Facebook Pixel Portable Portrait Studio in a Bag: Now You Can Take Portraits While on the Road

Portable Portrait Studio in a Bag: Now You Can Take Portraits While on the Road


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.

portable portrait studio

This is my portable portrait studio. One camera, one lens, two speedlights, a rainbow of colored gels, one light stand, one umbrella, one reflector, and one piece of white fabric.

A studio is a place to study. By making your studio small and portable, you can study anywhere you desire.

Three things to consider as you travel with your portable studio

1. The person

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.

2. The light

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.

3. A clean background

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.

Portraits with a large window

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.

portable portrait studio

This is not a pleasing environment for a portrait. However, don’t be concerned with what the whole room looks like, only how your final portrait will look. Notice where the girl is positioned in relation to the window.


portable portrait studio

The large window has created soft shadows on her face. The catchlights bring her eyes to life. There are some distractions in the background that could have been taken care of with a slightly different composition. 50mm, ISO 1600, f/4.0, 1/400 sec.

Portraits with a small window

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.

Image: She is placed extremely close to the window.

She is placed extremely close to the window.


portable portrait studio

The light on her face is quite nice but the background is distracting. 50mm, ISO 1600, f/4.0, 1/400 sec.


Image: I moved her to the other side of the window.

I moved her to the other side of the window.

portable portrait studio

I used the wall as the background for the portrait. 50mm, ISO 1600, f/4.0, 1/320 sec.

A portrait using a neutral-colored wall

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.

Neutral color background

This patch of grey wall will be perfect as a background.


portable portrait studio

The umbrella illuminated both her face and the wall but didn’t cast any harsh shadows. 50mm, ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/200 sec.


Creating a white background

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.

how to make a white background for portraits

The white piece of fabric will be taped to the wall to use as a background. The second speedlight will light up the fabric so that it turns pure white instead of grey.

Creating a white background


Turn any background into black

You can turn any background black with two simple steps.

  1. Move your subject as far away from the background as you can
  2. Light your subject with your speedlight but don’t let the light fall onto the background (this is why we’re keeping the background so far away).
how to make your background black

The background is about 20 feet away


portable portrait studio

You may need to darken the background a tiny bit more in post-processing. 50mm, ISO 100, f/9.0, 1/200 sec.


Make a colored background with gels

You can turn that neutral wall a different color using gels on your speedlight.

how to use gels with your speedlight

Place the colored gel over the speedlight to transform the color of the wall.


Go crazy with the light!

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.

portable portrait studio

Don’t settle for the same old photos every session. Always try at least one new thing. This was her favorite photo.


How to make your studio infinitely larger

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:

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Mat Coker
Mat Coker

is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

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