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Creating a Hip Hop Stage in the Studio


Part of having a studio space, whether that's a spare bedroom or an industrial warehouse, is the ability to create the illusion of location, whether through set building, lighting design or even straight compositing. I've wanted to do a music-themed portrait shoot for several months now, to build the illusion of a stage without having one. In this tutorial, I'm going to lead you through my vision for the shoot and decisions I had to make.

Think About the Location

Before designing or building anything, consider your imaginary location. What do you need to recreate it? Does it need to be exquisitely detailed, or can you get by with hints? Not only are hints easier, but by simplifying the subject's environment, there's a good chance the image will be stronger for it.

This doesn't work with all shots, though. Take a high fashion or fine art shoot in an abandoned Victorian country manor, for example. If you're trying to build a vignette set-piece to recreate this, the wood panelling, peeling paint, broken floorboards and carved balustrades are the details in the background which make the subject stand out and the image itself authentic. Draping, say, a piece of dull green fabric over a dark-stained door is not going to result in a competing image. It will look cheap and inauthentic.

For my shoot, the question is what detail of the stage do I need to bring. This is informed by high-end music photography in general. What is included in the images and what isn't? Well, if you look at most of it, the photographer is framing or cropping out random bits of gantry, stray edges of cymbals in the corner, water bottles, etc.

They aim for a clean, black background as far as possible and allow the performer to shine in the moment. This indicates to me that realistically all I need is a big black background, which is nice and easy.

If you have a vision, you can transform anything... Even this!
If you have a vision, you can transform anything. Even this!

Props and Wardrobe

Once you know what you're doing to make your location appear real, you have to know how to add authenticity to your subject through props and wardrobe. I have a mic and a couple of real mic stands. This "real stuff" should be sufficient for me to get the look I want by trying various combinations.

The bottom one I use for screencasts and voiceovers since it reaches over the desk.
The bottom one I use for screencasts and voiceovers since it reaches over the desk. The mic is a little small, but I didn't have time to hunt a regular size one down.

I also have a couple of guitars and music stools, should I want to work those into the shoot.

If you're doing some kind of otherworldly shoot, like sci-fi or fantasy, the props are what cement your character in that world. Look at the details in the props we see on the silver screen. Would we believe Mark Hamill was on a desert planet and not in Africa if ILM hadn't created his lightsaber and speeder in incredible detail?

Wardrobe is no different. Just like props, it tells a story. Itinerant? Fantasy king? Detroit factory worker? South Pacific yachtswoman? What they're wearing will tell their story as much as the expression on their face; not only in what it is, but how it's worn and how it's weathered.

What concerns me more for this shoot is that I'm using a model rather than an actual musician. He's a model with some degree of musical practice, so at least he can hold an instrument, but he's unlikely to have the stage presence of a professional performer. This is where the acting aspect of modeling comes into play.


Lighting can be a killer. Even if you've nailed the first two aspects above, it has to be lit appropriately to sustain the fantasy of being not-in-a-studio. Whether this is realistic natural lighting or the opposite (as in my case), matching the lighting to your simulated location is vital.

Remember, however, that location lighting can change the lighting of a location (obviously). So instead of matching the ambient lighting that your location would have (a huge broken window in the manor or the two hard suns on Tatooine), you can create lighting that suits the mood or emotion of your set.

For this music portrait, I'm putting my guy on a "stage." So my lighting is going to need to match stage lighting. This means primarily tight beams, with diffusion from smoke.

Now you don't have to put up with my indecipherable scrawls.
Now you don't have to put up with my indecipherable scrawls. The camera was further back than that though, about six or seven feet from the subject.

My plan going into this was to create two spotlight panels by taking a pair of 24" softboxes and taping an opaque sheet of poster stock across the front with 16 circular holes in. I'd use an underpowered gridded beauty dish from front-left to provide some fill to maintain face detail, but not kill the ambience of the beams through the smoke.

I'd then use three snooted speedlights for three more lancing spotlights: one from the back left for a rim on the left shoulder, one from the right as a key on the face, and another one just floating around wherever I decided to put it.

The spotlight arrays are created with cardboard gobos over 2' softboxes. I used some two-part gridded snoots to mark out the dimensions (4" holes, 2.5" apart) for cutting, and then loosely sprayed them flat black to reduce their visibility in the shot.

