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Guest post: How to build an awesome studio on a budget by Cary Jordan

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How to build an awesome studio on a budget by Cary Jordan (Web | Flickr | Personal FB page |The Jordan Collective’s FB Page | Twitter).

Have you ever wanted a great studio, but always felt it was beyond your budget? Or that a studio that could unleash your creativity, while producing professional images was only available to the select few that could afford the high cost? The truth is, you don't have to break the bank to build a great studio; a good studio can be built for less than the price of a current Nikon pro-sumer full-frame DSLR. It's especially wonderful when you can utilize some of the gear you likely already own, like speedlights.

Just because you're on a budget, doesn't mean you can't produce top-notch imagery. My goal with this article is to show you how to build a studio on a budget - you'll see what equipment we used, how we used it and where to buy it as well as offer sample images taken in the budget studio. Our budget studio offers something for everybody - it has the ability to be configured for portrait photography, product photography and videography as well as being totally mobile for on-location shoots. This studio is very versatile and the fact that it's cheap (only in price), makes it all the better.

As you grow and your photography grows, the studio can grow as well. This studio is more than a "starter kit", it's a fully functional set-up that you can be proud of, as well as be proud of the images you'll produce in it.

Lighting

a. Speedlights

Let's start with the heart of the studio, the lighting. Most photographers already own several speedlights and the great thing is that they're perfectly fine for use in the studio as well. Speedlights are relatively cheap (in comparison to professional strobes), they are small, easy to use and use readily available batteries. Quality speedlights can be triggered several ways, but the most common and easiest way is to trigger optically. If you shoot Nikon, you can trigger your speedlights using your camera's on-board flash (for camera's that have an on-board flash) using Nikon's Creative Lighting System, which works wonderfully (I use it all the time). You can also trigger your Nikon speedlights with a commander module like the SU-800, which triggers your Nikon speedlights via an infrared signal. There are also third-party triggers, such as Pocket Wizards.

If you've decided to use speedlights, you're going to need a way to employ them. For the studio, I went with the Impact Digital Flash Umbrella Mount Kit from B&H Photo Video ($98.95USD). This kit comes with everything you'll need to get started and allows the use of 2 speedlights. I found the kit to work extremely well and can be used in the studio, or in the field. This kit is only limited by your speedlights and your imagination.

Impact Digital Flash Umbrella Kit from B&H

b. Continuous Lighting

Another popular form of studio lighting is continuous lighting. There are several form of continuous - Incandescent, LED and Florescent. Depending on my subject, I'll often use incandescent continuous lighting (babies, for instance). I found the incandescent Impact Floodlight Umbrella Kit ($74.95USD x2) to be great, especially for the price. You'll need 2 of these to complete the set. These are durable, simple and effective. No-nonsense and simplicity is the name of the game here and this kit delivers, without fail.

Impact One Floodlight Umbrella Kit from B&H

Background

a. Background Support

A very important aspect of any studio, is the background set-up. I need a background set-up to be easy to set-up and break-down as well as to be totally mobile. For our budget studio, I chose the Impact Background Support System ($99.99USD). It's light, sturdy and is totally mobile. You don't really need more than this for a background support system, regardless of how much you want to spend. This background support system allows the use of different backgrounds, which are very easy to change out. The system can also be configured in several different sizes, depending on what you're using it for. This background system also comes with a durable carrying case, so the background system can easily be broken-down and moved.

Impact Background Support System from B&H

b. Backgrounds

Now that we've picked a great background support system, we need some backgrounds. Luckily, there are several to choose from and vary from color to color. Impact Black Muslin Background 10' x 24' ($114.95USD), Impact White Muslin Background 10' x 12' ($58.95USD) and Impact Chroma Green Muslin Background 10' x 12' ($58.95USD) are your most common colored backgrounds. I've found these particular backgrounds to be of great quality, while remaining very affordable.

Tripod / lighting stands / reflectors / Posing Stool

a. Tripod

We all know that the tripod you use is very important in your day-to-day photographic endeavors. We have been conditioned to think we have to pay hundreds of dollars for a quality tripod; while this is usually true for specialty tripods and accessories, this doesn't mean you can't get a good general-use tripod at an affordable price. For this project, I went with a Oben 4-section Aluminum Tripod w/BA-0 Ball Head ($119.95USD). Don't let the price fool you, this tripod is very sturdy and is well made from quality materials. At this price, this tripod is a steal. I honestly couldn't believe the quality when I started using this tripod, which is why it made the list for this project. It easily rivals my high-end tripods in quality and craftsmanship and has turned into my favorite general use tripod!

