Building a Photography Studio

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By Steve Russell

You’ve probably been wondering where I’ve been and why I haven’t been writing. Well, maybe not, but I haven’t had an article here for the last three weeks or so. And the reason is that we’ve been in the process of moving from Florida back to Texas. Still not settled in and far from back to normal but resuming my writing for Beyond Megapixels is a step in the right direction. I’ll probably have another one of these “outages” in April when our house is finished and we start moving in the new house, unpacking, trying to decide where to put things and all the other chaos that goes with moving into a new home. Okay, enough of that, let’s get down to the real stuff.

In the past I’ve either mentioned or written an article about borrowing a friend’s studio or renting someone else’s studio. That approach is fine and it works well for a time or two but to be very honest, trying to photograph in a studio that isn’t your own has it’s frustrations, not the least of which is a lack of familiarity with the lights and how to get them set up exactly the way you want them. The best solution to those frustrations is your own studio.

We had been planning the move back to Texas for two years and for the last 18 months I had also been planning to start a studio photography business when the move was complete. Part of the planning process revolved around the studio equipment and that’s what I’m going to write about today. Sometime in the future I’ll write about the business side of it – or at least my experiences from the business side of it.

Tiffany has written a couple of articles on related subjects, Build a Home Photo Studio for Under $800 in November 2010 and An Inexpensive Speedlight Studio in November 2011. Apparently she gets on this kick about once a year. Okay, just kidding. The difference between what Tiffany has been writing about (which, by the way is really good stuff) and what I wanted to do is twofold; available budget and the type and quality of lighting equipment. You probably can guess that this studio wasn’t “built” for under $800.

Before I go any further, let me say that I clearly understand that what works for me may or may not work for you. I’m not suggesting you run out and buy everything I did although you’re welcome to do so. However, if you are considering a studio for yourself, I hope this article will give you some thoughts and ideas about how to proceed.

Before buying anything I talked to a lot of photographers and looked at a lot of equipment. For example, in a mall near where I lived in Florida there is a photography studio. It’s a somewhat higher end studio than your standard mall studio but it’s open and accessible. A couple of times while at the mall I stopped in the studio and visited with the photographers about their equipment and how easy it was to use, how they liked it and how durable it was. Generally you’ll always get more reliable information from the user than from the seller.

I also attended the Scott Kelby seminar Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It, Live. As a result of that seminar I decided to purchase the equipment that Scott used in the seminar. I discovered that B&H Photo, one of Scott’s sponsors, was offering the equipment as a set for $2,261. The set included 2 Elinchrom BX 500 Ri Monolights; a 53″ Midi Octa soft box; a 14″x35″ strip soft box; a 17″ beauty dish with white diffuser; a 7″ reflector with 12, 20 and 30 degree honeycomb grids and two 7’8″ stands.

From the beginning I had decided that no studio can be complete without Pocket Wizardsand had used them in other studios to verify that decision. Guess what? I don’t have and don’t need Pocket Wizards. One of the things about the Elinchrom BXRi lights is that they are wireless. Each light has a built-in EL Skyport system receiver and the transmitter that attaches to the hot shoe of your camera and is about the size of an old Zippo lighter; much smaller and lighter than a Pocket Wizard. The downside is that the Skyport equipment doesn’t “talk” to my Sekonic L-358 Flash Master Light Meter like a Pocket Wizard would but that’s a small inconvenience I can live with.

After a couple of portrait sessions I realized that I needed at least three lights, and maybe even a fourth, so I went to Amazon and ordered a set of two more Elinchrom 500 BXRi Lights. This kit came with the two lights, two Manfrotto light stands, two 25″x25″ soft boxes and a EL Skyport transmitter. The price for the kit is currently $1,350.

My next purchase was a backdrop. I like “high key” portraiture so my first purchase was a white backdrop. A photographer friend of mine recommended that I consider purchasing backdrops from a company called Denny Manufacturing. For about $400, including shipping, I purchased a 10′x20′ white vinyl backdrop. This backdrop is very heavy duty and has attached to each end a 1″x2″ board for mounting. My guess is the backdrop will be around and serviceable when I decide to quit studio photography.

To support the white vinyl and other backdrops I purchased a Manfrotto 1314B Background Support Set with Bag and Spring. If you visit the link you’ll find a somewhat negative review for this product on Amazon. I completely disagree with the review and had a completely different experience. The stand set was exactly what I expected in looks, weight and functionality and hasn’t fallen over on anyone. The price for the stand set was $240.

There were two more items I wanted and purchased to complete my current set up; a neutral backdrop (which I used in some of the photos included here) and a larger soft box, specifically a 4′x6′ soft box. I was able to purchase both of these items, used, from other photographers for less than half what they would cost new. Total for the two was about $700 and they’re both in great shape and function just as well as a new one would.

For approximately $5,000 I purchased the equipment I currently use in my studio. Is it all I’ll ever buy for the studio? No, probably not. Does it meet my current needs and allow me to take photographs that both my client(s) and I like. Absolutely. Was it inexpensive? No, but if you really want to be a professional photographer, you have to make an investment up front. Besides, I’ve already recovered roughly half of my initial investment so I’m very happy.

Another thought. With four lights, if I need or want to use them I have a key light, a fill light, a kicker and a hair light. A single Elinchrom 500 BXRi sells for $585 on Amazon. A Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash is $475 so if you want more than one light in your studio the speedlite route doesn’t save that much money.

If you’re considering investing in studio equipment, I hope you find my experience helpful in your decision making process.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks Steve!  I’ll probably mimic your purchases myself, once I win the lottery.  :-P

  • Jake McKee

    Any chance you moved back to Texas, meaning Austin? I too was at the Kelby LSR event and am also looking at setting up a studio :)

  • Steve Russell

    Actually the DFW area.  My crimson and cream blood wouldn’t let me live near Austin. :-)

  • Jake McKee

    Ha! Well, if you make it down, I’d love to buy you a beer :)

  • Steve Russell

    Sounds like a plan.

  • Liz- Las Vegas Photography

    I have also been wondering about the Elinchrom lights since I’ve seen them pop up more and more at siminars and in magazines, but didn’t know anyone who used them… so this helps a lot. Hopefully my next big purchase will be some of their lights.

  • Kunal Rajput

    A wonderful article and exactly the stuff that I was looking for! It was really helpful, thanks for sharing.