Shooting Portraits like a Pro On a Budget

Shooting Portraits like a Pro On a Budget

In this post portrait photographer Alexis Godschalk shares some tips on shooting studio like portraits on a budget by talking us through a shoot he did with a band recently.


When I started doing photography years ago, I really wanted to shoot fantastic shots, I wanted to make sure that my photographs would be considered for a gallery showing. All I had was Canon 10D and a flash. Most of what I shot was candid and in the style of photo journalism and even though this was fine I wanted more.

What kept me from shooting clean studio like portraits was the mistaken belief that I needed loads of expensive equipment.

One day a friend of mine approached me about photographing his band. He had just gotten new management and wanted to make the band band look pro. He started by showing me some photography he liked and we started talking about what could and could not be done. One of the shots he like was a clean shot with dramatic lighting again a black background. I told him that would be tough but I’d try, and so we did.

Not having a studio or lighting I started getting creative and went into the garage to see what I had. I had a couple of ladders, string, clamps, 8’ pole, a black bed sheet and some tape. I decided to shoot outside in my front yard and use sun light. I knew that I wanted to reflect light so I bought a couple of sheets of 2”x4” white foam-board from the local hardware store. After getting my things together I was ready to go try it out.

The equipment:

  • Two fold-open ladders
  • Two black bed sheets
  • A 8’ pole
  • String
  • Two sheets of 2”x4” white foam board
  • Tape
  • Tripod
  • Camera (Canon 10D)


The rigging:

I setup my two “fold-open” ladders opposite each other and tied the 8’ pole to the front edge of both. I tied a couple of weights to the bottom step of each ladder. I then taped the black bed sheet to the top of the pole across from one end to the other making sure to keep it as clean as I could. I found another black sheet to put on the grass in front of the backdrop.


Using the sun was going to be a challenge as it was one-directional, so I used the two sheets of foam-board to reflect the light onto the guys faces and add fill-in lighting. As I was shooting digital I was able to look at the results right away and change the angles right away.

Tip: If shooting outside have a small sheet you can pull over your head and camera when reviewing the shot on a digital camera, this will greatly help you see what you shot without the reflections and the sun light dimming your view.

I spent some time getting the look I wanted with and playing with angles. They had some black hats and clothing so I tried to create some trim lighting to make the hats and clothing pop from the black background.

The shoot:

I knew I was going to have to darken the background sheet in photoshop, so I made sure to keep it clean and smooth as much as possible. The creases could become a big job to fix in photoshop so I tried to keep them to an absolute minimum. During I took time to get the band guys to get comfortable and challenge them to try facial expressions and “looks” I wanted to make sure they would look like a band and not goofy. I had some sample photos that I would show them to see if they could duplicate. The funny thing was that within 30min a nice group of neighbors had come to see what we where doing. This was fun but also distracting, so I made sure that we stayed focused.


Tip: As the photographer take charge, remember you are going to get the best results by keeping things under control and minimizing distractions. Also keep checking your shots for bad reflections, shadows, expressions and wardrobe issues. Remember, it’s better to fix right there than afterward in photoshop.

One of the guys wanted Latin text painted on his chest, we shot some shots but I thought it was to strong so at the end I suggested trying to put a T-shirt on over it and wet the T-shirt “just to see what it would look like” That shot really turned out great. Be flexible and try out some stuff (after you are sure you have want you wanted) in this case, wetting him would have hindered other shots we wanted had i not shot them first.

The result:

The shoot turned out to be great and a load of fun! I was very happy with the results and to this day people think it was shot in a studio with lighting equipment. The band was ubber happy and I was too. For a no-budget shoot and not having any pro-equipment the results were very convincing and opened the door for me to do some other paid shoots and actually buy equipment. Years later I now shoot with lighting equipment, but have to say that, that shoot was one of the most fun and a great paradigm shift for me.

As a photographer the tools you have are just that; tools. You can make great looking shots with some creativity and some random stuff around your home. Money and equipment should not limit you from pushing the limits. So go have fun with it.

Update: A Diagram to Show How it Was Done

We have had a lot of people asking if we could include a diagram of how this shoot was setup. Alexis has kindly put one together for you:



Alexis Godschalk is a portrait and wedding photographer from Los Angeles California you can find some of his work at Connect with Alexis via twitter at agodschalk.

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Some Older Comments

  • Art July 30, 2012 03:50 am

    I think this is amazing but I haven't seen the answers to some of the questions that were asked and I have a few my own.