Oben 4-section Aluminum Tripod w/BA-0 Ball Head from B&H

b. Lighting Stands / Misc Stands

A good studio needs lots of stands. Whether it be for extra lighting or reflectors. I chose the Impact Multiboom Lightstand and Reflector Holder -13" ($79.95USD), Impact Master Centrury C Stand Kit with 42" Riser, Grip Head and Arm Chrome 10.75' ($128.95USD) and the Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy-Duty Light Stand Black - 13' ($69.95USD). These stands are all heavy-duty, sturdy and can be adapted to do just about anything you'd need in your studio. Of course, if you find you need more stands, you can always double-up on a few of these relatively cheap. For the purpose of getting the stands needed as a bare minimum and to keep the studio costs down, I chose to use one of each stand listed above.

Impact Multiboom Lightstand and Reflector Holder -13" from B&H

Impact Master Centrury C Stand Kit with 42" Riser, Grip Head and Arm Chrome 10.75 from B&H

Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy-Duty Light Stand Black - 13' from B&H

c. Reflectors

The great thing about a good reflector is the fact that it can be used in the studio and in the field. I've found a good combination reflector to be perfect for both purposes. For this project, I chose the Impact 5-in-1 Collapsable Oval Reflector - 42 x 72"  ($94.95USD). This multi-purpose reflector is big, powerful and comes with plenty of options. As with all of the products I've listed, this reflector is built very well. It also comes with a carry case that the reflector collapses into.

Impact 5-in-1 Collapsable Oval Reflector - 42 x 72" from B&H

d. Posing Stool

Of course, a studio can't be complete without a good posing stool. For this, I chose the Impact Posing Stool 20-30" ($58.95USD). This stool is well-made and features a pneumatic control system for raising and lowing the stool.

Impact Posing Stool 20-30" from B&H

e. Product Photography

If you plan on doing any product photography, you're going to need a light box/shed of some sort. I used an Impact Digital Light Shed - Extra Large - 24x24x36" ($63.95USD). This thing is awesome and comes with everything you need to get going. I highly recommend this light shed and it's extremely affordable.

Impact Digital Light Shed - Extra Large - 24x24x36" from B&H

Miscellaneous Equipment

a. Wireless Remotes

It's always a good idea to have a good wireless remote to remotely trigger the shutter on your camera. The obvious choice for me was the Vello Wireless ShutterBoss Timer Remote ($99.50USD). This remote can be used wirelessly or wired. This particular remote package comes with a Nikon 10-pin  connector, so if you don't have a camera that can utilize this connection (like a D7000 or D5100), you'll need a different cable, which can be purchased. This remote works extremely well and features a great range (up-to 250') and configurable channels (99 possible channels).

Vello Wireless ShutterBoss Timer Remote from B&H

b. Cases for equipment

Now that we have all of this equipment, we need to be able to safely move it from place to place. Most of the gear listed here comes with its own carrying case, but not everything does. You'll need to find a way to transport this equipment around safely. While there are several products on the market for carrying and protecting gear, they usually come with a hefty price tag. In my search for a good alternative, I came across this case, the Pearstone Pro Camcorder Case with Wheels ($179.95USD). I chose this case because it's easily configurable. Just because it says "Camcorder Case" on it, doesn't mean it won't serve other purposes; this case is very large and can carry a lot of equipment.

Pearstone Pro Camcorder Case with Wheels from B&H

Conclusion

Now that we've covered the basic equipment needed to build an awesome studio on a budget, let's total up the costs.

Grand Total: $1477.79.

Now, of course you can omit any of the equipment you don't need or already have. Again, the good thing about this set-up is its ability to grow as you grow.

The images below were all taken inside the "Budget Studio", using the exact equipment shown above. I hope you'll agree, this studio is awesome (especially for the price).

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  • enesunkie

    Thanks! Lots of great information.

    • Milos K

      EXCELLENT !!!
      What of the best posts here !
      Thank you kindly for sharing…

      • Jack

        yeah right, try doing this in my new york city apartment…i dare you!

        • J Shin

          In the late 1980s, I think, there was a tongue-in-cheek magazine article on how to do that. I’m not sure which magazine. Maybe Shutterbug, although it may have been Mad. It was couched as “how to pick up women by pretending to be a pro photographer” if you are a bachelor living in a small city apartment, but it actually had a decent how-to about how to choose your furniture so they can be stashed away, how to use the background stand as part of your decor, etc. In that spirit, I have converted a bookcase as a background stand, buy chairs that work well for portraits, and was at one point planning to have wall-mounted brackets for lights. :-)

          • http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixyst Pixyst

            … and you did all this to pick up women? Jk :)

          • http://andradefoto.com fotosniper

            I would…I mean, did….ahhh….do?

