Photo Shoots the D.I.Y Way

Perhaps you’ve dreamed of building a home-based photography business. Or maybe you’re ready to claim that basement or extra bedroom for learning to shoot high-quality portraits. Whatever your current needs, setting up a home photography studio has never been easier or more economical. Digital cameras and photo retouching software now deliver power and flexibility scarcely imagined by previous generations of photographers, and kits for lighting, backdrops, and other essential studio gear take all the stress out of setting up the perfect physical space for your photography needs, too.

You don’t need much to set up a home photo studio ( image source )

You don’t need much to set up a home photo studio (image source)

All you need to get started with your new photo studio is a usable space and a good introduction to the basics of shooting portraits at home. To that end, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to home-based studio photography. Here, you’ll find information on essential studio gear, plus  ideas and tips for starting a new career as a portrait photographer. Let’s get started!

Essential Gear for Shooting Portraits at Home

Cameras

With their large pixels and super-high-quality images, full frame digital cameras are the medium of choice for many top professional studio photographers, but they are not cheap (typically over $3,000). Those setting up their first home photography studio can do very well with today’s large-sensor DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. Popular (and capable) models include the Nikon D5600, Canon 6D Mark II, and the Sony a6500, which cover a range from about $600 to $1600. If you’re in the market and need a little extra help finding the right camera for you, Format magazine offered this recent guide to the best cameras in every price range for portrait photography.

A large-sensor DSLR is a great investment for a new photographer ( image source )

A large-sensor DSLR is a great investment for a new photographer (image source)

Camera Lenses

The two main types of camera lenses are zoom and prime. Zoom lenses offer versatility through a range of focal lengths, but fixed-focal-length prime lenses deliver the image detail you’ll need for portraits. Prime lenses tend to be more expensive and you’ll need more than one to cover a full range of shooting needs and situations. As explained in this article from Digital Camera World magazine, an arsenal of three prime lenses covers the bases for many portrait photographers: 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm. Keep in mind that focal length is also affected by your camera’s body and sensor size, so figure out what lenses will likely suit your needs (and camera!) before you invest in a particular model or size.

Finding the right lens is half the battle ( image source )

Finding the right lens is half the battle (image source)

Editing Software

Both Macs and PCs arrive with basic photo editing apps on board. But anyone setting up a home photo studio should become familiar with the increased power and flexibility that advanced photo retouching and editing software offers photographers today. Adobe Photoshop ($9.99 per month) remains the top photo editor for professionals. But other options including Adobe’s Lightroom ($9.99 per month) and Photoshop Elements ($99.99), and Cyberlink PhotoDirector ($99.99) add workflow and photo organization tools that many photographers at all levels find essential. PC Magazine offers an up-to-date and exhaustive guide to the best photo editing software. Also available is an entire category of plug-ins and specialized software made expressly for enhancing and retouching portraits. Shutterbug has a roundup of the best of these products.

Lights

There are three basic types of lights for photography: continuous lighting (lights typically mounted on stands that stay on throughout a photo shoot) , flash (small, lightweight, battery-powered lights that can be mounted on your camera’s hot shoe), and strobe lighting (larger, more powerful AC-powered flash lighting on stands, often triggered through wireless remote). Continuous lighting is the place to start when setting up a home studio. In most cases, flashes are not flexible enough for studio use. Strobes are useful in a studio, but have more advanced applications. Fortunately, you won’t need to spend a lot of money on continuous lights to get your studio going. Simple work lights may suffice as long as you have ways to adjust the light (see “Light Modifiers” below). Highly functional studio light kits are available for as little as $50, and often include lights, stands, and umbrella reflectors. A three-light setup gives you all the flexibility you need to experiment and find your way to taking high-quality studio photographs. Photo Workout has compiled a list of recommended light kits that can be helpful if you’re in the market.

A modified light setup doesn’t have to be complicated to work magic ( image source )

A modified light setup doesn’t have to be complicated to work magic (image source)

Light Modifiers

Learning to control and modify your lighting may be the single most important part of setting up and using a home photography studio. Light modifiers are essential to getting the look you want for your portraits and are a key to creative freedom in your work. Here are some of the most popular types of light modifiers:

  1. Umbrellas — Umbrellas are inexpensive and provide lots of soft light, which makes them an ideal place to start experimenting with modifiers. White shoot-through umbrellas diffuse light and spread it evenly, while reflective umbrellas typically point away from your subject, reflecting light back in a controllable way.

  2. Softboxes — These closed chambers go directly in front of your light source to soften and diffuse the light. Softboxes are extremely popular not only for the warm glow they give portraits, but also because they are lightweight, inexpensive, and portable, and come in every imaginable size.

