GPP 2016: Dubai, Feb 5th-12th Schedule is up!

On Assignment: Cheap Portable Studio, Pt. 1

UPDATE: You can see the result on Laurie Reuben's site, here.

Still riffing on Monday's post about studio-vs.-location, here's another reason I am not a big fan of studios. You can replicate them pretty much anywhere, and for almost nothing.

So let's switch things up and start with the BTS pic this time, to show you the "studio" used to photograph consultant Laurie Reuben last week.

It's a minimalist, two-speedlight setup that yields an elegant, painterly light—without the expensive studio part.


Reuben is a super-smart lady whose consultancy (she's CEO) sits at the intersection of business decision-making and neuroscience. I photographed her in her home as part of a website redesign for her company.

The BTS above really doesn't tell you much. That's because I have changed camera positions to be able to see the fill light behind the actual shooting position.

If you move back to the final shooting position, the lights—both key and fill—do what they are meant to do. And it looks very different from the top shot, because the on-axis fill is now, well, on-axis.

Nothing fancy here. She is not even posing. It's more like, "Stand right here, lemme tune my lights a little, yada yada."

And it's important to tell someone you are just testing, or you'll wear them out. It's genuinely tiring to be "on," trying to look your best for the camera. So make sure you don't use that window up needlessly while you are just testing your lights.

But even so—an even though these are pretty much straight out of the camera—she already looks pretty good. That big fill light behind the camera does a couple of nice things. First, it makes everything look smooth and creamy—even the background paper has a smoothness to it that will look even better after a little post.

Second, it fills her shadows beautifully without leaving a trace of itself. (The fill ratio is set pretty tight—maybe one stop. Maybe.) And because of those two things, I generally prefer the fill to be the bigger of my two lights when working with large and medium Photek Softlighters.

Up Against the Wall

So why no background stands? Well, I did say minimal, right? And the truth, is I prefer to work without a background stand kit if I can get away with it. That's not always possible. But if I can gaff the paper to the wall, she can lean against it. And this allows me to visually connect her to the background with a close-in shadow if I like.

That's exactly what I was thinking for the way I hoped they will play this photo on her "about" page. Pop-outs on white look fine and all, but grounding something with a real (organic, not Photoshop) shadow looks much more believable and three-dimensional to me.

And resource-wise, a half-width roll of super-white seamless and a few feet of gaff tape make a pretty cheap and portable alternative. The paper is $25 a roll. And if you are not doing full length (i.e., shoe marks) it lasts for years. And make sure you use real gaff tape, or you'll be repainting the wall.

Here's the final:

With that big soft key almost table-topping her (that's a pretty hard angle) and a huge, on-axis fill, the end result is at once both flattened and 3-D. I think it feels kinda painterly, and long-term readers will know this is one of my favorite ways to light people.

Speaking of lights, this is all done with two SB-800s. One as key, the other as fill. The key has a ¼ CTO gel, which (as always) is my go-to for keying skin. It's permanently attached to one of my SB-800s. I triggered them in SU-4 mode with an IR remote.

Here it is in context, on her redesigned "about" page. In the context of the type on the page, that subtle shadow becomes very important. It ties her to the page, but also helps her to stand out from it.

For website purposes, I wanted this picture to feel more controlled—i.e., elegant, confident, intelligent, etc. But next in Part 2, we'll keep the same shooting spot, same two speedlights and mix things up to get a more editorial-looking photo for use as a handout.

Next: Cheap, Portable Studio Pt. 2


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist