Build a DIY Portable North Light Photo Studio

Six years ago, I wrote on Strobist about how to build a $10 macro studio. Since then over a million photographers have seen how they could easily take control of light—any light—to easily produce professional quality product photos.

Four years later while brainstorming with my friend Mohamed Somji about how to light an upcoming photo project, I started thinking about how to reproduce this type of studio on a human-sized scale.

Turns out, it's not so hard.

Mohamed was traveling back to his native Tanzania to make portraits of local albinos in hopes of raising awareness about the severe discrimination and superstitions they face. The photographic problems were logistical: harsh, high sun; no power guarantees; a need for portability.

We talked about creating a collapsible light tent out of nylon and PVC and using the harsh sun as a light source, albeit now a controllable one. That's what he ended up doing, and it planted the seed in my mind for creating a larger, portable studio that I not only could use anywhere but could give me many, many different styles of solar- or flash-driven lighting.

Will it Scale?

Over the years, I have gotten a tremendous amount of feedback from the original DIY macro studio. Some people have actually transported the idea to some pretty big boxes—think full-sized refrigerator—in the name of larger subjects.

But this still would not work for people. Especially not full-length portraits of a firefighter who is 6 feet tall before the helmet. Plus, while cardboard is cheap and readily available, it is not exactly durable at that size.

So the structure and framework needed to be lightweight, but portable and durable. And ideally, it would be built of modular items which were reasonably priced and had multiple photographic uses beyond this project.

As I found more and more uses for my portable background supports it began to dawn on me that this was the ideal module on which to build what would essentially be a large cube. When LumoPro started selling the 12' crossbar assembly separately, the pieces literally came together in my mind.

The North Light Studio

Think cube, built with two complete background supports and two extra crossbars. All-in, the pieces are about $500. It's two background kits placed in parallel, supporting two additional perpendicular crossbars on top. I sandbagged the four stands (one ea.) for extra stability.

The "skin," which is extremely variable, is inexpensive nylon in black (and translucent white) attached with cheap Home Depot A-clamps. (Sources for building it are listed at the bottom of the page, with more notes on a companion piece linked/embedded below.)

On this day I was doing two different shoots in the cube as shown, so I hung a brown muslin as a backdrop for the second of two shots. The sides and top were black ripstop nylon, which you can get online for $5 a yd or less. Across the front we stretched a white ripstop to catch and diffuse the sun, high overhead behind the camera position.

In the frame shown above we are exposed for the full sun outside. We hung some half-width white paper on a C-stand arm as a backdrop sweep. Erik Couse, a Captain in the Montgomery (MD) County Fire Dept., is standing inside and catching all of that diffused sun—and the full sun bouncing off of the asphalt. The lower, reflected light is a little brighter that the top diffused light, getting us detail up under his helmet. This ratio could be swapped by a strip of black nylon across the bottom.

As we said, the above exposure is balanced for the overall daylight. But when we open up to expose for Erik is standing in the shade of the cube, you start to see the quality of the light in this (straight-out-of-camera) frame:


With some normal toning (and extending the skinny white background a little in Photoshop) the light becomes pretty ridiculous, considering we are just bouncing and diffusing sunlight. (Check out a 2k pixel version of the image at the top of this post.)

A Versatile Light Box

The beauty of the cube framework in the North Light Studio is that you can define the sides however you want by how you allocate the fabrics. Plus, the structure is big enough to work completely inside if you like. Practically speaking, you can configure it up to 9' wide by 12' deep by 10' high. Going beyond this starts stress the frame, IMO.

Working inside the box with the brown muslin as a backdrop, I enclosed the wall behind me with white translucent nylon. This gave me a 9x9 foot on-camera-axis light source right behind me which was, of course, gorgeous as fill.

The room itself cut the ambient levels even as it shaped the sun into that huge fill light. The drop in ambient was enough so that you could underexpose the fill and lay a key light in on top of that. Even with speedlights.

Using nothing but two LumoPro 160 speedlights (and the sun) as light sources, we made this portrait inside the box:

The exposure? Try f/5.6 at a 60th of a sec at ISO 50. Heck, even a Canon can sync that low. And still, we are overpowering the on-axis (ambient) fill, which allows us to easily use a speedlight as key.

