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Taking Amazing Studio Portraits On a Tight Budget

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Read Time: 15 min
This post is part of a series called Portraits.
Quick Tip: Simple Portrait Photography Tricks

So there I was in my socks, standing on a milk crate with a beautiful half-naked woman lying motionless on a painter's tarp in the middle of by bedroom floor. If someone had walked in at that moment, I would have had some serious explaining to do! I am not a serial killer, I am a professional photographer who uses the cheapest materials I can get my hands on to produce studio quality portraits. And I'm here to reveal how I get away with it.

First, we need to define what a studio portrait is. This may seem self-explanatory, but let's go over it anyway. For this tutorial, we'll define a portrait as a photo of a person or group of people in which the photographer directs the pose and position of the subject. We'll define a studio as a place where the photographer controls the background, the lighting and props.

In other words, in a studio portrait, you have control of everything. It is not an environmental portrait because you could not control the background. Because you have complete control over everything except your model's attitude and appearance, you have no excuses if your pictures don't turn out well. You're on your own, and it's all up to you.

The Final Effect

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Recommended Equipment

So let's look to that definition to determine what you're going to need. You'll need some people (or at least a person), but I'm going to talk about selecting and finding models later. So other than a subject, you'll need a background, some light and some props. Props are really optional, but I'll cover them later as well. Where most photographers get hung up is the light.


Now the words "cheap" and "budget" mean different things to different people. So although I'm going to recommend several options at a variety of price ranges, all them equate to a great value. The first and cheapest is just a simple light. Go the hardware store and pick up anything you see there. These lights are made to be bright and direct. Some come with reflectors, some come with two lights on a stand, some come with clamps. You kind find things starting at $10. There are several reasons why I'm recommending these over simple household lights. Hardware store lights are portable, they come with their own stands or clamps, and they often direct the light in a certain direction. Household lights are meant to sit in one spot and fill the room with a soft glow. See the difference?

The next step up is a camera strobe or flash, specifically a hot shoe mounted flash. Unlike the lights at a hardware store, these are not continuously on. They hook up to your camera and only flash when the camera shoots. The advantage of these is that you can adjust the intensity of the light and they can be brighter than continuous lights as well. They are also built for photography, so the light will be more even.

In this category, I'm going to recommend the Vivitar 285 which has been on the market for around 20 years and is still made today. The power can be manually adjusted and just about any camera will fire it. This flash is very portable, very easy to use, and it can serve the purpose of a regular camera flash because it can go on the top of your camera. These can be picked up for around $60 a piece.

The last category is a real studio strobe. These are big, and require a stand to hold them up. They recycle faster than hot shoe strobes, meaning it takes less time to charge the flash between shots. They usually plug into a wall, they accept a range of accessories, and are capable of producing powerful light. The recommendation for this category is the Alien Bee line of strobes. This company makes a variety of studio lighting products and they are extremely affordable.

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Lighting Controls

So you've got something to make light, now you need to control it. There are a variety of professional products that can purchased for a reasonable price. Lighting umbrellas are used to bounce the light, spread it out and make it softer. Soft boxes do the same thing, but are easier to control, and more expensive. Light can "spill" around the edges of an umbrella and the bouncing light can be a bit hard to predict. Soft boxes solve both of these problems.

For professional style strobes, you can also purchase grids, snoots and barn doors to focus the light down. These do the opposite of umbrellas and soft boxes. They create a small pool of light to accent a certain thing.

You'll be pleased to know that there are cheap alternatives to all of these things. Point your lights at the upper corner of a room where the ceiling meets the wall to create an impromptu umbrella. Use a bunched up plastic bag or bunch of fabric to spread out the light and create a softer light. To narrow the light, make your own snoot by using cardboard. Simply make a tube, preferably using something black to prevent the light from bouncing around, and put your strobe in one end. By shooting with your homemade lighting controls, you can learn to predict how they will work, and make some great pictures that look how you want them to work.

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A background, in the most general sense, can be anything. A brick wall, an old stair case, a corridor. But when we think of studio portraits, we think of solid-colored sheets of fabric, or vinyl or plastic or paper, or any of those things that have been painted with a texture or design. Let's call these "backdrops" instead of backgrounds.

There are a few simple techniques to getting around requiring a big studio with a big backdrop. The first is shooting "tight" or with a long lens. This will compress the space and there will be less background to deal with. You can also use a very shallow depth of field. Usually when using flash, it's too bright to open your aperture all the way up. So make sure your ISO settings are all the way down, ISO 200 or below. If your flashes are adjustable, turn them down as well.

Another technique is shooting from above. Most people have solid colored carpets or hardwood floors that can produce an appealing look when they are a little out of focus.

Now let's talk about physical backdrops. Muslim is a type of cloth that is used to make basic, "entry level" backdrops. A 10 x 12 piece of muslim can be purchased for between 40 and 60 dollars. The same size vinyl and canvas and plastic backdrop range from 100 to 300 dollars. Another alternative is "seamless," as it's called in the industry. This a really big roll of paper. Where it meets the floor, a swooping "seamless" effect is created because of the stiffness of the paper. Most commercial products are shot in this manner because it eliminates the line caused by the wall meeting the floor. It's good when shooting close to the ground or when shooting smaller objects.

Now for the budget backgrounds. Because today we have things like the Clone Tool and Photoshop, it's not as important for backgrounds to be completely flawless. When I want a white background, I'll use a painter's tarp, which can be purchased for as low as 2 dollars. The creases and wrinkles, which would have been tough for film/darkroom photographers to fix, can be touched up in post-processing with a computer.

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Anyone can get creative about making and obtaining props on a budget. The model in the main photo for this tutorial shops for her outfits in thrift stores. And, on the topic of clothes, feel free to expand your definition of clothes. In main photo, she's sporting an exclusive from my spring line. I call the look "Pillow Cases"... with safety pins to hold them on. A scarf, ribbons, or sheets or can be made to look like an actual outfit, and not something trashy.

It's also possible to make your own props. If you've ever been on a theater set, you'll know that everything is basically made out by scrap wood, paint and nails. You might not be able to build a dresser, but you might be able to build a dresser that you can fix in Photoshop!

On a smaller level, think craft shop. The stars in the main photo were made with a device called a Cricut, which is a programmable printer with a knife instead of ink. It can make a ton of different shapes on paper. Some scrapbooking stores allow you to rent these or use them in the store. Craft stores also stock the materials used to make jewelry, fake flowers and countless other things that can be used in photo shoots.

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Finding Models and Keeping Them Happy

If you're just starting out, you'll can do your first shoots with your friends or family. These have their own challenges. Just remember when dealing with people familiar to you that you've read this tutorial, which makes you smarter than them... Just kidding! Have fun, but be firm, and take the time to explain to your subjects why you want them do pose in certain ways or move to certain positions. This applies to all shoots, but especially ones with people who are comfortable enough to question what you're doing.

When you are ready to start finding models to build your portfolio, the easiest place to start your search is the internet. There are sites like Craigslist and Model Mayhem that are often used to hook up models and photographers. When shooting with a new model, there is a pretty strict etiquette that you should follow.

One, do not touch the model without asking first. They may have a stray hair or their hand may be an inch too high, but don't just walk up and touch them. It's very rude and can make some models extremely uncomfortable.

Two, be very careful when commenting on the appearance of the model. This is not a reality show! Once you're comfortable with a model, you can suggest make-up or sucking in a stomach. When starting out, realize that models want to look attractive. Suggest flattering poses. Telling a model to pull their shoulders back or pull everything "up" can be sometimes be just as effective as telling them to suck in their stomach.

Three, be interactive and demonstrate what you're looking for. Diving into the action and doing a pose yourself is a great way to break down the photographer/model wall. Put the camera down and approach the set. Explain what you're trying to achieve, and make jokes - about yourself, about the weather, about how your apartment has stupid carpet, putting your model at ease is very important.

Four, don't act like a serial killer! There are a lot of seriously creepy photographers that want nothing more than to shoot scantily clad girls in their basements. Don't be that photographer. If that's why you're interested in model photography, quit now. Being extremely professional will open a lot more doors for you an trying to force your model into doing something they aren't comfortable with.

A quick note on legitimate nudes. The nude form can be very interesting to shoot, but chances are you won't be breaking any new ground. It's been done before, a lot. Very few studio photographers get their chops shooting nudes and you'd probably be hard pressed to find a nude in any of their portfolios. So don't feel like it's something you have to do.

