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Q&A: Will You Help Us Get a Studio for Our Photo Program?

An unnamed student at the Digital Photography program at Ravensbourne (UK) asks, via Twitter:

"Our photography degree course has no studio! (Will you) help us tell the management we need one?

No, anonymous student at Ravensbourne, I will not. Firstly, I think your petition signatures should be from students in the program. But more important, I probably would not equip you with a studio even if I were your dean.

For several reasons...

An Empty Box

For someone who doesn't shoot in one all the time (and especially to students for some reason) a studio seems like a magic, sexy, exotic place to shoot. But in reality a studio is a big, expensive, empty, expensive box that you have to fill with your imagination.

And here is the thing. Over time, it is probably the least interesting place you can shoot.

Even if you don't have to build a new structure to make a studio, there is a marginal cost to turning a pre-existing room into a studio that could have been something else. So the dollars (or, in your case, pounds) are real.

And studios have to be pretty big to be useful for anything other than waist-up portraits or headshots and table-tops.

But no matter how big it is, it is the same place every day you shoot in it. So you go to great lengths to try to make it different. You paint backdrops. You bring in a ton of props.

Eventually, you'll find yourself in the cashier's line at Ikea with way the hell too many "decorative" black sticks in your cart in a desperate attempt to make your studio portrait look like it was shot in a cool location. (This is inevitable.)

Better: An Actual Location

Even though most people tend to think of what we do as studio lighting, I loathe the term "studio lighting." (Even if I did just use it twice in one sentence in a pretty sweet SEO move, heh.) Instead, think "lighting," and apply that to your current location.

Here's the closest thing to a traditional studio I have had as a location in recent memory:

As I walked in, I remembered thinking this place looked like someone held a frat party on a Stanley Kubrick set. The emptiness, ironically, is what drew me to it. (Click the pic to see an OA from the photo we made there open in a new window.)

But the point is that the dank emptiness was novel. That's what made it interesting, because I had grown so used to being surprised by locations and solving their problems and exploiting them for photos.

I love a studio the same way I love BBQ ribs. Every once in a while: awesome. Every day? I'd go insane.

That said, as a half-measure I tweaked my own garage to serve dual purpose as a studio. I say "studio," but it's really just a failsafe location of last resort. As it turns out, I have only used it a few times since then.

Instead, Get This:

If I were your dean (and be glad I am not, as your classes would not start until 11pm) I would instead use that money to carve out a little gear closet. It'd work just like a lending library, only with lighting gear.

Figure your school would have spent at least £20k on studio build-out, before you even bought lights and gear. Assuming your typical photo student has a speedlight, you could put together a ton of good location lighting kits for that kind of money. You could even do a few monobloc kits, too—for the upperclassmen. In the UK, I'd look at Elinchroms or Profoto D1 Air.

The kicker is that while the lights would be free to check out, you'd have to turn in a photo and full BTS write-up from your shoot every time you used them. So within a year, you'd not only have a good gear closet but also a location- and gear-specific knowledge bank to teach your fellow students how to use the best studio of all.


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