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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 photo.net. Connect with Alexis via twitter at agodschalk.

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