Building a Home Portable Studio

StudioBlog6_NDF8274I thought I would share my adventure to build up to a home portable studio.  There were some  requirements for me that I wanted my solution to meet: that it be easy to setup and tear down, that it be compact and easy to stow away, that it leverage my existing equipment as much as possible, and that it not cost and arm and a leg.  Beyond that it had to be capable and able to produce professional results.

PortableStudio_Bags_NDF_8450I have been slowly collecting some gear over the past year to create this mobile studio setup.  I sold all my studio gear about 6 years ago and only kept a few light stands and small softboxes.

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Leveraging the old SB-800 flash units I already had and Yogonuo controllers I then added some speedlight hotshoe/softboxes, a portable greenscreen knockout kit and some rechargeable battery packs to create a sweet little portrait studio that tears down into 4 small bags with the stands, background and softboxes.

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This is a great way to actually be able to work hands to be able to apply some of the retraining I have been exploring and will discuss more later in this post.  True I have had a home studio before made up of mostly Paul Buff White Lighting, however, even though its was technically portable, it was a lot of work to setup and tear down.

All this was a bit of a difficult choice because I found some super sweet deals on Craigslist locally for some professional strobes.  In the end I did not want to collect bulky units and thought it wise to leverage my existing Nikon Flash heads.  I like many other advanced hobbyist photographers often do not have dedicated rooms to allocate to a permanent studio setup.

Creating a Portable Studio Setup with Nikon Flash Heads

Below you will see a diagram of a simple 3 light setup.  In my old garage studio I actually used 4 lights, which would have seen an additional background light added to the setup below.  We can talk more about this later as I will add a 4th light in the future, however, its not really applicable when using this green screen setup since we are going to be knocking out and replacing the backgrounds anyways.

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The setup you see is a common beauty type lighting setup with butterfly like lighting capable of illuminating the full face and body with wrap around soft light and then a hair light for highlights.  This type of lighting avoids sharp specular highlights that tend to make skin shine in an unnatural way when using bare flash or strobes.  This is not a typical setup and in most cases we would move the key light farther right of the camera and set the fill light (left) to a lesser power to create more shape in the subject.  You must be careful when using this setup that you do not create cross-lighting and shadows so be sure to review your images carefully when you test this setup.  Shadows under the eyes and lip and neck can result if you do not position the lights at the right height and angle.

At present this setup is currently setup for upper body shots for typical head and shoulders type portraits.  The lights could be lowered to accommodate full body shots.  The greenscreen cutouts though would be a little more problematic for the feet though and probably laying down white or green screen paper would make the most sense for those.  Wescott actually sells the green 5×7 backgrounds used in the kit seperately that will likely be my solution for this for consistency.

The new setup takes all of 10 minutes to setup the background, two stands with softboxes and another portable stand boom for the kicker light.  The lights are 2 SB800’s and a SB700.  I plan to find or make another white/grey background and another Cheaper flash for use with background gels to color the background as desired.  This can make some really nice colored backgrounds, althoug right now I am not exactly feeling a large need for that after playing with this setup a bit more.

Again the premise here is to take typical beauty portraits and then use quality digital backgrounds to complete them.  Output for tablets and printer for wall framing and mounting.

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Equipment List

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This little setup allows me to use either my Df or D750 with my vast assortment of Manual Focus Primes and other upper end AF glass to make crisp clear quality portraits.  One of the interesting tips I have picked up in all the training I have been viewing is that shorter lenses are making trends in their usage for portrait work.  The appeal here is the different look they can create and their ability to be used in extremely tight compact spaces.  One must always remember to keep the wider lenses as level and parallel to their subjects as possible to avoid distortion.

I plan to make some nice family portraits this year and then print them off the Epson 3880 to hang in our hallway.  While this setup is pretty portable, at the total cost one could assemble any number of portable or dedicated setups, especially if buying used.  As you can imagine, I will be looking to use this setup quite a lot and the family so far seems to be on board which is good news.

Its worth noting that with the Yonguno controllers you could use any cheaper Nikon compatible TTL flash units, they can be had for as little as $50 new.  The controllers will more or less allow you to create the equivalent groups and controls of the Nikon CLS without having to buy the more expensive flash units.  I do not have any recommendations for you on brands you can pursue.

