What You Really Need for Your First Studio

Photos by Joey Quintero and Isaac Stackell.

First Studio-itis

“There’re just no words.”

That’s what they’ll tell you. That outfitting your first studio is one of the most exciting experiences of your life. That there’s no word to describe looking out at that empty, open space and pondering what to fill it with.

They’re wrong.

There is a word.

It’s hurl.

I’m talking full-out nausea-inducing, list-writing, bank-account-checking, bathroom-running, internet-searching, book-reading, more list-writing panic.

It’s called “first studio-itis.” A completely, totally not-made-up condition for when you realize that you now have to decide between what’s essential and what’s not for the place that will probably make or break your career—all while juggling budget concerns.

Fun.

We wrote this list in order to take all that pressure off your shoulders. It’s a no-nonsense, no-assumptions list. We’re not assuming that you can make magic with just a camera and a flash, and we’re not telling you that you need a three-light setup “just in case.”

The List

  • 2 flash units
  • 2 light modifiers
  • 1 collapsible reflector
  • 2 or 3 light stands
  • 1 reflector holder
  • 1 light meter
  • 3 backdrops
  • 1 backdrop support system

Will you always need all of that? Of course not. There will be times when won’t need more than a flash and a light modifier. But there will also be times when you’ll need more. The purpose of this list is to provide you with just enough essential gear that you can handle any form of studio shoot.

As to why each one is essential? Keep reading to see.

Flash Units

The classic studio portrait.

There’s no way around it: if you’re shooting in a studio, you need flash (strobe) lights. Continuous lights (like LED and fluorescent) and speedlites are just too weak for the average studio, and power pack heads—well, if you can afford them, go right ahead. For everyone else, flash units are the perfect balance of power, versatility, and the sweet, blissful sensation of affordability.

We recommend getting two of them—one as a key light (your main light source) and one as your hair or accent light. The average shoot will require between one and two lights, so having two lets you cover your bases. And if you do need more light, you can always use the collapsible reflector.

When it comes to choosing which light source to get, the main things to look for are power (measured in Ws), recycling time (length of time you need to wait between each flash), and affordability. For example, Impact offers the following three studio strobe units:

  • The Impact Astral Extreme: Hands down our fastest flash. The recycling time is a bare 0.4 seconds at full speed. Other features include a power output of 400 Ws and a flash duration of 1/5000—ideal for stop motion.
  • The Impact VC-500: If you need more light, the VC-500 offers 500 Ws of power. It’s a little slower, though—recycling speed is 1.5 seconds at full power, and flash duration is 1/200 second.
  • The Impact Venture: Being DC powered, this isn’t your typical studio light. But, with a power output of 600 Ws, a recycling time of 1.2 seconds, and the full speed of TTL, this strobe light fits right in with any studio.

As an added accessory, you can get the Impact ControlSync 16 Transmitter to wirelessly control the power of your Astral, or the Impact Venture Wireless Controller to do the same for your Venture.

Light Modifiers

The standard lighting setup for your first studio. Figure 3: With the right light modifiers, you can throw out more than enough light with just two flashes.

Everybody knows that there’s no such thing as the best light modifier. That said, when it comes to a studio, your main focus should be on light modifiers that let you throw out a generous spread of light.

The easiest and cheapest light modifier you can do this with is a white translucent umbrella. In fact, the Impact White Translucent Umbrella comes free with many Impact kits. If you want a little more control over your light spread, you can upgrade to a parabolic umbrella—but as far as essential gear goes, the white translucent will get the job done.

You should also get a softbox. Though they both spread out light, the umbrella can’t compare to a softbox’s directional, window-like quality. The size and shape is up to personal taste—the Impact Parabox Softbox is an affordable, standard softbox to start off with.

So, in summary, a white translucent umbrella and a softbox are essential, while upgrading that white translucent to a parabolic umbrella should be considered a luxury.

Collapsible Reflector

A collapsible reflector in use in a studio. Figure 4.

A collapsible reflector is a cheap, easy-to-use tool when you need more light for an extra f/stop or to fill in shadows. You can also get colored ones to add an accent to your shot.

In general, silver and translucent are the most commonly used collapsible reflectors. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering the Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector over the Silver/White one so you’re prepared for anything.

Light Stands

See our post on Choosing the Right Light Stand for help on picking a light stand.

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Unless you’re planning to hold them up with your hands, you need light stands to keep your lights steady. What light stand you get is dependent on how heavy your equipment is and how mobile you are, but we generally recommend at least heavy-duty aluminum stands like the Impact Heavy-Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand.

