Small studio? No problem!

Some days you just want to kick yourself for being dense.  There was an active thread on the other day, asking about using a 20×20 foot room as a studio space.  Now as studios go, 20×20 is rather small (think bedroom sized), and the challenges of making photos in there become more pronounced.  Nevertheless, it can be done – my own living room isn’t much larger than that, and I’ve used it as a studio space several times.

Partway through the thread, some genius pointed out that if you placed your setup in a corner and shot diagonally across the room, you gained several feet in terms of useful space between yourself and the backdrop.


Here I am for the last several months, lamenting the loss of my living room studio due to the addition of a futon sofa, which made it impossible to clear out enough space to work in without moving furniture to another room – something that wouldn’t fly with my housemate for any period of time.

But if I set up diagonally, then I have two big corners to stack furniture in, still with room for lightstands, the model, myself, and decent separation between the BG and other elements.  Holy cow, this could not only work, it could work better than any of my previous attempts!

You see, the problem with small studio spaces almost always ends up being a problem with light.  In a large, proper studio, you can put a good distance between your model and the BG, far enough that each can be lit independently, without cross-contamination.  In a small studio, that becomes problematic at best – you fire off an umbrella + strobe combo on a model standing 3′ from the BG, and some of that light will spill onto the BG, contaminating its exposure.

Same thing if you’re trying to blast a BG to pure white, and the model is too close – reflected light off the BG will bounce all over that little studio, and cause halos and wash-back effects on the model.  Simply put, you need distance between elements to keep their exposures independent.

Fortunately, there’s another simple fix that will, if not solve the contamination problem, then at least help with it.  Enter 4×8′ sections of black/white foamcore.  As the name suggests, it’s foamcore, black on one side & white on the other, and it comes in big sections.  (Because of the size it’s not cheap and it can be difficult to find.)

Hook two sheets together with a heavy-duty taped “hinge” and you’ve got a self-standing gobo, large enough to place between your model and the BG (which way the black faces depends on the setup).  Place it so that it’s just out of your shots, and it will help keep the two zones separate.  If you’re feeling really fancy, stick a sheet on the ceiling, black side facing down, to soak up any stray bounce from up there as well.

And viola, your spare-bedroom studio goes from DIY to pretty cool.

(Now I just have to find some stinkin’ B/W foamcore that I can actually afford…)

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. William Adams

    Fantastic blog…

    Just a thought though, instead of Foamcore why not just get a couple of polystyrene boards (They’re WAY cheaper) and paint the one side black…

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks! This is one of those “d’oh” moments – I guess I should have thought of just painting them!

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