            • Thanos

              lol

        • derek

          I did. I built a portfolio shooting fashion for a while in the 90s, in my NYC alcove studio apartment. I bought two used Profoto packs from a rental house, and three heads, some boxes, and umbrellas, and got models for tests from the agencies. It was a major PIA to set up and pack down and shuttle furniture around, but it is doable.

  • http://www.falconercommunications.com Robert Falconer

    Great post. Solid, useful information.

    I would only add that it might be helpful to follow-up with a post that offers a quick paragraph on the practical use for these setups, since anyone who already has that knowledge probably has a pretty good idea of what equipment works for him/her.

  • para

    The links to the backdrops are not correct.

    • suprchunk

      Most of the things from his mouth are incorrect.

  • Rob

    I’m not sure I understand why you recommend the light shed/box. What can it do that you couldn’t already do with everything else? If you already have lights with umbrellas/softboxes and white and black backdrops (I use seamless paper), won’t that achieve the same effect but without the space limitation of the box? Is there something I’m missing?

    I really appreciate the post. I just need to add a good boom stand for my hair light and my studio setup will be pretty decent.

    • http://thejordancollective.com CaryTheLabelGuy [NR]

      I recommend this light shed because it’s large enough for most product photography, yet smal enough to be taken anywhere and works like a softbox. This means you can easily take it on-location for a client and only need to bring a set of continuous lighting. This works great for food photography, for instance. But yes, you can basically do the exact same thing with your background and your lights with umbrellas/softboxes.

      • Rob

        That makes sense. I didn’t think about on location product shots. Thanks.

        • TheInconvenientRuth

          It also makes a big difference in cutting down on unwanted reflections on your product shots. With the product inside the tent, all you have is ‘white’ reflections. I often ‘customize’ the reflections with pieces of colored or black card.

          Using umbrellas and a table you could possibly end up seeing everything reflected (ceiling, lights, stands, yourself) in your product, which can be a nightmare to retouch out.

          • Discontinued

            +800 for “big difference”

            there is nothing else like a light shed. If you have nothing but reflective surfaces to shoot (a watch and bracelet made of polished stainless steel for instance) retouching would not only become a nightmare but pretty impossible too. One could as well render the watch instead of shooting it.

            @Cary
            nice post!

            • TheInconvenientRuth

              Pooh… I have an even better way than a light tent to shoot watches ;)
              Even cheaper and it looks even better! Costs less then $10 to build :D
              But hey, I’m an old lady, no one ever listens to me.
              Not even my kids :D

            • http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixyst Pixyst

              Care to share? I’ll listen :)

  • WillyPete

    These “studio on a budget” posts are always great to show the variety, but always miss one thing.
    Editing workstation, incl monitor and software: minimum $1000

    • John

      Basic up to date computer…decent monitor….piratebay for software…

  • Ruslan

    Does the author work for Impact ?

    • D400

      +1

    • http://thejordancollective.com CaryTheLabelGuy [NR]

      lol……No. I write reviews on NikonRumors.com.

    • Captainkodak

      Impact is one of several in-house brands that B&H re-packages and labels a multitude of low-cost imported Asian goods they sell. This article does read exactly like the promotional B&H blog and newsletter posts written by their staff of writers. If any impartially is desired, the author may want to be a bit less “Impactful” in the future, selecting a wider range of brands to present, .

      (note: I am a former B&H corporate employee)

  • D400

    What about the actual lights? an umbrella by itself doesn’t light much.

    • AM

      Go back and read it again. You have to use two speedlights, which by the way, are not included in the budget.

  • http://www.jeffgeerling.com/ Jeff Geerling

    There are other things you can also do more DIY-style to save a few more bucks, especially when starting out. For example, using a home-made portable backdrop stand helped me get a lot of great shots with a variety of backdrops when I was doing school portraits, corporate stuff, etc. And it cost less than $20!

    See: http://www.lifeisaprayer.com/articles/photography/diy-greenscreen

    I also did some DIY-style light stands to save some money, but soon bought some great collapsible light stands that were a bit more sturdy.

  • jethr0

    here in Philippines $1477.79 is so expensive more or less this is equivalent to PHP 65,000 and building a studio here roughly you cost about PHP 40,000 or $900 for an excellent equiptment.