Check out the blog post above for more details on which light stand to choose.

Assuming you don’t have an assistant, you’re going to need three stands—two for your lights and one for your collapsible reflector. If you do have an assistant, you don’t need a third stand—or the reflector holder. Speaking of which…

Reflector Holder

Another no-brainer. If you don’t have an assistant, you’ll need to put your collapsible reflector on a stand. A reflector holder lets you both mount your collapsible reflector to a stand and articulate it in different directions.

You can go with a simpler product, like the Impact Holder for Collapsible Reflectors, or a more versatile one like the Impact Telescopic Collapsible Reflector Holder.

Light Meter

Behind the scenes shot of a light meter being used in a studio Figure 5. Measuring the light with a light meter before the shot.

Light meters are essential to any studio—especially if you’re using flash units. They let you accurately measure your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Without it, you’re just guessing—and, considering that you see the flash of a flash unit only when you press the shutter, that’s practically impossible.

Of course, if you’re using a TTL flash like the Impact Venture, you won’t need this.

We don’t make light meters, but we recommend getting the simple, compact and accurate Sekonic L-308S-U Flashmate Light Meter.

Backdrop

Backdrops let you create compelling backgrounds to your shoots rather than just using the plain walls of your studio. If you can afford it, you’ll want at least three of these—they can get ruined, and you don’t want to limit yourself to one color for all your shoots.

Color is a personal preference, as is the choice of paper versus muslin. The black, white, and crushed Impact Muslin Backgrounds are among our most popular. Or you could buy a kit like the Impact Background System Kit.

Backdrop Support System

As you probably guessed, this supports your backdrop. Generally speaking, you’ll want to use a mobile system so you can move everything around a little—being fixed in place can be limiting. The Impact Background Support System is a great option for that. If you are fixed, though, then something like the Impact Deluxe Varipole Support System will work better.

And that’s a wrap!

I hope you found this post helpful. If you did, and want more, simply sign up to our email list to get all our content sent straight to you. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment!

Production Notes

Photographers: Joey Quintero and Isaac Stackell

Model: Laura Arumugam

Stylist: Scarlett Ehrenfeld

Products Used in This Blog:


The Secrets of Lighting: The 5 Ways to Conquer Extreme Contrast on Sunny Days

Photos by Joey Quintero

Not Quite the Mona Lisa

Extreme contrast caused by bright sun. Figure 1. It was camera vs. sun. The sun won.

Give It to Me in a Nutshell:

Let’s face it: shooting on a sunny day isn’t easy. Just take a look at Figure 1. Fortunately, there are five solutions to the problem.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

You’re shooting outdoors; it’s a bright, sunny day. With calm, practiced motions, you press the shutter, glance down at the camera to see how it came out.

Staring back at you is a photo like Figure 1.

Just…blah.

The light is simply too unappealing.

Now here’s the good news: this is a pretty common problem. There are a number of techniques that you can try—some simple, some more complex.

The bad news? There’s no single quick-fix method that works perfectly for every situation.

But that’s OK. If we can’t give you the one solution to rule them all, we can give you the five solutions that we’ve found to be the most effective with the least amount of effort or cost (working title for LOTR spin-off).

First, though, let’s take a moment to discuss exactly why Figure 1 came out so bad.

It’s got to do with a technical subject called dynamic range.

Dynamic Who Now?

Give It to Me in a Nutshell:

The problem is dynamic range—there is too much distance between highlight and shadow areas for your camera to accurately render. The solution? Compress your dynamic range.

Without getting lost in technobabble, dynamic range refers to the number of stops of light between the brightest and darkest parts of your picture. The greater that number, the higher the dynamic range. For example, if you were to make a scale of all the shades between black and white, and a second scale of all the shades between dark gray and light gray, the first scale would have a higher dynamic range.

Cameras can read only a limited dynamic range. If your photo has a high dynamic range, the camera won’t be able to accurately display it without losing details on one end of the scale or the other.

The problem with figure 1—and pretty much anytime you shoot on a bright day—is that, due to the brightness of the sky, the dynamic range is just too high for the camera to display properly. You’re forced to either overexpose the sky—resulting in a white, overblown background—or underexpose the subject, like we did in Figure 1.

Now that we understand the problem, the solution is obvious: we have to reduce the dynamic range. We can do that in one of two ways: we can fill in the shadows on the subject to make everything brighter, or we can dim the sky to make everything else darker.

