DT&G Magazine Photography Department
The Design Center / & Photographic / In-House Photo Studio / Lighting & Diffusers  

Building an in-house photo studio, continued

Building the Studio

... should be done before noon!

Since you'll want this both flexible and easy to store carefully consider your options.

Option #1 Hanging Rack

This is as simple as suspending a bar from the ceiling, hung by two pulleys and a string rig for raising and lowering. I won't go into that rig since it's so simple and you'll enjoy the frustrations of getting it to work correctly. You can use a piece of 3/4 inch PVC plumbing pipe, or 3/4 inch electrical conduit for this. Buy a whole joint (20 ft.) because you'll need it.

To set up, simply lower the bar and clamp (or duct tape) your backdrop to it. Raise or lower for depth of stage -- how far you want your object to be from the backdrop. If you can't permanently affix eye-hooks and pulleys to your ceiling, you'll need to build some stands.

Option #2 Stands

This one is the most versatile and most fun to build. The kids will have a great time helping too! Set out for the local plumbing supply house and pick up an armload of PVC Pipe fittings along with your joint of pipe. We used the 3/4 inch variety for sturdiness. (see bill of materials)

The wonderful thing about PVC is it lasts for ever, (far longer than you or I will) it's easy to cut with an ordinary hack saw, and is clean to work with. All the fittings are made to work together so you can relive your childhood memories of playing with Tinker Toys.

The photo studio set The other key here is the PVC can be glued very easily using PVC cement for strong, permanent bonds. (Make sure the room is ventilated or you'll be seeing strange creatures darting around corners in your peripheral vision.) In the same respect PVC fittings are made for nice tight fits so they don't have to be glued if you want to have the ability to take it apart or change sizes. (You can also outfit your entire home with furniture made of PVC pipe, but that's another story.)

Okay... looking at the diagram and the bill of materials should visually show you everything you have to know. Just make sure to measure and cut the legs to the same length and you're off and running. Once again, clamp or tape the backdrop material to the cross-rod.

Light Stands

The light stand is also made of PVC or suspended from the ceiling. Ours is an old microphone stand picked up at a yard sale for $3.00 which has a 30lb. base. We like a mono-pole configuration rather than another tripod so that we can get the lights closer to the subject if need be. One vertical pipe on a heavy base should do the trick. Make the light holder movable with a slightly larger ring of PVC which slides up and down the pole adjusted by a clamp.

We use the $3.95 clamp-on light-bulb holder from the hardware store with the Photofloods. (You'll need a couple of these.) When they start smoking you know it's time to turn them off. (Thus the extension chord with a switch for easy control of the lights!)

You'll want several light sources. Sometimes you want to wash the subject in diffuse light and, at the same time, wash the backdrop with direct light. A piece of cardboard with a hole in it converts your light to a Snoot. (You did read the part about Snoots didn't you?)

Be flexible. Test and experiment.

Let's get shooting!

Let's shoot... get creative. For starters you'll want a simple set-up. Your best all-round agency shot will be with the softbox just over the camera pointing down at the subject. If you want the light to fall off the background you'll have to hold up a card to block the light from hitting the background. (It's called a "barn Door")

With a digital camera you can experiment with all sorts of set-ups and see the results real-time. In the old days (and sometimes still today) we Polaroid the shot first to see how we're doing.

High side lighting simulates daylight... low side lighting adds drama. Overhead lighting flattens the scene... be sure to have a reflector in the front to bounce light up into the 'face' of the subject.

Once you get going you'll want to experiment. Try a gold colored reflector to warm things up. Try a light blue one to cool things down. If you're shooting a shiny object... plumbing fixtures, jewelry or silverware try several different colored reflectors positioned around the subject. Now you're painting color into the object's reflections.

We once shot over 100 auto gauges for VDO, the German automotive instrument company. They just didn't look right until we put two gray reflectors in front of them. (See VDO" story.)

Another time we were shooting brass castings for Colonial Williamsburg (at right) and had to drape the entire set with white sheets in order to eliminate all the reflections we didn't want! This is called a 'tent.' (Dennis Curtin explains "Tents") Once the set was completely tented all that could be seen in the reflection was a little dot... the camera lens peeking through a hole in the sheet!
Note in the "Duck" below, you can see the camera slit.

Lighting brass duck Bookends

Later we were shooting bathroom fixtures for Kohler and nothing worked... except the full tent. Then they just went dead. To add pizzazz we took brightly colored ribbons of construction paper and pinned them to the inside of the tent... flecks of color now "seen" by the highly polished surface -- results were very handsome indeed.

Don't let the Photoshop geeks tell you to just "build in the reflections" -- the best results are when reflections are actually "seen" by the object being shot. Besides, you can probably get the shot in 20 minutes rather than taking 4 hours in Photoshop to get the job done.

VDO Cover For something different how about using a sheet of milk acrylic as the backdrop, and light it from below! Or perhaps try etched, screen printed Formica... it comes in a staggering array of selections. (At right)

Then there are fabrics or carpets... hundreds of different kinds... limited only by your imagination. Let your creativity flow... move the camera around... move the lights around... try everything. Be crazy. Be flexible. Test and experiment. Trust me... you'll love the experience and you'll turn out some unanticipated results that your client will be happy to pay dearly for. (Just don't tell them about the duct tape!)

...when you're done, send us a sample!

Tip: most of all this also works with the point-n-shoot cameras. Once again experiment with quantity of light and different film speeds. You'll astonish yourself.

Let's review:

Introduction: Getting Started
Backgrounds, reflectors, diffusers, etc.
Tenting... the VDO story


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