How to Set Up Your Home Photography Studio for Under $500
Links updated September 2019
A lot of photographers prefer to shoot using natural light. However, there are times when this is not enough or when shooting with natural light may not be feasible. In these cases, a professionally lit home studio is desirable. Here's how you can set up your own home studio for under $500.
Lighting Kits & Accessories
Strobe vs. Continuous Lighting
There are two basic kinds of studio lights – strobes and continuous lights. Continuous lights can heat up pretty quickly and can be uncomfortable for talent to work under. For this reason, I prefer strobes. But given a limited budget, either will work well. Personally, I prefer flash units, with some caveats. First, ensure that the unit you buy is able to speak to or communicate with your camera and vice versa. Second, always buy strobe lighting that can be triggered by radio triggers. Radio Triggers are a wireless based system that activate your studio lights and flash guns in sync with your camera. Finally, make sure your strobe lighting is supported by through-the-lens (TTL) metering, which means the intensity of light reflected from the scene can be measured through the lens, in contrast to necessitating an external hand-held light meter. LimoStudio sells a popular softbox continuous lighting kit for $75 that comes with stands. Likewise, LimoStudio also makes a popular daylight umbrella continuous lighting kit for $55, that comes with stands. At $53, Yongnuo Flash Speedlight is a great option if you opt to go strobe.
A light stand is a handy, affordable addition, if you didn't already get one in your lighting kit. Light stands come in all sizes and build quality. You need something that is workable within your space and that reaches at least 6'. Ravelli makes an affordable and high-quality 10' air-cushioned stand for $30.
I suggest light modifiers because a bare flash or strobe is a hard light source. The modifier softens the light and makes it more conducive for a studio portrait session. The same way a diffuser will help you when doing product photography, a light modifier gives you a soft and uniform light that suppresses shadows and cuts down glare. Since the main light is a flash unit, small modifiers, such as those that can easily be set up on a light stand, are preferred. Rogue Photographic Design makes a great modifier for $35, while Neewer makes a popular reflector for $12.
Glare Control & White Balance
Contrary to common belief, a circular polarizer (C-PL) is a great tool to have in a studio shooting environment. Objects like glass bottles, beverages, and wedding rings can emanate a lot of glare and reflection when shot under light, even when using a diffuser. A C-PL is the perfect tool to ensure control over standard glare. Tiffen makes an outstanding 52mm polarizer for $18.
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One trick of the trade for those operating on a budget is to paint one of the walls of your room to match a gray card (a card that is 18% gray), so that you don't need to have one on hand. Behr Wolverine is a good color match and can be purchased at Home Depot. The wall can then be used for white balance, metering, and color correction. If you prefer a Gray Card, Lightdow makes a popular 12" x 12" gray card for $7 USD.
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Backdrops, Stands & Tripods
Backdrops and Backdrop Stand
Backdrops transform the look and feel of any photo. They quickly transform your studio wall and make it conform to your shooting requirements immediately. LimoStudio makes an affordable stand for $57 from which to drape any backdrop. But be careful - while backdrops are fun, they can be pricey. Make sure this purchase is the last on your list. Expect to spend $25-$100 on each new backdrop. Many photographers sell their old backdrops at a reduced price on eBay or on Craigslist, so keep an eye out.
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A tripod is a must-have. Normally when you are shooting with external lights, you can stay within the sync speed of the speedlight (1/250 or 1/200 sec, depending on the camera), and still make very sharp photos while hand-holding the camera. So, a tripod isn't mandatory, but it sure is nice to have. Dolica sells a nice aluminum tripod for $53, while Amazon Basics offers an even more affordable (but still high quality) option at $20.