On Assignment: Cheap Portable Studio, Pt. 1

UPDATE: You can see the result on Laurie Reuben's site, here.

Still riffing on Monday's post about studio-vs.-location, here's another reason I am not a big fan of studios. You can replicate them pretty much anywhere, and for almost nothing.

So let's switch things up and start with the BTS pic this time, to show you the "studio" used to photograph consultant Laurie Reuben last week.

It's a minimalist, two-speedlight setup that yields an elegant, painterly light—without the expensive studio part.


Reuben is a super-smart lady whose consultancy (she's CEO) sits at the intersection of business decision-making and neuroscience. I photographed her in her home as part of a website redesign for her company.

The BTS above really doesn't tell you much. That's because I have changed camera positions to be able to see the fill light behind the actual shooting position.

If you move back to the final shooting position, the lights—both key and fill—do what they are meant to do. And it looks very different from the top shot, because the on-axis fill is now, well, on-axis.

Nothing fancy here. She is not even posing. It's more like, "Stand right here, lemme tune my lights a little, yada yada."

And it's important to tell someone you are just testing, or you'll wear them out. It's genuinely tiring to be "on," trying to look your best for the camera. So make sure you don't use that window up needlessly while you are just testing your lights.

But even so—an even though these are pretty much straight out of the camera—she already looks pretty good. That big fill light behind the camera does a couple of nice things. First, it makes everything look smooth and creamy—even the background paper has a smoothness to it that will look even better after a little post.

Second, it fills her shadows beautifully without leaving a trace of itself. (The fill ratio is set pretty tight—maybe one stop. Maybe.) And because of those two things, I generally prefer the fill to be the bigger of my two lights when working with large and medium Photek Softlighters.

Up Against the Wall

So why no background stands? Well, I did say minimal, right? And the truth, is I prefer to work without a background stand kit if I can get away with it. That's not always possible. But if I can gaff the paper to the wall, she can lean against it. And this allows me to visually connect her to the background with a close-in shadow if I like.

That's exactly what I was thinking for the way I hoped they will play this photo on her "about" page. Pop-outs on white look fine and all, but grounding something with a real (organic, not Photoshop) shadow looks much more believable and three-dimensional to me.

And resource-wise, a half-width roll of super-white seamless and a few feet of gaff tape make a pretty cheap and portable alternative. The paper is $25 a roll. And if you are not doing full length (i.e., shoe marks) it lasts for years. And make sure you use real gaff tape, or you'll be repainting the wall.

Here's the final:

With that big soft key almost table-topping her (that's a pretty hard angle) and a huge, on-axis fill, the end result is at once both flattened and 3-D. I think it feels kinda painterly, and long-term readers will know this is one of my favorite ways to light people.

Speaking of lights, this is all done with two SB-800s. One as key, the other as fill. The key has a ¼ CTO gel, which (as always) is my go-to for keying skin. It's permanently attached to one of my SB-800s. I triggered them in SU-4 mode with an IR remote.

Here it is in context, on her redesigned "about" page. In the context of the type on the page, that subtle shadow becomes very important. It ties her to the page, but also helps her to stand out from it.

For website purposes, I wanted this picture to feel more controlled—i.e., elegant, confident, intelligent, etc. But next in Part 2, we'll keep the same shooting spot, same two speedlights and mix things up to get a more editorial-looking photo for use as a handout.

Next: Cheap, Portable Studio Pt. 2


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Blogger Martijn Rammeloo said...

David, when you use a CTO on your key, how do you keep the background white? There must be some spill, I guess?

January 31, 2013 9:17 AM  
Blogger Steven Bridges said...

If your main light always has a 1/4 CTO attached to it. What do you set your white balance too?

January 31, 2013 9:20 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awsome - Thanks for the write up. I am about to start a portrait project with my 7th/8th grade photo club. I am trying to teach them how to do various types of photography without a lot of expensive equipment. The portrait sessions is the one area where I bring out the lights and work with extra camera gear.

January 31, 2013 9:27 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Quick question - I've noticed your key is really high. Well, at least higher than I normally use mine. Can you shed some light into your thought process regarding its placement?

January 31, 2013 9:46 AM  
Blogger Michael Spingeld said...

Quick question: Isn't the SU4 directional? You said the fill is behind you, no?

January 31, 2013 9:53 AM  
Blogger Michael Mitra said...

I also like using the seamless taped to a wall, partly because of the soft shadow, but mostly because it rolls up nicely alongside two light stands. My bungie pack stays nice and mobile.

January 31, 2013 10:20 AM  
Blogger jwalpole said...

Great article. I love the on Assigment sections of your site.

I have the same question as Martijn Rammeloo in regards to using a CTO on the key light and it not affecting the background?


