If you’re a photographer looking to start up your own small studio, be it for still life or human photography, here are some of the items of gear you are going to need to get yourself going. This guide is intended for the hobbyist but if you are a competent photographer who wants to start working for money you’ll be able to use the same equipment and get excellent results.
For the purposes of this article I am going to assume that you already have an interchangeable lens camera system that you are familiar with and which is able to synchronise with the flash units we are going to be looking at in this article.
Let’s get started.
Camera Support – Tripod
If you are doing product photography you need to have a sturdy tripod that isn’t going to move around on you as you go about taking photos of products. There are many different types of tripods on the market, some of them are lightweight carbon fibre construction intended to reduce weight, while others are made from aluminium alloy. Carbon fibre tripod legs tend to be very expensive, so if your budget is constrained you may want to look at the aluminium ones instead. They are quite capable and seeing as we are going to be using the tripod in a studio setting its weight shouldn’t be that much of a concern. In fact, the heavier it is the better.
You will also want to think about the maximum height of the tripod. If you get something that is too short you will find yourself stooping over a lot of the time to take your photos, although, to be honest, in the studio environment you really should be shooting tethered, so it’s not as critical as it was in the day of shooting DSLR’s that didn’t have flip out screens.
If I was buying a new tripod today I would look at this one from Neewer. It has everything you need to cover a wide variety of shooting positions, plus one of the legs is detachable so that you can use it as a monopod.
Backdrop & Support
I could go into great detail on backdrops and what the best options are, but truth be told whatever you decide to use as a backdrop is going to come down to the types of photos you intend making in your studio. If you are looking to get a clean white look like you see in my product photography then you will need to have a white backdrop that is big enough to cover the background of the biggest object you intend photographing. In some cases this might be small items, in which case you may only need a large piece of white paper, or if you intend shooting full length fashion you’re going to want to invest in some backdrop stands and either a muslin (cloth) background or something more durable, like a roll of heavy duty PVC.
If you have the space and you don’t intend transporting it around with you, then I recommend the PVC backdrops, which you can find at many of the online sellers in South Africa. You can set this up in your space on either a pair of light stands or dedicated backdrop setup kit, or if you want a more permanent solution you can use wall mounted brackets with an Expan roller system from Manfrotto (or their Chinese knock-offs). As long as it holds up the heavy PVC it doesn’t matter what brand you use.
If I was buying for my studio today the items below are what I would get. Click on the images to go to my recommended supplier and get the latest prices.
There are many different kinds of light modifiers on the market now from a variety of manufacturers. What you choose will depend on how you want to light things and also your budget.
I highly recommend getting a couple of basic, medium size softboxes. These are your best light shapers and these days they aren’t horribly expensive (unless you’re shooting with Profoto or Broncolor strobes). The ubiquitous Bowens mount modifiers are perfectly fine for most photographers.
You can of course use umbrellas, either the reflective or shoot through type and you’ll save a lot, but you will also have far less control over the light than if you shoot with a softbox. With a softbox you can feather the light because you have a homogenous and large light source, whereas with an umbrella the light coming out of the umbrella is going to spray everywhere in the studio, making it much harder to control.
Some softboxes are the quick open/close design, which is really nice. They are as easy to open as an umbrella, so are quick to setup. The more traditional design takes a bit longer and can be somewhat frustrating to assemble if you are inexperienced. Below are one of each from Phottix and Godox.
One of the best bits of advice I got when it comes to choosing flash equipment is this: light is light.
You can spend enormous, in fact obscene, amounts of money on studio flash. A set of Broncolor Siros or Scoro heads will cost you more than a decent 2nd hand car will. Not far behind are the Profoto brand. And at the end of the day the light they put out is the same as the light you will get from a brand like Godox or Bowens (who recently have been brought back from bankruptcy). Yes, the precision of lights from the top makers can’t be denied – you will get faster flash durations that allow you to freeze motion at high shutter speeds, as well as better colour and output consistency. But unless you absolutely can’t live without those things know that you will get just as good results from cheaper brands like Godox.
I have owned 4 different sets of a/c powered studio monolights in the past 20 years, including Bowens, Elinchrom, Godox and Broncolor. My results from all the units I used in the work I do were the same. All you really need for general photography is the ability to dial in the power you need and attach your light shapers / modifiers.
At the moment the trend seems to be to get photographers to buy into the battery powered strobes like the AD series from Godox. These are convenient if you are moving around with them, plus in the age of load shedding here in South Africa they can save your bacon, but… I have issues with the longevity of the battery life of these strobes. Far too often I find that when a product gets to a certain age the makers don’t support them with replacement batteries. Then you sit with a flash that is about as useful as a paperweight. I recently saw this happen with a guy who was trying to sell a set of Elinchrom Quadra Ranger heads. Lovely lights, but you can’t get batteries for them anymore. Well, not unless you want to part with a body organ first.
My recommendation is to stick with the a/c powered monolights and if you have to use them on location get yourself a small inverter / battery power source, or a generator. I am currently using some Bowens 500W monolights that are at least 15 years old, but I am going to invest in these Godox a/c units below soon.
These are 400W units that will allow me to use the Godox X-Pro trigger system and control output from the trigger mounted on my camera. Ideally I would like to get 2 of these and then also a more powerful 800W version when they become available.
That’s it for this first part of the small studio essentials I recommend. In the next part I will talk about the small items that make my job in studio a lot easier.