Home Studio Lighting On A Shoestring Budget!

If you are into the clean look of a photograph made in a professional studio you will probably want to invest some money into the right equipment.

But if you do most of your work outside a time may come when you would really need the right appearance. But investing a large sum of money for a one-time project might not be prudent.

So this time you will be introduced to some more or less elaborate ways to produce clean studio shots without danger of bankruptcy.

Short-Term Equipment:

As a general rule, you can buy specialized, low quality equipment from eBay, AliExpress, and the like. You can get non-brand flashes pretty cheaply as well, so given the relative low cost you have some space to maneuver.

I do suggest that you take some came in your choices so that the product you buy don’t break very often. I will mostly speak from a perspective of someone who has 1 good quality flash, or only the environment light to work in.

So, a studio is only good for one thing: giving you complete control (over the environment and light). It’s a pretty big one thing. Since this post is about lighting I will set the environment aside and focus on how to control light to best fit a given subject.

You should pretty much never use your on camera flash, but for a little bit extra fill. Read exception here in this article.

For starters, try not to use your in-camera flash unless you really have to (example below). Using it as a fill-in or catchlight is fine as long as you have enough environmental light that the sharp shadows from it do not show in the scene.

I will include some guidelines to making your own equipment if you decide to do so.

Keep in mind that it is not usually a good idea to use things you make yourself when you work with people; equipment you buy usually looks professional and in turn makes you look more professional – though getting the right shot often means thinking outside of the box, adapting to the circumstance and being creative even outside of the frame.

As an example, I was called by someone who needed photos of staff urgently, but I didn’t have time to get my equipment. I came to their office with a borrowed DSLR; the space had no sun or windows, the lights on the ceiling were not very flattering, and the environment was… distracting.

I found the whitest part of the wall I could, and used a white paper pad to reflect light from the full-powered in-camera flash onto the wall behind me that then reflected back onto the subject.

Instead of a seamless background I used a whiteboard they had in the office and some clever framing. I had thousands of dollars of equipment back home, and had just finished a studio-like project on location with nothing but a $500 camera that wasn’t even mine.

Single flash:

In general, a portrait of a single person can be achieved with a single off-camera flash, provided you know where to put it.

There are literally dozens of different positions to choose from that each creates its own unique effect.

I strongly recommend getting a small (16 inch or 40cm) to medium-sized (32 inch or 80cm) softbox or a beauty dish – there are beauty dish varieties which offer a diffuser as well.

Alternatively you can bounce it off of walls or the ceiling, but that will often give a look too unrefined comparing to actually pointing the light at the subject.

Now many of the newer cameras offer radio triggering of remote flashes so you will most probably need to get a remote trigger as well (wired or wireless).

Having such a combination will help you immensely, and rough expense would come to about $200 ($100 flash + $19 trigger  + $39 softbox, and let’s throw in a $35 stand just for good measure. Personally I have good experience with second hand equipment as well, though that is up to the area you live in.

The above set up is what I have currently (among other toys).

No flash:

Now, let’s say you can’t get your hands on an external flash. You will need a good source of light regardless, so a window tends to be a safe bet.

It is best if the window is facing south, as this makes it possible to use hard light from the sun and soften if with a few layers of curtain when you need to.


There are two ways you can approach the subject: documented or advertised.

  • The documented approach takes the object as it should look realistically.
  • The advertised approach (products) accentuates its features and hides its flaws; this makes advertising setups inherently more complex.

For small, reflective objects you will need to set up a mini-studio (see styrofoam) so that the environment doesn’t reflect in their surface.

The unprinted side side of waxed paper is sufficient to use when you need a clean, untextured background, but make sure it’s all in one piece. As for the light, you will do fine with a window in the vicinity.

Photographing an object with a diffuse surface is much simpler – the most complex thing you could need for that is a translucent bucket and a well-lit room. The end.

The No-Flash Guide to Studio Photography:

Instead of strobes use windows. You can use indoor lighting but it is highly recommended to use something that is not directly above your subject, and to bounce as much light back at the subject as possible.

You can use a large piece of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil to work as a mirror reflector, and cooking paper can has a good light dispersal rate in relation to its ability to absorb a lot of heat before catching fire.

When working with large scenes white, smooth sheets of fabric (bed sheets) will be your friend, as you will use them for anything from a seamless background to covering large sources of light. Just make sure the subject is far away that you don’t notice the texture.

Speaking of reflectors, I need to specifically mention styrofoam plates: they are light, robust, diffuse nicely, stable, and can be cut into custom shapes at will. Professional studios use them too – the largest one I’ve seen was 2 by 4 meters, but that was extreme.

I only have three sheets of 0.5m by 1m, but they were not much more expensive than the gas I used to get them, and very useful in all sorts of setups (see mini-studio)!

The Software:

I will give a few open source alternatives to production packages like Photoshop, but before I do that I want to say that since Photoshop and Lightroom have become very affordable with the CC photography package; I suggest you check them out.

Having said that, you can still make production-ready material with open source software and some effort. GIMP looks clunky, but it has been picking up on popularity, there is

Hugin that I mentioned in an article on panoramic photography, and there is UFRaw, which has been my backup go-to RAW tool for years now due to opening a Hasselblad HHH file even when Phase One / Capture One couldn’t – I have a short article on that, if they let me include the link.

If you don’t like these there is always ACDSee, which is a relatively cheap tool with solid performance, or if you like being on the edge, try Lightzone. The good news is that with studio photography, the idea is usually that you can make the photo as good as it will ever get, right out of the camera.

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