    What lens did you use?
    What were the settings of the camera?
    What was the distance of the subjects from the background?
    Where was he sun at the time, side, front, back etc?
    How close was each band member to the other?
    What is trim lighting and how did you have trim lighting?
    What time of day?
    Is that right for the size of foam core 2x4?

    Just wondering and have you done anything else like this again and if so would you put a link here.

    Thank you and I love the photos...

  • Ben June 26, 2011 02:24 am

    Brilliant description I have been looking or this everywhere on the web.

  • Ariel da Silva April 28, 2011 01:37 am

    This is AWESOME!! Thank you very much. There aren't many posts like this that let you see how to do things. This is going to be SO helpful! The photos are great, the setup is possible for us without equipment or money. Thanks again! WE WANT MORE POSTS!!

  • Emma November 14, 2009 01:46 pm

    THANK YOU SO MUCH, I have been looking for something like this for months! I've been trying to get into portraiture but the only equipment I have is my camera and tripod, so this is perfect!

  • Kathleen October 24, 2009 03:27 am

    I love your creativity! I am a very new portrait photographer, and I am on a budget. I have linked you to my blog to guide other photographers to your site. I love the results you got using the black sheet set up. The way you positioned your "models" is great! They are all really great looking and have amazing style so that helps a great deal. Your awesome!

  • Arifanda September 5, 2009 07:04 pm

    Really excellent example !! so inspiring !! maybe someday i should try this one :) thx...

  • Elizabeth Halford August 27, 2009 02:33 am

    Wow so inspiring. Wish I'd read it before plunking down £4k on equipment! :)

  • Massimo Belloni August 3, 2009 10:47 pm

    Great article! How to make simple what looks to be compicated. My compliments!

  • jon July 27, 2009 02:28 am

    "With that said, my friend has 2 nice vivitar flashes he got off ebay for about $25 apiece- and umbrellas are even cheaper than that. Combine that with a Cactus wireless flash trigger at $32 which includes both the receiver and transmitter and you basically have your studio set up on the cheap."

    That's basically my setup. I have a couple cheap light stands with umbrella holders with hotshoes I use to mount the flashes. 45" white translucent umbrellas with removable black backing were $16 a piece brand new from b&h photo.

    This is an excellent example of using natural light (and the right angle and time of day) along with some fill reflectors, well done. Now when you want some more flexibility, pickup a couple of $90 strobes (vivtar 285hv), $40 light stands and $16 umbrellas and you'll get a whole new level of flexibility, you can really shoot anywhere at any time and produce fantastic results. For stand+holder+flash+umbrella+wireless-receiver you're looking at $200 per light setup, and thats brand new off of B&H (and Gadget Infinity)

    My only complaint is these cactus triggers can't sync faster than 1/200, so you're very very limited. I'm constantly having to back off strobes, stop down the lens, adjust EV compensation and even use ND filters to get the shutter down to something I can sync with. There's no quick f/1.4 at ISO100 at noon and getting some cross lighting with the flash, not a chance, you're talking 1/4000 shutters, that will never sync.

    I'd recommend coughing up the money for pocketwizards when you're ready to go wireless.

  • Naimah Azza July 27, 2009 01:31 am

    Hello, I really enjoyed this article that a friend sent me. I think that I a goingt o experiment with this technique.

  • Tina Mulligan July 26, 2009 11:56 am

    Goes to show, the best equipment is your brain. Use it.

  • Mik July 23, 2009 04:19 pm

    Pretty sweet photos, and simple and effective set-up, I have some shots to do and don't have the studio kit so this kind of set-up will fit the bill.

  • employee clockin clockout July 15, 2009 10:58 pm

    Great tutorial. With modern camera gear, almost anyone can take photos as good as the pros.

  • Carleton Akana June 20, 2009 04:41 pm

    Darren, the budget studio looks neat, think i'm going to put one together soon so as to be able to do some experimenting myself. Next thing i need is, what lenses to stock?
    .................................................................message ends.......................................................................................................

  • money June 7, 2009 01:02 am

    Oh! this is a wonder, I loved it so much

  • Kristi Fisher June 2, 2009 10:51 pm

    Thank you for showing that you can still have fun, be creative and come out with AWESOME photographs without having to spend every last penny you have in equipment.

