? Yeah right.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I wish these ads had a link so could buy all the stuff they say I should ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Jacob Colmenero's picture

Lol buying a 5DS and some Profoto is probably the easiest way to set up a studio lol.

Jon Miller's picture

I have a friend that is using 2 canon speedlights a 580ex, 430ex and her Canon 7D w/50mm lens and she is turning out some great images from a small room in her rented apartment. From what I see from the above you would upgrade to this after a) business was able to support the purchase and b) you understood what each items is for. Try not to get too hung up on equipment. Before you know it you'll have heaps of stuff that you may not use often.

Vanessa Joy's picture

so true! I never condone going into debt buying gear - find a way to make the business work for it first.

Laszlo Pekar's picture

I just noticed that you said you usually take your headshots with butterfly lighting set up but none of the photos at the beginning of the video were taken with butterfly lighting.

"Butterfly lighting is one of the oldest techniques for lighting a subject. Named for the butterfly-shaped shadow that forms underneath the subject's nose, this setup is a proven method to ensure your subject is well-lit in a pleasing manner."

Jozef Povazan's picture

Master one light first and then think about setting up multi light combinations and play with ratios in studio :) By saying that, I am just setting up my first studio, and I did went with Profoto D1 and B1 combination, with Profoto and Elinchrom modifiers up to 7 feet size and most of the goodies which are described here, yet if you are just starting I would definitely started with one light set up and learn how to create amazing portraits with that and then add more and more since as Vanessa said, we like to fool around with lots of gear :) Happy shooting... and PS for budget oriented beginners there is nothing better to start with then PCB Einstein or Digi Bee monolights since they are so cheap and amazing in performance... still have them :)