Basic Studio Set up

Stargazer Lily with backlight shot in studio

Studio work is not really my thing, but I’ve had a few situations where I needed it. I created some of my abstract floral shots in a studio and it was a must to shoot for a gaming company several years ago. Recently a student also asked about a low-cost studio setup, so I thought I’d share what I did with everyone today.

This list is intended for a small studio setup, to shoot still life tabletop, portraits or for you to do your own videos with a basic backdrop.

First off I visited a website a friend recommended called the Strobist. They have a nicely written article on lighting 101. They give you the basics for setting up a studio and also have a couple of kits you can buy.

After reading through that material you will need to find a space to shoot. Do you want natural lighting or do you want to control all of the light? For the game company shoot, I worked in a basement and blacked out the windows with a heavy fabric. This allowed me to control all of the light. You will need to pay attention to shadows cast by all of your light sources and to any distracting reflections on the subject.

Studio setup in bedroom

Recently I have moved my studio setup to a bedroom that has large windows to one side and overhead lights. This was sufficient for me to shoot a number of items I wanted to put up on eBay. And I hope to create some short video segments for my teaching channel on Youtube – coming soon!

For equipment I have the following items:

  • Canon 550 EX flash – yeah it’s a dinosaur from my film days but it works fine
  • LumoPro compact umbrella
  • Cheaplights spring clamps – to hold the paper onto the table
  • 5001B Nano Stand Black – to hold the flash and umbrella
  • ePhoto Video Backdrop with dark grey and white paper rolls for backgrounds.
  • Tripod – I use a Gitzo G1348 MK2 4 section tripod – it holds a lot of weight and is very stable
  • Shutter release cord – I prefer this to the remotes and I can stand behind the camera to release the shutter.
  • 5 in 1 reflectors in two sizes – 22″ and 45″

You can use a flash or studio lights. I have some old studio lights I purchased a long time ago that I used for some of my shots, but a flash will work fine as well and sometimes you might want the combination. For more advanced techniques multiple flash units are needed. You should learn how to use the flash manually for the best results and most control, but TTL auto does a decent job.

Hot shoe adapter for flash

I still use the flash from my film days. It’s almost 20 years old. It pays to buy good equipment as it’ll last. The only drawback is it’s not wireless so I had to get a hot shoe adapter with a cord to link the flash to the camera since you place the flash on the Nano stand and not on the camera. This allows you to adjust the angle of the light on your subject.

Umbrella used to reflect light back onto the subject from the flash.

The umbrella is essentially a diffuser for the flash. You can shoot the flash into the umbrella and then that light is reflected back onto the subject or you can shoot through the umbrella so it acts like a softbox.

The ePhoto Video backdrop is adjustable both in height and width. The setup shown above only uses 2 of the 4 poles provided for the width. I have both white and grey paper for backdrops. You can also use fabric. The options are limitless. Make sure the background does not interfere with the main subject, so keep it simple.

The clamps hold the paper down onto the table I am using. They are also useful for various other things such as securing reflectors.

If you don’t already have one, get a good tripod. I’ll post another blog on tripods, but you want one that is suitable for your needs. Spend some money now and you won’t ever need to get another one again. I’ve had mine for 14 years.

The tripod improves picture quality by keeping the camera stable. Most studio work needs a high depth of field (aperture setting) which lets in less light and results in slower shutter speeds. You want to keep your ISO low for quality so use a tripod and you don’t need to worry about slower shutter speeds causing blur.

Close-up shot of Rose

The tripod also improves quality by giving you a stable platform from which to create a good composition, especially for close up shots and tricky angles. You must learn to love your tripod! It slows you down and that is a good thing for producing quality images.

F22, 1second, ISO 100 with 100mm Macro lense

To go with your tripod a shutter release cord or remote control are essential. The problem with most remote control units is they have to be activated from the front of the camera. However, some cameras can be triggered by your phone or computer. I actually had my computer connected to the camera during my gaming shoot and activated the shutter from the computer. The images were then directly copied to the hard drive and my client could see the image immediately.

The equipment is lightweight and portable. So you can easily take it with you for on-site shooting. Especially the stand for the flash with the umbrella.

If you already have a flash and tripod then the rest of the equipment is quite affordable. I think it all totaled less than $100 for me a few years ago. If you don’t have a flash or tripod it’ll be quite a bit more. Both are useful well beyond studio shooting. I use my tripod all the time for my nature and macro photography.

Have fun with your new studio and keep shooting!


Cats in Windows, A lesson in back-lighting

Zeb with fill flash. Check out the great rim lighting on his fluffy tail!

Cats love windows. They can spend hours watching the world fly by or basking in the warm rays of the sun. They are so very cute and snugly and you just want to capture an image of them, but the lighting is against you. So what’s a photographer to do?

Back lighting is a tricky shooting situation, one you’ll often run into with many different subjects. The problem is that the light is behind the subject, not illuminating it, so the subject is in shadow. You would prefer light shining on your subject, but the silly cat wants to sit in the window! So we’ll look at several options you can try to capture your beautiful cat or any back lit subject.

Exposure Review

First let’s briefly review exposure. When you frame an image in the view finder, the camera averages all of the reflected or direct light in the frame. It then sets an aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the exposure or end result. In the manual modes, you control one or all of these settings, but there are only certain combinations that will give the results you want.  If you’re a beginner, the camera will choose for you.

The exposure varies widely depending on how much of the subject you have in the frame vs how much brightly lit background you have included. The less of the bright background included, the better.

I recommend reviewing how to use exposure compensation in the owners manual if you are not savvy with your camera settings.

Now for those tips for dealing with back-lighting!

