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It is wonderful having a permanent studio to work in. But imagine being able to pack that studio into your camera bag and take it with you anywhere you want. You can do this by creating a portable portrait studio.
The problem is, portable studios tend to take up a lot of space.
I traveled from school to school with a portable studio. But it would take up my entire car, leaving no room for a passenger!
Half the fun of being a photographer is embracing constraints. So I decided to see how minimal I could get with a portable studio. Could I create a studio that fits into one small camera bag?
This is an important project because when you are confident that you can make nice portraits with minimal gear, you can take your studio down any road and into any situation. Your limits fade away, and the whole world becomes your studio.
A studio is a place to study. By making your studio small and portable, you can study anywhere you desire.
The person you’re photographing is more important than your gear, your schedule, or anything else. Put all your focus on the person you’re photographing in order to achieve a good portrait. I tested out my new studio with a person, but if you don’t have a model you can practice with toy figures.
When you need to make a portrait, look for a good light source.
A larger light source creates softer shadows and a smaller light source creates crisp shadows. Often, softer shadows are pleasing for a portrait.
The first thing I look for is a large window for my light source. If I can find a large window, then I don’t even need to use the lights in my bag. In that case, my portable portrait studio whittles down to a camera and a reflector.
But if I need to create my own light source, then I use a speed light and umbrella or softbox. By itself, the speedlight is a small light source. But the umbrella converts it into a larger light source and softens the shadows.
You don’t want distractions in the background of your photo. Either keep the background clean and simple or make it part of the story. There isn’t much in your portable portrait studio, so you’ll have to work with the backgrounds you find on location.
The goal for all of these photos is a simple portrait with nice light and a clean background.
Let’s begin with a simple scenario using a large window as the light source.
When you place your subject near the window, and you expose properly for their skin tone, much of the background will fall into darkness.
Smaller windows can produce harsh shadows. The secret is to keep your subject as close to the window as possible. The closer they are to the window, the larger the light source becomes in relation to your subject.
I found a really good bit of neutral-colored wall but it was not near a window. This is when you need to set up your speedlight and umbrella.
You can create a white background by using a white wall or a white piece of fabric in your portable portrait studio. Make sure to illuminate the white background with the second speedlight in your bag.
You can turn any background black with two simple steps.
You can turn that neutral wall a different color using gels on your speedlight.
There comes a moment in every session when you just have to try something completely different.
Being a fan of backlight, I put both speedlights with colored gels in the background and pointed them right toward the camera.
It’s good to have a permanent studio as a home base, but even a full-scale studio can become a limiting place. Figure out the minimal amount of gear that you need to make a portrait, pack it into one bag and then go and explore your world with your portable portrait studio.
Here are more tips for portrait lighting as you travel: