How to build a small photography studio setup

Shooting in a small studio 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.

I get lots of comments on this topic, with many photographers working from home or who don’t have a large studio, and they often struggle to control their lighting. I also get the usual naysayers claiming that I can only take the sort of pictures I do because I’ve got a big studio.

It is true that some of the photos I take do require a bigger space, but there are also a lot of other images that I’ve shot in a space less than a few meters wide, or even in rental studios or on location.

If you are working in a small studio space, the following six tips, which I also share in the video, will help you shoot great images.

1. Understand the physics of light

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Photography is a beautiful combination of science and art. I meet many photographers who consider themselves ‘artists’, but don’t pay much attention to the physics. I can tell you now those photographers have to spend a lot more time scratching their heads or fixing problems in Photoshop.

I would also consider myself an artist. I conceptualise ideas, pre-visualise them and have a strong vision for the narrative of many of my images, but I also dedicate a tremendous amount of time to understanding the physics and even the biology of human vision to help create my images.

The great thing about physics and science is that you are dealing with facts. Things are what they are and can’t be broken. Light is the most important thing for us as photographers, and when we understand it’s limitations and how it works we can make working in a small space quite straightforward.

One of the common problems that photographers often encounter in a small space is light bouncing around their studio, adding light where they don’t want it.

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Key to understanding and overcoming this is the inverse square law, which tells us that light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. In simple terms, this means the exposure value changes less quickly over a greater distance. I explain this further in chapter one of our Lighting Theory & Equipment course and there’s a useful diagram in the video that helps show this visually.

In a studio environment, what this means is that if you put your light too far from your subject then you will have more bounce around your studio than you would if you placed your softbox nice and close to your subject.

Remember, it’s also actually only soft light if the light source is big from the subject’s perspective. You can find plenty of examples of this throughout our classes, where I show you the effect of lighting near and far and how the inverse square law really affects your images.

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2. Controlling light in photography

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Once you understand the science, photography becomes a whole lot easier. By understanding how the physics work, you’ll understand what tools you can use to overcome the problem.

One simple example of controlling the physics of light is controlling your reflective surfaces. Often we need to use lights at some distance away from the subject, but this creates the opportunity for more bounce around the studio. This common problem can be overcome by simply painting the walls dark grey or black to eliminate most of the additional, unwanted bounce light.

When I worked in much smaller studios in the past I didn’t like spending all day in a black box, so instead I used black curtains that you could draw around the walls of the room and black foam board panels that I could velcro to the ceiling to help stop and control the light.

Many photographers struggle with a low white studio ceiling, seeing it as a negative, but you can in fact use it as a great tool to bounce light off of to create excellent gradients. However, if the low white ceiling does become a problem, simply velcro black foam board up when you need to.

Daylight can also be a great asset to a studio, but it can also be a nuisance. To get the best of both worlds, get black out blinds that completely eliminate it when you need to.

I don’t use grids on softboxes very often because they make the light less soft, and because I’m generally working in a big space they’re not necessary. However, in a small space they can be a great asset as they help reduce the amount of light spill. You can see this in practice in a number of our environmental portrait classes, where I used gridded softboxes on location to photograph people at their work.

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Keep in mind though that you can also create your own black ‘flags’ to reduce light spill and control light or to deliberately add shaded areas of a shot, as I demonstrate in this Simulating sun and shadow portrait photography class.

3. Making space work for you

If you want to make a small space work for you, try to be organised. Keep all of your equipment tidy and compartmentalised.

Things like tool trolleys can be great for keeping everything in its place. Cupboards are also a great way to keep lighting accessories and equipment organised and out of the way.

You also don’t need a huge workstation — a simple mobile desk and mobile stool can save room and allow you to reposition yourself around your space.

Think about sky hooks, wall hooks and anything else you can use to get stuff off the ground and out of the way. Other space-saving ideas for small studios are ceiling track systems, like you see in the video, as these allow you to remove all cables and lighting stands and free up floor space.

Boom arms are another great way to get lights into difficult places and C-stands allow you to create temporary structures to hold panels and items where you need. They can also be folded away when not in use and hung on a wall.

Another way to save space is to get your backgrounds hung up on a wall on a frame or have a smooth wall in your space that you use as the actual background, rather than using lots of stands.

4.  Rental studios

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Junction Eleven Studio in London.

Keep in mind that many photographers don’t have their own studio anymore. Instead, they just rent them when they need and charge it to the customer.

This could be an option for you too. If you find yourself struggling for space for a given project then there are lots of options for photographers to rent studios; from low cost half day locations to full-spec huge studios for larger productions. 

If you’re on a real budget you can also consider renting your local town hall or community centre space for a day at a much lower cost. You’ll just need to bring your own backgrounds and equipment with you. I once did a car shoot in a shipping warehouse, which you can see in our ‘Classic car photography on location’ photography class.

5. Consider what you’ll be shooting

A few years ago I created a fully equipped studio for a friend of mine who needed to shoot his own wine bottles. They had a single room in their office, but there was barely room to swing a cat. To overcome this, I advised him to paint the 'studio' ceiling black, which allowed him to control the light perfectly for bottle shots. Since then, he's been able to shoot thousands of bottles of wine for his website.

Having all this space is often a luxury I only really use it on the big stuff like cars and bikes or larger fashion sets. But 70% of my work is product photography and that usually doesn’t require more than a few meters. So don’t get too hung up on a big space, you can rent a large space as and when you need to.

CASE STUDY: Shooting in a small studio


A few years ago I 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.

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.

  • 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.

    The setup

    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.

    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 grapevineguernsey.com

    6. Your choice of modifiers

    Some modifiers can take up a large amount of space, but many are collapsable and can be stored away (using some of the methods shown in the video).

    I will admit dismantling an Octabox every day may get a bit tiresome, but if you understand the physics of light and what we were talking about earlier you’ll come to learn that you can get almost identical results with a large white reflecting umbrella that packs away in seconds.

    Consider your modifiers carefully and your options for controlling light spill if you're not willing to create blackouts for your studio space.

    If you’re working in small spaces and have the budget, many other modifiers like grids, fresnels, and spot projections only put light in a small patch exactly where you want it, so these are ideal for small studio spaces.

    Most importantly, you have to know what each type of modifier is for and why. You’ll be able to learn all of this throughout many of our photography classes, where I go into great detail on the purpose of each and the various ways to modify light and when you need to.

    These tips above, along with the example where we set up a small product photography studio for a friend, show how it’s perfectly possible to take great photos in any sized studio. If you haven’t already, make sure to watch our ‘Introduction and understanding light’ class, as this will equip you with much of the knowledge you need to enable you in any location.

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    When it comes to working in small spaces, knowing how to control your light is key. Below are a few popular classes showing how to shoot in small spaces and control light.

    Comments

    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?

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/1jiy2ub5pm10t9w/Quinta%20Alta7044.jpg?dl=0
      https://www.dropbox.com/s/srzxqx0terceebk/Quinta%20Alta7046.jpg?dl=0

      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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