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DIY guide for home studio photography

This article is about overcoming all sort of limitations, money being the first one, to start on studio photography. I’m sure you’ve seen tutorials about studio photography where they use soft boxes, diffusers and strobes. And then when the tutorial was over we were left wondering what to do and how to do it in a non-existing budget.

As a result many of us just gives up on studio photography believing we must spend money to be able to do the same shots. However, there are alternative ways to go around a tight budget. You just need a pinch of resourcefulness and spoonful of handy work.

You can achieve very good results by using everyday materials, a shower curtain as diffuser cloth, construction lamps instead of strobes, Plexiglas and panels from your hardware store. Anything can be turned into a tool for a studio set. I learned this by listening to other photographers, by trial and error and by sheer desire to get the shots I was seeing in my head.

DIY Lights – Photographer on a budget

DIY-lights-70Everything counts! Materials I use

I try to use almost every material I get my hands on. For example, a month ago my 40” flat TV stopped working. The bad news, it cannot be repaired. The good? It makes for a really nice black background and table surface. I also reused a fluorescent tube ceiling lamp as an overhead light for table top product shots. It generates an even soft light and the reflection it generates is a nice one. I got my hands on a large piece of shower curtain fabric. It’s a decent material to build soft boxes. It has a yellowish tint but nothing I can’t control with white balance.

The biggest challenge I faced? Light power. For studio photography we need plenty of light power to create good shots and normal house bulbs won’t do it. You have to look for the most powerful lamps you can get. When I started I managed to get 100W CFL bulbs, equivalent to 250W normal bulbs. But nowadays LED lights are more common and you can get even more power.

Try stay with CFL or LED. Because the side effect of permanent lighting in a studio is heat. Lots of heat.

  • Bulbs: use CFL, LED or construction lights if you need more power
  • Some sort of lamp. Ikea has clamp and stand which work fine. Or build your own!
  • Diffuser. Get a soft translucent cloth and build frame. Avoid wrinkles!
  • Stands, tripods, clamps. This one we have to spend a bit more time and effort. Get plastic clamps from your hardware store. But you might need to buy some light stands. I got 2 from a garage sale for 15 dollars each.
  • Table. Anything goes!
  • Panels. White and black cardboard panels. Get them on a paper or art store

Example 1: two small lights with built in diffuser

For this mini project I used a couple of coffee cans, recycled lamp heads and switches and a piece of a bathroom shower curtain.

First I installed the head lamps inside the coffee cans drilling a hole to screw the standard lamp tube. Once I got the holder in place I run a cable through it and added a switch and a plug. Finally I cut the can plastic cover leaving only a rim and use it to keep the piece of bathroom shower curtain in place. See the gallery below for graphic details.

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Example 2: single source of light

Sometimes I use a single source of light for my shots, either because of laziness, availability of lamps or a combination of both. The limitations imposed by this type of lightning  is quite challenging but allows for a wide amount of opportunities. I’m showing a couple of examples i made some time ago. The first was an experiment to create a silhouette shot of one of my lenses. I wanted a black shot with only one side illuminated and I also wanted to create a gradient. I used an Ikea stand lamp situated to one side of the table. I used a couple of black cardboard as big barn doors. To create the gradient I use a small cardboard covered in aluminum and place it on the opposite side of the light. See for yourself.

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The second example it was the result of a photo challenge from Studio Basic program. The challenge was to take a photo using only one light. We could use diffusers but composite shot using Photoshop was not allowed. For this occasion I built a strip box using white cardboard and the same shower curtain cloth. As light I used a couple of fluorescent tubes. To put light on the opposite side i used a few reflectors made of cardboard covered with aluminum paper. Here it is.

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Some tips on preparing the shot

When taking product photography you want to register all the details as much as you can. In the process you will always capture any dust spot, hair and any other unwanted detail. So it is very important to clean the subject, the table, the background and everything in the shot. Usually a brush will help keep dust away between shots.
Spend most of the time setting up the lights, panels and subject. The more you think about how to do these things the easier it will be to get better results.
Learn about the law of reflection, how it affects materials differently (matte and glossy), and how to use it to our advantage.
As a general rule you should spend 90% of the time setting up the lights and modifiers and 10% with the camera. It’s all about light position, light intensity, reflectors, diffusers, background, table, etc. As for the camera? Frame the shot and focus. That’s it!

Through trial and error I discovered a few things:

  • Use same type of light bulbs in a shot
  • Look for light bulbs that have temperature rating (Kelvin)
  • Get the most powerful light you can get
  • Clean everything! Dust is your enemy

DIY-lights-65Inspiration, learning from others

I strongly suggest you search the Internet for tutorials. You will save a lot of time and headaches by learning the basics from other photographers. I found a few that have very good and affordable tutorials.

Shutter Evolve by Jimmy McIntyre

Photigy by Alex Koloskov and friends

Photoserge by Serge Ramelli

Karl Taylor Photography

This list is limited, just the ones I found most useful for me. There are plenty of other photographers out there with tutorials for everyone. For Photoshop specific training I would add Kelby Training from Scot Kelby. I had a free course some time ago and it was very good.


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