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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