Remember, we are cutting the quantity of sunlight as well as amping the quality of it. We had a fog machine inside the cube and shot the backlight (bare LP160, with a 1.5 cut of CTO gel) right back towards the subject through some smoke. The key is a LumiQuest SB-III on another LP160 with a quarter-cut CTO. Neither flash was over one quarter power.

This to me is remarkable, considering we were subduing and shaping a cloudless, sunlit day and then adding small strobes on top of it. Again, the quality of light using just the sun and two speedlights on low power is fantastic. Take a look at the 2k pixel version. Don't click over to the 6k version. It'll just piss you off.

Rather than think of this as a one-trick pony, I am already starting to think of the different ways I can use various parts of this studio setup to accomplish different looks. And on top of that, most all of the individual components are usable in different ways on their own.

For assembly notes and more details on using this portable studio, I have created a document with detailed instructions and full sourcing for everything. The embed/link is below.

But I am just as interested in your ideas (and questions) as this idea has turned out to be a significant jumping-off point for me and I am assuming it may be for some of you, too.

If you do have any questions though, please read the companion notes before asking. Your question may well be answered in there.

Portable North Light Studio Notes




Companion Notes in Scribd

Component Sources:

LP Background Supports
LP Extra Crossbars
(**SPECIAL PRICE Kit for above**)
White Nylon
Black Nylon
Home Depot Clamps
Sand Bags


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Blogger Sara Lando said...

this is INSANE!
the quality of light is amazing and I love the versatility of such a setup.
Nothing to do with light, but I really love how subtly intense the expression on his face is on the second shot. Kind, human and almost a little sad. Well done!!!

July 30, 2012 9:29 AM  
Blogger Derrick said...

Nice box. For use in harsh sunlight, it would be even better with a black muslin hung behind the photographer to relieve the poor subject from squinting too hard.

July 30, 2012 9:33 AM  
Blogger Gene S said...

Great idea for a photo booth if you were cranking out a large number of shots (like individual shots at a school or wedding). Great write up!

July 30, 2012 9:52 AM  
Blogger Gene S said...

Great write up! I could see this working really well at a school or wedding when you want to crank out a large number of shots and still control the light.

July 30, 2012 9:54 AM  
Blogger Matthew R said...

If you had a grommet gun you could thread the top of the BG stand posts through the grommets to allow for easier set-up and reduce the need for as many A-clips. The other benefit of this set-up is the ability to remove the back panel and get the environment behind the subject. You get the best of both worlds- studio-like control on the subject in an environmental portrait.

July 30, 2012 10:00 AM  
OpenID 14d01f5c-da50-11e1-8bc1-000bcdcb5194 said...

Just FYI, I have done something similar with an EZ Up type canopy, using my muslin and canvas backdrops as the sides. Given that I got the canopy for $65 at a yard sale it came out considerably cheaper, though not as flexible as your system. To use a canopy much a person would need to have to find a way to extend the legs another foot or so, but I'm sure it could be done.

July 30, 2012 10:08 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Awesome break down on this, just want I need!

Every since I saw Irving Penn's "Worlds in a Small Room" when I was a kid, I've always wanted to do this!

July 30, 2012 10:14 AM  
Blogger dave moser said...

I'm sure you are aware of IRVING PENN'S Worlds in a Small Room? If not, google away.

You could also try white fabric all around, I would think... No? Or on one side... So many possibilities...

July 30, 2012 10:22 AM  
Blogger Ken Elliott said...

It's been well over a year ago, but I posted that I use this same frame for shooting on the beach. However, I sew the edge of the nylon over itself so it holds well in the wind. I also only cover the top and one or more sides. In other words, I create a soft light tunnel and shoot through it. This lets me control the light on the model using simple mirrors and reflectors.

But what you've done here goes far beyond my rig. Bravo.

You do realize you can increase the depth by adding a second set of light stands and three rods, right? It's easy to get carried away. The wind will do that too (grin).

July 30, 2012 10:56 AM  
Blogger Peter Tsai said...

