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How to set up a home photo studio

A home photo studio doesn't have to be overly complicated

While you can shoot portraits in almost any location, having your own home photo studio can makes it easier to control the lighting, background and style of your images.

The thought of setting up a home studio with lights can seem a scary prospect though. But relax, studio flash is no black art, just a combination of basic lighting principles and camera skills, while the kit you need has got much cheaper and easier to use. And it’s entirely up to you what kit you buy and how much you spend. You can get away with using a large polystyrene board as a reflector, or fork out for an almost life-size softbox.

Presuming you’re eager to save money, the best place to start is with a home studio flash kit. A kit like this offer a range of benefits. First, it gives you control over the exposure. The high flash power means that you can use lower ISOs and consequently produce images with less noise.

Second, a studio flash kit effectively gives you control over depth of field, as increasing or decreasing the power lets you open or close your aperture.

The biggest advantage, however,  is the control that studio flash gives you over the quality of light. You can choose whether it’s diffuse or harsh, spread wide or in a narrow beam, and you can choose to have it emitting from any angle.

Studio essentials

It’s great news that there’s so much studio kit available for use in the home at an affordable price. The only downside is that it can be difficult to figure out which bit does what. Here are some common studio items, with an explanation of what they do… 

How do I fire the flash?

Traditionally, flash heads are fired by connecting a cable, called a PC cord, between the flash and the camera. When the shutter release is pressed, a signal travels from the camera to the flash and fires it. The modern method uses a wireless or infrared transmitter mounted on the hotshoe, with a receiver plugged into the flash head. The signal travels between camera and flash without cables. This is a much better way of working as there's no cable to trip over of restrict your movement. Some home studio flash kits come complete with their own flash trigger.

Pre-shoot checklist 

Before your sitter arrives, make sure your studio area is set up perfectly and your camera settings are optimized for studio portraiture. Switch off all the tungsten/fluorescent lights, because they’ll affect the exposure and white balance. Take the same precautions for daylight by closing all the curtains/blinds and doors. Place the lights into position and tidy the cables away.

Set your camera to its Manual exposure mode. For the best starting point, use an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/8 – the shutter speed reduces the risk of camera shake and the aperture prevents ambient light exposing the frame.

Remember though that cameras have a maximum shutter speed they allow when using flash

Remember though that cameras have a maximum shutter speed they allow when using flash – this is sometimes called the ‘x-sync’. If you use a shutter speed faster than the x-sync when shooting with flash, the shutter begins to close before the flash has illuminated the subject fully and you end up with a black band across the image. Most cameras offer an x-sync of around 1/250 sec, but 1/125 sec is the safest option if you don’t want to dig out your camera manual.

Of course, you’ll also need to work at the lowest ISO setting for ultimate quality and use the Flash preset for white balance. Shoot in your camera’s raw file format for editing flexibility and choose single frame shooting, rather than the fastest drive mode setting – this will reduce the number of wasted exposures, as the flash heads take time to recharge.

Step-by-step: master the basics

Quick tip: For close-ups like our main shot, bring your lights in tight so that they’re just outside the frame. This increases their size in relation to the face and fills out the shadows.