How to build a small photography studio setup

Shooting in a small studio setup can be challenging, but it isn’t impossible. There are a number of things you can do to make working in limited space easier and more effective, which is what I recently showed when I set up a small studio for a friend’s business.

I recently helped out a friend who wanted to start photographing his own products for his company, but he faced two main challenges: he didn’t know anything about photography and he didn’t have a lot of space.

After giving him a crash course in photography I offered him advice on how best to set up a small studio for his business. The company had a small room adjacent to their main office, which I knew they’d be able to use for their photographs. Their aim was to photograph bottles of wine on a white background for use on their website. These images were to be used as both single images and group shots so it was important that each image had the same lighting and was in the exact same position.

Before we started photographing and for their ideal product photography setup, I advised them to paint the walls of the space white and the ceiling black. This minimised the amount of light bouncing off the ceiling but didn’t black out the entire room.

I also advised him to watch this class on setting up a small photography studio and sent them a list of recommended equipment that they would need. This included:

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Laptop
  • Flash trigger
  • Tethering cable
  • Four lights
  • Modifiers (2x standard reflectors, 2x softboxes)
  • Lighting stands
  • C-stand
  • Roll of diffusion material

With everything ready, I was then able to set up their studio. Keeping in mind that they had little photographic knowledge but needed every bottle to look the same, I had to find a balance when it came to the lighting — something that would look good but wouldn’t need any adjustment. This was tricky as they had red wines, white wines, different sized bottles and varied labels — everything was different.

Photo studio equipment and lighting set up

I started with the background lights, which were two lights with standard reflectors. These were placed parallel to the back wall and turned inwards to create the white background. The power settings on these two lights had to be exactly the same to achieve that pure white background they wanted for their images.

Once I was happy with that I focussed on lighting the product. For this I used two softboxes pointed directly at the bottle to create a strip of light down the side. Because the light was then exactly the same on either side (which didn’t look very nice) I placed a roll of diffusion paper in front of the one. This softened the light and created a lovely soft, even highlight on the one side.

In the video below I show you a similar principle to what is explained above, but while photographing a bottle with clear liquid.

    Once the lighting was finalised I made sure to mark where everything went. This meant that even if someone came in and knocked a lighting stand or the camera, they would easily be able to correct everything and return it to the exact same position. I also made a mark on the table to show where the bottles should be placed. This also saved time when it came to removing and replacing bottles as it was easy to see exactly where the bottle should go.

    The layout of the studio and placement of the lights, camera and bottles is shown in the diagram below.

    Small photography studio setup

    Ideal studio setup for photography in a small studio.

    By creating a small, simple studio setup the company’s product images have improved dramatically. They’re now able to easily to photograph their hundreds of bottles of wines quickly and efficiently, and achieve great results (which you can see below):

      Example wine bottle product photo 1
      Example wine bottle product photo 2
      Example wine bottle product photo 3
      Example wine bottle product photo 3
      Example wine bottle product photo 5
      Example wine bottle product photo 6

      Photos taken by

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      1. Hello Karl, I need one advice from you, I’m photographing some wine bottles and in the bottom you can see the reflection of the surface, I know that is normal, but on your photos it’s uniform and on the ones I’m taking it’s not uniform.

        The surface I’m shooting the bottles is 40x40cm, what size do you recommend to be my surface? Should it be glossy (white acrylic or acrylic mirror)? As you can see I’ve used on one of the photos an acrylic mirror.

        In this video it appears that you have used a large sheet of white acrylic, am I correct?

        Can you give me some help?

        Sorry for my English.

      2. This was great Karl, a couple of questions if you don’t mind – why a scrim on one side? Is this to spread the light more on one side only? Is this just a personal choice? Why a scrim at all if you want the light on the product (bottle) to be symmetrical on both sides?
        Also, I never knew about the black ceiling technique/strategy. I, too, have a very small studio but I rent so I can not paint the ceiling black but maybe I could install a black back drop. Is this also recommended though for portrait and headshot work? I do a little bit of everything in this space.
        Thanks very much!

      3. Hi Thomas, sorry my mistake I totally misunderstood your first question. Now I understand. I charged my day rate to set this up for them, this was much cheaper for them to pay me one day rate than it would have been to pay me weeks of work to shoot this stuff which they were never going to do. They would have ended up going with a photographer who was cheap and didn’t know what they were doing . And yes it was also influenced as the owner is a friend of mine, but as I’ve just mentioned it would have been better to do it anyway.

      4. Hi Karl, very interesting idea to help out a company for when it’s not financially attractive to hire a pro but rather do it in house. Since they would not be hiring you to shoot all their bottles anyway you are not loosing anything but rather build stronger trust with what might become a future client for some special photo projects where they really need a pro like you to take over.

        My question now is, how would you charge a service like this? Do you use your regular daily rates or use special flats per setup in case they have several different products? Would it matter what or how many products they will use it for? You said you know the people at the company so maybe you actually did it as a favor this time, but what if you didn’t know them before and they just seek your expertise?

        Any and all advice is much appreciated.

        1. Hi Thomas, I’ve thought about your question and the honest answer is that I don’t think I would do this. People either hire me or they don’t and that is at my rate or i’m afraid i’ve got other things to do. As explained in the business section of this website I reveal what my rates are and how I charge as well as the expected rates for other genres of photography. When I first started out I selected companies that I wanted to shoot for such as brands, whisky etc and I purchased their products, shot them and sent the pictures to them speculatively to see if they wanted to work with me but for me that was a marketing exercise.

          1. I’m sorry but English is not my first language, so I’m not sure if I understood this correctly. Are you saying you only did this service of building an in house studio set up at your vine client because you knew them on a personal level and otherwise never consider doing it again, even if you were asked to? Or do you mean it’s just not a business idea you’d consider worth pursuing but if you’d be ask to do it, you’d say yes and simply charge a regular day rate or however long it takes not expecting to ever gain anymore equity through future projects?

            And I don’t know if that came a cross clearly, I’m not talking about regular product photography that you or me as the photographer would be commissioned to do in our own studio. That has a certain rate and done, absolutely! What I was talking about was the example of the video at the top of this article in which you helped build and set-up a small studio for the vine company to use, I think it was Grape Vine Guernsey and gave them the opportunity to shoot the bottles on their own. Since as you said in the video it would just be to expensive to outsource this kind of job (+1,000s bottles)to a photographer.

            Thanks for your patience Karl!

      5. Thanks Karl, this is going to help me so much as I have been trying to set up a space in my small home base office/ studio. Now the fun begins, hubby won’t be happy, but I will.

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