A Beginner’s Guide to Studio Photography

Starting your journey into the realm of studio photography can be slightly overwhelming and even daunting for beginners. Considering that shooting in a studio has several more interconnected elements than shooting outside or on location, you will need to understand what it takes to create an effective studio environment and how to execute your photographic vision.

In the beginning stages of photography, many creatives used studio settings as the sole way to capture portraits. Although the times have evolved and photographers understand the concept of shooting in natural light, a studio setting is still an effective way to control your surroundings when creating images.

Shooting in a studio is often done when the purpose is to focus on the subject or product being captured rather than using a dynamic background to tell a story. Studio shooting is often used in a variety of situations such as for portraits, fashion lookbooks or editorials and product and still life setups.

If you are relatively new to the photography studio environment, you will need to start with the basics – finding a space to shoot your project. To help you start on your path from novice to professional studio photographer, we have a checklist of studio photography essentials. Here is our beginner’s guide to studio photography:

Find a Space

The first step to starting your studio photography shoot is to find an ideal space. When choosing a studio there are several ways you can find the space that fits your photographic needs. This includes finding studios in your city, using event space sites such as Peerspace or even consulting the available options on AirBNB. If you’re starting off in studio photography, you should narrow your search to professional studios in your area. This is because studios such as these will come equipped with everything you need for an easy and quick set up.

You can find a studio near you by doing a simple Google search such as “photography studio (insert name of your city here).” This will give you a slew of results that you can choose from. When picking which photography studio to book you will want to look at the studio’s website to see where it is located, what options they have for renting out the space – hourly, half day or full day – and the price that it will cost. You can also find a suitable studio space by asking fellow photographers which space they have used before and if they have any personal recommendations for you.

Determine What Gear You Need

Once you have secured a studio space, you will need to figure out what gear you need for the shoot. Some studios are all-inclusive, meaning that they have a backdrop or white concrete wall – as well as lighting fixtures and the necessary stands. This is usually either a part of the package deal or is an extra added fee – either way, having all of your gear readily available will result in a less stressful setup process.

If the studio only offers the space, you will need to bring your own gear. The standard elements necessary for a photography shoot will include: some kind of backdrop, stands to hold that backdrop, lighting fixtures and stands, and a power outlet to plug in your gear. If you are tethering during your shoot, which means your camera is affixed to your computer and the images will appear on the screen as they are shot, you will also need a surface to rest your computer. We will touch more on this topic later.

In addition to the basic gear, you will also need to decide which kinds of props or design elements you may be adding to your shoot. Will this be a simple set up where the model will stand directly against the backdrop? Or will you want diversity will posing and add a chair or even couch on which you will photograph your subject? Figuring out your direction and vision for the shoot will help you decide which additional elements you need to acquire beforehand.

Rent the Gear or Purchase Your Own

If shooting in a studio isn’t something that you often do, you may want to consider renting your gear versus purchasing everything you will need. For example, the lighting fixtures and stands that you will use in your studio shoot, can potentially be rented from a photography store depending on where you live. As always, you can also reference your network of photographers and ask to borrow their gear for the day. Allowing someone to borrow your gear shows trust, so make sure you offer to pay them back in either financial compensation, lunch or a coffee.

Renting gear is a common practice by many photographers who may only need specific tools for a one day project. As lighting equipment can be a large financial investment, you should rent when possible. As for the other elements needed for your studio shoot, you will need to buy these from a suitable photography store. For backdrops, there may be places that allow you to rent these, but more times than none – a photographer will just purchase the backdrop for their shoot.

Effective backdrops for studio photography are usually in the form of paper Seamless or Savage options that come in a variety of colors and designs. You can find a photography store nearby that may sell these, order them through a site such as Adorama or B&H online or even purchase them off of Amazon, where you can usually find a selection of colored paper options.

Design Your Set

The final step to collecting and organizing your materials is to design the set that you are going to use. Your set will be an accumulation of your backdrop, lighting gear and any additional props or elements you sourced for the shoot. When designing your set, decide the intention and outcome you hope to achieve through your images.

If you are shooting a product or still life session, you will want to focus on the overall visual array of your elements and how they work together to create a story. If you are shooting a portrait session using a model, you will need to decide how the model uses the props.

Whether you bought specific elements for your studio session or used a prop warehouse to source these objects, remember that the best way to keep a well-maintained set is to stay organized. If you are shooting a variety of looks, keep your props in categories based on the order of which you will use them. Feel free to label them accordingly and add or take away any elements that aren’t working during the shoot.

Place Together Your Lighting Techniques

Now that your set is completely designed and ready to go, your last step to setting up is to add your lighting. Since you are starting in studio photography, you most likely do not have a specific lighting technique that you use. There are several methods and styles of lighting that you can use in studio settings. To give you a better idea of what options you can choose from, here are several methods of illuminating your subject:

Short Lighting

Short Lighting is a technique that is often used in darker portraits. It eliminates a large amount of light that is cast on the subject’s face and instead places more of the subjects face in the shadow. Short Lighting is used when you want to add a sculpting quality to your figure and give them a slimmer look.

The set up for short lighting is to place your light source to the right of your subject and have your subject turn their face towards the light source. With this, the side of the face that is away from the camera will be illuminated while the side that is closer to the camera will have more shadows. The result is that the majority of the face will have shadows in short lighting.

Broad Lighting

Broad lighting is different from the short technique as it requires the subject to turn their face away from the center position of the camera. Since the light source is still set up to the right of the subject, the main change is the positioning of the body of your model.

Having the model turn away from the light source, allows for a large area of light on the face and a smaller amount of shadows. This technique will give your subject a broader and wider appearance, so remember to only use this on someone whose facial features need to be widened. This can cause an adverse and unflattering effect on someone who is heavier or has a round face.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting refers to the butterfly-shaped shadow that is cast onto your subject. In this setup, the light source is above and behind the camera, causing the photographer to shoot under the light source. With this design, you will often create shadows under the nose and cheeks of your model.

You will want to situate your light source behind the camera and a bit above eye level or head level of your subject – in order to achieve the most flattering display, adjust this based on the height of your subject. Some photographers will use a flash as a harder light source to get definitive shadows. This helps showcase the model’s cheekbones.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is a term coined by the lighting technique the painter Rembrandt often used in his paintings. The mark of such lighting is the triangle is on the subject’s cheek. To create this style of light, you will need to have your subject turn away from the light. Place the light above the top of their head; this will allow the shadow from their nose to fall down along their cheek area.

Loop Lighting

Loop Lighting is a technique when you place your light source above eye level and between 30 to 45 degrees from the camera. The idea here is to create shadows on both the cheek and noses of your subjects, but in a manner in which they do not touch one another.

With this style of light, you want to create small shadows and adjust the light source based on your subject. A simple set up is to place your subjects against a backdrop, set up the light behind them and to the left and then add an additional reflector in the front of them to the right. This is an easy setup, and it works on most subjects.

Split Lighting

Split Lighting is the subject’s face is split in the light and shadows. This technique is a bit more dramatic, so it is best to decide which kind of subject this would be most appropriate for. To create the split technique, set up a light source 90 degrees to the left or right of your subject, in some cases you can place it slightly behind them.

Some subjects will have facial structures that are not ideal for split lighting, so make sure to test this technique out and adjust their position accordingly.

Setting up a Flash for Studio Use

In addition to the six lighting techniques we explained above, many studio photographers will use an off camera flash in their studio photography. The best way to kickstart this process is to use a flash speedlight with a diffuser in the form of an umbrella.

To use your flash off-camera, you will need to attach it to a lighting stand. Then, in order to create the lighting effect in which the light is bounced and diffused, you will set up the flash to point directly into your umbrella.