Fill Flash (Beginner & Advanced)

The simplest thing to do is pop up the flash, which gives you fill lighting. The flash lights up the shadow areas on the subject so they show up against the bright background. It’s magic! The camera automatically figures out how much light to fire from the flash, so this is a great starting point for the beginner. However, it does not allow you to control the background exposure which will vary widely from really blown out to slightly blown out depending on how bright it is.

Buggs with fill flash

If you want to control the background exposure, you need to know how to set exposure in the manual modes. Use the camera meter to set an exposure for the background and then pop up the flash. This gives you a properly exposed background and subject.

Background exposure set to +1 and fill flash

Expose for the Subject (Beginner & Advanced)

The most important part of any image is the subject. So if you have bad lighting, expose for the subject and let the background do whatever it’s going to do. There are two ways to do this, the precise method and the zen method. For precision, change the metering method to spot metering. Meter the subject and set the exposure using manual mode or exposure lock in aperture or shutter priority. This is for advanced camera users. If you’re a beginner use the zen method below.

The zen method involves bracketing several exposures with the default metering method, matrix/evaluative metering, unless you’ve changed it. Bracketing is a technique used to take multiple exposures of the same lighting situation to find the exposure you like. For instance you’ll set exposure compensation to take an image at 0, + 1 and +2, then compare them to find the one you like best.

Some cameras have a setting to do this automatically or you can manually change the exposure in the manual modes. If you’re a beginner, use your owners manual to figure out how to use exposure compensation, then the camera will automatically change settings for you.

The result is a properly exposed subject and blown out background. Try to eliminate as much background as possible and fill your frame with your subject. This decreases the amount of bright light in the frame and can help get a good exposure on your subject.

Spot metering on Oz set to +2/3, no flash. Note that background is completely washed out. Same location as image above.

Go with the silhouette! (Beginner & Advanced)

A silhouette is created when there is a lot of contrast between the subject and the background. You will underexpose, make very dark, the subject and have a properly exposed or overexposed background. Try exposing for the background and see what you get. The brighter the background the better the silhouette. The higher the contrast the better.

If you’re a beginner bracket the exposures until you get a good background exposure and a really dark almost black subject.

It’s important that the subject be recognizable if you use this technique, so profiles are best.

Oz back-lit by the setting sun

Use HDR (Advanced)

If you have a very still subject or still life, then HDR, High Dynamic Range, photography is an option. Find the exposure for the background and then find the exposure for the subject. Take both of those images and then take exposures at one stop intervals to fill in the gap between. Combine the images using an HDR program . This result usually gives you an obviously stylized HDR effect, but it’s an option and has some fun results. Check your camera to see if it has a built in  HDR feature such as Canon’s 5D Mark III.

HDR of Oz using Googles HDR Efex Pro 2

Practice each of the above methods and let me know what works best for you. You’re welcome to post some of your results on my Facebook page for comments and critique. Have fun and happy shooting!

A Flash for Christmas

Students often ask me what accessories they should get for their camera. There are so many things to choose from and your budget is the limit. So I ask you, do you love to photograph friends and family? Do you do a lot of shooting indoors? If so I highly recommend an off camera flash. One that sits in the hot shoe on top of the camera. The hot shoe is present on all SLR type cameras and some Point and Shoots. The skinny little ‘fit in your pocket’ point and shoots do not have them.



So what will an off camera flash do for you? It will greatly improve the quality of the flash light on your subjects. The on camera flash is poorly placed for good photography. It is right over the lens and results in flat frontal light and red eye. When you create a portrait, it is preferable to have the light coming from an angle to create soft contouring shadows on the subjects face. Straight on light flattens out the subject and reduces depth in the final image.

Direct Flash, harsh deer in the headlights look
Flash bounced off wall for softer side lighting with contouring shadows












Red eye is caused by light reflecting off the back of our eyes. Pets have yellow and green eyes, except Siamese cats that also have red eyes, (this is your useless fun fact from the veterinarian side of me). So using a flash directly in someone’s face usually results in red eye. Yes, you can try to correct this on the computer later, but turning red eyes of doom into black eyes of doom often isn’t any better.An off camera flash can help eliminate this.

Red or Green Eye from Direct Flash


Off camera flash units have a head that swivels. You can mount it to the top of the camera and then point it at a white wall or ceiling to bounce the light (beware of the color of the wall or ceiling as this is the color you will reflect if you bounce light). This creates a diffused soft light and changes the direction to give more pleasing results than the direct on flash.

If you are outdoors you will have to point the flash at the subject since there is nothing to bounce off of. However, many of the newer flash units have a wireless feature that communicates with the camera, so you can take it off the camera and hold it at a different angle than the camera. This allows you to move the angle of the light around your subject to get the best effect on the face and eliminate red eye. This requires you to use a tripod to hold the camera or have an assistant to hold/position the flash if you are hand holding the camera. You can use this technique indoors as well.

The other option is to use a diffuser over the flash to soften and diffuse the light so it is not so harsh. I highly recommend the diffusers made by Gary Fong. They work great, are collapsible and affordable. They create a warm diffuse light on the subject. I’ve used one for years! I use it all the time, whether I am bouncing the light or using it directly on the subject.


Which flash to get? Make sure to get one that is compatible with your camera. I suggest the same brand as your camera and make sure it has a movable head to point up or sideways. The wireless feature is nice but you can also get a cord to use if off of the hot shoe. Regardless your use of the flash will improve greatly by using an off camera unit and bouncing the light with a Fong diffuser. If you want to move your flash/portrait photography forward this is a great start and there is lots of room to grow!

Flash Bounced off Ceiling - soft light, no red eye
Flash Bounced off ceiling, soft light