  • Ida June 2, 2009 07:42 am

    Super, Cool article and work. I also am on a limited budget. I try and find creative ways to use things around my house/ I have a makeshift studio that I can setup any where I have a little space. I purchased cheap lights from a hardware store and actually made a light diffuser from part of an old shower door that I had replaced. It turned out pretty good and serves it's purpose.
    Thanks again for the inspiration

  • Neill Shenton May 29, 2009 08:24 am

    This is a really interesting, simple idea that I will try.

    I couldn't help but spot the Spinal Tap Stonehenge style typo: "Two sheets of 2”x4” white foam board"

  • G May 25, 2009 12:55 pm

    how did you create the trim lighting? and how much processing went into these? they're amazingly sharp.

  • Melanie Kissell May 24, 2009 12:16 pm

    All I can say is WOW-WEE! Not sure exactly how I landed here, but I'm certainly glad I did.

    Looking ahead to gaining a treasure trove of knowledge here.

    Somebody "shoot" me, please! :-)


  • Amber May 19, 2009 02:40 pm

    This article was very informative & gives me lots of hope. I have a muslin that I dyed black. Although, maybe not as dark as I would like, but I could darken it in Photoshop. I have a maternity shoot to do tomorrow & am going to try using it. FYI for those of you who don't have black bed sheets, I bought a 9 foot wide piece of muslin fabric & I forget how long I asked them to cut it (sorry) at JoAnn Fabrics when I had a 40% off coupon for about $17. I then brought the muslin home & dyed it with RID Dye that I bought at the grocery store. I don't have the white foam board but I intend on trying it with some reflectors that I have that are made to keep the sun out of the car windows (which happen to be silver). Wish me luck. I am excited to see if this works!

  • steabe May 18, 2009 11:06 pm

    SWEET! Great use of on-hand props to get a very dramatic result; thanks for sharing!!!

  • Kay Bryan May 18, 2009 01:39 am

    Great article. I hope you'll enter a post answering all the questions asked above. Love the photos you took.

  • Sarah Alston May 17, 2009 02:47 pm

    This is awesome! The pictures look fantastic, and I can hardly believe they were taken in your front yard. Wow.

  • T.C. May 16, 2009 08:06 am

    Is this band Renegade Jane?

  • Diane May 16, 2009 07:02 am

    OMG! I have everything here on hand and did not realise it! I have to do a shoot of a young lady who's graduating from high school in June. She has a beautiful black and white dress for her grad night...this gave me some ideas on how to do the photos. Thanks a million

  • Sarah May 16, 2009 01:36 am

    This article was really inspiring for me as I'm trying to build the quality and range of my work. It's good to know that you don't neccesarily need the most expensive equipment to get professional looking shots.

  • Richard May 15, 2009 09:46 pm

    great article. I've been learning to improvise on gear lately. I had to take pictures of my computer parts for a school presentation. made my own lightbox out of my wife's big tupperware cake holder, some printer paper taped in a ring around it, and 1 worklight light clamped to a chair. You can even see the texture on the tiny copper pins on my CPU. Different scale, same principle: the gear is not IN the picture, so the result OF the picture is all that matters. And Darren. if you need an editor, I'm available. Quite a few typos this week. LOL

  • Mark May 15, 2009 09:30 pm

    I'm wondering how best to achieve this result without photoshop - I only have lightroom to use. I have tried before with a black bed sheet but find them not to be dark enough - more charcoal grey than black. Would I need to get a more professional background of truer blackness etc?

  • margaretha toerien May 15, 2009 07:05 pm

    LOVED this article! On behalf of all we amateurs who would love to be able to make a living from our passion.... thanks for the tips!

  • KB May 15, 2009 04:51 pm

    love it. very inspiring. I love it!!

  • VJ Musale/Kolhapur-India May 15, 2009 04:23 pm

    I loved the article,, Its so simple but sooo effective. Definately iam gonna try this.

    I sincerely thanx DPS and Mr. Alexis Godschalk for this wonderfull, yet within our reach idea,

    Thank you

  • Joanne May 15, 2009 03:23 pm

    All very well, but I don't know that many ppl with a couple of black bed sheets hanging around. Maybe I hang in the wrong circles. It helps when your subjects are so good looking - did you photoshop their eye colour? Your article is inspiring.

  • 800HighTech May 15, 2009 02:49 pm

    Extremely useful tips, easy to follow and comprehensive, even the laymen photographer can follow this advice!!!