    • heldinson

      ofcourse..it’s cheaper in Asia compare here in North America. Imagine you can buy Yongnou speedlight for 70USD each? I ask my friend on HK to buy me a tokina 11-16/2.8. I saved almost 250 cnd if I bought it here from Henry’s.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixyst Pixyst

    Very informative. I would like to make a contribution. These light stands are really solid and are offered at a great price.
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003TM600U/ref=ox_ya_os_product

    Same goes for this crossbar which can be combined with two of the above to make a background support system.
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003G7UXFG/ref=ox_ya_os_product

    Lastly this boom works well with the stands listed above.
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003PFKIEK/ref=ox_ya_os_product

    I own and have used all of the above and have been impressed by their quality.

  • http://tumbleweed-092.livejournal.com Slow Gin

    Awesome post! Thanks, Cary and Peter!

  • silmasan

    Whoa. Synchronicity happens. Thanks a lot, Cary. I’m currently prepping a starter studio/on-loc lighting kit so it’s very helpful to have someone’s budget kit laid down neatly all in one page.

    Have you tried light mods from Honl? Their system seems most practical for location shoots. I’m thinking of getting the traveller16 softbox (softcone?) plus the starter kit.

  • LeeC

    Does the author own Impact? Seems very biased..

    • Pixelhunter

      As intelligent beginners are able to search left and right if they are about to set up a studio and so far simply did not know for what sort of components to lock at. Typing in the right buzz words while consulting the appropriate internet stores will lead them to many brand names anyway.

      For less experienced people some introduction whether biased or not is always helpful. Great that NR provides also insights to people who do not have Andreas Gursky status yet. And if you think Cary is too much trying to influence, you can provide other brands to balance, don’t you?

      In Nikon Rumors you will probable find more biased fans for Nikon than for Canon. This is why we are here.

    • silmasan

      Yes, I think he *owns* Impact (a few of their products, that is). And I think he’s just sharing the exact items that he has personally used. So again yes, I think he’s *biased* to his own experience, just like the commenter Pixyst above is *biased* to his own experience. (Or any other user-reviewer for that matter)

      No prob. Most noobs to studio lighting (including myself) will still have to do their homework anyway, instead of just following the list blindly. I don’t know, maybe you’re expecting something like a thorough “roundup”? (Though I’ve never read something like that written about stuff like light supports, equipment bags etc)

    • http://www.novumlucis.com Dr SCSI

      Impact is actually a B&H house brand. I am sure they have the stuff made in China or Phillapines, slap their label on it and bingo. For my Avenger Century Light Stands, I use the Impact branded sandbags; they were cheap and made of very high quality materials and well crafted. $18 for a 27lb bag. Speaking of sandbags, that is one item Cary forgot on his list, so be sure you pick up a couple, especially if you are flying lights overhead! TIP: When filling studio sandbags with sand, don’t fill the sandbags directly. Buy yourself the 1 gallon zip lock bags, put them into the sandbag and then fill the zip lock bag inside the sandbag. It makes it very easy to remove the sand from your sand bags at a later time for travel, plus it prevents your sand from getting wet should the sandbag set in a puddle of water or get rained on. Wet sand from an outdoor shoot can smell funky in the studio. The Impact 27lb sand bags fit two zip lock bags perfectly, one on each side.

  • DK

    Starts of nice and cheap – and then it takes off to pricier items! Whats up with that.
    Ebay and Amazon also have some very nice lighting kits (same dealers), at a much lower price(s). Dual purpose hotlight+High powered flashes combo are also available.

    Overall a good summary of the items required, but not necessary on the equipment being referred to.

    Interestingly, you can get away with a ton of heavy equipment for the price of just one small sb-800 ;)

    • http://www.novumlucis.com Dr SCSI

      If you are looking for studio lights that have a high power proportional modeling light 250Watts, 640WS flash power, and some of the coolest features in the industry, then go to http://www.paulcbuff.com/e640.php AND check out the Einstein!!! Its PocketWizard compatible, weighs about 5lbs and puts out a WALLOP of power with a fast flash decay like a speedlight! You can get it for less than the cost of a Nikon SB-910, plus you get about 10X the output!!! Add the VagaBond Mini Lithium battery pack, and you get studio power on the go! I have bought into both of the triggering solutions that PCB supports directly and I must say I like the Pocket Wizard triggering the best for my use. With my setup, I can control my SB-900′s and Einstein lights all from my camera position via the PocketWizard gear (AC3). If you are doing studio only shooting, or you haven’t bought into a triggering system, be sure to take a look at PCB’s radio triggering system. In my opinion, it has the best features in the industry for the best price too! The PCB triggers will save you a fortune vs. PocketWizards. Now all this isn’t cheap and it adds up quickly, but before you go buying speedlights or continuous lights, you should at least take a look at their products.

