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High Key Studio – What I Use and Why

girls2If you follow my posts, you’ll know that I have a studio. At the moment, I mostly do high-key sessions with children. High-key is something that many photographers try to imitate and sometimes fail miserably simply because of a lack of understanding about light (and I only know this because I am one of those people!) Out of necessity, my photographic evolution has been a fast one and I laugh to think that only a few short months ago, I was in torrents of frustration and tears because I just couldn’t manage to take photos like the ones I was seeing from amazing studios such as Venture.

I’d like to write a post soon about exactly how I went from hobbyist to pro so I’ll save that story for another day. But in terms of studio, I started out borrowing a friend’s set-up to photograph a school. He’s a filmmaker, so the equipment wasn’t ideal for photography. It consisted of  a roll of white background paper, two continuous lights on softboxes in the front and two lighting the background. It was a bit of a horrible experience now that I look back on it! The light temp from these lights was way orange/yellow and they were HOT HOT HOT. Even with diligent and time consuming post production work, the colours were dark and muddy and the kids were sweating like crazy which didn’t put them in such a great mood. Excellent learning experience.

After that, I began getting a lot of requests for studio work without any equipment of my own so I spoke to a studio lighting consultant who helped me make sense of it all and decide on the set-up I needed for the type of work I wanted to produce. Which as luck would have it was top-of-the-line and cost a pretty penny.

There are much more affordable versions of the set-up I chose, but I didn’t want it to be something where I found myself outgrowing the equipment and wanting something better before I had even broken even on what I’d purchased. So this is my kit and why I chose them:

bowens-750-wattTwo Bowens Gemini 750 Lights – Powerful bursts of light mean I can capture action with precision and since I photograph kids, this is a must. Extremely fast recycle times mean I can take a photo every second without missing a shot. There are battery packs available which means I could use these on location should I so choose.
bowens-400-wattTwo Bowens Gemini 400 Lights – Less powerful, but I only use them in the background so I decided to keep the extra £800 and go for something more ‘entry level’ for the backlights.
 umbrellaUmbrellas – Three umbrellas in two different sizes. Sometimes I use my front lights with two reflector umbrellas.
 softboxSoftbox – A massive soft box usually used on my main light.
 vinyl-rollLastolite Vinyl Roll – I started with cheap rolls of white paper but soon found that I was cutting it all away to get rid of dirt, playdoh, cake, etc. (I like messy shoots!) So I opted for a vinyl roll. It’s H-E-A-V-Y but washable and beautifully reflective so the background can be crisp and not only white, but glowing. It’s fantastic.
 background-supportHeavy duty background support system – You can’t use the heavy vinyl roll without heavy duty support. I also have some heavy duty grips from a hardware store to keep the vinyl from unrolling all the way and then falling right off it’s steel centre.
radio-trigger Bowens Radio Triggers – these trigger the lights by radio signal. One attaches to the camera, one to one of the lights. When one of the lights flashes, it immediately triggers the other lights because they are on ‘slave’ which means the other three follow the light of the one attached to the trigger.

So that’s my set-up! Watch this space for a post on how I actually set up my studio.

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Elizabeth Halford is a Hampshire Photographer and keeps a rockin'photography blog where she writes about photography and business in "real.plain.english". She's addicted to Facebook and can be found answering photography and business questions every day here on her page

  • Reznor

    Now this is a good description of a possible studio setup. Some articles here raise more questions than they answer but this one is quite good. Thanks.

  • muzongo

    Great information. I recently found a really cheap way of building your own studio. Yours is obviously better, but too expensive for some. This alternative is made with video in mind, but I’ve tried it and it gives really nice results.

    http://www.diyphotography.net/infinite-white

  • http://www.g7studios.net G7

    Im so glad to have you on my rss feed to twitter. I was just thinking about doing a photo shoot with some soft boxes for video production that I purchased a while back. And as you mentioned, they are incredibly hot. I remember we had to redo the speakers makeup various times because of the sweat. I guess Ill have to rethink the lighting for the shoot. If not, Im hoping the large space will reduce the heat.