I should also say that , I could simply not have these controllers and have just used the Advance Features of the Nikon CLS.  The thing I really like about the Yonguno is it makes everything super easy for TTL work automatically controlling all the flash units for you in sync with the camera.  I should mention that the Yonguno controllers work the same on all Nikon FX cameras making it easy to have consistency.

They also double as a small standalone AF Assit lamp which is what I originally got the first pair for to use with my Nikon DF in lower light situations.  They have huge AF Assist Beams that are both annoying and dramatically effective in their ability to enhance the DF AF system in lower light.  Again, in all reality you don’t need these with the Nikon CLS system and compatible camera.

These Lastolite softboxes while very affordable  are also super simple to setup, they literally collapse with no rods and pop open, you slip the hotshoe setup on and attach to stand, attach flash and off you go.  They are by far the easiest softboxes I have ever seen or used and all collapses right back down into the kit.

The Westcott Illusions Green Screen kit is pretty slick making knockouts a breeze.  My only critique is the included digital backgrounds are not all that great, however, with a little work in a photo package or with a white BG and Gels you can really change things up.  I was able to find and purchase a large collection of digital background on the internet that will provide a tremendous upgrade to those that were originally included in the package.  Also, the stand takes up a little more space than I would like as well.  The knockout software is extremely fast and effective using their greenscreen.

I have some additional backgrounds for the Wescott 5×7 stand on my wishlist along with the background strobe kit listed above.  I did end up getting an additional green screen for the floor as well for full body work.

Making the Captures

Making portraits and using off camera flash can seem complicated to new users at first.  Going with a TTL setup can take a lot of the work out of making simple quality portraits.  If I were using strobes again, I would have added a Flash Meter to the list.  I still have mine so if I go manual I can try to use it if I want to go more manual.

Let’s quickly talk about lighting.  If you step back and think about light like the Sun, you know from experience that early morning light is warmer, cloudy light is softer and cast fewer shadows and the midday bright light can be harsh and create hard deep shadows.

If you take the fact that light is directional and that we can use light modifiers with our flash units to soften the light then you can easily model light in your mind or by mapping out setups on paper like the diagram I created above.

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In the example diagram above I have soft light from the softboxes that are directed to the front and left and right sides of the subject that effectively wraps light around the subject.  I have an unmodified flash pointed at the top and edge of the head to enhance the subjects hair.  A snoot is really helpful in controlling and directing the light as not to have it interfere with the rest of the picture.

TTL (through the lens) metering will evaluate a scene and without modifying the settings look to create an even exposure wherever their is a light and subject being illuminated.  It so happens that the dual lighting setup I am showing is well know as beauty lighting as it does not create shadows if the two main lights are set to the same power or level of illumination.  If the lights are set too high in relationship the the subject then a distracting shadow will form under the subjects nose.  That is where you end up with true butterfly lighting and you can even do this with a single light.

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While this type of lighting once dominated the glamour and fashion magazine adds and spreads you see, many portrait photographers consider it dull and uninteresting.  And here in lies the beauty of learning to change the positions and power of your lights and a simple studio setup light the one I have pictures here.  A downside is that this type of lighting may create awkward dual catch lights in the eyes of the subject.  In closeup portraits catch-lights become much more obvious and managing them properly becomes more essential to maintain interest in the subjects eyes.

By adjusting the power down on one of the main lights we can create more interest on the subjects face and or body.  By moving the lights more to the side of the subject we can enhance the edges by strategically creating shadows.  I simply do not have the time nor really the expertise to cover all this within the confines of this blog or single post, so my intent here is to demystify the complexity a bit and encourage you to explore lighting more on your own.  There are some great YouTube videos out there that cover the basics and middle levels on this subject.  I encourage you to explore these as I am to get the most out of your home studio setup!

Here is a nice article by Sekonic with lighting diagrams showing other common types of setups.. Basically a standard setup looks something like this below and was used to create my own self portrait using my iPhone as a remote trigger and the D750’s wireless control and Nikon App.