  • Julian May 15, 2009 02:11 pm

    I like how the camera in the set up image is a medium format camera. Because we all started with Hassys or Mamiyas. haha. Great article though. It's nice to see good comments from inspired folks.

  • Vineet May 15, 2009 01:20 pm

    And I always thought studio lighting would cost me an arm and a leg ;-) Being an amateur, expending any cash on EXTRAS will only draw the wrath of my wife ;-) Thanks for this post. I hope to use the ideas with my kids soon

  • Television Spy May 15, 2009 01:06 pm

    Great setup, now anyone can set up their own mini photo studio.

  • Nabeen May 15, 2009 12:02 pm

    Hey, i am glad i joined the site and enjoying learning to shoot best photoes with a very under my control efforts. Since i have joined the site few weeks back i have really gained a lot of confident in learning the rules and breaking them with confidence. It seems that i can follow my dreams now to be one of the best photographers.

  • Leo May 15, 2009 11:20 am

    To get a significant amount of fill-in lighting from 2"x4" foam board (as mentioned in the intro and the list of supplies), it must have been a REALLY bright day.

    BTW, check out the classic flick "This is Spinal Tap" for the ultimate feet-vs.-inches substitution. :-)

  • SweetCapture May 15, 2009 10:53 am

    Wow! What a fantastic tutorial... and with a diagram too! Thank you so much! (^_^)

  • Feuza May 15, 2009 09:42 am

    Thanks for sharing- there is so much that can be done, it is not all about the gear but taking control of the if your photography

  • Lauren May 15, 2009 09:05 am

    Last week, I shot my husband's band's promo shots and they didn't come out NEAR that awesome!!! Granted, we were outside (yes, at dusk) and even went to a parking garage as per the other tip that's floating around this site somewhere (that lighting was rough, I'll give it that) and some already-made-but-need-to-be-leased buildings that came out awesome as well.

    Said band members aren't the same height so the one of the face wouldn't have worked that well without making the shorties step up on ladders or the Monster (my husband at over 6') squat down... We worked with what we had and I'm proud of the turn out regardless.

    I'll have to remember that set up for next time!! AND it doesn't require electricity, great job on that!!

  • simon May 15, 2009 04:56 am

    thanks Alexis?it's help a lot?

  • Jana May 15, 2009 04:38 am

    I just absolutely LOVE the wet t-shirt photo, it caught my eye right away.The lighting onit is fantastic! <3

  • JMarkLabbe May 15, 2009 03:59 am

    thanks for the diagram too!!!

  • JMarkLabbe May 15, 2009 03:58 am

    this is great! I am soooo trying this this weekend!!!

  • Julie May 15, 2009 03:28 am

    I loved this article! I had the same experience with my 2 1/2 year old grandson. He saw the camera and went running the other way and then one very rainy, icky day, we set up lights and included his very precious bike. We put it on a coffee table and Papa stood very close by (out of camera range) and then we put our grandson on the bike, it was as if it were his own idea! Now I have a camera bug both in front of and behind the camera. The pictures were not exactly perfect as I discover every day more things I am doing somewhat backwards, HOWEVER, my grandson's face was absolutely more than I could have ever hoped for.
    This particular article helped me think I may finally be on the right road and keep making errors and keep trying new things, NEVER GIVE UP. Thank you!!

  • Kira May 15, 2009 03:22 am

    Those are absolutely amsing shots!!
    the fact that those guys are very handsom also helps.
    Thanks for the article and the diagram !!

  • johnny griffin May 15, 2009 02:55 am

    What lens did you use in this shoot? Custom settings or auto settings?

  • Jack Ferguson May 15, 2009 02:17 am

    SWEET! Great use of on-hand props to get a very dramatic result; thanks for sharing!

  • Jean May 15, 2009 02:13 am

    Thank you very much for this!

  • Chris May 15, 2009 01:42 am

    If you just used the sun for these portraits, that is a really great job done... the result with just 1 light, which you can't even manipulate, is wonderful. Cheap lights to invest in would be vivitars or some nikon sb-25s, and get some umbrellas and you can manipulate the light even further. But with what you worked with.. cool.

  • Lisa May 15, 2009 01:34 am

    What time of day were you shooting? Just curious about the angle of the sun - morning, midday, late afternoon?

