On Assignment: Open Air Home Studio

I don't shoot in a studio often enough to merit owning one, and renting one is usually more of a pain than it is worth. So I usually cobble something together at home.

Downstairs works for head shots and table tops, and the garage is used for stuff than needs more space. But as often as not, it makes more sense to cart a light and some background paper outside and just work in the driveway. Such was the case for Ramona and Jessica, who I shot to promote a fundraiser for a local domestic violence center.

A 3/4 shot of two people needs too much space to shoot downstairs. And I could shoot it in the garage, obviously. But if the weather cooperates it is easier to move less stuff than I would need in the garage a few feet further and just shoot outside.

The main reason is that outside your fill light is already in place. I shoot on the shady side of the house, which means out back for the morning or in the front driveway for afternoon/evening.

In the garage, which has very little ambient light, I'd need fill boards and/or a second light. Outside, the sun does the heavy lifting and I can finish it off with a single dish or umbrella.

So here's the open-air studio we used for a quick shot of both of them. (We did head shots, too, but I needed to be set up with enough space for both.)

The background stand kit all fits in one small case. I actually own two now, so I can have multiple backgrounds set up for quick changes. They are silly cheap and will handle full-width paper as shown, or wider (muslins, for example) when needed.

I sandbag everything, especially outside. But since the sandbags live in the garage (for easy loads to the car) they are no big deal to move either within the garage or right out front

The flash is a Profoto Actute2 1200, out of the frame and not visible here. It makes a lot of sense to use a big light in this instance, even though a speedlight can overpower shade if you are close enough.

But a big light gives you front-to-back space to work with. I can back it up enough to light Ramona and Jessica evenly, and ensure that the full exposure will cary back to the paper. If I use a small flash, I have to bring it in close, which means it will fall off more before it gets to the background.

Second, I can do this on a pretty low power setting, which give me very fast recycle. A speedlight would need to be at 1/2 to full power, and need more recycle time.

From this position, they are in open shade. By this I mean that they are in the shade of the house but they can see full, lit sky. So from their perspective, the ambient (AKA my fill light) is about a 90-degree sweep from horizon to nearly straight overhead. This approximates a giant, on-axis soft box and makes for very flattering fill.

We want to nail that down first. So I set the camera on 1/125th of a sec, and adjust the aperture until (what will be) the shadows look the way I want. Why 1/125th? So I can easily adjust the fill level a stop either way on the fly while we are shooting by moving the shutter speed up or down.

Being at a 1/125th instead of a 1/250th means that I will have to close down one more stop on the aperture to compensate. So I'll need one more stop of power out of the flash than I would have at 1/250th. This is another reason to use a big light in this case — you have power to burn.

So with the aperture and shutter chosen (and my shadows already placed at the level I want before the key was ever added) the key light is added last. Just walk it in and dial the power until they are exposed properly at the chosen aperture.

The key light modifier was the FTX white beauty dish I talked about earlier, which is less specular than a silver dish. (But the silver one is more efficient.)

Between the white dish and a giant, ambient fill light to combination yields a glamorous look with very little gear.

Next: Tweaking Dusk


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Blogger Double U Kay said...

Guide to good portraits:

Step 1:

Find gorgeous models...

August 08, 2011 9:13 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Geiger said...

Still doesn't do much good for those of us who live in apartments. :-(

August 08, 2011 9:42 AM  
Blogger Mark Davidson said...

I would think you might need a touch of blue gel to compensate for the blue fill.

August 08, 2011 9:46 AM  
Blogger Doug Sundseth said...

Do you gel the light to match the blue ambient or do you just correct the ambient in post and accept (revel in?) the relatively warmer key light?

August 08, 2011 9:58 AM  
Blogger William Beem said...

I like the idea, but I'll have to wait a while to try it. August in Orlando may not be the most comfortable time of year for a driveway shoot.

August 08, 2011 10:16 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I have set up on the north side of an apartment building more times than I can count. Turns out, apartments create shade just like houses do!


It was actually pretty hot when we made this photo.


Not an issue when shooting for B&W, obviously. FWIW, I actually like the fill/key color difference in color. But it is more subtle than you would expect.