Interesting Post David, I've built similar inside studios before when I do long exposure dance images to control spill. The cheap HP plotter paper is alway perfect for this since its a very mobile size.

I'm curious however, wouldn't it be more inexpensive to use a 10x20 black muslin like this?

July 30, 2012 11:22 AM  
Blogger MacLo said...

what do you think about Yongnuo YN560 II Flash Speedlite ??
I want buy 2 of that.

July 30, 2012 11:26 AM  
Blogger Lachlan said...

Have you considered seeing if you can get a modified holding piece (don't know the technical term), this thing to allow it to hold the bars on top in place? If those are the stands I'm thinking on they can be converted into light stands by moving the thingy. (wow I'm bad with words today)

Like these.

the cross bar thing. You could see if you could get a two part piece to go into both the top and the side at the same time, allowing for more stability for the second crossbar.

Like this, but inside the stand

I hope that makes sense...

July 30, 2012 11:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I Clicked the 4K version and I am pissed!!

July 30, 2012 12:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Good luck with that. YongNuo Flashes have an abysmal reliability record. There's a reason they are so cheap.


The Nylon is 60-62" wide and sells for $5 or less per linear yard. So nylon would be cheaper - and lighter.

July 30, 2012 12:16 PM  
Blogger Kip Beelman said...

Hi David,

I saw a link to your $10 Macro post on a mommy blog of all things back when it was fresh... Strobist was just a baby at the time. Back then I was a new, first-time father and was eager to learn square one about photography in an effort to document my new daughter and family well.

Six years later I'm an award-winning wedding photographer that proudly wears my Strobist badge in an effort to add drama to my images and differentiate myself from my peers shooting F/2 all day.

I really do have YOU to thank for enabling my path and fostering this love of photography and the study of light. Xoxo.

July 30, 2012 12:32 PM  
Blogger ErikRc said...

Just wanted to say thanks to David for doing this portrait. It was a great opportunity to see him work and have a nice photo made.

@Sara, thanks for posting that comment. David told me to be intense and to get that expression I had to re-live a few calls I've been on. David definitely captured the moment which IMO is much harder than the lighting.

July 30, 2012 12:33 PM  
Blogger TheFlashingScotsman said...

I have been using an EZ-UP for this purpose for quite a while, and it sure cut down on cost since I already had the EZ-UP. It's 10'x10', and four short pieces of PVC pipe, with four of those Home Depot clamps, makes it 10' tall in a hurry.

@MacLo, I've never had any reliability problems with any of my seven YungNuo flashes, or my YungNuo 602 triggers. Granted, they did at one time have reliability problems, but mine work great. One receiver even went in the ocean for a few seconds. Opened it up, dried it out, cleaned it carefully, still using it.

2.4 Gig frequency, 250' range is as far out as I've been so far. They've been replaced by the 603 now, the only problem I have is that they didn't make them backwards compatible. Have fun.

July 30, 2012 2:29 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


One last YN comment to keep this from becoming threadjacked. FWIW, I was going on more than just one person's experience:

July 30, 2012 2:57 PM  
Blogger Dylan Jefferis said...

Thought I'd throw in a link to my daylight studio project I did last year. I thought it may be of interest, particularly as I've included my setup shot in the post. Hope that's cool. . .

July 30, 2012 3:52 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

I've been waiting for this writeup! Thanks....

July 30, 2012 4:46 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

@David, I love the results you got for both the full pose and the close up. But I think your close-up portrait of Erik on the muslin background may well be my favorite of all your portraits I've ever seen! Truly professional results, which is always the case, but you've really outdone yourself on this one.

@Erik, living in, Colorado, a state often plagued by wildfires, and this year some of the worst in history, I have the deepest respect for what you do. Your expression very well captures the gravity of your profession, and at the same time the grace with which you handle that stress.

@David, I appreciate your sharing such a detailed tutorial on how you created this Portable Studio lighting setup. I am astounded at how simple and versatile it is.

I agree that ripstop nylon is the way to go for the sides and top - it is far stronger and lighter than muslin would be.