  • BC

    This post brought to you by Impact .

    Seriously though, a lot of this stuff can be had for cheaper but still good quality through MPEX and Amazon. You just have to choose the right brands. Especially that reflector – $94 for that reflector?! Check out Amazon for the same size reflectors for much cheaper. I’ve been very happy with my reflectors from Amazon, my light stands from Mpex and my modifiers from Cowboy Studio and Britek. Many 0f the things like umbrella swivels are basically the same products with any of a dozen different brand names on them.

    brad

    • TheInconvenientRuth

      Agree. +1
      The light tent for example, I got one off eBay for less than $40 incl. shipping from HongKong. Arrived in under 10 days.
      Umbrellas: Westcott double- folding umbrellas are cheaper at Midwest cameras incl. shipping. To the UK…

      Cary, dont misunderstand me, it’s a good post but I felt it was a blatant advertisement for Impact. Considering this was about ‘budget’ studios, did you actually look for the best price or just go for the one stop shop?

      And as for cheap flashes, pick up a few SB-26′s off eBay or at your local second hand shop. I use them all the time, buy them for under $100. I have 6 at the moment. Sure, they don’t have CLS, but they DO have a built-in optical slave unit.

  • advertisement

    Just buy everything from just one single company – what about different options from different vendors.

    This post looks like a blatant advertisement!

  • NG42

    This is awesome info. Thanks! I’m bookmarking this page. Also, I’m becoming much more interested in video. I don’t know if you have an interest video but if you do I’m sure people would be interested in an article on how to build an affordable lighting kit specifically for video. Thanks again.

  • http://www.itsrich.info Richard hart

    you forgot to mention the cost of renting a space!

    A lot of littles do add up being a lot!

    for inexpensive flash heads try alien bees…

  • Jabs

    @Cary

    Nice post telling us of your experiences – thanks.

    Only thing missing to me, is FILTERS – soft, polarizers and colored filters.

    Everyone has their own choices eventually, but sharing your choices here plus why is a great learning experience – thank you!

  • Recent Convert

    When I saw the title, I thought: not for me! I read the article anyway and I must say, that I am now very tempted. This is what I like about this website: it challenges your own perceptions. It is good for surprises. In slow times, it is at least entertaining. Today, it was educational.
    Thanks, Cary, and thanks, NR-Admin!

  • http://www.adunnphotography.com Tony Dunn

    Amazing, I own almost everything in this list, except for the posing stool and the muslin backgrounds (I bought king sized bedsheets at Ross for about $20 a set). And that’s all I own, studio-wise.

    And I agree, I wanted to build a studio on the cheap and I made almost exactly the same decisions. I thought I would learn something, but instead I got confirmation… and that’s cool too.

  • Bill Me Later

    @Jack
    Sorry to rub it in about your space in NY. Thats why I have 3 1/2 acres in the mountains, 20 minutes from the gates to Yosemite and a 24×36 garage/barn with a 22×36 ft loft upstairs for doing frames, matting, and studio work.. OH, and a full darkroon downstairs, currently unused.
    I can not imagine anyone trying to do a studio in their apartment in a big city. How about a fold up studio, like the fold up beds in the walls??? Let me work on that idea.

  • Bill Me Later

    OOPS, I forgot to mention, there were some nice equipment ideas listed that were not that expensive to do a portable studio to use at home as well as in the field somewhere for shots on a beach, in the woods etc. I use foldup 5 way reflectors with strobes mountedon smaller camera tripods. Everything fits in a duffle bag and contains two reflectors, three small tripods and 3 strobes with slaves or the instrobe sensor to be set off by the camera flash.
    Very simple and inexpensive setup. I have studio umbrella reflectors in the loft for light direction.

  • D-Mark

    Lots of helpful ideas but no one ever talks about what the ideal color the room should be.

  • Mike

    Hi Cary,

    Great job!

    I use more nimble (and lighter), fold-able stands and a carbon fiber tripod, but essentially very similar, but it goes into a Lowell case for location work. But then, I not as young nor as strong as you. ;-)

    Again, well done.

    My best,

    Mike

  • http://www.morningroad.nl/ Morning Road

    There is no need for a light tent if you already have a seamless background, light modifiers and basic photographic knowledge.

  • Carl Feather

    I would much rather build a studio around the Paul Buff Einstein units and the Vagabond lithium battery pack. Much more versatile than the suggested lighting gear, better construction and better warranty, more power, etc. Never skimp on your lights Buy one light and learn to use it really well before cluttering up your lighting with three or four to start. Add lights to solve problems that can’t be solved with reflectors.

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