If you are going to photograph people in a studio setting, well, you need to own or rent a studio, right? Wrong! You can build one, similar to what I have, in your own basement.
Ten years ago, I decided it was time to give up the 40 minute commute to my 2,000 square foot studio space and build a studio in my basement that could be used for some of my work. When I have client projects that require more room, then I simply rent studio space as needed.
This is actually the second basement studio that I’ve built. About five years after I built my first one my wife and I decided to move into a simple townhouse. It’s just the two us and our puppies, so we no longer have a need for a big place with lots of property.
Coming into my current home, I knew that I wasn’t going to service clients in this studio, so I didn’t need a reception area of any kind. My dilemma was that we loved the layout of the home, but I hated the layout of the basement. I knew it was going to be a challenge to make the space work as a photo studio. In the end, though, I was able to use some of the tricks I learned from the first home studio. I did, however, have to do some pretty creative problem solving to come up with some of the new solutions in this space.
I have a total of 671 square feet in this basement, but due to the layout and things like heating units, hot water heaters, and a sump pump, I only have 474 square feet to use for shooting and makeup, plus another 75 square feet for storage.
Now, I routinely use a makeup artist when I shoot, so it was important for her have a comfortable space to work. Plus, if you have ever worked with a makeup artist – and if they are any good – then you know they are total divas. So it’s best to do as much as you can to make them happy.
I used the secondary space that is 12ft x 17ft wide for my makeup and staging space. On occasion it becomes part of the shooting space as well.
Changing Room/ Storage
I have two small auxiliary spaces that I use for storage where the heater and water heater are, and a small 50 square foot space that houses some plumbing is built out as a small changing room.
I stress the word small there to make a point. I have learned over the years that you do not want to give models a large comfortable changing space with mirrors. If you do that, they will take twice as long to change, they’ll stress over whether or not their outfit looks just right, AND they will mess with the hair and the makeup. My mirrors are outside the dressing room in the makeup area. Why don’t I want them taking the time to fix their outfit in the changing room? There’s not point, since they’ll be sitting down in the makeup chair as soon as they are dressed. I teach my models to adjust their clothing after they are done hair and makeup and right before they walk onto the set.
So my changing area is pretty much the equivalent of a small closet, with a table, chair, and a place to hang clothes… and a door for privacy, of course. Nothing fancy, just the necessities.
The makeup area is a set of kitchen cabinets that I picked up at a local supplier. They were discontinued so I spent less than two hundred dollars for the five cabinets. Then there’s the countertop, complete with a 30” x 36” mirror from Home Depot and two 3ft t-12 fluorescent fixtures. If I were building this today, I would go with t8 bulbs, not t12’s. I know some of you are going to ask about LED lights and my answer is NO. The fluorescent tubes simply emit a soft and flattering light that LEDs just aren’t able to replicate. To date, I have not found a long round tube with LEDs that emits light in all directions like a fluorescent tube does. PLUS all of my makeup artists prefer them. While LED lighting is definitely the way of the future, it just isn’t there quite yet. Hopefully that will change soon, but until then, stick with flourescent tubes.
My two makeup chairs are old salon chairs that I picked up about 10 years ago from an older photographer. He was shutting his business down because he was struggling to make the transition from film to digital photography. Salon chairs, like these here, can be expensive. If you don’t want to shell out that kind of money, there are plenty of adjustable stools on Amazon for just over forty dollars. The important part is that it’s adjustable. Trust me, your makeup artist and/or hair stylist will thank you.
I also keep a small cart next to the makeup station that my makeup artist can wheel onto the set. This serves as a working platform for her so that she doesn’t have to keep walking off the set to get hair spray or other supplies when we are actually shooting.
I have a small desk set-up made from the same type of countertop as the makeup station and two desk supports from Ikea. The HD tv on the wall serves as an occasional background for videos, a method of displaying and reviewing photos, a music source, and a big screen for my makeup artist to view while I am shooting tethered.
