5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

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Having a brick and mortar studio when you are a photographer is such a huge and daunting step. There are so many overhead costs to consider such as rent, electricity, insurance and various other bills. It’s a worry to cover all these before you pay staff and yourself and still make enough profit to make a living. This thought can make one feel that having a studio is an impossible dream or is too of a big a step to take. But you can always start somewhere, so let’s look at some tips for how to setup a home studio.

portrait of 2 girls - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

How to set up a home studio

If you have a spare room in your home or a basement, that is a good place to consider as a home studio. You may be surprised at just how much space is needed to start a portrait studio. Not that much at all! In this article, I will show you how I have set up my little home studio which I have recently revamped to make into a dedicated portrait studio.

I live in London in a narrow Victorian house. These houses have a typical 2-up 2-down rectangular layout, short side across and long side from front to back, with a narrow corridor that runs on one side of the house all the way to the back. My house has two reception rooms (living rooms) and a dining room and kitchen at the back. I decided to make the first reception room (the front room of the house) into my studio. It has a bay window at the front which juts out of the house and provides nice ample natural light.

At first, I set up my backdrop on the opposite side of the window so it was facing the window directly. The reason for this was so that I could get a much wider area for shooting. However, this is not great for dramatic lighting with natural light flooding from the window, with the camera right in between the backdrop and the window. This lends itself to flat lighting instead which isn’t what I wanted for my studio.

In order to achieve a more versatile directional lighting and avoid flat lighting from the window, I use strobes at 45-degree angles to the backdrop to get the lighting setup that I like.

Recently, I have moved things around so that I can use dramatic natural light if I want without the need for strobes, although I still have the flexibility to add strobes and artificial light if needed. This is how I’ve done it.

#1 Make sure your backdrop is at 90-degrees to the window

lighting diagram 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

This angle gives you a lighting that is more dramatic as it is only coming from one side. If you position your subject so that the far side of the face is unlit, you could achieve lighting similar to the Rembrandt style or low-key portraits.

#2 It is ideal to have an L-shaped corner connecting your window light to your backdrop or wall

lighting diagram corner - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

Having this little dark, unlit corner between your backdrop and the window gives you a 45-degree angle lighting setup which is one of my favorite set-ups. The corner minimizes the light for you to be able to create a moodier image with only the front left of the face illuminated rather than full light flooding from the side.

In terms of artificial light, this is similar to controlling the amount of light hitting your subject either by the use of grids, a strip light or a snoot. You don’t want your subject awash with light as that would make for a rather flat lighting.

My personal preference is for having both light and shadows in my images so I can sculpt my subjects using directional light. If you don’t have such a corner, you can use a V-flat (two black pieces of mountboard taped together to form a V) positioned in the corner as shown in the diagram above.

#3 Paint your wall dark or use a dark backdrop

portrait of a happy girl on a dark background - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

You will be astonished at the difference a dark backdrop makes! It brings focus to the subject far more than a light backdrop can. It also lends itself to more artistic photos.

#4 Diffuse your window light

portrait of a girl in black - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

Window light, albeit coming from an angle, can still be a bit harsh. You can further soften this light by diffusing it with some white sheer curtains or voile or any fabric that can diffuse the light. The bottom half of my windows are frosted which means they are already perfectly diffused. I cover the top half with pieces of diffusion fabric to cut out the light.

#5 Use a reflector or light opposite the window

lighting diagram with reflector - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

Much like in a painted portrait, reflected light is a pleasing detail found at the edge of the unlit side of the face. A silver reflector can achieve this very well with a stronger reflective light result as compared to a white reflector. I find that the gold reflectors can make the skin too warm so I stick with the silver and warm up the overall image in post-production.

The reflector does have to be positioned really close to the subject to make it more effective. If you don’t have an assistant who can hold it in place for you, get a free-standing reflector arm that you clip the reflector into thus making it easy for you to position it as needed.

two different portraits of girls - 5 Tips How to Set Up a Home Studio for Dramatic Portraits

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Using strobes

If you want to use or add artificial light such as strobes or continuous lighting, consider a portable studio kit that you can fold and hide away when not in use. Here you can find suggestions of equipment to use for your portable studio kit.

There are many possibilities and things that you can do with this type of setup. Even with just one flash (like this tutorial), you can create dramatic home studio lighting. Another fun thing you can do with flash is creating double exposures.

These images below were taken in exactly the same spot as those above. But this time a gridded softbox was placed on the right as the main light instead of using the natural light coming from the window on the left.

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I hope you found this article helpful. Please share images taken in your home studio, and if you have one or more tips on how to create portraits in a small studio space please share those too.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • Petegeoff

    Interesting article. I’ve worked in my living room. Good way to do it. Why do you use the word strobes? Surely a strobe is a rapidly flashing light, usually of high intensity to make a moving object appear still. I used to use them. Call it what it is, an electronic flash unit. Don’t use the wrong term just to please the US market! All the best to you in your career.

  • petergeoff

    Although yours shots are nice I don’t think you have enough separation of the subject with the background. Of course it could be that the reproduction here isn’t very good. I always liked to use a hairlight just to show some detail.

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