Lighting Strategies

So now you know how to act, you've got your budget kit all together, and you're ready to shoot. For my shoot with the stars, I was using two hot shoe flashes very similar to the Vivitar 285. One was directly to the left and one to the right. I was also using two umbrellas. When using low power lights like hot shoe flashes, it's best to keep the ambient light as low as possible. You can't over power a really bright window with a small flash, so close the blinds. But you can overpower most household lights, so those can stay on to help you focus and to make you seem less deranged.

For an overhead portrait where you're trying to achieve a smooth background, even light is important. So both of my flashes were set to the same power. More traditional studio setups use ratios where one light is set at half the power of the other, or even a quarter of the power of the other. The term one to two or one to four ratio is used to describe these. This means you are using a key light (or main light) and a fill light (to fill in the shadows created by the key light).

People also use back lights or rim lights, which are set up behind the subject and create a bright outline around them, setting them off from the background. You can also use accent lights, which accent a certain area. Accent lights are often focused with a snoot or grid. The most common accent light is called a hair light, usually directly above the model and pointed at the top of their head. If you buy two lights, you can use one for the key light and then use the second one to fill any of those other roles.

An easy and common lighting setup to begin with is called Rembrandt Lighting, named for it's use in the famous artist's painted portraits. For this, the key light 45 degrees to the left or right of the subject and 45 degrees above the subject. A second light can be used for fill on the opposite side of the subject at a lower power.

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Reflectors are, in fact, lighting controls, but I want to talk about them now because when you're on a budget, they can be used in place of an additional light. Professional reflectors can be purchased for around $50, but they can be improvised for much less. A big piece of white poster-board for foam core-board can work just as well.

When using a reflector, keep in mind where the light is coming from and at what angle is will bounce off the reflector. A dramatic side light, where the light is directly to the side of the subject, can easily be bounced from the opposite side to provide fill light. Overhead lighting can be bounced from beneath to fill in shadows as well. You can also use a mirror as a reflector, but you'll need to be much more precise about positioning it correctly because the light coming from the mirror will be very direct. That said, because it's so direct, mirrors make great substitutes from accent lights.

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Making Your Budget Studio Look Like a Million Bucks

Making any photo look good requires post-processing and always has. Whether it was in the darkroom or on a computer, just remember that every professional picture you see didn't look like that at first. While learning everything about Photoshop is huge undertaking, I'm going to cover a few techniques that were used for creating our main portrait. The following photo shows it straight out of the camera:

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First, I adjust the general tones of the photo using the levels function. I find levels much easier to master than curves. Many of the subtle textures, lumps and folds on the background can be eliminated by bringing up the highlights, controlled by moving the slider on the far right toward the center of the graph. I also increase the general contrast by darkening the shadows,controlled by the slider on the far left. The midtones are controlled by the center sliders.

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White backgrounds are extremely hard to keep exactly white. Many people would attempt to make it white using the color channel controls in levels or curves. You could also use the color balance function. I prefer in situations like this (where the background is a cyan color due to the flash) to use hue/saturation.

Open the dialogue box and the color selector by clicking "Master." Select cyan, and then to further specify the color selection, move your cursor back on to the photo. Your cursor should look like an eyedropper. Click on a portion of the background where the cyan color is strong. Then move the saturation slider to left to pull out the cyan color. This works well in many situations. The only time it will cause problems is when there is something in the photo that is supposed to be the color you're trying to desaturate. You can use the history brush to go back over those parts. Try this technique with photos under household lights with a strong yellow or orange cast.

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Clone Stamp

All the colors and tones should look right now. The only thing left to do is clean up that background. I use the clone tool instead of a regular brush because it looks less drastic and a little more natural. Set the softness of the brush at a low percentage. Start with a big brush working in open areas, then zoom in with a smaller brush to finish up.

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The Finished Effect

Studio portraits allow you to take complete control of the situation. You can take your time with getting the shot you want. You can shoot frame after frame making those small changes that will make your photo perfect, and the post-processing can be finely adjusted to make every detail pop.

Separating your photos from the rest of the pack really comes down to the co-operation of your model, and your idea. As I said earlier, the nicer and more professional you are with your models the better off you'll be.

As for ideas, only your creativity can hold you back. When seeking for inspiration, look to other forms of art like classical and modern painting and sculpting, but also don't be scared to go further out looking to music and film and literature. Many studio portrait artists draw on current events to come up with ideas. So start getting your kit together and start shooting!

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