January 31, 2013 10:22 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


As you get close to full-white (which is, by definition, the full presence of all colors) you'll notice that color shift much, much less than you would if the BG were, say, medium gray.

January 31, 2013 11:55 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Daylight. Always daylight, unless I am trying to shift WB for effect. I want a neutral starting point. I can gel strobes from there to get different colors, independently.

January 31, 2013 11:56 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Sure. Since my fill ratio is really tight (maybe even under one stop) I can be a little more aggressive with the way I sculpt Laurie's face with the key.

January 31, 2013 11:58 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


SU-4 mode is, as you know, a super-sensitive slave. It would fire any flash in that room. And probably, the next room, too.

January 31, 2013 11:59 AM  
Blogger Mason Trullinger said...

Great post and thank you for giving me a solid reason to get a second
Softlighter. I received the medium one for Christmas and it really got me interested in taking portraits again. Now I'm trying to Macguyver up a grid for mine.

January 31, 2013 12:09 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Can you elaborate on relative power settings on your two flashes to achieve such a tight ratio? Did you meter them, or just eyeball it to taste?

January 31, 2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


No idea. I set the fill first, got the exposure floor that I wanted from it, then set the key. I am guessing the fill mighta been at 1/2 power, the key at 1/4th. (Remembering that the key is much closer.)

January 31, 2013 1:07 PM  
Blogger Kelly Doering said...

Great post once again. I am really interested in the Softlighter to use with speedlights. In reading the reviews online, it seems that the positioning of the speedlight when mounted on the umbrella swivel and the opening of the Softlighter are at different heights requiring a mod or extra accessory. I can't seem to find out what that accessory is specifically. Any insights? Thanks!

January 31, 2013 1:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I just stick 'em in there with a regular umbrella swivel and put 'em on wide. Works fine.

January 31, 2013 2:15 PM  
Blogger Tim Dustrude said...

Great post David. Wish I would have seen this about 24 hours ago, LOL! Gotta remember that on-axis fill concept. Also, WB on daylight. I just did a shoot last night with WB on Flash and it came out a bit too warm with the 1/4 CTO. @Kelly Doering - Here's a DIY thing I made for my Softlighters: http://timd-365-photos.blogspot.com/2012/09/diy-photek-softlighter-ii-flash-bracket.html

January 31, 2013 2:36 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Another good feature, thanks.
I've been doing executive portraits for web redesign too. I used gaffer tape and ended up pulling some paint off the wall in the fancy office. Oops. Switched to painters tape.

I'm curious how the Photek compares to the Buff soft-silver PLM with the diffuser cover.

January 31, 2013 2:50 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Regarding alternative speedlight mounting options for the Softlighter and umbrellas, Michael Bass Designs makes all kinds of cool products for Strobists.

January 31, 2013 4:26 PM  
Blogger Frank Lanzkie said...


In the post you mentioned that you keep a CTO gel on one of your SB's most of the time and use that when lighting skin. I imagine that since you mostly shoot Caucasians that works pretty well. As an African-American photographer who mostly shoots African-American subjects I am wondering if you would use the same gel for those rare instances when you have an African-American subject to photograph.

Frank Lanzkie
House of Siasii

January 31, 2013 6:04 PM  
Blogger Bruce Walker said...

You wisely said: "I just stick 'em in there with a regular umbrella swivel and put 'em on wide. Works fine."

I feel kinda dumb now. I hacked-up an ugly thing with a couple of umbrella mounts and a Lowell Tota clamp, but I just tested your simple suggestion and the light output is excellent.

BTW, the Fotodiox umbrella boxes I'm using are a little cheaper than Softlighters and work just great.


January 31, 2013 7:29 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Maybe so, but it is a pretty blatant knockoff of Paul Buff's PLM. I don't really support that kind of stuff.

January 31, 2013 11:06 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually a quarter CTO is a starting point for me. For caucasians it frequently does well, but not always. Sometimes a Rosco 08 or 09 is better (less red).

For darker skin I take into consideration what the actual tone of the skin is. Some are more olive, some islanders are damn-near gunmetal steeled blue. The subtleties and range are awesome and the last thing I'd want to do is to step on that.

But overall I think I am less prone to warming.

January 31, 2013 11:10 PM  
Blogger Rob Ashcroft said...

I like your simple approach to photography. very much my own approach. I enjoyed your video with Digital Rev, where you really did go simple.

Hope you didn't take the paint off when you removed the tape from Reuben's wall!

February 01, 2013 1:34 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Gaff has never failed me. But to be fair, I am also very careful.

