Build a Photo Studio of Your Own

by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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Last month I wrote about how photographs can create your visual style and illustrated the column with ''brand'' material from my friend, New York jewelry designer, Bess Heitner. These images showed how consistent lighting and backgrounds are key elements in creating a body of work.

In my studio I photograph all sorts of craftwork--from pins to pots and it has to be very flexible space. For most artists, setting aside a small shooting space in their studio or office is a great way to get consistent images of their work. A permanent (or semi-permanent) space also allows you to document work as soon as you complete it, which can help get your craftwork to market faster.

Not long ago, assembling a photo studio was a daunting and costly task. Studio equipment was only available from large camera stores in major metropolitan areas and lights, stands, backgrounds, and such were often cost prohibitive. Now, thanks to the web--and China's industrial explosion--much has changed.

Today two and three-light studio kits are sold online on websites such as Amazon.com, eBay, and www.tabletopstudio.com at a fraction of what they cost just a few years ago. A complete photo studio kit generally sells for $150-$500 and includes matched or CFL (compact fluorescent light) lamps, light stands, reflector housings, photo umbrellas, and sometimes background stands and backgrounds.
Lighting and Background

Find a space someplace

Photography Space The marvelous thing about photography is that a photo is a narrow slice of the world as viewed through a viewfinder--no matter how messy and disorganized your real world working space may be, through the lens work exists in a neat and sparkling universe. The size of your work determines how much space you will need for your crafts universe. My rule of thumb to determine the size of the shooting space--and the size of the background paper you need--is that it should be at least four times the major dimension of the largest piece to be photographed.

For instance, a vase that is one-foot tall needs a vertical space of at least four-feet tall. A pendant that is two-inches wide requires a horizontal space of at least eight inches. Once this dimension is found the other dimension should be about three-quarters of this. The vase needs a space about three-feet wide, while the pendant needs six inches vertically. Knowing the size of the space helps determine the size of background paper needed.

Begin by looking around your office or workshop for a place to house the studio. Try to find somewhere the studio can be left up and ready for use. A dark corner is the perfect place for a small studio because the darkness means that the studio lights will be the main source of illumination and you won't have to worry too much about extraneous light sources such as daylight or interior lighting affecting the pictures.

Get it right with lights

Studio lighting was once very problematic. Choices were limited to expensive electronic studio flashes and much cheaper, and very dangerous hot lights. Hot lights (500 and 1000-watt tungsten floodlights and quartz-halogen lamps) consumed a lot of electricity and wasted most of it as heat rather than light. These lights were hot enough that inadvertently touching one could lead to nasty burns--I have the scars to prove this. Thanks to several technological advances there now are options that are relatively inexpensive and much, much safer.

CFL bulbs are rapidly replacing standard tungsten filament lights. They consume far less energy, and while they do get warm, they do not get hot.

The other new lighting source is the Light Emitting Diode (LED). These tiny lights are ganged together in arrays of several dozen or several hundred units. These arrays produce a lot of light using very little energy and no heat. A typical LED array produces a sparkling “daylight” light and will have a useful life measured in thousands of hours. By comparison an old tungsten floodlight had a useful life of perhaps eight hours.

Electronic studio flashes remain the primary lighting source for many professional photographers who specialize in portrait and fashion photography. The electronic flash is very short (1/10,000 second) and they require separate flash meters to determine correct exposures. This makes them difficult to work with and not something useful for most craftspeople.
Lighting

Lighting Light modifiers like photo umbrellas that come in these kits are very useful for studio work. They let you soften the lights to reduce glare and to expand the tonal range of the work in the photos. Umbrellas are available in several types of surfaces: translucent white, crinkly shiny silver, gold, etc. I prefer translucent white umbrellas.

Photography Studio Basic Needs
  • A suitable space
  • A background paper or two
  • One or two continuous light (cool) lamps and stands
  • A tripod with a ball head
  • One or two photo umbrellas or soft boxes (optional)
  • A light tent (optional)
Tents aren't just for camping

Light tents are a popular accessory for photography. Basically these collapsible boxes with translucent sides diffuse the light from the lamps which lowers the contrast in photos of shiny work. Tents come in a variety of sizes, from tiny 12-inch cubes for jewelry to tents large enough to drive a car into. They are particularly handy if your studio isn't permanent and you need to dismantle it after each use. For handy storage, with a flick of your wrist, a light tent can be collapsed into a flat package about a third of its open size.

Tripods: The Three-Legged Helper

Tripods Tripods make all sorts of photography easier and I think they are essential for craftwork. They provide a rigid and stable support for the camera which allows shooting at small apertures (F/11 and F/16) for the best sharpness and depth of field. However, small apertures mean long exposure times--usually longer than 1/15th of a second. Hand-holding a digital camera with long exposure times produces blur due to camera shake. While digital cameras have sophisticated image stabilizer systems to reduce camera shake blur, nothing beats a tripod for sharp photographs.

Tripods also allow for repeatability so that once an image is framed and the tripod is locked in place, the same precise image can be taken again and again. This means that after reviewing an image on the camera's LCD, display, adjustments can be made to aperture and exposure to improve the photo. A hand-held camera makes it very hard to review the image and reframe accurately. The choice of a tripod depends on the size of your camera. A big DSLR with a heavy zoom lens will require a larger tripod than you'll need for a compact camera. Most tripod listings indicate the maximum weight for each unit. Look for a tripod with a ''ball-head'' which really makes framing easier.

Shoebox studio on a shoestring budget

Sometimes setting up a photography studio in your craft studio requires thinking outside the box--or in this case inside a shoebox. I made this desktop studio in a shoebox in about twenty minutes just to demonstrate how easy it is to create a working photo studio. I cut one of my wife's shoeboxes in half, used a piece of white paper as a background, and some household aluminum foil as a makeshift reflector. I mounted the camera on a tripod and used a carved stone Buddha by sculptor Art Sweeney as my test subject. Despite its utter simplicity, my quickie shoebox studio worked quite well, clearly illustrating how the image in a photograph can be very different from the real world.


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