Each of these two can be done in two different ways, each with their own advantages. Let’s begin with the first: using a reflector fill.

Reflect This

Libby Vogelgesang lit with the Impact 7-in-1 Collapsible Reflector Disc. Figure 2. Armed with nothing more than the Impact 7-in-1 Collapsible Reflector Disc - 32", we were able to turn the sun into a useable light source.

Give It to Me in a Nutshell:

First method: fill in the shadows by reflecting the sun back to your subject with a reflector fill. The advantage is that it’s inexpensive. The disadvantage is that you may end up with too much depth of field.

Our first method is pretty straightforward: you use a reflector fill to bounce the ambient light back onto your subject’s face, filling in the shadows and giving you a shorter dynamic range for the camera to read.

The big advantage with this technique is that it is inexpensive compared to investing in flashes—all you need is a reflector fill. As you’ll see, it’s also the simplest method to pull off.

The main disadvantage here is that you might end up with a distracting background. See, by throwing light back at your subject, your photo becomes very bright overall—which may force you to use a smaller aperture, giving you a deeper—and distracting—depth of field. You can see this effect in Figure 2. Notice how the glass dome behind Libby is in focus? For a portrait, that’s not ideal; you don’t want anything in your background drawing your eye away from your subject.

Bouncing off Walls

Libby Vogelgesang lit by bouncing sunlight off wall. Figure 3: We then positioned Libby facing a wall. You’ll notice the location’s a little different; we had to walk a little to find a suitable wall.

Give It to Me in a Nutshell:

For the next method, we threw away (OK, gently put down) our tools and bounced the ambient light off a wall. This can be difficult to pull off correctly, though.

The next method doesn’t require any equipment at all. You simply find a reflective wall and position your subject facing it. The ambient light will hit the wall and bounce back, creating a similar effect to a reflector fill.

This method doesn’t cost you a penny. The light bounced back is also not as bright, allowing you to shoot at a higher f/stop and retain that pleasing shallow depth of field. The downside is that you may lose some details in the highlights.

Though the completely free approach sounds tempting, it can be a little complicated to pull off correctly. First of all, you have the least amount of control over your light with this method (not surprising—“bouncing light off wall” doesn’t exactly scream finesse). It can also be difficult to find the right wall. If you use a red brick wall, for example, the bounced-back light will have a reddish tint. It’s best to use a white wall for this.

The Fastest Sync Alive

Libby Vogelgesang lit by Impact Venture TTL-600 in HSS. Figure 4. Had we used a less powerful light source, we would have had to bring it in closer to shoot in HSS. But we used the Impact Venture 600—distance wasn’t an issue.

Give It to me a nutshell:

It’s time to start using flash. The next method involves shooting at high-speed sync to darken the sky.

Our first two techniques involved making the photo brighter without using a flash. For our second group of techniques, we’re going to use a flash to make it darker.

Of course, using a flash on its own will produce an effect similar to a reflector fill—you’re going to get that distractingly deep depth of field. To avoid that, you’ll want to use a setting called high-speed sync (HSS).

High-speed sync is a long and complex subject—for our purposes, you just need to know two pieces of information.

Firstly, the speed at which the shutter of your camera closes is called sync speed. Closing it fast is like blinking your eye rather than taking a moment to gaze—you see less. Practically speaking, it means less ambient light is able to affect the background exposure before the shutter closes. Flash light, however, is more intense than ambient light and therefore affects it no matter what.

And secondly, cameras have a limited shutter speed—usually around 1/250 (of a second). High-speed sync, however, lets you shoot at a far, far faster shutter speed than your camera can manually.

Coming back, the simple solution to our problem—the high dynamic range—would be to cut out the ambient light with a fast shutter speed. When you shoot outdoors, however, the ambient light is too powerful to be cut off by a mere 1/250 shutter speed—that’s why we resorted to various other techniques. High-speed sync lets you shoot at a sync speed fast enough to cut out the ambient light—or at least make it far more manageable. The effect is a darker picture, resulting in a shorter dynamic range.

The benefit of this approach is that, unlike bouncing or reflecting light back at your subject, you have full control over your subject. Since this is all about the shutter speed, you can adjust it to get exactly the look you want.

The disadvantage is that this approach can be expensive. Not all flashes work with high-speed sync, and those that do usually cost more.  Also, speedlite flashes often have to be really close to the subject to achieve enough exposure to overpower the sun—a problem that you can avoid by using more powerful monolights.

Shades for your Camera

Libby Vogelgesang lit with the Impact Venture TTL-600 with ND Filters. Figure 5. A dramatic approach.