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A few tips I do want to leave you with is the notion of and open and closed side of a subjects face.  In general you want to light the closed side to help balance the portrait.  By closed side I simply mean that if you were to draw a line across both a subjects mount and eyes parallel to their features, you would more often find that the lines would eventually converge on one side of the face while they would diverge on the other.  The side they converge on is the closed side and often a key to helping successfully capture a subject in balance.  By lighting the opposite side you could exaggerate the uneven features.

As you can see, it all collapses down quite nicely!

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Workstation Setup

 

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I am lucky to have a very powerful workstation that does double duty with my Ham Radio Hobby to edit and process photos and ready them for print.  It has a 4Ghz 6 core processor, dual video cards and I have a nice 4K digital TV I use as my monitor.

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The 4K display is simply fabulous for editing and clearly delivers an experience that far surpasses any previous monitor I have processed with.  For both image size and color rendition this screen is simply awe inspiring to work with, I can hardly imagine how much better it might be with a high-end monitor.  I have calibrated the screen with my Xrite kit and the 4K pixels is really turning out to be helpful in reading my work for larger prints on the 19×13 capable InkJet printer.  The Epson 3880 sits on the left shelf and can produce fabulous prints up to 19″ x 13″.

The picture below was a quick capture, literally a test shot taken when one of the girls was getting ready to go out the door.  it printed out perfectly on the Epson 3880 in splendid color and hangs in my office.

7C53DE65-97CB-4AAC-BB3F-6A1BB4024C36The workflow for this was extremely simple.

  • Capture the image with the TTL setup referenced above
  • Import the photo into Lightroom or other editing package
  • Lightly edit the image with green screen background (EV, Color, ect)
  • Export the image as a Tiff
  • Create a new project in the ChromFX package.
  • Add the picture
  • Add a background
  • Size and scale the picture and background (Software without effort knocks out your green screen)
  • Export the picture to a new Tiff
  • Edit in Photoshop or your preferred editor to your final size and preferences (includes any retouching you want to do)
  • Save and or Print.

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Lately in my endeavors to get ready for the upcoming wedding shoot this fall I have been digging into a lot of training.  I thought it would be useful to share some of what I have found that is affordable and helpful.

Finally I wanted to mention options for training and learning more about photography.

First off, it never hurts for to revisit the basics.  Different people learn different ways, I tend to be more of a visual hands on learning type.  Even though I have worked Semi Pro, I have regrettably forgotten more than I would have liked to, so stepping back through all the basics has been very helpful to get refreshed.

For those wanting to get really cheap training, YouTube is full of useful videos.  I have been using YouTube to learn about Flash, the Creative Lighting System, Wireless Controllers and many device specific tutorials.  There are literally hundreds of hours of free videos to be found.

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Training Screen From Udemy

Udemy and the Inspired coupon code netted a wealth of low cost training!  There are a few nice commercial photography courses, wedding photography, portraits as well as others available.  The Inspire1010 coupon code will let you get a batch of courses for just $10 each.  If its expired I definitely encourage you to look for coupons before making ampurchase there. These have both video and written training materials.

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Photovision has been a long time favorite for getting tips and tricks from the interviews that Ed Pierce does with working professional photographers.  These videos are chalk full of ideas that you can use in your own studio and wedding photography adventures.  These were extremely valuable to me when I was doing weddings for a short time.  Photovision offers a subscription model now fro $20 a month that will let you watch all the videos in their library.  This is a deal if you binge for a month or two.

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Training Screen Train Simple

Trainsimple.com is a nice source of materials for Adobe Products and Color Management.  The color management course alone was worth the one month subscription.

Going back several years I wanted to mention some of my origjnal training resources that I found very useful.  “All I know” by John Woodard was one of the best purchases I ever made.  I also purchased a nice commercial photography resource that was similarly useful in learning to photograph products.

I hope you enjoyed this brief post on setting up a portable studio.  I enjoy writing and sharing what I learn and honestly, I have often paused activities only to end up coming back to my blogs and information I created and shared to get myself quickly refreshed.

I hope to share some of the work I produce with the new studio setup, again I am not trying to show work at the level of fashion magazines and the like, been there and done some of that as you can see in my old work gallery.  My goal is some modest portraits of family and friends and to of course have fun!

This entry was posted in Talking Photography.