Making pro-quality images at home is relatively easy, as illustrated in two of my KelbyOne classes Transform Your Home Into a Professional Photography Studio, Part 1, and Transform Your Home Into a Professional Photography Studio, Part 2. In this article, I’ll add to the info I shared in those classes. I’ll also sum up my basic photo philosophy of setting up and shooting in a homemade studio. Let’s go!

Set a Goal 

In photography, as in life, setting a goal is important. If we don’t set a goal, how the heck do we know where we’re going? In the case of a home studio, when I talk about setting a goal, I’m talking about the “look” of the model;
the background; lighting; and most importantly, the goal of creating a mood or feeling in a photograph. 

My goal for this shoot was to get a few dramatic steampunk-style portraits (not a million different shots) of Glo Gonzalez, the daughter of my good friend, Gonzalo Gonzalez. The steampunk idea was actually inspired by a photo I saw of one of my fellow KelbyOne instructors, Trey Ratcliff, wearing a pair of cool steampunk goggles. 

While doing a search for the goggles on, I found steampunk outfits, costume jewelry, and even a background. After checking with Glo on her size, I placed my order about a month before my home studio shoot. 

So the idea here is this: If you have an idea/goal of how the photographs will turn out before your model arrives, it will save you and your model time and frustration during a shoot.

Once you have your main idea, keep “noodling” it around in your brain. You may come up with new-and-improved ideas. While on my daily morning walk, I was thinking about the concept of steampunk, and the idea
of steam came into my mind. So guess what? I ordered a fog machine from Amazon to add some “steam” to my photographs. The one shown here only cost $35, and the fog fluid only cost $10. 

When using a fog machine, keep this in mind: Smoke alarms don’t like fog! The first time I used one (a year before my steampunk shoot), I set off the fire alarm in my house. So, be sure to deactivate your fire alarm before a fog-machine shoot—and then remember to reactivate it!

Create a Set 

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at my home studio set. Actually, the set is in the opposite side of my office from where I’m writing this article. 

The rear wall is 13′ wide, but you don’t need a wall that size to set up a home studio. My steampunk background is only 6′ wide. The soft background is attached to the wall with pushpins for easy setup and takedown. (Note the brick wall background; I’ll get back to that at the end of this article.)

Choose the Right Lens 

Visualizing the end result also involves thinking about which lens is best for the job. I was going to use constant lights (Westcott Spiderlites), so I knew I needed a fast lens because constant lights put out less light than studio strobes and speedlites (which fire at about 1/10,000 of a second). A lower light level also means shooting at a higher ISO (which increases noise). 

I wanted a relatively clean (low-noise) image, so I selected my Canon 85mm f/1.4 lens, which lets more light into the camera than a slower, say, f/4 lens. I also selected that lens because it’s one of my favorite portrait lenses, letting me work relatively close to my subject for a more personal shoot—a shoot in which I can easily communicate with the subject. What’s more, the closer you are to the subject, the more intimate the photograph becomes. The same goes for wildlife photography by the way. 

As it turned out, my settings were: ISO 1,000, f/7.1, and 1/200 of a second. I could have used a lower ISO, but I wanted deep depth of field, getting both the subject and background in focus. I shot at 1/200 of a second because I was moving around and wanted to avoid camera shake. My lens was mounted on my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame camera. 

Lighting Is the Key 

In the previous behind-the-scenes photograph of my set, you’ll notice that only the main light on the right is turned on. That’s because I wanted portraits with shadows. A second light on the left would have filled in the shadows, creating a less dramatic portrait. To illustrate that point, the test picture below left was taken with two lights, and the picture on the right, the more dramatic picture, was taken with one light.

As my fellow KelbyOne instructor Frank Doorhof says, “If you think you need two lights, use one light. If you think you need three lights, use one light.” Frank’s point is that you can do a lot with just one light. 

And quoting Joe McNally, another awesome KelbyOne instructor, “If you want an interesting portrait, don’t light the subject’s entire face.” 

Getting back to my behind-the-scenes shot, you’ll notice a small light just to the left and near the top of my steampunk background. That’s a ProMaster LED light with barn doors, which I used as a hair light. The barn doors help to direct the light toward the subject and keep it from falling on the front element of my lens, which could cause lens flare. 