To break this technique down, even more, you can employ the use of feathering. Feathering refers to altering the light source’s position so that only certain parts of the subject are lit. This allows you to selectively choose which areas of your photograph you want to highlight and focus on. Feathering is done by setting up your softbox at a 45-degree angle toward your subject and then turning the softbox even a bit more to shoot past your subject. This will create a more shadowed effect, and thus you will have feathered your subject.

Tethering in Studio Photography

The last element that you should learn when shooting in a studio is how to tether your photography. Tethering refers to connecting your camera to your computer in order for your images to be saved directly onto your computer’s hard drive as you shoot. It is not necessarily required when shooting in studios, but for most professional projects – a client will want you to be tethered, therefore being a technique you should learn.

Tethering is helpful because you can see the images on your screen as soon as you are shooting them. This can actually increase your workflow, allowing you to examine each image and adjust your settings, focus or even light as needed. A client will be able to tell you whether they are in favor of the direction the images are going or even offer suggestions of how to fix posing. If a client sees an image they know they will use, they can tell the photographer that they have what they need and can move on to the next look.

Also, tethering can allow you to change your camera settings from the computer through your connected device. If you have a digital technician monitoring your screen, they can evaluate your settings and alter as needed. This means that if you are shooting and the digital tech notices that the images are overexposed, they can quickly make changes to your aperture or shutter speed without halting the shooting process.

Software with Tethering

With software systems you use with tethering, you can also organize and rate your images as you shoot. This can be effective if you have several looks you are capturing, you can easily sort the images into each of their appropriate folders. Additionally, if a client sees several images they specifically like – you have the ability to set a rating that will speed up the selection process. Since tethering allows your images to go straight onto your hard drive, you will also have a small chance of losing your images during the shoot.

To tether during your studio photography, you will:

  • Need to make sure your camera is able to image transfer with either RAW, JPEG or both file formats.
  • Need to buy the appropriate cord. Connect the camera to the computer using a TetherPro USB cable. The cables are black or orange depending on your equipment.
  • Use software that comes with your camera or purchase programs that support tethering and post production such as Capture One.
  • Have an external hard drive available to copy your images onto in the event that your computer’s hard drive has any technical issue or becomes full during the studio session.

Once you finish your studio shoot, make sure to properly store your tethering cord – as they can easily break if. Then, go through your images within your system and make sure that each folder is on your hard drive and external device – not just in the software system. Make sure to take note of any selections that the client wants. Tethering is a truly seamless and systemized way to streamline your studio photography and enhance your workflow.

Return the Studio its Original Condition

The most important part to remember when using a space for your studio photography is to take care of your area, clean up and return it to its original condition after the shoot. In many photography studios, the manager will evaluate before to take note of what gear you may be borrowing for the session and the general condition of the space. Afterward, they will do the same type of post evaluation in which they can add fees you may have incurred.

If you need more gear than originally stated, it is best to directly approach the studio manager during the shoot rather than waiting until the day is over to bring this up. This is because some gear will have additional costs and can be an added surprise to your final bill.

Just because you rent and a pay a fee to the studio, doesn’t mean they act as your clean-up crew. Make sure that everyone on set picks up after themselves, discards any trash they have and leaves the studio in the condition they found it.

Since you may want to use this photography studio again in the future, it is best to act accordingly, be a good customer and show respect to the space that they offered you. With this, you will be more likely to earn a positive review and reputation with the studio – making it easier to book with them again for other projects.

Final Tips

For beginners in studio photography, understanding the process of planning, organizing, setting up and executing your shoot is vital to creating your best images. Studio photography has far more moving parts than just showing up to a location with your camera. With studio photography, you will want to find the right space, rent or purchase the gear you need, design your set and choose the proper lighting technique for your subject.

Learning how to illuminate your subject’s features, create a softbox or feathered technique with an off-camera flash and even tether for an immediate view of your images are all tips and techniques used by studio photographers.