Give It to Me in a Nutshell:

For a more dramatic look, use ND filters to darken the photo.

The final approach is to use ND (Neutral Density) Filters.

ND filters work like dark sunglasses—they make the whole scene darker. Darker = a longer ambient exposure. The result is that you can hopefully now shoot at a shutter speed below your flash sync speed, allowing you to avoid HSS.

The effect of the ND filter is more dramatic than the other approaches. Like HSS, it also grants you more control over ambient exposure. It’s a great option when you want a a shallower depth of field to make your subject “pop” out from the background (less light = wideraperture = shallow depth of field).

The disadvantage is that, since you’re darkening everything, you may find that your flash light doesn’t have the horsepower to light the scene adequately (not an issue with the Venture TTL-600). ND filters also cost a little more than reflectors. Depending on how much ND you use, you may also have trouble seeing through your lens.

HDR

And then there’s the fifth way.

Shoot your scene in HDR (High Dynamic Range).

Basically, you shoot a few images at different exposures and combine them using Lightroom®, Photoshop®, or other popular HDR editing software.

Now, you may be wondering why this isn’t the perfect, simple solution we’ve been looking for. The thing is, shooting people using HDR tends to leave you with blurred edges. People don’t stand perfectly still. Ever. It’s therefore not really ideal for portraits. Although using the HDR method may be simpler, we still recommend using one of the four previous methods instead.

Products Used in this Blog:

Production Notes:

Photographer: Joey Quintero

Assistant: Karri Reid

Model: Libby Vogelgesang


The Secrets of Lighting: A Step by Step Guide to Shooting a Corporate Portrait in Ten Minutes

Photos by Joey Quintero and Isaac Stackell

TL;DR: Check out the on demand livestream of the shoot here

Hey Witch Doctor, Give Us the Magic Words!

When it comes to corporate portraits, the magic word isn’t please (or ooh eeh, ooh ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang, in case you’re wondering).

It’s planning.

See, corporate photographers have to shoot in a short amount of time—sometimes as little as ten minutes.

And let’s face it—ten minutes to scout out your location, set up your lighting, call your subject in, and snap a couple of shots while running him or her through some poses?

I’m not gonna say impossible, but it’s incredibly difficult.

The trick is to plan things out in advance so that everything that can be done earlier gets done.

Fortunately, the plan doesn’t have to be complicated. You can pull off the entire shoot in just four steps.

I’m the Step Master!

Step 1: Work out with the client what they’re looking for. You want to ensure that your vision is in sync with theirs.

Step 2: Scout out the location to see where and how you’re going to shoot.

Step 3: Set up your lighting. One of the benefits of scouting out the location first is that you’ll have an idea of what type of light modifiers and stands you’ll need. (Click here to read our entry on picking the right light stand.)

Behind the scenes shot of the ten minutes corporate portrait. Figure 1: A BTS shot of the corporate shoot. As you can see, we shot in a small conference room. We used two Impact Venture TTL-600’s—one as a hair light with the Impact 7” grid and one as the main light—with three different modifiers. You can also see the LED lights we used for the livestream.

Step 4: The shoot. Now that you’ve done all the planning ahead of time, you can nail this part in ten minutes. Walk your client through some poses, allowing a minute or two for adjustments or to show him/her how to pose, and you’re done.

Corporate portrait taken with the Impact Venture TTL and the Impact Luxbanx Small Octagonal Softbox . Figure 2: Our first modifier: the Impact Luxbanx Small Octagonal Softbox.

Corporate portrait lit with Impact Venture TTL and the Impact White Translucent Umbrella. Figure 3: We then switched to the Impact White Translucent Umbrella, using the Impact Circular Reflector and Multiboom and Reflector Holder as a fill.

Corporate portrait taken with the Impact Venture TTL and 22" White Beauty Dish Figure 4: For our final modifier, we used the Impact 22” White Beauty Dish, again with the reflector fill.

Can’t Box Me In

As a final thought, try to think out of the box. You can definitely do a great corporate portrait in a generic conference room, but changing the location can make it even more compelling. Take your client outdoors, or have him or her lean against a window.

Corporate portrait taken outside with Impact Venture and Small Octagonal Softbox. Figure 5: Nothing says corporate like the Empire State Building.

Be different.

Products Used in this Blog:

Production Notes:

Photographers: Joey Quintero and Isaac Stackell

Model: David Sherman

Videographer: Shawn Collins

Producer: Eli Landes


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