In this article, I will give you some tips for creating your own studio starter kit. A portable studio that doesn’t break the bank or the budget.
For many new photographers, the idea of using strobes and portable flashes may seem too daunting. Once you get over that fear, however, you will realize that it is not as difficult as you once thought, nor it is completely unaffordable. I’m sure many of us see famous professional photographers use top brand names such as Profoto, Broncolor, Westcott, Pocket Wizard, Elinchrom, Bowens, Manfrotto, and Lastolite, just to mention a few. We look at the price tag and quake in our boots. That kind of gear is worth its weight in gold for sure and would last many many years, even with daily use, as long as they are used appropriately and with care.
But fear not! These are not the only brands that work and if you are after a starter kit, there are plenty of other more affordable options out there that do the job just fine.
So, I will share with you some alternatives to top brands for a studio starter kit especially if you just what to try it out. Of course you can go the full nine yards and shell out for the best brands, or alternatively you could rent a few items first to test them out.
#1 Know your subject and understand your audience
First of all, assess what you need your portable studio for. What will you be shooting; headshots, photobooths, full body shots? Knowing your usage requirements will dictate the height your light stands, the power of your strobes or capabilities of your speedlights, for example.
Secondly, how often will you need to use your portable kit as you need to take into consideration the wear and tear on your equipment. This has more to do with the quality of the materials used in manufacturing. You don’t want your umbrellas and softboxes to rip from frequent use, for example, or the screws of your stands to come off so quickly.
Thirdly, what backdrop will you be using? Your stands need to be sturdy enough for the weight of your backdrop.
#2 Do your research and read reviews
When you have a clear idea of your needs, allowing room for improvement and progression into other subjects, get on the internet and read reviews of various brands and compare them. It is a good idea to stick to a budget and if you can manage it, not to get into debt when acquiring equipment, although I know that sometimes that is not an option.
For the most basic studio starter kit, all you need is a light and one stand. That’s it. Of course, you do need a subject and a camera with a memory card. But, you don’t even need a remote trigger if you can use the built-in creative lighting system of your camera and flash. This works using infrared so that your camera and off-camera flash can communicate with each other for as long as both are within line of sight. For a better starter kit, though, I suggest you add a light modifier and a transceiver.
Portable studio wish list
This would be my list for a good portable starter studio:
- Backdrop stands x 1 set (a set will have two stands and a bar from which to hang the backdrop)
- Clamps for your backdrop x 12 or depending on length of bar and number of clamps needed
- Sandbags (one for each your stands)
- Transceivers (or remote trigger and receiver system)
- Light stands (preferably air-cushioned, as many as your lights)
- Reflectors (preferably foldable and at least a 5-in-1)
- Speedlight x 1 minimum (either the same brand as your camera or a third party compatible brand) or …
- Strobe x 1 minimum (preferably with a battery pack so you won’t have to worry about power sockets on location)
- Adaptors for speedlight to stands x 1 minimum (you need this so that your speedlight can be connected to your light stand)
- Light modifiers which can be any of the following; an umbrella (silver, white, black on the outside, silver on the inside, all white diffusion), octabox umbrellas (with or without grid), foldable softbox (with a speedlight mount)
- Tripod or monopod (preferable but not essential)
- Light meter (preferable but not essential)
- Plenty of Gaffer tape
- Spare batteries for your camera, speedlight, and/or strobe (whichever you are using)
Third party options
Alternative cheaper brands that offer an astonishing array of photographic accessories at a fraction of top brand name prices.
- Pixapro (UK)
- Paul C Buff – (Alien Bees and White Lightning)
- Rogue Photographic Design
These are only some of the many alternatives easily accessible nowadays through the internet. The photos shown within this article have been taken with my portable studio starter kit made up the Pixapro, Yongnuo, Neewer, Paul C Buff, Rogue Photographic Design, Sekonic, Nikon, and Manfrotto. Sometimes I use just one light, other times two, and sometimes I include a reflector as well.
In addition to strobes, you might also want to include some continuous lighting in your arsenal. There are many types of continuous lights, the most popular of which are video lights, ring and tube lights. The usually come with filters too, which is handy. The great thing about continuous lights is not only their portability but the price tag – they are super affordable nowadays with various brands competing in an already saturated market. Personally, I only use these occasionally and cannot justify spending much on them.
For backdrops, you can use paper or fabric. A good tip is to use fabric that doesn’t crease and doesn’t need ironing. There is nothing worse than having to Photoshop all the creases from a backdrop. Trust me, I have done it before!
#3 Use your new studio
Having a studio in a box that never sees the light of day is a waste of your precious time doing all the above, not to mention money. Use your new kit and try out what works for you and what doesn’t. You will learn new things by experimenting and actually using your gear, rather than just reading what other people say. You will learn how to troubleshoot, and how to pack and unpack in the quickest time. If you don’t have a live subject to photograph, then take pictures of still life subjects to practice and find things out.
While there is no doubt that there are differences in the quality of the material used between brands, I believe that the difference in the quality of light is debatable and I’m pretty sure these differences are not life-changing. Ultimately, it’s not about the gear but how you use what you have.
When it comes to light, the important thing to remember, more than the brand name, is that the bigger the light the better the quality, the closer the light to the subject the softer it is. When it comes to a portable studio kit, make portability a priority so that everything is easily collapsible. Don’t forget to consider the weight of your portable studio too as well as how much room it will take when transported. Many of the materials nowadays are made of lightweight durable metal, alloys or steels. You want a portable starter studio that really folds into a pocket!
Do share here any tips for starter portable studios especially if there is anything I haven’t included on the list above.