Photo © Remy Levine/Bigstock

By Remy Levine, Bigstock contributor

Most serious amateurs would love to have a home studio, the freedom to control the environment and create exactly the image they see in their head. The problem is the costs involved are often very high. A set of studio strobes can run many thousands of dollars and the various strands, brackets, background holders and accessories add up fast. So what are the options? Obviously not everyone can afford to spend this kind of money and even if you can, why would you if there is a cheaper alternative?

Before I outline some inexpensive alternatives to a full up commercial studio in the home I want to point out that there are serious limitations on these budget setups, the biggest usually being absolute light output and the size of your possible subject matter. If you want studio strobes on a budget check out the various photo magazines till you find ads for low cost strobes. I use a brand called Medalight and the same lights are marketed under various other names as well. You can get a three light setup with stands and accessories for under a thousand dollars, and you can always start with one light and a few accessories and build up. If you go this route make sure at least a couple of your lights are the larger models with high output, otherwise you defeat the purpose of buying “real” studio lights. They aren’t the equal of high end professional gear but they do the job and I have not had any failures in almost eight years with these lights other than replacing dead bulbs.

Photographing Still Lifes/Small Objects:
The first key to a low cost home studio is determining what you want to do with it. If you are photographing fairly small objects or still life’s over white then a light tent and some strong desk lamps might be all you need to get started. I’d add a few sheets of white, black and colored poster board big enough to curve from the top back edge of the light tent to the bottom front, you can always cut them down as needed. Some artist tape, some gaffer’s tape and a hot glue gun are good basics to have around.

Colored gels to put over the lights are always good, but not essential for photographing over-white. When I say desk lamps I mean it literally, you can get a few cheap adjustable desk lamps from an office store or a Walmart/Kmart/Target type place and be good to go. Get the kind with an adjustable arm and a head that pivots, preferably with the little knobs that let you lock it in a given position. One is of course the minimum, three is better.

You can set this up on your coffee table, kitchen table, a folding card table or almost anywhere you can find space to set up the tent and lights. Total cost could easily be under $200and you will have a setup capable of taking the vast majority of over-white images you would want. Of course, the size of your light tent limits how big a subject you can work with, and you will need to make sure your lens can focus closely enough if you want to close up the front of the tent and photograph with it completely enclosed (almost required for shiny or otherwise reflective objects). You can often work with the front open if you just need the white surround and aren’t as worried about reflections showing up.

Photographing Portraits/Large Still Life:
But what if you want to do portraits, larger still life work, or have the freedom to use all sorts of backgrounds and lighting effects. Let’s face it, a light tent is ideal for its job but not exactly a universal tool. The first requirement is a light source for this larger work area. Desk lamps are not going to cut it. Your light source can be as simple as a large window or as complex as a set of high end studio lights, just make sure you have enough light and can control it or use what it provides for your needs. Windows provide beautiful light but you are at the mercy of the sun and weather.

Strobes provide consistent and reliable light, and lots of it, but they cost significant money. Hot lamps (think small movie set lights) aren’t cheap either, but they do provide a continuous light source so you can always see what you are going to get. They are also great for skittish subjects such as animals who might not like the flash of a strobe. Since most decent strobes include a modeling light the continuous light aspect of hot lamps is limited but they’re still a good option.

Light sources are only the first need, you also need tools to manipulate that light. All light is not equal, and it’s not just about color and intensity. Direct focused light provides a very different effect from a soft box or light bounced off a large reflector. This is referred to as light size and does not so much refer to the size of the original light source as the size of whatever the light is coming from immediately before the subject. A one foot soft box is a large light if it’s a foot away from a penny, but a small light if ten feet away, or at any distance if lighting a car. Small lights create hard shadows and highlights, large lights create softer shadows and highlights and offer less contrast. Learning to create different types of light from the same original light source is critical to studio photography and there are innumerable books on the subject.

Back to the topic at hand, you need accessories to change the quality of light. Most lights come with some sort of reflector, this is a good start and generally covers you for the hard light side of things. For softer light or to create a larger light you need reflectors and a softbox. Not everyone agrees but I feel that a good sized soft box is an essential studio tool. Lots of portrait photographers use umbrellas for a similar reason, while that works ok for people if you are photographing something smaller and want your light source in closer then the umbrella becomes difficult to work with. (There are tricks and certain umbrellas that actually work well this way but they are the exception rather than the rule.)

There’s no need to spend a lot for a soft box, nor for a really huge one. A three foot square model is plenty for most uses and for larger needs there are other options. If you work with hot lights you are going to have to stick with those other options with only a few exceptions, and the manufacturer of your hot lights will be screaming loud and clear if they’re the exception.

Reflectors, shields and diffusion panels are almost essential tools, and easily made your self for far far less than the commercial products. All you need is a frame and some material that reflects, diffuses or blocks light. You can make these with a variety of materials, the simplest suggestion I’ve ever seen was the frame materials available in most craft or framing stores. You don’t even need a finished product, a stretcher frame for canvas will work just fine. A few rectangular ones a couple feet long and one or two LARGE frames will handle nearly anything. I suggest making those large frames six feet tall so you can use them full body with people. Even at that size you can’t use them behind someone but bigger starts to become impractical. You can change their covering as needed, so don’t worry about which is which.

