The Home Studio, Part 1: Creating Space and Using Backgrounds


As a new studio photographer, you may have found your niche in fashion, portraits, or headshots. Perhaps you like macro photography or shooting food and products. Regardless of what you specialize in shooting, you’ll need a studio space. However, many photographers cannot afford the expense of a commercial studio, and will find creating a home studio to be a more cost-effective option.

Above photograph © Robert Olsen

Robert Olsen; Model: Mao Hanada

Having built my own fully equipped home studio from the ground up, I will share how I did it in this six-part series, The Home Studio, to guide you in creating your own.

Benefits of Working in a Home Studio

One of the biggest perks to working in a home studio is convenience. It’s a time-saver to be able to roll out of bed and start shooting in a studio located in the next room. Since a commercial studio can incur a steep hourly or monthly expense, another benefit of working out of your home is cost. You pay nothing more than additional utilities for converting a room in your home into a photography studio. I also find working out of my home handy because of the availability of personal resources for tools, props, and accessories.

A home studio can provide access to loads of additional props, accessories, etc.

Space Requirements

You may wonder if you have enough space to create a home studio. I work out of an 11 x 12' space with 10-foot ceilings, whereas an average commercial studio may be up to four times as large, and I can still create worthy images. How much space you need really depends on what you’re shooting and your modifier and background choices, though you can likely make anything work if you are determined enough.

You will want to put at least five feet between your subject and background to minimize the subject’s shadow on the background. Depending on the focal length of your lens, consider the distance between you and your subject, too. A 10-foot-high ceiling is optimal for full-body shots, especially if you plan to use a hair light; otherwise, sitting portraits and headshots may be your best option.

Behind the scenes Robert Olsen; Model: Mao Hanada

More Tips for Space

Wall Color: White, gray, or black walls are preferred, because colors on walls can create a color cast on your subject. You can control color cast by using the Lastolite Panoramic Background in white or black to create artificial walls.

A Dark Room: Blackout curtains can also be useful if you want more control of your lighting by blocking out ambient light.

Changing Area: If you are photographing people, be sure to consider the need for a changing area for your subjects to change outfits.

Organization Tips

Beyond your shooting space, you will have equipment and props to store. The key to saving space in a home studio is good organization.

Storing Modifiers: I have found a curvy coat rack to work well for storing modifiers. Umbrellas can sit in the bottom and softboxes, reflectors, and other modifiers can be hung on the coat rack’s notches. Another option would be to install some shelves or to buy a free-standing shelf system to store your modifiers. Aside from the coat rack, I also store big softboxes on top of a portable prop closet.

Modifier storage on a curvy coat rack

Double-Use Storage: I try to maintain a double-use policy for the furniture I buy for my home studio. Consider storage ottomans—they not only work well as posing furniture, but can be useful to store things like throws, extension cords, clamps, and other studio odds and ends.

Using storage ottomans to stow gear and accessories

Using ottoman to pose subjectRobert Olsen; Model: Mao Hanada

Seamless Paper Racks: If you plan to use seamless paper as a background, the Savage TPC12 Background Paper Roll Storage Rack is ideal for organizing and storing your backdrops for easy access and to prevent rolls from falling over.

Seamless paper rack, shown in use, retaining paper rolls

Basic Furniture

Posing Stools: A posing stool is a necessity for shooting portraits and headshots, especially if you have low ceilings. If you’re on a budget, the Impact PS Posing Stool (20-30") will work just fine, but if you’re looking for something a little fancier, the LDS Monte Zucker Pneumatic Posing Stool is an excellent choice.

My posing stools

Apple Boxes: If you shoot portraits, a Matthews Set of Four Apple Boxes is great to use in conjunction with a posing stool, for elevating a knee in a pose, for example.

Matthews Set of Four Apple Boxes

Step Stool / Ladder: A step stool or ladder is also handy to have in the studio. Remember my rule for double use of furniture? The Pearstone PSL-3S 3-Step Photographers Ladder with Wheels works well not only as a ladder, but it also converts into a handtruck. Using seamless paper with high ceilings? The Telesteps Combi Ladder (10') is a great choice for climbing up high.

Examples of convertible stepstool / ladder / handtruck

Background Considerations

A background choice can make or break an image. You will want to choose a background that doesn’t take attention away from your subject. Here are some options to consider when choosing a background.

What does your client want? A corporate headshot client may want something classy and timeless, while a senior portrait client may want something a little more edgy.

What mood are you trying to convey? For a dramatic look, a dark-colored muslin or seamless paper work well, but if you want to recreate a scene, a painted canvas may be a better choice.

Weight: Background choices such as canvas and vinyl can weigh more than muslin or a short roll of seamless paper. Consider the weight you are willing to move around and hang in your home studio.

Budget: Backdrops such as muslin can cost very little, while a painted canvas or floor drop can be a little more expensive.

Background Options

Collapsible Backgrounds: Collapsible backgrounds are inexpensive, convenient, and versatile, and can be folded up and taken anywhere. They may not be a primary choice for full-body shots due to the stand, but they work well for headshots and portraits.

Savage Collapsible Stand Kit

Muslin: Muslin can be a great choice for a background due to its portability. It can be hung from a portable background support and costs less than other background options. The downside to muslin is that it needs to be ironed often if it’s not stored properly.

Impact Crushed Muslin Background

Canvas Backdrops: Canvas backdrops come in an endless variety of sizes, colors, and designs. They are much more durable than other background choices, but are heavy and can be expensive.

Savage Painted Canvas Backdrop

Floor Drops: Floor drops are generally used together with backdrops to recreate a scene for a shoot, but these can also be used as backdrops when hung from a portable background support. You can find them in various materials (I prefer polyester or neoprene) and in numerous designs such as wood panels, brick, tiles, or grass.

Floor drops

Vinyl: Vinyl is another terrific background because it doesn’t wrinkle like muslin and is reusable, unlike seamless paper. It’s also easy to clean and takes up little space. The Savage Port-a-Stand and Vinyl Background Kit is a great value as a starter kit for photographers choosing this route.

Savage Port-a-Stand and Vinyl Background Kit

Seamless Paper: Seamless paper is a great choice if you are looking for something clean and simple. Savage has almost too many color options in various roll sizes to choose from, depending on the size of your space. For seamless paper support, the Impact Deluxe Varipole Support System or the Manfrotto Complete AutoPole Expan Kit are excellent choices.

Impact Deluxe Varipole Support System

Other Creative Backgrounds: As a creative, I am always seeking alternatives for headshot backgrounds. I have found art paper, wallpaper, and fabrics to be good creative choices. Design options are endless when you go this route.

Self-sourced creative backgrounds

Tying It All Together

When building a home studio, it’s important to consider space limitations, furniture, and how you will best organize your studio. Background options are chosen based primarily on your client’s desires, the mood you’re trying to create, and your budget. Stay tuned for the next article in this series, in which we will discuss shooting gear for the home studio.

To read more in this series, click here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.