And lastly, a small table and chair set whose only purpose is to hold stuff and to look good.
The area that houses the heater and water heater also contains 16 running feet of shelving units for storage, all dedicated to the studio.
My main shooting area measures 23 feet long by 12 feet wide, and it has a ceiling height that is just shy of 8 feet. I chose white walls and a white ceiling so that I could actually use the space both as a white background and as built-in reflectors. In this space, I used a wood laminate flooring just for something different. In the past, I have used a neutral gray painted floor and in hindsight, I would go back to the gray floor if I were to remodel or move. The neutral gray floor will allow you to use colored gels on your strobes to change its color, just like I explained to in this video here.
So this is where the creative challenges came in for making a space like this versatile. With just 23 feet from end to end I can still comfortably shoot a full-length shot of even a tall model with a 70mm or 85mm lens. I will occasionally use a 50mm or 60mm Macro for full length shots, but of course you have to be a little more careful about camera tilt if you want proper body perspectives. For portraits and three quarter length shots, I generally use a 100mm lens in this space
On the Walls (and Ceiling…)
Now my challenge was to keep as much stuff off the floor as possible. To do that I mounted some fixtures from the ceiling and some from the walls.
For the wall mounts, I use two gadgets, and the first is actually for warehouses. It’s a dock light with a double arm. I removed the light that comes with it and added a long threaded bolt to be able to mount my monolights. These yellow arms were purchased when I first moved into this studio space.
Shortly afterwards, I found the Manfrotto Wall Mounted Boom Arms. These are awesome, because not only do they extend much further – a full seven feet – but they also can be adjusted up and down. With them mounted on both sides of the room, I can cover pretty much every inch of space that I would want with light without having to place a stand on the floor.
For backgrounds, I needed a solution that would allow me to keep them close to the ceiling. None of the pre-made options that I found met this requirement, so I simply purchased the Manfrotto knockoffs made by Impact and mounted them to a 1×4 that I had bolted to the ceiling. This allowed me to mount 6 – 9ft wide seamless backgrounds tight to the ceiling and all within a depth of 30 inches.
To raise and lower the backdrops, I went with another Manfrotto knockoff. A little warning here… Manfrotto sells these Background Holder sets with metal chains for about ninety dollars. Manfrotto also makes the same holders with plastic chains for sixty five dollars.
The plastic chains will snap apart if you have the holders too tight, but they do snap back together. It’s just annoying when you are in the middle of a shoot and you go to change a background and the chain snaps. The knockoffs are Chinese or Korean-made and snap even easier. I have no problem with mine, but I put a lot of effort into making sure that my holders were just tight enough to prevent the backdrop from unravelling, but not tight enough to snap the chain.
I also have some other random hooks and mounts in the ceiling that come in handy from time to time, but most of the other gear in the ceiling is for lighting my YouTube videos.
My side wall can also be used as a background, and from time to time I have used the window. The curtains hanging next to it are actually for use in the main shooting space.
DIY Sliding Diffuser Panels
Along the long side of the studio that separates the shooting space from the makeup area, I have mounted a simple closet track that you can buy at a hardware store. I have this mounted along the bottom of the soffet that covers the heating and air conditioning ducts.
Now this was a key stroke of genius in setting up this space, because it serves several purposes.
If you have seen my Videos on the DIY Kinoflos (if you haven’t, click here!) that I made with the T8 Fluorescents and the LEDs, this is the track they hang from. I also made two 5ft x 6.5ft foot diffusion panels that are mounted on these tracks and can be used to create an awesome window-like side lighting by placing a strobe on the other side of the panel.
These diffusers are simply 2×2 wood cut and bolted together in a rectangle. I then purchased stretchable diffusion fabric from a theatre supplier in New York and stretched it over the frames. I used two layers, one on each side, and then simply stapled the fabric along the frame and covered the edges in white duct tape. Very simple and easy. I found small white drawer handles and mounted one on each side of the panels to be able to grab them and slide them in and out of place as needed.