A tip for anyone who might want their Portable Studio to be waterproof, Seattle Fabrics (and I'd guess others) offer silicone impregnated ripstop nylon for just a bit more expense (currently $8.50/yard for 1.9 oz./square yard, or if you want even lighter, $11.50/yard for 1.3 oz./square yard).

I have used this fabric for a backpacking rain tarp and groundcloth I made. The fabric has withstood 10 years of all manner of abuses and also has kept things dry even in monsoon volume rains.

Never imagined I might use the same stuff to make a photo studio though. Ah, another project to add to my DIY Dream List.... Thanks David!

Best, Janine

July 30, 2012 5:04 PM  
Blogger Chris Aldridge said...

"Don't click over to the 6k version." Too late, you were right. Not so much for the amazing quality, but the fact that I think Erik's razor is getting dull. That facial stubble looks a little rough cut on the ends. He's a nice guy but I didn't need to be THAT close!

I have quite a few first responder friends, nice job on portraying the emotion of such a job.

July 30, 2012 5:35 PM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

Cool post but this wouldn't work so well in Oklahoma, "where the wind comes sweeping down the plains". Maybe in the middle of summer when the winds die down somewhat, but spring, fall and much of winter our normal wind is 15 mph or stronger, with regular gusts 30+ and 60-70 mph is seen several times a year. I laugh when I see photogs in California shooting outdoors with huge softboxes and barn-door sized scrims. Doesn't work that way here!

July 30, 2012 7:59 PM  
Blogger t0n3 said...

Great idea! Thanks for sharing. Love that in the 6k pic I can see your silhouette in his eyes!

July 30, 2012 11:34 PM  
Blogger Christopher Perez said...


A few years ago I considered doing the same thing. But job, time, and all that got away from me.

It's good to see how incredible the results can be. WOW! Well done, sir!

July 31, 2012 4:30 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

@David, When I saw this post, It took me back a couple of years when you had posted this. If sandbags are not an option, consider the "o" rings+ tent peg's combination, if you are on soft soil. But David, could drilling holes into the stand affect it in a negative way on this scale? I mean other than it catching wind like a sail.. it would still work, right?

July 31, 2012 7:25 AM  
Blogger Lance Mueller said...

Great article and info as usual. What do you think about using something like a white roof EZUP (or equivalent) canopy? Seems like that would have a stable refined platform, goes up and down pretty quick, easy to transport and less parts to attach/remove. You could then just hang the black nylon off the back, sides and top if you want to diffuse the overhead sun even more.

Would probably work out to be the same or a little less expensive.

Something like this:

July 31, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Yep, I thought of that, too. I had posted about it as a possibility. But I tried it and

a. they are not really tall enough
b. the internal framework quickly gets in the way of the light

I wanted it to work, but it was not really suited.

July 31, 2012 1:57 PM  
Blogger Brian McCarthy said...

Great article! But it might be even simpler and cheaper to do it with some off the shelf items. For instance, you could buy this 10x10 white canopy tent for $30 ( and some black sheets (King size about $20 at walmart) for the sides or to drape over the top to block the light. White sheets or this windbreak wall to diffuse the light.

Using a similar setup I took this photo using only natural light and two reflectors:

Thanks again for your great blog!
Regards -- Brian

July 31, 2012 4:03 PM  
Blogger Glimpse said...

A wonderfully simple but clever idea for the portable studio! Just so many possibilities, thanks for giving us the nuts and bolts on it! A superb portrait too and certainly not just about the lighting. I would be interested in your thinking as far as your choice to push him so far to the left of the frame? I understand it allows for text, but why not space on the opposite side?

July 31, 2012 6:09 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I can't imagine an instance in which I would ever consider defending a composition to someone else. I just ... can't.

That said, dude, this isn't even anything weird. It is straightford pure vanilla rule of thirds stuff.

July 31, 2012 8:06 PM  
Blogger Joey (aka Pepe) said...

Impressive shots! 'Specially the close-up, in which you appear to have sneaked in a self portrait :-O!

July 31, 2012 8:59 PM  
Blogger Dave Cearley said...