For the translucent diffuser try to get something that doesn’t sag much when held parallel to the ground, you might be placing this directly above your subject as closely as you can and the sag is annoying. Check craft stores and places like Home Depot for covering material. Fabric stores are also a good bet, thin white cloth works great and thicker white cloth makes a good reflector covering. A thick black material works well for a shield, it doesn’t have to completely block a strong light, just make it so weak it is unable to influence the image or glare in your camera lens. Remember, you can double up if you need to, two or three layers might not be as elegant as one but it does the job. This leads to your new best friends, the staple gun and gaffer’s tape. A good quality, comfortable, staple gun and staples makes it a lot easier to tack that material in place. I suggest putting permanently attaching the translucent diffuser material to each frame then just using the gaffer’s tape to attach the others as needed. Make sure you get real gaffer’s tape, in black preferably and two inches wide. This is such a basic tool for photography that you won’t be able to believe how often you use it. For the record, gaffer’s tape is a very strong cloth/paper tape that is extremely stick but peels away clean from nearly any surface as long as it isn’t left for a long time. You can use it to tape things in place, tape your friends to the ceiling or anything else you might want a strong but removable tape for. Think duct tape without the gooey residue.

Other basics include A clamps, some power strips, a few sheets of white foam core (think reflectors, backgrounds, easily shaped material to use as supports behind a subject…) toothpicks, a sheet of particle board around five feet square, two or more saw horses (the folding plastic kind are great), and some sort of background system. A stand or some brackets to hold a seamless background paper roll is the most universal since it can also hold a painted backdrop and gives you the greatest freedom. If you use brackets and a curtain rod make it as high as you can and still fit a full seamless on it (see notes at the end for information on seamless rolls). Background stands are expensive, curtain rods and brackets can be pretty darn cheap and work just fine for most purposes. The particle board is to serve as a work table for smaller objects and to give you something you can use and abuse during your work. Spouses complain a lot less when you punch stables into that than the kitchen table, and it can be thrown out and replaced as needed.

The saw horses are obviously the legs for this work table, but also provide general support that can be folded up and tucked away. During college I used a studio that consisted of a pair of hollow core unfinished doors, four plastic saw horses and a seamless background roll supported by a pvc pipe stand I built. The doors did double duty as a work bench for assembling other projects, dinner table if we had guests (drop a table cloth over it and you have an instant banquet table) and even gaming table. More than one weekend was spent with my studio occupied by miniatures and dice. When not in use this kind of studio can be taken to the garage, attic, spare bedroom, or just leaned against the wall. The particle board, if small enough, can just be tucked under a bet and the rest goes in a closet, not an option for my doors but that was the trade off for such a large work surface.

My suggestion on lights is to buy the best you can, then build up the rest of your studio. Lights are a long term investment and having lighting you can control and that is sufficient to your needs is a huge boost to your abilities. Poor lighting options make even simple photographs a hassle and frustrating. If you can, try out a few options through friends or local shops that will let you set up a few different types for sample shots. What I like in a set of lights might not be the same as what you like so me suggesting a particular set or style is like telling you what camera to use, none of my business. I will say that while you probably don’t need tons of output, better to have more than you need than less. Being able to step down the lights is also important, though half and one quarter power levels is sufficient since you can control the exact amount of light in other ways. The only other feature I highly suggest is that they offer a slave mode built in. While it’s easy to get a little adapter to fulfill this function it’s annoying and these tend to be prone to failure unless you buy the expensive ones, adding to the total costs of your lights.

Before I close this up I have one little warning for people shooting with digital cameras. Do your homework and tests, make sure your camera can work with studio strobes before you buy. Many digital cameras do not play nicely with external strobes and finding solutions is difficult. You need to be able to set the exposure manually and either have some way to hook up at least one strobe to the camera or the ability to lock your built in flash to a very low power to just set off the strobes without messing up the picture. A lot of point and shoot digitals preflash as well, which sets off the strobes before the picture is taken. Using the slow flash mode generally solves this but you have to watch what shutter speed the camera decides to use if you aren’t in pure manual mode. Check your manual, do some tests, and read up on forums related to your camera. I have a Nikon 880 that is a wonderful little camera but a total nightmare when you try to work with strobes. For those with digital cameras with a hot shoe there are plenty of adapters that slide in and provide a pc sync cord socket for setting off your strobes.

Studio Equipment Basics:

  • Tripod
  • Hot glue gun
  • Gaffer’s Tape
  • 2 -3 A clamps
  • 1-3 lights with reflectors and stands
  • Toothpicks and some ball headed pins like a seamstress uses
  • Several small reflectors, can be as simple as a few sheets of foam core
  • Light tent sufficiently large for your subjects, if photographing smaller objects, particularly over white
  • Utility Knife with plenty of extra blades, when you are cutting things for an image you want as clean a cut as possible
  • 1 diffuser at least three feet by two feet, but bigger than the largest subject you intend to photograph. (Obviously there’s a practical upper limit, but bigger is better here)
  • Extra fuses for the lights themselves, and make sure you have several circuits in the room you will be using, photo lights are very high draw, and more than one or two will quickly blow most household circuits.
  • 1 opaque panel, preferably white on one side and flat black on the other, same sizing as the diffuser, preferably slightly larger if your diffuser is on the small end. In a large studio these are often door sized panels on wheeled bases.

For Strobes, in Addition to the Basics:

  • Extra power cord
  • A spare strobe tube
  • Extra bulbs for the modeling lights
  • 1 snoot (restricts the light to a narrow beam)
  • Soft box for at least one of the lights, preferably the most powerful if they aren’t identical
  • Extra sync cords. One should be very long, giving you the length to reach a strobe at the opposite end of your room, at the top of its stand, facing the other way, without having the cord pulling on the strobe or in the way. Have two backups of the length you use the most, they are fairly fragile.

For Hot Lambs, in addition to the basics:

  • Extra power cord
  • Spare bulb for the lamps
  • Some cold water, those puppies can heat up a room fast.
  • Tinfoil to help shield items that have to be placed near the lamps
  • Oven mitts to be able to touch those lamps without waiting an hour for them to cool off
  • At least one light that can be focused like a spotlight, whether by an accessory or original design.