  3. Beauty Dishes — Used mostly for beauty and glamour photos, beauty dishes diffuse light while enhancing contrast and image detail. They are often placed high and pointed down to accentuate and define models’ high cheekbones and bodybuilders’ bulging muscles.

  4. Color Gels — These transparent color shoots placed in front of lights add depth and dimension to your photos. They come in an endless array of hues and can be used to whiten your light or provide a splash of color.

For in-depth information on these and other light modifiers, check out Popular Photography magazine’s reader-friendly “An Introduction to Photography Lighting Modifiers.”

Photo Backgrounds and Backdrops

The right photoshoot background is crucial to setting a mood for your portraits. Many studio photographers use a backdrop support system paired with photography backdrops available in an endless variety of materials, textures, colors, and sizes. Removable wall hooks provide a cheap and easy solution. A more traditional support system may consist of a three-section crossbar combined with two light stands. These systems typically accommodate up to 10.5-ft-by-12-ft. backdrops, but tend to work best in larger spaces. An X-Drop kit sets up easily and quickly and handles 5-ft.-by-7-ft. backdrops. The X-Drop’s small footprint renders it ideal for smaller studio spaces, or anytime flexibility and portability and required. For ultimate flexibility try a chroma key or green screen background (used widely in the movies), which allows you to drop in whatever background you like later on using your computer.

Polyester and stretch-knit fabrics make great, wrinkle-free backdrops ( image source )

Polyester and stretch-knit fabrics make great, wrinkle-free backdrops (image source)

Among the most popular photo backdrops are those made of muslin for their lightweight and good looks whether hung taught or draped over objects. Canvas backdrops are heavier but very durable. Polyester and stretch-knit fabrics are virtually wrinkle-free. Velour can look great in portraits and black varieties may reflect no light at all for those in need of a deep black background. Less portable but very useful are seamless paper rolls, which are also inexpensive enough to let you keep a wide range of colors on hand. Photo Workout has specific recommendations for backdrops and backdrop systems.

Keep in mind that cheap photography backgrounds can be created from scratch with a bit of imagination and know-how. Try hanging a colorful bed sheet (wrinkle it for texture), lace curtains,, or Christmas lights for some vibrant and unexpected contrast. Be sure to experiment  — using unique backgrounds may help you develop a signature portrait style.

Photoshoot Ideas

Once you’ve got a working home studio there’s no shortage of options for trying commercial photoshoots. It’s always wise to follow your interests, but not to the point of exclusion — you may be surprised at the kinds of portrait work you enjoy, or discover an underserved market segment in your area. Here are a few of the most popular types of photoshoots for budding home studio photographers, along with some tips on how to approach each theme:

Helping a couple relax and engage with one another is the secret to a successful shoot ( image source )

Helping a couple relax and engage with one another is the secret to a successful shoot (image source)

Couple Photoshoots — The best advice with any portrait photoshoot is to bring a relaxed, creative vibe to the event and set an example for your subjects. Find ways for couples to show their authentic emotional attachment to one another by asking them  to tell the story of how they met, or imagining their future lives together.

Maternity Photoshoots — Artistically framed belly shots are always a hit, but be sure to suggest including the entire family (don’t forget any siblings!) in the shoot as well. Keep some high-quality sample maternity photo prints on hand, to  give you ideas for the shoot while reminding any self-conscious models that growing families are beautiful.

Ask parents to bring props to newborn photoshoots to create more visual interest ( image source )

Ask parents to bring props to newborn photoshoots to create more visual interest (image source)

Newborn Photoshoots — Babies can’t follow instructions, so be sure to bring your patience and spontaneity to the photo shoot. Be prepared to shoot an active or sleeping baby, and ask the parents to bring props such as a Moses basket, pillow, or blanket.

Graduation Photoshoots — Cap and gown photos are a natural, but keep in mind that the studio setting is a great place to go deeper and reveal your subject’s true personality. Consider asking your subject to bring props from his or her life, along with clothing that will make them feel comfortable and open in front of the camera.

Whatever your portrait-shooting adventures, remember to keep trying new techniques and equipment to help your skills and know-how evolve. Shoot as often as you can and challenge yourself with projects that require creativity. You’ll be using your home studio to shoot beautiful, professional-looking photos in no time!


Skillshare offers a variety classes designed to keep you improving as a portrait photographer. Want to learn more about how to use simple tools to shoot great images? Benjamin Heath’s “Portrait Photography: Working with Natural Light” is an excellent place to start.