David, you mention the ezup tent framework interferes with the light. Could you elaborate? I am in Texas and need something that can withstand the wind a little better than light stands and sandbags. Besides, I already have the tent so all I need is the material for the tent sides.

July 31, 2012 11:48 PM  
Blogger Glimpse said...

Hi David, totally down with the rule of thirds. Was purely wondering if you had taken any shots putting him on the right hand third? I tend to leave space in front of people so was intrigued seeing the opposite choice. Great shot, no question!

August 01, 2012 5:15 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope. Looking at the photo again, I would not have even considered lopping off his camera left shoulder to do that.


The folding framework inside the roof of those things takes up a lot of that pitched space. But you can certainly buy the nylon to try it, and if it does not work go for stands and poles.

August 01, 2012 9:03 AM  
Blogger Sam Fairchild said...

First thought when looking at the 6K version on Flickr, "Look, there is a little man in his left eye".

August 01, 2012 5:53 PM  
Blogger Sam Fairchild said...

First thought when looking at the 6K version, "look, there is a little man in his left eye".

August 01, 2012 5:55 PM  
Blogger Eric the Red said...

Hi David, great post. A little while back I had to do some photos that required a handy dandy portable backdrop that had to be quite wide. When I saw your post my mind flashed back to my DIY solution. I used three light stands, and for the cross bars to hang the backdrop I bought 2 ten foot lengths of 3/4 inch electrical conduit, four 1/2 inch washers and welded one washer to each end of the conduit, after flattening the conduit ends so the washers fit in the gap (heck, if you can't weld, I 'spose you could flatten the ends and just drill a hole). Then just pop them over the spigots on the stands and raise to desired height. Three stands, two conduits = twenty feet of backdrop, or two walls of a good sized tent. And cheap, too! Natch, you can make them shorter for easier transport, etc. Here are a couple of pics.

August 02, 2012 1:14 AM  
Blogger RocketRick said...


I have a suggestion for a heavier-duty, albeit still portable, version of this, for those who are looking for something sturdier.

Have you ever been to a swap meet? Think of the tarp-covered shelters that they use to cover their stalls. They use welded corner pieces, but the legs and crossbars are all made from very inexpensive 3/4" electrical conduit (aka "EMT") from the local hardware store.

I've built a number of these shade structures over the years, and they are much more durable and wind-resistant (due to the flat top) than the typical EZ-UP type of pop-up shades. You still want to stake them down and/or weight them -- especially if you put sides on them -- but they are fairly sturdy. If one does "catch wind" and get bent out of shape, the only parts likely to get any damage at all are the dirt cheap pieces of EMT, which, as I mentioned, are available at every hardware store in the country.

I've looked all over, and has the best prices on the fittings that I've been able to find.

I strongly recommend getting the "feet", so that the ends of the legs don't dig into the ground. The rebar and "dog twist" stakes (see work great, depending on soil type. Pick up some "ratcheting tie-downs" at the hardware store while you're there -- they are much easier to tighten down than ropes.

One other trick I've learned over the years:

The EMT comes in 10' lengths. Buy couplers, and cut all of your EMT to a maximum length of 5' long. That way, all of the long pieces can fit easily into a car trunk. With a bit of care, all of the fittings, stakes, and tie-downs for a canopy will easily fit into a 5 gallon bucket, too.


Rick Dickinson

August 03, 2012 11:25 AM  
Blogger Paul Mc said...

ERM...I'm not sure if that's northern light at all, because I don't think it's pointing north. The shadow in all the pictures appears to fall into the floor of the tent, causing me to think that it's not facing the north. It's heavily diffused light, but it's not "northern light" as far as my understanding of northern light goes. Unless I'm missing something.

August 05, 2012 3:55 PM  
Blogger Paul Mc said...

ERM...I'm not sure if that's northern light at all, because I don't think it's pointing north. The shadow in all the pictures appears to fall into the floor of the tent, causing me to think that it's not facing the north. It's heavily diffused light, but it's not "northern light" as far as my understanding of northern light goes. Unless I'm missing something.

August 05, 2012 3:56 PM  
Blogger ck said...

Is that camera left speedlight just bare, no modifier? The shadows look so soft...

