In locations like New York where rental space comes at a premium, it is not uncommon to find photographers working out of makeshift studios in their apartments. With a little creativity, even the smallest apartments can be used to create quality photographs. Nevertheless, building a usable studio while maintaining a livable space can be a tricky endeavor. Nobody wants to live in an apartment that looks like the set of a reality television show. Reaching a productive compromise starts with knowing what options are available to you.
Irving Penn famously praised north-facing windows as his preferred light source. If your apartment offers good light, don’t look past this space- and wallet-friendly option. Natural light can be great—except during the hours when the sun is down or when you want to control where your light source is coming from. If you don’t have the budget for a strobe, start with a speedlight. Pair it with a radio system so that you can get your light off-camera and position it where it needs to be for your shot.
Eventually, you’re going to want more power and efficiency from your light. Battery-powered strobes are the premier choice when working with limited space. They will decrease the likelihood of you or your model tripping on a cord and will lend more flexibility when positioning your light. Switching to battery power will also add mobility to your studio, allowing you to take your gear on location with ease.
Light stands are among the trickier necessities to adapt for the apartment studio. Some of the best supports have too wide of a footprint for use in a cramped space. One way to get around this issue is by combining autopoles and clamps to produce makeshift light stands. Just make sure that your combination can sustain the weight of your lighting system. Alternatively, most light stands fold up for easy storage, supposing you have enough space for their legs.
Most lighting modifiers are relatively easy to store, so you can load up without taking up too much space. The best all-around modifiers are also the easiest to fold up when you are done shooting: collapsible reflectors. There are plenty of options, depending upon what you want to do to the light you are modifying (reflect, diffuse, block, etc.).
Umbrellas serve as the simplest way to diffuse light from your strobe or flash—and, since they are umbrellas, their setup and storage is simple. Photographers who want to diffuse their light while controlling where it falls with more accuracy than an umbrella will want to get a softbox. Although more annoying to set up than an umbrella, they also store easily once disassembled. If you are shooting with a speedlight, shoe-mount adapters allow you to secure your light and provide a point of attachment to light stands. If you are using a softbox, you will need a compatible speed ring to attach your softbox to your strobe. They are often brand-specific, so be sure to check the compatibility of your speedring so that it will work with both your modifier and light. Grids can be added to further direct your light by controlling spill with minimal space requirements. Likewise, gels can dramatically change the character of your light while taking up next to no additional space.
Unless your apartment is gorgeous, you probably want to conceal the fact that you are shooting at home from your photographs. For quick setup and tear-down, grab a collapsible background. If you prefer seamless paper or fabric backgrounds, consider an autopole background system which combines two autopoles with clamps and background hooks or a crossbar to hold your background in place while taking up almost no floor space. Finally, you can mount background hooks to a sturdy wall for the most space-efficient solution. Just don’t tell your landlord!
Have you mastered the art of studio shooting in an apartment? Have any tips to add? Let us know in the Comments section, below.