Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Photo Studio Re-Configuration

My photography studio is like my second home. I moved into the new space (shown above) almost two years ago after tiring of having to drive all the way across town any time I wanted to use it. The new location is a mile from home so it's way more convenient but convenience came with a trade off - giving up warehouse-type  space with high ceilings and a lot more room.

Getting the space ready to move in
The building is approximately 1100 sq ft with a 10' long half wall that divides the front half of the space in two. The front half of the space is divvied up between my law office and my music studio. The entire back half is the photo studio. Since my law clients are all out of state national companies, I don't need conventional law office space for my law practice, just a place where I can make/take calls and prepare for my out of town cases. Having all three things under one roof is a dream come true - I can work, write/record music and shoot photos all in one place. Can you say Man Cave? 

When I first moved in, it was a challenge as to how to set up the lighting equipment to make the space work because of the limited floor space. The images above and below show the progress as I moved my equipment in. Oh, the mistakes I made and have lived with - until now.

I hung a hair light with a grid hung from a boom arm above the shooting area but because of the lower ceiling  the angled boom arm ended up in photos when shooting full length, vertical shots of my subjects. I made other mistakes as well, including how I positioned the key and fill lights in terms of distance from the backdrops (way too close). To make sure that I could use up to a 200mm focal length, I set things up assuming that I would need to position my subjects and key/fill lights close to the backdrops. That kept me from being able to use one backdrop - white seamless paper - when I wanted image backgrounds to look white, black or gray. Had I moved everything further away from the backdrops (key/fill lights and subjects), depending on how I used the key/fill lights and background lights, I could have used just the white backdrop to appear white, gray or black. But, because of the proximity of lights and subjects to the backdrop, light spillover made it impossible to make the white paper look anything but white, and at best, a very light gray. Forget about black. In order to get these colors into the background I had to use a gray or a black backdrop which meant perpetual backdrop changes.

Despite the setup shortcomings, I made the space work. I actually began to appreciate the intimacy of the smaller space but eventually I grew tired of having to photoshop the hairlight boom arm out of images. I finally modified the hairlight setup and placed lights behind and to the left/right of the shooting area with grids and a snoot to backlight hair and separate the subjects from the backdrops (see below).

Before attending Photoshop World, I began a total re-configuration of the lighting equipment at my disposal. All in all, I have the following monolights and light modifiers available for use (along with various reflectors), some of which are shown below after I began to move things around:
  • 4'X7' softbox
  • 60" Octagon softbox
  • 2'X3' softbox
  • 2'X2' softbox
  • 9"X36" strip softbox
  • two 1'X5' strip softboxes
  • Ring Flash
  • 22" Beauty Dish w/diffuser sock
  • 18" Beauty dish w/20 and 40 degree grids & diffuser sock
  • Assorted barn doors, grids and snoots for monolights
  • Various monolights ranging from 1000 watts/sec to 160 watts/sec

One of the most important aspects of re-configuring things was to back everything away from the backdrops. I came to the conclusion that I had enough room to back everything up and still use up to a 200mm lens so my subjects could stand 10' away from the backdrops. That is enough distance to allow me to use the white seamless paper as a backdrop that I can make to look white, gray or black depending on how I use the lights and my desired look. Another benefit is that on the few occasions I opt to use mottled backgrounds, they'll be blurred, something I've had to do in post-processing until now because of the depth of field generated by shooting at f11 (typically my working f stop). But even though I moved things around, I still knew deep down that the studio setup still wasn't totally right.

After returning from Photoshop World and attending classes taught by +Joe McNally+Frank Doorhof+Joel Grimes+Glyn Dewis and others, my instincts were dead on - more changes were necessary to maximize use of the space and my lighting options. I took down the 4'X7' softbox and replaced it with the 18" beauty dish for which I have two grids at my disposal. As so effectively demonstrated by Frank at Photoshop World, a gridded beauty dish provides some great lighting options that I had never used to my advantage even though I had the equipment on hand. After picking up the 22" dish, the 18" version has sat unused even though it was the only one for which I had grids. Now I can switch from one beauty dish to the other, depending on what kind of light I want, since both are in place and ready for use (one has a Bowens mount, the other a Photogenic mount so I can't use the same monolight for both dishes). The same goes for the hardly-ever-used ring flash, which until now I had sitting around rather than on a light stand, ready for use.

In retrospect, I can't believe I have let the ring flash linger in limbo as I have because it has such a unique lighting characteristic that definitely has a place when mixed in with other lighting setups. When the subject is positioned close to the backdrop, it creates a subtle but dramatic shadow all around the subject, virtually a trademark of Cosmo, Vogue and other high fashion magazine covers for many years (Above, L). It also creates a distinctive, circular catch light in the subject's eyes which I think is mucho-wow (Above, R).

Now that I've taken down the 4'X7' softbox from the monolight at camera left, it is now available at a moment's notice to position behind my subjects and used as a lit backdrop. Because of how cumbersome it is to put up and take down, I have resisted using it in this manner even though this technique generates some amazing images (above). When positioned behind a subject and metered properly, the light given off by the softbox wraps around a subject evenly from the rear, creating a soft wash of light that is spectacular. In conjunction with a beauty dish set up above the shooting position and angled downward at 45 degrees to the subject, the lighting rocks. I was turned on to this technique by +Scott Kelby after seeing an image he created using the above technique and reading his description as to how he shot it. My only deviation in the image above was to use add my 2'X2' softbox at floor level, angled upward towards the subject's neck, creating a clamshell type of lighting. Scott used a reflector to fill in the shadow below his subject's chin but I wanted less shadow so I went with another light.

I finally devised a way to hang two lights directly above/slightly behind subjects to serve as hairlights. First I had to replace the overhanging, always-in-the-way, superfluous ceiling fan with a flush mount light fixture. I then used two background support stands to run a 10' section of 1 1/2"  diameter pipe overhead.With light clamps attached to the pipe, I hung two 160 w/sec monolights. One of the lights is fitted with a 20 degree grid to tighten the light. Barn doors are also attached so I can fine tune the direction of the light. The other monolight is fitted with a snoot for very tight, focused light.

Two other steps in the re-work of the studio came thanks to a blog post by +Zack Arias. In the post, Zack describes and illustrates how he sets up a semi-permanent white backdrop sweep using white seamless paper for the background with two sheets of  "white board" serving as the surface on which subjects stand/sit. I've followed Zack's advice and now have a much improved shooting area (above). White board is available in 4'X8' sheets at any Home Depot or Lowe's for $12 bucks a sheet. It is nothing but 3/16" thick masonite with one surface having a somewhat glossy white finish that not only reflects light, it also reflects the subject in a very desirable manner. Another benefit is that the all-too-unavoidable dark smudges left by shoes on white seamless paper don't seem to result, at least not as noticeably, when walking on the white board. Instead of having to constantly pull more paper down and cut off the smudges during/after a shoot, what little smudging is created can be quickly cleaned up almost entirely after a shoot.

The other tip Zack provided is using a pair of 30" bi-fold doors ($35 bucks each at Home Depot) to provide a versatile gobo for background lights. After buying these bad boys, I discovered that the doors also serve as a great surface to attach 4'X8' sheets of foam core for use as side, fill light reflectors. I did as Zack suggested and painted the facing surface of the bi-fold doors flat black, but since I'm using the foam core sheets as fill reflectors, I did not do as he suggested and paint the opposite side with a semi-gloss white paint to serve as side fill. If I ever want to use the doors in this manner I can always paint them later on, but for now, I think the foam core will be just the ticket.

Photo courtesy of F.J. Westcott Co.
Photo courtesy of Ardinbir Studio

The cherry on top of my studio re-work is the addition of two types of light modifiers (above). +Joe McNally introduced me to the world of the 7' parabolic, shoot through umbrella (L) during his Photoshop World pre-con session. Using this baby in a one-light setup directly in front of the subject generates a gorgeous, soft light as Joe showed us. If and when I need to use a second large light modifier as fill light (in addition to the 60" octagon softbox) or as an option to my 60" octagon softbox, the Westcott 7' shoot through umbrella is incredible.

In order to create the oh-so-cool rim lighting technique used by +Joel Grimes, or to add dramatic side lighting on subjects, Joel turned me on to the virtue of gridded, strip softboxes. Using two gridded strip softboxes set up behind or to side of subjects, one on each side, opens up a whole new lighting world that I can't wait to explore.

I ordered all of the above and just learned that they have arrived, waiting for me to take to the studio after I return home from my current out of town trip.

I've been very fortunate to have had the luxury of photographing subjects who have made it virtually impossible for me not to have capture images that, despite my set up mistakes, allowed me to dodge many bullets in terms of the final product. Despite not having taken full advantage of my lights and modifiers, my subjects have saved the day. With the changes I've made, I hope to be able to generate even better images in the future.

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