August 08, 2011 10:22 AM  
OpenID wetzelphoto said...

I have a question about the beauty dish, you said that silver is more specular then white, is this still true if you use a white diffuser over it?

August 08, 2011 10:29 AM  
OpenID willmcgphoto said...

I always love that you always curb down our GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) :)

I'm always itching for a studio/space and although I couldn't do it at my apartment building (bad neighbours) it helps to have you show again and again that a studio is wherever you want it to be, there is a lot of clients where i live that have the view that you aren't a "proper" photographer unless you have a full time studio.

Do you have any tips on overcoming it on the client side ?

August 08, 2011 10:31 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


A socked BD does not behave like a beauty dish. For example, it's different in the shape of the beam. It's essentially a round soft box. But a good way to smooth the specular highlight of a silver BD in a pinch.

August 08, 2011 10:33 AM  
Blogger gkolanowski said...

Nice job! But boy, I avoid putting seamless up outside whenever I can. Maybe it's just Texas, but the wind will do a number on it quick! Even what seems like an insignificant breeze can turn seamless into a very efficient sail.

August 08, 2011 11:24 AM  
Blogger acmesnaps said...


Thanks for sharing. I notice that you and Brad Trent both use the custom, green-handled spring clamps to prevent the paper roll from unrolling. I treated myself to a Manfrotto Expan paper drive set and a pair of Manfrotto single background paper holder hooks. While it initially seemed a bit luxurious, adding the expan drive to my grip trunk has been a big time saver. Hanging and rolling paper is easy and can all be done by one person if you have a thug ladder. I discovered this weekend that the Home Depot carries 9" paper roll carriers. You will find them in the plumbing department for about $12. [AKA 4" PVC drain pipe and caps for the same.] Because the PVC tube is 10" long, the expan drive ends can stay in the paper roll and the chain and weight can be stored IN the paper tube. Presto change-o. Everything in a nice tidy package.

As others have mentioned, I too need to create a studio in a very tight space in my house, which isn't much bigger than David's garage. A pair of AutoPoles makes setting up a "studio" in my living room workable because there are no background stand legs, which reduces clutter. And, because there are no legs, the background can be placed just inches away from a wall. I hang my background using a pair of Super Clamps and the single paper hooks mentioned above.

August 08, 2011 11:54 AM  
Blogger Steven Erat Photography said...

Watching you convert your garage into a studio already gave me the confidence to do the same. Seeing you work outdoors, in your driveway, gives me even more confidence that one can perform professionally in a home environment. I've been concerned about how receptive clients will be when hearing that a "pro" shoots in the garage, but ultimately, the proof is in the final work produced, and there's no question there. Your clients look certainly pretty excited about it.

In my own home garage conversion, I started by emptying it entirely, and painting the floor with a primer, gray base, and gloss. Then with chain and hooks I hung inexpensive white cotton curtains all the way around the interior perimeter to make it look less like a garage by hiding all the clutter. When not in use I just pull all the curtains over to the side, and the chains & ceiling hooks let me quickly swing them out of the way. In some ways, its like a pop-up studio so that I can have normal access to all the shelves when not in use.

For an extra touch, I strung low wattage party lights across the curtain. I put some prop antique furniture in a corner and hung some of those japanese paper lanterns for a potential client seating area. And I built a hair and make up station to boot. In total, I have 3 portrait sets and backdrops ready to go at any given time, including one set with the Manfrotto Expan chain drive system with 8' vinyl seamless from Savage in gray, white, and black.

Currently, I'm shooting personal work with friends so that I can practice a workflow and hammer out the glitches of working in the space before taking on paying clients.


August 08, 2011 12:03 PM  
Blogger d a v i d o s u l l i v a n said...

Thanks David! More inspiration for the weekend :o)

August 08, 2011 12:09 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...


Thanks for the setup shot, though this is almost achieveable for me, the only thing I can't afford is the Profoto Acute. I do however have Paul Buff's white high beauty dish and an AB 1600. So with that said, can you achieve the same look with the AB 1600? I know I should just go ahead and try this but I want to know first from you or anyone else before buying a background stand. Thank you for all your help!