Amazing what a cardboard box can become!
Amazing what a cardboard box can become!


Here I'm just testing the lighting setup. At this point, I'm not bringing in the smoke yet because I want to get the lighting pretty much locked before I start spraying smoke everywhere. Shooting a little before adding smoke will also give me options later in the edit and in post should I need them.

Because I was going to be dealing with five lights, I wanted to bring them in one at a time. So I started with the right "spot array" strobe, and adjusted power, shutter speed and aperture until I was happy. The point here is to all but eliminate the room itself and allow the darkness to create a sense of depth.

Opening up to f/5.6 showed a little more studio than I'd like, but it was needed to get the lights to flare.
Opening up to f/5.6 showed a little more studio than I'd like, but it was needed to get the lights to properly flare.

When I see this on the back of the camera and realise that my gobo is working, this is the point where I start getting excited.

There's a little bit of studio visible, but nothing that's a dead giveaway, and will probably end up obscured by smoke anyway. Next I brought in the rear speedlight on 1/64th power since it's almost pointed at the lens, and the gridded beauty dish.


The light is still well controlled, but the Einstein is quite hot on the floor, given that it's going to end up very close to the model's face. I found it was turned up to -2.0EV (1/4) power, so I turned it down to -4.0EV, which improved matters.


Still a little hot for my liking, I wasn't really trying to get huge amounts of light on the model's face, so I turned it down another 1.5 stops when I added in the left array. I only had four wireless receivers for the five lights, so the cable at the back is the StudioMax telephone sync cord.


Looking pretty good! Finally, I added in the low front-right speedlight, using a blue gel to tell how much effect it's having. I don't really want it to blow out the subject's face with ghoul light, just fill in any shadows left by the beauty dish.

Just the right amount of blue on the right side of the face.
Just the right amount of blue on the right side of the face.

I want some dramatic shading, but I don't want it to go to black and merge with the background. I haven't set the "floating" speedlight, but I don't know what I want to do with that yet at this point, so I just left it to be used on the fly during the session. With that, the lighting's all set!

Where There's Smoke?

Ok, so now I have the lighting set as well as I can without knowing exactly how it's going to respond to the smoke. Waiting for the smoke machine to warm up, I fastened the wobbly gobos down with more duct tape so they didn't fall on the model's head, and set the camera on a tripod. Since I knew the look I wanted for the shoot, I wasn't really concerned about alternate angles.

I turned the lights back on and tested it for a little while, trying to figure out how to get the best-looking volumes of smoke whilst also getting it fairly homogeneous throughout the volume in front of the lens. It turned out to be rapid staccato bursts, which allowed some to be pushed further across the frame, while the later puffs wouldn't have as much force behind them and stay further to the left.

What CAN'T a smoke machine improve?!
What CAN'T a smoke machine improve?!

So one final tweak to make sure that all the snoots are pointing in the right direction, the smoke is looking right, the flash powers are all looking right with the smoke, and we're good to go.

I should use this for a profile pic.
I should use this for a profile pic.

The Shoot

Because I already had exactly what I wanted in my head, there wasn't really any need to move around or change it up a lot. In the end, I decided to keep it simple with the props and wardrobe: just the mic and stand, and one change of shirt. I really wanted to keep it short, energetic, and focus on the expression and emotion.

I was thwarted in this by the smoke machine frequently having to reheat, and the left array strobe having a dubiously long recycle time at full power (more than the other, identical strobe). These two things made life very difficult and cost me some good moments, but in the end, I got what I needed.


Some fun images in spite, or maybe because, of the frequent smoke/lighting failure! While I don't have everything in a single shot, I have enough to create more or less what I was seeing in my head. So let's look at how I did the post-production.


Final Image

So after all that, the result is this.

Check out a larger version on 500px.

I've carefully covered constructing your lighting to hide the dimensions of your shooting space, I've looked at how important it is to not skimp or cheap out on props, wardrobe and location (within reason, of course) to build authenticity, and how to take instruction from the best examples of your intended goal in order to improve your shot. To a certain extent, I've also tried to stress that ultimately it's the expression of the subject which makes or breaks a portrait.

This time my shoot was relatively straightforward, but stay tuned for upcoming tutorials where I have to put all of those concepts to the test.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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