How I created a beginner DIY mini photography studio at home

Hello people, how are you? I hope you are all doing well, staying safe, staying at home and taking care of yourselves, both physically and psychologically.

These times are scary and terribly sad, like nothing most of us in the western world have experienced. At the beginning, I really struggled to not be overwhelmed by catastrophic thoughts and the only thing that helped me cope was to play the concertina. So I learned some of the tunes from the Noel Hill workshop quite quickly! (not up to speed yet, though)

Recently I’ve indulged in different projects to keep busy and at the same time improve skills. Other than practising concertina tunes, I’ve enrolled in online writing courses and done some planning on how to revive this blog, but more than anything else I’ve focused on photography. Creative activities are good for your mental health – and even recommended by the Irish health services as a good way to handle anxiety and improve your mood. Read more here about how to mind your mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. Now let’s get creative!

While in lockdown, and/or self-isolating, you may find it difficult to take good or interesting photos, especially if you don’t have access to a garden or good natural light inside. Indoor photography can be a challenge because of low light and it can be difficult to find interesting subjects. But there’s a lot you can do inside the house. I browsed the internet, posted a question on a forum to get ideas, and in the end, I had built a little studio for myself, with good enough lighting. And you can do that too, without expensive specialist equipment.

What this post is not

I’m only experimenting with this myself so far. This is NOT a professional tutorial about lighting and studio photography. If that’s what you’re looking for, there are lots of good tutorials out there written by more competent people.

If you’re a professional photographer and read this, you may say that I don’t know what I’m doing so why do I write this post? Well, the thing is that the post is for people who know even less and/or who are stuck at home and want to find ideas of how to create better photos inside the house.

Who this post is for

I’m a beginner at flash and studio photography and I’m mostly learning by trial and error. I want to inspire you who are also a beginner/amateur photographer to use what you have at home (or can easily buy without spending much) to build a small DIY studio. It will give you more flexibility when it comes to indoor photography and will provide you with an environment where you can play around with lighting to learn what effects it will give to your photos. I’ve found that even my very basic setup is very useful and helps me to create quite nice photos and to learn more about how to use artificial light.

At the end of this post, I will share some useful links, to resources from more competent people, where you can learn more.

What you need

You obviously need some photography equipment, but nothing too fancy.

  • A camera – this description will use a DSLR or a mirrorless system camera
  • A detachable flash – that you can remove from the camera and point in different directions, so NOT your camera’s pop-up flash
  • If you only have a pop-up flash, there are some ideas about that too.
  • If you’re fortunate to have two flashes, you may be able to use one as a trigger and use the second one off-camera (more info about that later).
  • 1-2 lights. I use LED work lights but you can use anything you have as long as it is portable.
  • It’s very useful to have a tripod for your camera.
  • A table, boxes, a pile of books, anything you can use to place lights – and can also be used to place your camera if you don’t have a tripod.

You may think your house is too small and you have no space for this type of thing. Now, my house is super tiny and too cluttered (we were working on decluttering but with the lockdown, we’re not getting anywhere), and I’ve done this. I have an area in the whiskey room below a shelf where I’ve set up my studio.

DIY photography studio

Background

You want to use simple backgrounds to get nice looking photos. Use an empty wall or hang a fabric, sheet or blanket to use as background.
Don’t think it has to be a white background! While this is very common in product photography, using black or textured backgrounds can give very nice effects. There are also lighting techniques to create a background even if you don’t have one.

Lights and modifying the light

I’m using a rechargeable LED work light. We only have one, so I also bought another one online (the smaller black one in the image). I expected it to be larger, but I’m quite happy with it because it will work fine for macro shots, and later when I have second, larger, light, it will be good for adding extra light.

Led lights as DIY studio lights

Start with one light, see what it can do, then add another light as needed. Experiment with angles until you’re happy with your setup.

Having light shining directly on your subject will mostly give ugly photos because usually the light is too harsh which leads to too much shadow or reflections on the subject.

You’ll want to create something to diffuse, soften, the light, and to put it between the light and the subject. It can be a white fabric or white plastic. Many people use white umbrellas for this and in studios they also use softboxes.

There are ways to build your own softbox, which is a little box that has the opening covered with a material that will diffuse the light. You can put your light inside the softbox and/or make a small one to put onto your flash.

You can use for example a cardboard box and a piece of white thin fabric. You can even use a paper towel or toilet paper! Before building my softbox I simply hung a paper towel over my light and this worked ok (but ONLY do this if your light doesn’t get hot!). Then I built a softbox using a vegetable box, cutting out the bottom and covering it with a white plastic bag. I found that the plastic didn’t diffuse the light enough so I’ve now replaced it with a piece of a white pillowcase and I’m quite happy with it.

Home made softbox

You can also choose to build a light tent – use the same type of box, or a larger one, cut holes in the sides and front, fasten the fabric on the sides, put the subject inside the box and the lights on the outside. If you don’t have materials for it, you can hang a white fabric next to the table and put the light behind that, it will work fine too. It’s all about using what you have!

Using the flash

I’m the happy owner of an Olympus camera that came with a detachable mini flash, and I also have a Nissin i40 flash. My Olympus flash can be set up to trigger my Nissin as a second flash. This means that I can use the Nissin on a tripod or anywhere else near the table where I want to add light, or I can hold it in my hand to direct the light where I want it. When the Olympus flash on the camera fires, the Nissin (that is a lot more powerful) will also fire. Being able to move the flash around gives very good flexibility.

If you can’t do this but have one detachable flash, if you direct it upwards to bounce the light off the ceiling or a white wall, this will normally give a nice and soft light. You can also, if you want, make a diffuser for your flash. Many recommend using thin soft packing foam for that, the type that comes with IKEA furniture and similar. I’m actually considering buying a mini softbox for my flash, there are some available online for good prices.

If you only have a pop-up flash, I’d normally recommend you to disable it because those always give a harsh light in one direction that will give ugly effects in your images. But I have good news for you! I found this brilliant video on how to make a diffuser for your pop-up flash, using a single-use coffee cup. Not single-use anymore, yay!

Or simply use a bounce card, as in number 4 in this post.

The pop-up flash on some cameras can be used as triggers for an off-camera flash too. Read this post to get ideas.

Try different setups with lights, backgrounds, flash placements, diffusers and more. Experiment!! I’m still testing different concepts and I’m having fun while I’m also learning a lot. Here are some photos that I’ve taken – all are taken while there was very poor natural light, on cloudy or rainy days in a room with not much direct sunlight, but with my work light(s) and flash.

JJ Corry whiskey samples
Euro coins
Rosemary
Green leaves
Green leaves
Teeling whiskey and barley

I still have lots to learn but my little studio gives me so many more opportunities for other types of photography than what I usually do. I’m going to try some cool macro shots eventually, there are lots of ideas on YouTube.

For additional information, take a look at the article on Building a photography Studio” from the Pixpa blog. It offers some good information for photographers looking to take their studio to the next level.

Learn more


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