  • Rdeol

    Great article!

    Could you possibly show how you arrange the lights?

    Thanks

  • Nikki

    “Now this is a good description of a possible studio setup.”

    Possible only if you have more than $4,000 to drop.

    Guess I’ll have to settle for dark, muddy colors and the kind of endless frustration exclusive only to the working poor.

  • Raj

    so how much did all the equipment cost you?

    It sounds like a pretty good setup!

  • adam

    @nikki: As Elizabeth notes there are much more affordable options to achieve the same set up. She’s describing a possible set up that has advantages (will fill her needs for a long time to come) and some disadvantages (expensive).
    If you don’t want to spend much you could try using a bunch of florescent lights [http://www.diyphotography.net/infinite-white].
    Getting away from continuous lighting you could just use a couple of small strobes [http://www.diyphotography.net/one-two-three-white-background], particularly a cheap option if you already have the flashes.

    @Elizabeth – Thanks for another great article, looking forward to hearing more about your experiences getting into your own studio!

  • Diane

    Interesting article. I’m currently building up high key equipment (I’ve got a 3.5mx5m roll of white lorry curtain – just as good (cost me £43), and my favourite living room studio – the Lastolite hi-lite) and doing children’s portraits as a side-line to save up for a new camera.
    Folks have been pleased with their prints so far, but I’m always looking for tips and inspiration – will follow your posts with great interest.

  • http://elizabethhalford.com Elizabeth Halford
  • http://www.karenskellyphoto.com Karen Skelly

    Where did you get the roll of white vinyl?

    Thanks, Karen

  • http://envisagephotography.co.nz Kerrilee Beetham

    Hi
    I really appreciate your post – simple and straight to the point, which is how it should be!
    I recently upgraded my lighting and the bulbs seem to be blowing very quickly after say 2/3 shoots. I am
    shooting children also. Obviously when they beep they are ready so is there something else I should be
    aware of do you think? I have gone back to manufacturer also but thought I would check with other likewise
    studio photographers (I too am self taught and feeling the way quickly).

  • sapperchris

    You describe yourself as a pro, and then complain about the colour of the lights, did you not think to set your colour balance?
    just asking.

  • http://elizabethhalford.com Elizabeth Halford

    @sapperchris: hmm I’m wondering if you read this post word-for-word? That was my first lighting experience. Every one started somewhere :)

  • Brodie Weeding

    hey elizabeth i was just wondering if you could give me a rough price range of what id be looking at for a smiliar kit and also any good places to buy them from?

    thanks :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jennifer-Sutton-Photography jennifer sutton

    For now, my only website is on FB. I love high-key photography. I don’t think I’ve yet mastered the look of it but I’m working on it…. :) Thank you so much for sharing helpful information. I love all your ideas to engage kids~ I use similar tactics & it works.

  • Jennifer Miller

    Love your work Elizabeth, I have been contemplating setting up a home studio, can you tell me what size room or area this setup in being used in? My concern is that the area I have to utilize may be to small for all this light?

  • http://elizabethhalford.com Elizabeth Halford

    @jennifer: Hi thank you so much for reading! The space I use is really huge. The backdrop may only be 5 metres long, but I place the lights a couple metres out from that which makes for a large space taken up.

  • BR

    I’m currently doing some research to build my own home studio. Why would one want to use Soft boxes vs Umbrellas?

Some older comments

  • BR

    July 22, 2011 11:44 am

    I'm currently doing some research to build my own home studio. Why would one want to use Soft boxes vs Umbrellas?

  • Elizabeth Halford

    December 30, 2009 08:42 pm

    @jennifer: Hi thank you so much for reading! The space I use is really huge. The backdrop may only be 5 metres long, but I place the lights a couple metres out from that which makes for a large space taken up.

  • Jennifer Miller

    December 29, 2009 11:45 pm

    Love your work Elizabeth, I have been contemplating setting up a home studio, can you tell me what size room or area this setup in being used in? My concern is that the area I have to utilize may be to small for all this light?

  • jennifer sutton

    December 18, 2009 06:27 am

    For now, my only website is on FB. I love high-key photography. I don't think I've yet mastered the look of it but I'm working on it.... :) Thank you so much for sharing helpful information. I love all your ideas to engage kids~ I use similar tactics & it works.

  • Brodie Weeding

    November 30, 2009 07:34 pm

    hey elizabeth i was just wondering if you could give me a rough price range of what id be looking at for a smiliar kit and also any good places to buy them from?

    thanks :)

  • Elizabeth Halford

    November 28, 2009 02:38 am

    @sapperchris: hmm I'm wondering if you read this post word-for-word? That was my first lighting experience. Every one started somewhere :)

  • sapperchris

    November 27, 2009 11:54 pm

    You describe yourself as a pro, and then complain about the colour of the lights, did you not think to set your colour balance?
    just asking.

  • Kerrilee Beetham

    November 27, 2009 07:04 am

    Hi
    I really appreciate your post - simple and straight to the point, which is how it should be!
    I recently upgraded my lighting and the bulbs seem to be blowing very quickly after say 2/3 shoots. I am
    shooting children also. Obviously when they beep they are ready so is there something else I should be
    aware of do you think? I have gone back to manufacturer also but thought I would check with other likewise
    studio photographers (I too am self taught and feeling the way quickly).

  • Karen Skelly

    November 27, 2009 05:39 am

    Where did you get the roll of white vinyl?

    Thanks, Karen

  • Elizabeth Halford

    November 22, 2009 07:33 am

    This is how I use all this stuff: http://digital-photography-school.com/whiteseamlesshowt

  • Diane

    November 22, 2009 07:22 am

    Interesting article. I'm currently building up high key equipment (I've got a 3.5mx5m roll of white lorry curtain - just as good (cost me £43), and my favourite living room studio - the Lastolite hi-lite) and doing children's portraits as a side-line to save up for a new camera.
    Folks have been pleased with their prints so far, but I'm always looking for tips and inspiration - will follow your posts with great interest.

  • adam

    November 21, 2009 11:17 am

    @nikki: As Elizabeth notes there are much more affordable options to achieve the same set up. She's describing a possible set up that has advantages (will fill her needs for a long time to come) and some disadvantages (expensive).
    If you don't want to spend much you could try using a bunch of florescent lights [http://www.diyphotography.net/infinite-white].
    Getting away from continuous lighting you could just use a couple of small strobes [http://www.diyphotography.net/one-two-three-white-background], particularly a cheap option if you already have the flashes.

    @Elizabeth - Thanks for another great article, looking forward to hearing more about your experiences getting into your own studio!

  • Raj

    November 21, 2009 04:56 am

    so how much did all the equipment cost you?

    It sounds like a pretty good setup!

  • Nikki

    November 21, 2009 04:03 am

    "Now this is a good description of a possible studio setup."

    Possible only if you have more than $4,000 to drop.

    Guess I'll have to settle for dark, muddy colors and the kind of endless frustration exclusive only to the working poor.

  • Rdeol

    November 21, 2009 03:51 am

    Great article!

    Could you possibly show how you arrange the lights?

    Thanks

  • G7

    November 21, 2009 03:07 am

    Im so glad to have you on my rss feed to twitter. I was just thinking about doing a photo shoot with some soft boxes for video production that I purchased a while back. And as you mentioned, they are incredibly hot. I remember we had to redo the speakers makeup various times because of the sweat. I guess Ill have to rethink the lighting for the shoot. If not, Im hoping the large space will reduce the heat.

  • muzongo

    November 21, 2009 02:56 am

    Great information. I recently found a really cheap way of building your own studio. Yours is obviously better, but too expensive for some. This alternative is made with video in mind, but I've tried it and it gives really nice results.

    http://www.diyphotography.net/infinite-white

  • Reznor

    November 21, 2009 02:27 am

    Now this is a good description of a possible studio setup. Some articles here raise more questions than they answer but this one is quite good. Thanks.

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