August 08, 2011 2:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You'd have more than enough power with that combo, and pretty much the same light mod.


August 08, 2011 2:54 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

Thanks David you rock! :)

August 08, 2011 3:01 PM  
Blogger trinifaus said...

Hi David, i'm not sure if i missed it in your Lighting 101 or 102 tutorials but what iso do you use (did you use in this post)? I never seem to see your iso status in your pictures.

August 08, 2011 5:32 PM  
Blogger DougOrama said...

I like the concept, but it's a little tough when it's 108 degrees outside.

August 08, 2011 6:21 PM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

David, where did you get the sandbags used in your photo and how do you like the quality of them? Thanks.

August 08, 2011 7:07 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Amazon. $10. And gravity works on them very well.

August 08, 2011 7:28 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Um, I really don't have a favorite ISO...

August 08, 2011 7:29 PM  
Blogger timdoc said...

Clamping on a spare background crossbar can hold the bottom of suspended seamless smooth.

If you don't stabilize the paper on the ground, clamping this "bottombar" to the bg support stands also helps prevent breezes moving the paper around (though sandbags for the supports become even more important).

The LumoPro crossbar is only $40, but you can make an even cheaper substitute out of 1" PVC pipe.


August 08, 2011 7:39 PM  
Blogger trinifaus said...

Thanks for the feedback and keep up the great work. You are very important to my 'community'.

August 08, 2011 8:24 PM  
Blogger dave moser said...

Y'all might remember a master by the name of Richard Avedon and a little $5 million commission he had which produced In The American West?

Shot on white seamless hung in open shade on the north side of buildings wherever he was...

August 08, 2011 11:11 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

Check out this link


and have a look at the Discovery Channel clip.

It features a photographer, Kevin Major Howard, who does a booming headshot business here in LaLaLand (aka Hollywood).

Kevin's "Studio" an open garage door, view to the busy street, North facing garage, and a piece of foam core.

Works for him, and apparently lots of actors....

August 09, 2011 10:18 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I'm curious as to how close to the background you have your subjects here (about where the roll of gaff tape is placed in the driveway)? Just thinking in terms of lighting both the subject and the background with your key light while avoiding having the shadow of the subject fall onto the paper..


August 10, 2011 10:40 AM  
Blogger JASPhoto said...

David - I'm shocked you don't have the Bogen background clamp/supports permanently attached above your garage door!
You can paint them to match to camouflage them.

August 10, 2011 11:28 PM  
Blogger Marc Weisberg said...

Hi David, This is NOT on the technical side. Just want to applaud you and all those that gift their time and art of photography to charities. Every year I work with a handfull of handpicked charities in my community that benefit children.

I do it out of pure passion and to give back. And I'm always pleasantly surprised at what I get back from it. Whether it be personal satisfaction or knowing that I've made a difference.

Many, many times I am also surprised at which real photographic commissions materialize from as an offshoot from donating to charities. Sometimes they don't materialize for months or even a few years later. And my charity projects have grown in scope and stature over the years too.

It' also a great way to experiment with different lighting scenarios too on location as well as in the studio. I've used everything from speedlights to big lights on my charity shoots. From one to three lights.

So, If you are on the edge about donating your time and talent to a charity. Jump off, dive in and bring your strobist A game.

August 11, 2011 11:25 AM  
Blogger peanve said...

any suggestions on building a "studio in a box"? Box being my small one bedroom apt.

August 12, 2011 3:22 PM  
Blogger humdistan said...

Special thanks to Reed for posting the Kevin Major Howard link - talk about 'no excuses' (and in Hollywood too) - you have to watch that short clip to see what you can do. I live on the Gulf Coast so summer is out but 8-9 other months are in. Seasonal business is better than no business. Am shooting free friend shots this fall and this post and comments are perfect timing to get prepared. thanks David

August 21, 2011 9:28 AM  
Blogger Nomad Photography said...

I try more and more to limit the lighting gears for my shoots to only one light.
One quote that I found made a lot of sens was "there is only one sun".

Nice BTS of teh set up David.


August 25, 2011 12:58 AM  

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