These panels also serve as reflectors in the shooting area and can be great dividers. If I am working with a nervous subject and have other people in the studio, I can create privacy by pulling the dividers forward. I am also able to use the wall behind these panels to store cords and reflectors. I have hooks and brackets mounted in various spots around the studio to hold stands and grip equipment. No space goes unused.
I also have two panels made from the same materials that are 7.5ft. x 3ft. I can use these as reflectors for backlit shots like this or place strobes in front of them to use them as large strip softboxes. I use them primarily for portraits and beauty shots.
Since I have the lights hanging in the closet track, I have a bar mounted in the ceiling of the shooting space that allows me to hang my velour backdrops. I then shoot across the main space with my subject sitting in front of the lights and me standing in the makeup area. As I mentioned before, my goal was to have as little equipment on the floor as possible.
Boxes, Carts, and Platforms
At the other end of the shooting space, I have this 3 ft. x 3 ft. box. The floor plans that we viewed before the house was built did not have anything in this corner. Between the time we signed for the house and the time construction started, a local zoning ordinance was passed that required a sump pump be installed, so the builders’ solution was to place a closet in this corner. I didn’t want to lose that space, so I had them enclose it with a top that can easily be removed if I need to access the sump pump. I will frequently pose a model on top of the box and use a simple bounce flash into the white ceiling for my light.
I’ll often use this wall as a white background as well, sometimes pairing it up with my moveable wall.
Finishing the trip around the studio, I have one more kitchen cabinet with some storage units and shelving above it. This is my main work station for gear and gadgets. I have the side of the cabinet lined with Velcro so that I can attach my 12” x 12” colored gels for storage.
It’s also worth mentioning my wire cart. While I am actually shooting, this cart remains by my side, often holding the computer that I am tethered to and of course holding my gear. When you are in the moment taking a shot, you don’t want to have to walk away to get a piece of gear or because you need or to change a lens. In short, this cart comes in handy.
And, finally, tucked in the corner of the studio is this big white box. This box becomes a bed, a wall, sometimes a background and even a product platform or platform on which to shoot children and pets.
Now, I originally had not intended to give you exact dimensions and a step-by-step for how to build it for two reasons. My main reason for this was that I carefully measured it out so that it just fits in my studio space. In other words, when I tip it to lay it down, it just clears the ceiling. I wanted it as big as possible and to still be able to lay it down. After getting a lot of questions about it, though, I decided to give the dimensions and go into greater detail in one of my TogChats, which you can find here.
When I am ready to use it, I just slide it out of the corner. If I need the bed for a boudoir shot, I lay it down and add bedding. This works better than a real mattress or an air mattress, because it is soft enough to look like a bed, but, unlike a real mattress, the model doesn’t sink into it. If I need a platform, I simply leave the bedding off and I have a white platform. I will tell you that the large side of my unit is 4ft x 7ft and the box is 20in deep.
If I need a wall, I just slide it into place. It will support the weight of a model leaning against it, and I can also use it for a background in a pinch.
The platform is built with 2”x3” lumber and 3/8” plywood. I have plywood covering the top and two sides. The other two sides are open as it’s not possible to photograph more than two sides at a time and this does make it easier to handle and move the unit. I have simple felt furniture pads on the bottoms of the legs so that I can easily slide the unit to wherever I need it. For more details, check out my TogChat here.
So there you have it… my home studio. Hopefully this will give you some ideas for how to best maximize and outfit your home space. I have tried to list and link to as many of the gadgets that I have mentioned as possible. For more details, check out the full video here.
Now that I have given you lots of ideas for how to spend your next few weekends, I have just one more thing to say. And that is: remember, your next shot is your best shot, so keep learning, keep thinking and keep shooting, adios!