What Gear Do You Need To Start Your First Photography Studio?

Opening your own photo studio can be an incredibly big undertaking. There are a lot of things to consider, not the least of which is the pieces of gear you’ll need. Having recently helped a friend create his first studio, I’d like to share some ideas of what you could include.

Let’s be clear, my expertise lies only in fashion and portrait photography, however, the things I say are relevant to most photography studios. Let’s divide our equipment list into categories: lighting, to inputand various. When it comes to gear, I like to follow this order of importance: modifiers, lights, lenses, cameras. Of course, when it comes to expenses, I make sure to invest in marketing and testing because that’s what I enjoy the most. Ideally, it’s also the most fun for you.

To input

First of all, every creation needs a good grip. It may cost a surprisingly high amount and may seem like an unnecessary purchase, but believe me, it will save you thousands of money (not to mention time savings) when things go wrong. Good grip will of course cost more, so don’t be afraid to spend more upfront, as it will save you a lot in the long run.

C-Stands with handles

As for light stands, I suggest getting one of the Manfrotto Avenger stands. Ideally, you would want to get C stands for your studio as they are much more stable and can last for decades. A good choice would be the Avenger C-Stand.

A slightly more economical option would be Flashpoint mounts, although the grip heads may wear out over time.

The reason I suggest getting grip arms for C-brackets is that they will allow you to achieve more complex and precise lighting setups. Using a setup like this will allow you to place your lighting and modifiers outside of the image frame, giving you and your subject more room to play. Whenever I don’t have a pole on the shots, my retoucher ends up having to remove one or more lighting stands from the finished photos, which can increase your costs and delivery times.

High supports with boom arms

When things get too heavy for the C-stand, you’ll need a tall stand with a boom arm. Typically these are used for key lights where the modifier is very big/heavy and needs to be placed on top. Aerial rigs are common in fashion and portrait photography, and having a good boom stand will definitely add more flexibility and open up creative opportunities for you.

Here are three options when it comes to good pole mounts:

Budget option

It is a combination of a pole and a light stand. It holds the least weight, but it works. I wouldn’t trust this rack with anything other than a lightweight 3ft octabox.

The standard option

This is a simple rolling light stand with a weighted boom arm. Making adjustments to light position can be fiddly after a while, but they’re usually smaller and give you better positioning control. These systems seem capable of supporting heavier setups like a standard light with a 4×6 softbox on top, but may not be the safest or best option for larger setups.

Luxury Formula

For me, this is the preferred option. The boom arm has handles that allow me to control the light from the ground without having to lower it to my height. The whole system is much more durable and can hold a lot more weight, which means I don’t have to worry about putting bigger lights and heavy modifiers on it.

Superclamps

These will come in handy when building a set and assembling items. For most setups you’ll need at least five to start with and if you’re like me you’ll keep adding more as your shots get more interesting. I prefer the ones from Manfrotto because they are incredibly sturdy and seem virtually indestructible.

Lighting

In this section, I won’t say which brand and modifier to get as everyone has their own preferences and budget, but I will make suggestions on what roles the modifiers you buy should play.

As a general rule, I recommend getting a set of grids for the lights and modifiers you use, because you want control over your work. Remember that the louvres don’t increase the contrast, they just reduce the amount of scattered light and that’s it.

Key Light

For the key, you should get a soft key light and a hard key light. Typically, the soft key light looks like a 3 foot octa or a white umbrella.

As for hard light, I suggest a 7 inch reflector, a p70 or a zoom reflector. These are great starting points for any photographer. As you progress, you’ll want to purchase additional modifiers and get “unusual” with your lighting. If you’re out of ideas, check out my article on Unusual Light Shaping Tools.

Fill light

Generally, a fill light is a large light source that is used to bring out shadow detail. It could be anything from a flash projected into a wall to a giant parabolic reflector for $10,000.

Personally, I use a large white umbrella as a fill light. It’s a very portable modifier so I can easily take it on location, and it’s one of the easiest light modifiers to set up. As a general rule, I always install a fill light whether or not I use it for the final shot. Once the subject is on set, I can turn it on or off depending on the situation. As a general rule, it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Other/additional

If you work in fashion or portraiture, owning a tape box can be very beneficial. It’s a popular choice among photographers for the peripheral light it can provide, especially when gridded. Generally, a rim light aims to highlight the shape of the subject, so a strip box is perfect for this.

Miscellaneous tools

Finally, let’s discuss some other things you might want in your first studio that fall outside of the scope and lighting.

Sharing the line

I am a tethering-evangelist. Personally, I don’t understand photographers who work as a team and don’t get attached. Allowing team input on the tethered board will allow for a much better final capture. The stylist can grab and adjust the position of clothes and props, hair and makeup artists can fix shiny spots on the spot, and the producer/client can give feedback on poses and looks to help get a better shot.

Getting a home base you can ride is a must. You can either build it around a light stand using Tether Tools, or buy a cart and place everything there. Personally, I bought Tether Tools equipment because I can also take some of it on site. Just make sure your light stands have wheels/casters so they are easier to move around.

Flags and Scrims

Also, I suggest getting flags and scrims. These will allow you to build a precise setup aimed at getting the best images. Flags allow you to control the spill and fall of your lighting for precise placement. It’s easy to add more and more, but learn to cut and remove light where it’s needed for impressive results. As for the scrims, they will help you diffuse or cut off some of the light. This can help solve many problems on set when you have unwanted harsh and/or hot light spilling onto your subjects.

Final Thoughts

Although you want to buy all the items I listed in the article (and I encourage you to do so at some point), I would like you to consider buying used equipment to start . Besides being good for the planet (less packaging waste), it’s also much cheaper. Grip equipment is designed to last for decades, so you can safely buy almost anything (except some modifiers and diffusion fabrics) on the used market without too much worry.


PS If you want to learn more about buying used equipment, check out an article I wrote on this specific topic.


Picture credits: Header photo from 123RF

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