August 06, 2012 4:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


In this case we diffused the sun, creating the brighter equivalent of north light. But you can also easily turn it, um, north.


That information is pretty clearly in the post if you read it...

August 06, 2012 8:27 AM  
Blogger EricLefebvre said...

My suggestion here would be to use a small porable gazeebo instead of the lightstands.

Maybe somthing like this?

140$ Can and then you still use nylon to cover the sides.

Might look a little more profesional and would probably survive a strong gust of wind a bit better.

August 08, 2012 9:53 AM  
Blogger wonkwonk said...

This is great! I've been on this tip by trying to re-create the lighting techniques of the old masters like Nadar, Steichen and Penn who used north light tent studios or north light indoor studios:

Irving Penn used a lighting tent in 1970 for Vogue in New Guinea:

I tried to recycle a canopy tent for this lighting tent, but my canopy's hight is only 6' not nearly high enough for full body or group shots. I'm very tempted to try your set-up out for some fashion work!

August 08, 2012 2:15 PM  
Blogger david said...

RocketRick posted a link to Yuma's Bargain Warehouse earlier in the comment thread. After looking around, I'd have to agree; there's great stuff there. I'd say that for the price of the canopy fittings and conduit, this is a more flexible and economical way to go.

I don't have any drawing to share since most of it is in my head... Here's the parts list I'm considering buying:

3/4" Cross 1 $4.00
3/4" Sliding Tee 4 $15.00
3/4" Sliding Corner 4 $15.00
3/4" Sliding 4 Way 4 $16.00
3/4" Foot Pad 4 $13.00
3/4" Coupler 4 $13.00
3/4" Sign Holder 4 $20.00
Total $96.00
(shipping is about ~$23 to Texas)

Unlisted are a total of 14 10' pieces of 3/4" conduit at about $2.50 each, figure about $30 total. Each of those need to be cut in half, so there will end up being 28 5' lengths of conduit. When it comes time to order, I think I might add the 3/4" tarp snap clamps (20 for $15) which can be used to hold the material to the conduit, too.

The fittings and conduit can be configured in a number of ways but what I wanted most was the ability to make a cube, a single 30' long 10' high wall, and two freestanding 10x10 panels. The sliding corners, Tees and 4 way would allow the widths and heights to be adjustable. [The feet are extra credit, since I'm thinking of attaching the corners to squares of rug-wrapped plywood so they can easily be weighted and used on nice floor without worry of damaging them.]

The couplers and sign holders join each 5' length of conduit into 10' sections. The sign holders in particular, when used for the uprights, will allow the top to edge to be lowered if the lengths are inserted in each of the tubes, making the height adjustable for areas that may have low ceilings. (If they are both inserted in the same tube, they make a 10' length.)

This conduit and canopy hardware is about the cost of a single backdrop set and is probably sturdier. It probably won't back as tightly for travel or be as light, but it will probably be sturdier in the wind and be at least as configurable.

August 08, 2012 5:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

this is truly good stuff, it has my mind thinking :)

August 12, 2012 5:12 PM  
Blogger david said...

I wrote a post on my blog with the bill of materials of canopy fittings and a sketch of the basic "cube". There is an explanation of how it goes together, how it can be adjusted, and she variation ideas.

August 13, 2012 3:24 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

A softbox you could park your car in.

Which is what I ended up with when I removed the blue tarp from my outdoor car port and put up a white one. It gives beautiful diffuse light and, when augmented by a couple of shoot-through umbrellas gives you great flexibility and control.
It is not nearly so portable as David’s set-up. But I am working on a version of that.
Here are some pictures and a description of my set-up:

September 16, 2012 8:15 PM  
Blogger Jon Legge said...

Dera Mr Strobe,

This is a great blog, I've got lots of good stuff out of it over the past couple of years. The light tent was something used by Irving Penn a good deal when he photographed his tribes all over the world in the '50's. I did a similar studio set up using a cheapo white gazebo tent, some white muslin and boucing a Metz gun for a series of portraits in the market square a few years ago, it worked great, except the rain stated soaking up the back sheet! Results are in my Blog, here:

Jon L.

October 08, 2012 12:01 PM  

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