Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Cheap Photo Studio

Putting aside the possibility of exposing how basically cheap I can be, this post discusses one way you can construct a table top studio in your own home. The idea for this post came from my recent experiences as a blog writer.

I knew from the onset that, to be truly useful to the beginning photographer, the information I supplied on this site demanded photos that clearly illustrated the material being presented. I also knew that in most cases, the photos would be of small, camera size objects. Ideally the studio set up would be close to my computer, so I could quickly snap an image, import the file into my computer and marry it with my blog content.

I have large studio access some distance from my computer, but the answer for me was to create a small table top studio that was within arm's length of my digital darkroom. As I looked at the commercial options, it seemed that most appropriate table top studio kits cost $100 or more. Since my blogs are without financial support and I don't sell anything, spending $100+ seemed excessive.

I decided to explore a home-brewed alternative and construct my own mini-studio. Here's how it came together.

My first concern was lighting. I wanted relatively soft lighting that approached the color temperature of daylight to reduce my white balance concerns. Spending time at my local Home Depot lighting department, I found one of those new fangled fluorescent replacement bulbs in 100 watt equivalent that was balanced for daylight:

My Home Depot 23 watt daylight fluorescent bulb produces the equivalent light level
as a 100 watt conventional bulb. Cost: $4.50 each.

Since the physical area of this table top set up is only about 6 square feet, three 100 watt equivalent bulbs provide ample light for exposures made with a tripod-mounted camera. (My average exposure has been 1/60th of a second at f/8. Fast enough and plenty of depth of field.)

Next I toured the automotive department where I found a budget bin containing "clamp on" utility lights with a silver reflective surface. I bought three of these light fixtures for $3.98 each.

The Home Depot clamp on utility light with daylight fluorescent bulb installed.
Each fixture plus bulb combination cost $8.48.

The accidental advantages of this lamp-fixture combination are cooler operating temperature, lower electrical consumption and longer bulb life. Works for me.

To create a seamless background, I used a 30 inch x 40 inch photo mounting board that I had on hand. Mounting board not only provides the seamless background effect I wanted, but allows me to quickly change background colors as the picture requires. Fixing the mounting board in place was a breeze when I realized the carpenter clamps in my garage would snap in place on the edges of my photo table to securely hold the board without marring the board or table surfaces.

You guessed it. I originally bought my carpenter clamps from Home Depot as well.

I have light stands, but only one resides in my computer darkroom. So, I used furniture at hand to provide additional supports. You won't believe what I eventually found most useful for this purpose.

Table top studio in action.

Here's the final product. By clamping the mounting board to my table top edge and curving the board to lay against the back wall, I created a working table top studio that I could quickly change to accommodate any small object. By the way, that light stand holding the high key light on the left is a wire-framed bar stool.

My out of pocket cost for this Home Depot Studio was $25.44 plus some odds and ends I had in my workshop. I use scrap white mounting board pieces when I need to add some reflected bounce light. Because I'm using solid colored mounting boards in a seamless arrangement, retouching and masking in Photoshop is a snap. (Usually the magic wand tool in Photoshop is good enough to completely mask out the background.)

Note: Because these are fluorescent bulbs, allow a couple of minutes for the bulbs to warm up to their full intensity. Also make sure you purchase the daylight balanced version.

It's true that we are slaves to an expensive hobby. However, there are ways of minimizing the cost without negatively impacting the quality of our photography.

If you have similar do-it-yourself cost savings tips for your fellow photographers, I'd love to hear about them. I'm sure someone out there is getting creative with duct tape. If you have any questions or comments, you know where to find me.