  • Helga Lightspeed May 15, 2009 12:44 am

    A Hasselblad? I'm envious! ;)

  • Peter May 14, 2009 12:39 pm

    Thank you very much... it's encouraging to know that our requests are honored in this school environment...excellent job as always DPS!

  • Darren Rowse May 14, 2009 09:30 am

    diagram of the shoot added - thanks to Alexis!

  • agodschalk May 14, 2009 07:59 am

    I'll see if I can get a simple diagram of the setup posted. Thanks for all the comments!

  • Mom on a budget May 14, 2009 05:35 am

    Very inspirational! I am a first time stay at home mom 2 be with a bachelors degree in art and design looking for ideas on how to take good photography of my family on my own rather then pay someone. I've been away from the art field working a permanent non art position trying to make ends to stay at home "someday" and now am ready to dive into the world of photography on a "mommy budget".

  • Peter May 14, 2009 04:48 am

    I agree with one of the commentors... could we see the actual setup of your shot?

  • Pink.water.lily May 14, 2009 04:21 am

    WOW, the results are amazing... I would never bealive they where taken outside with no professional equipment, like someone already comment,......... you give me hope....... ThAnK YoU very very helpfull.

  • Nathan May 14, 2009 04:01 am

    Good post, though, like Reznor, I'd like to see some shots or diagrams of the setups you used, as I think those would be very helpful.

  • johnny May 14, 2009 03:57 am

    Thanx. You give me hope!

  • Balliolman May 14, 2009 03:50 am

    Superb results. This is a great post: inspiring and a lesson for all of us to learn from! :)

  • agodschalk May 14, 2009 03:48 am

    @reznor I used an assistant (friend of ours) to hold the boards. It really helped here and was very flexible, however that said I could have attached the boards too. Great idea about the shots of the set-up, I'll remember to do that next. Thanks.

  • Ryan May 14, 2009 03:39 am

    I agree I would have loved to see a setup of this. But this article is great regardless! Gives quite a bit of inspiration for someone like myself armed with only a camera!

    Thank you.

  • Mindy May 14, 2009 02:50 am

    Those shots are absolutely fabulous, the one of the entire group is, for lack of a better word, AWESOME!

  • Donald Giannatti May 14, 2009 02:48 am

    Gear is gear. Making well lit and composed images is not dependent on gear. You did a great job here and I would have no problem with working with those images as an AD (past lives ago).

    Several big name shooters including Testino do that exact thing... silks over top, dark backgrounds and more... outside with fill cards adding the rim/sep light.

    Nice job.

  • canyon289 May 14, 2009 02:43 am

    Great Article!
    I have one question though. You mention that you used trim lighting to separate the blacks. What exactly is trim lighting?

  • Helga Lightspeed May 14, 2009 02:42 am

    I dunno... though i do like your budget of nearly free and the creativeness of using available light, there's something to be said for controlled light and being able to wrap or throw light just where you want it at a certain power to bring out your image.

    I myself spent the extra money on 2 alien bees, a 430 flash, a few umbrellas and a 4' lightbox... and i can tell you light modifiers with different light sources makes a huge difference in the quality and vibrancy of the shots.

    With that said, my friend has 2 nice vivitar flashes he got off ebay for about $25 apiece- and umbrellas are even cheaper than that. Combine that with a Cactus wireless flash trigger at $32 which includes both the receiver and transmitter and you basically have your studio set up on the cheap.

    Then again i've seen some great photos with next to nothing so it really comes down to the skill and creativity of the photographer- though extra equipment doesn't hurt!

  • Catherine May 14, 2009 02:05 am

    Thanks very much, what an inspiring article!

  • Marty B May 14, 2009 01:28 am

    Thanks! I was trapped by the thought of expensive equipment because I talked to some new photogs here at home said it was the only way. Well, they had the money right off and I still do not. Thanks to DPS and great tutorials such as this, I have expanded my thinking. Great!
    Thanks to all for their time!

  • Roberto May 14, 2009 01:28 am

    This is an inspiring post. I am just getting started with photography and have already been commissioned to do team pictures for a few Tee-Ball teams. I know, it is small, but I am taking it seriously because it is the foundation of what will hopefully be a fruitful experience with photography.

  • Reznor May 14, 2009 01:00 am

    Did you attach the cardboard somewhere to reflect the light or did you have an assistant holding them? Like this article, if you're going to add another one some day, I'd really love if you could take a photo of the setup so we can really get an impression. But still, good article for people like me who are working on a tight or even no budget. Thanks.