DT&G Magazine Photography Department
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Building an in-house photo studio

Easy and inexpensive

Our article on the Swiss Watch and a number of other references to our in-house photography studio has promped a wave of inquiries from readers. Since Dennis Curtin is presenting an elegant presentation on digital photography for us, it seemed only fitting that we share some of our experiences down here in the trenches.

For years we've done our own in-house photography when it came to small objects, products or details within the scope of our home-made studio. Early on I learned many tricks while working with Master Photographer Hubert Gentry -- whom I still rely on once the job goes beyond 35mm format. Sometimes I need a particularly spectacular results that I just can't get this side of New York -- so I call Hubert.

An in-house studio, or "Desktop Studio" is not difficult to set up, nor should it cost you very much. Don't think for a minute that this is the complete and full story. It's only meant to give you the basics that I know will work for you. There are hundreds of variations on this subject and I expect to hear from those of you who have similar studios. Let's hear your tips too!

Four rules for an in-house photo studio:

1. Scalability: Don't bite off more than you can chew. Set up to handle only that which will fit comfortably onto a tabletop. Once you leave the realm of objects larger than about 2-feet cube you're asking for trouble or a huge expense in equipment.

For many of our clients who manufacture small objects the tabletop is perfect. For larger objects, furniture, people, automobiles and elephants we urge you to hire a professional, you won't be sorry.

2. Plan to be mobile. You won't want the rig hanging around all the time -- unless you have hundreds of shots to do. We've used hooks and various pulleys attached to the ceiling over our 4' x 8' work table as the staging area. Lights, reflectors, and tents can all be suspended and adjusted from the ceiling.

3. Test, test, test. (Then go back and test again!) Let me make a sober note at this point. From the first shot in your new in-house photo studio keep a notebook. Note the object, its distance from the backdrop, where the lights are and what combinations of reflectors you used. This info will come in very handy once your name gets around and the big clients start knocking on your door.

4. Lighting is everything: Repeat after me: "Lighting is everything." With the right lighting even some of the lower cost cameras will do a surprising job. Say it again: "Lighting is everything."

Okay... let's build an in-house studio.

You'll need a good, sturdy tripod, extension cords and a switch box to run the lights remotely. You'll also want an assortment of various clamps, some clay, and don't forget the Duct Tape.

Open the Diagram - it should pop up in a second window. That way you can keep it handy -- we'll be referring to it throughout the piece. Additionally there's a bill of materials in case you get serious about this project.

You'll need a lot of other stuff ... like...

Lighting & Snoots

In the old days we used to use photo lamps. Then we switched to a Paul C. Buff White Lightning 10,000 studio flash with a 36" x 36" soft box -- which kicks butt when it comes to traditional film photography.

With the advent of digital photography I went to the store-room of our facility and dug out the case of Sylvania BLUE Superflood bulbs and discovered that after 15 years they still work. There were twenty of them and the price tag still on the box of $3.40 each. Don't expect to get that lucky. In today's marketplace you're better off slipping over to the Price Club or Cosco and pick up a good daylight Video/Cam Corder lamp. You shouldn't have to pay more than about thirty bucks, tops.

Sidebar: What's a "Soft Box"? -- it's a shroud that goes around the light source forcing the light through a fabric diffuser. The inside of the box should usually be aluminum foil lined as a reflector. You can take the diffuser off if you like, and put the Video lamp inside, pointed up into the box and the whole rig becomes an umbrella. Either way, it's a source of diffused light... which you'll see is the key to success. (Here's some info on flash from Dennis Curtin. )


In a moment we'll refer to the diagram again to see a typical desktop photo studio set-up. One light off to the right-hand side (#6) of the diagram is functioning as a snoot.

If the object you're shooting is round or perhaps a dark color, a snoot is a hoot.

Cut a hole in a sheet of black card and adjust it BEHIND the subject so that the light hits only the subject. Now you've got edge lighting which gives definition to the object. Be careful that the camera doesn't see it, or become effected by the light coming toward it. (Ever try to photograph something black? You'll need a snoot for that! See "VDO" cover story.)

To get the lights to do what they're supposed to you'll need...

Light Diffusion ...


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