February 01, 2013 2:09 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

I'm a huge fan of this kind of lighting. The simplicity of the finished product looks classy, professional and expensive, unlike some over done and over lit techniques used by some.
The Softlighters are brilliant, but difficult to get hold of in the UK, so I use a Westcott 7ft white parabolic umbrella, which provides a beautiful light, in conjunction with Lastolite 42inch umbrella boxes. The Westcott umbrella produces a lovely soft yet directional light. I have a diffuser cover for it but rarely use it as its soft enough as it is. I have three of the lastolite umbrella boxes and I will often stack them together tightly so that they produce a large soft light, or stack them one on top of another to produce a tall 'narrow' light source.. Offers great flexibility at an affordable price.
One benefit I have found when using the Westcott is that because the umbrella is so large, the client feels like they are getting a much higher quality service. I know it's daft, but on many occasions they will tell me that they see why I charge so much, like big lights mean big prices, even though I am only using an old Nikon SB 80 to light them!!

February 01, 2013 2:35 AM  
Blogger Seth Eisenbraun said...

David, Thanks for the post. This is really helpful, since I'm trying to put together a mobile headshot living room "studio" set up.

Love the posts, keep em' comin'!

February 01, 2013 3:13 AM  
Blogger James Spencer said...

I see you taped a seamless to the wall. Last time I did that I ripped all the paint of the wall in a local bar. Hope you didn't have the same fate

February 01, 2013 5:07 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks for the great post. Do you have your diffusers on the SB-800?

February 01, 2013 8:00 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I am careful, and I use Gaffer's tape—which is designed for this kinda stuff.

February 01, 2013 12:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope. There is enough bouncing around in there so if you just set it on wide you're golden.

February 01, 2013 12:04 PM  
Blogger Mike T said...

I was thinking about your comments regarding the studio for school. I taught a few lessons at my son's high school and they had an unused area (huge) that they were using as a studio. The advantage they had was that they had one hour between classes to get things done (including time to get there and back) so the studio was great during our sub zero winter and when it was pouring outside. We also did projects outside, so it was a mix.

February 01, 2013 3:01 PM  
Blogger Randolph Knackstedt said...

"Still riffing on Monday's post about studio-vs.-location."

Can you please provide a link to this post? The most recent "Monday" post I found was Monday, 12-31-12 regarding DigitalRev.


February 01, 2013 4:37 PM  
Blogger Rob Taylor said...

@Randolph - it's now the 2nd post on the main page (Q&A)


Been following your blogs for quite some time...I've learned a ton from you. Thanks for all you do.

February 02, 2013 9:19 AM  
Blogger The Duck said...

Questions about CTO. Do you use it with a beauty dish, also? And, was it used here, because of the light from the window?

February 02, 2013 10:04 AM  
Blogger CC said...

David, just wondering how different she would look if you'd just used a couple of shoot-thru brollies?

February 02, 2013 4:00 PM  
Blogger Neil Hanawalt said...

A few years ago I shot some executives in a conference room. I taped some white paper on a wall as a reflector explaining to them that the gaffer tape will not damage the wall. Later as they watched I peeled the tape of and paint and the top layer of drywall paper tore off with it. Sooo embarassing. Have not trusted Gaffers tape in this way since.

February 02, 2013 6:31 PM  
Blogger Dirk Beichert said...

I just love the simplicity and elegance of the shot. Makes especially sense when seen in the web page context.

February 04, 2013 8:00 AM  
Blogger Jaleel King said...

I really love how you take something and make it work. Something I'm trying to be better at.

If you didn't have the behind the scene photo I would've never saw the seamless taped to the wall or imaged it was.

February 04, 2013 1:02 PM  
Blogger Alex Frisch said...

It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.

Alex Frisch

February 05, 2013 7:29 AM  
Blogger bronney said...


Thank you, as always. I am using black masking tape I am pretty sure it isn't gaffer. But it doesn't leave trace when peeled within a reasonable time. When getting real gaffer tape, do you get 3M? or doesn't matter..


February 20, 2013 4:59 AM  
Blogger Jamie Salcedo said...

This bring back art school memories. My photo major buddies were, of course, broke most of the time so they made a makeshift studio in their townhouse basement. There were a lot of times I had to pin down and secure white sheets onto the walls while one of them messed around with a light meter. So many long days getting the right show in that environment but it saved a lot of studio money.

February 20, 2013 1:10 PM  
Blogger bronney said...


Since I cannot email you I will say my thank you again right here. I know you get that a lot but I want to show you your lessons in action.

This morning was the time when this was the only thing to do. No room booked, high traffic corridor only, even the hair light angle got tricky. But without your post, I'd be stuck trying to backdrop stands this.

btw, I used generic black masking tape on office wallpaper, worked like a charm. Gaffer too sticky. I did gaffer the yellow line for the talents :) I cannot show you their photos yet, but they're great. I wish I have room for your top down plus on axis but I could only do this grad photo style at this space. What a great experience nonetheless.



and a grid rim, and an umbrella acting as a reflector behind that wall on the right


April 10, 2013 9:56 AM  

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