This pair of photographs (above) not only illustrates the difference between two main lights (for even light) and one main light (for more dramatic light), but they also illustrate some other important portraiture points:

  • When you photograph a subject straight on, the picture looks flat, as opposed to photographing the subject at an angle, which adds a sense of depth to an image.
  • One main light produces one catchlight in the subject’s eyes; the more lights you add, the more catchlights you get, which can be unflattering.
  • If you darken the edges of your photograph, the subject will be more prominent in the image.
  • Having the subject tilt her chin downward gives her a great sense of power in a photograph.
  • A hair light placed directly behind the subject (below left) illuminated the hair for what’s sometimes called “Hollywood Lighting”; placing it off to the side (below right) adds a nice sheen to the hair.
  • The difference between cool light (below left) and warm light (below right).

Here’s a closer look at the front panel of the soft­box in which the Spiderlites are mounted. Two things of importance: First, the diffusion panel is recessed, which gives more control over the spill and sharpness of the light, as opposed to an umbrella which spreads the light all over the place. Second, I added an accessory egg-crate grid, which gives even more control over the direction of the light, which was important in this case because I wanted to keep the light mainly on the model and slightly off the background. 

Never Underestimate 

This short-and-sweet tip applies to all your photography: Never underestimate the importance of a good subject. If Glo had been behind the camera and I had been the subject, my guess is that you may have passed over this article.☺

Shoot Tethered/Wireless 

When I shoot in a studio, I shoot tethered or wireless, which lets me transfer my images quickly to my laptop. The main idea is that it makes the photo shoot more interactive, letting the model see a large image compared to squinting to see a small image on a camera’s LCD monitor. Also, the session becomes more interactive, as well as more fun. Of course, shooting tethered or wireless also lets you see a large image, helping you to spot potential mistakes. 

Remember Who’s Looking 

When taking a portrait, keep this photo expression in mind: The camera looks both ways; in picturing the subject, you’re also picturing a part of yourself. 

In other words, you’re a mirror. Your mood, body language, gestures, expressions, and tone all affect how a model reacts. So if you want a serious expression on your model’s face, look and act seriously, and vice versa. Also keep in mind that silence is deadly during a photo shoot, so keep talking and keep it lively. 

Process with Purpose 

Karsh of Ottawa, one of the greatest portrait photographers/artists of all time, used to spend weeks in the wet darkroom processing his pictures. He processed with purpose. Because Glo “glowed” during our photo shoot, I came up with the idea to add a glow to one of my pictures. Here I processed with purpose, using Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 5 to add the glow and light rays. 

Here’s a screen grab of just one of the many Exposure 5 windows. The plug-in offers endless options for creative photographs. You can actually control the direction and intensity of the light rays, in both black-and-white and color. 

Compare these two photographs of Glo. The image on the left is a straight shot, and the picture on the right was enhanced with Nik Color Efex Pro. 

Both of my plug-in-processed images have something in common: I removed some of the reality from the scene. You see, when you remove some of the reality, a picture can, but not always, look more creative. 

Here’s a screen grab of the Nik Color Efex Pro window I used to create my image. Over on the right, you can see I used four filters: Darken/Lighten Center, Duplex, Glamour Glow (for Glo), and Image Borders (which I actually cropped out after seeing the processed image). 

Speaking about cropping, you’ll notice in my processed image that
I cropped out Glo’s shoulders. Those lighter areas at the edge of the frame drew attention away from the main focus of the photograph,
Glo’s face.

Have Fun! 

Here’s another quick tip: If you’re not having fun, the subject won’t have fun. So try to keep it fun, and take fun shots, too. Also, as I say in my photo workshops, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”

Well, my friends, I hope you can see how easy it is to make professional-quality images in your home. I used the same basic set for these two images. On the left is Glo as my model for my Finding Frida (as in Frida Kahlo) image, inspired by a poster I saw on line of the painter. On the right is my Re-creating a Rembrandt image, inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, Old Soldier.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the brick background in my studio. That soft material background, too, is attached to my wall with pushpins. It also came from 

Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot of my home studio set during the recording of Part I of my Breathtaking Bird Photography class on KelbyOne. As you can see, I used two Westcott Spiderlites with grids for softer, more flattering lighting—and to reduce the amount of light falling on the background. 

Okay, now it’s your turn to turn your home into a professional portrait—or even video—studio!

This article originally published in Issue 40 of Lightroom Magazine.