Introduction: The 100 Buck Photographic Studio

About: Untidy, disorganised and a bit silly. I am a photographer, artist, body artist, sculptor, prosthetic maker, model engineer, and general idiot who likes making stuff and messing about. I give hands on workshops…

A couple of my students have asked me to post this article. They have assembled and used the following lighting arrangements with some great results.

The key to getting good ‘modelling’ from a photographic lighting set up is to get the light source off the camera, be able to move its position and to be able to modify the light. For most portrait and figure work this means softening the shadows a little.

Developing and equipping a professional studio can be very expensive, the equipment I use for teaching has probably cost me in excess of £20,000 GBP over the years, and that does not include the running costs of the studio. This is beyond the means of most people, and far beyond the means of a typical student. Therefore I was asked to source and assemble the ‘cheapest’ equipment that I felt could give reasonably professional results.

The outcome of the project was a portable, inexpensive and flexible system that cost us £57.00 GBP (around $100.00 USD) or under £300.00 GBP ($500.00 USD) including a DSLR! Don’t get me wrong, the system has severe limitations and drawbacks, but does give pleasing results for the 6 main lighting set ups. Either for portrait or figure work.

The image of Jess above was shot using this set up.

Step 1: The Camera

What you need to have in advance .....

Pre-requisites: You will need a working space of at least 10 feet by 10 feet, with a plain wall or background as your back drop. You will also need a camera capable of fully manual operation with a standard ‘hot-shoe’ fitting.

We bought a second user Fuji S2 Pro with a 28-105 mm zoom lens for £150.00 GBP( around £200.00 USD). Other brands are available at this price second user for a 6-7 Mp DSLR.
This will give excellent results, using any of the major brand names.

Step 2: Flash Source

Next we need a flash source. This part is very important! There are a glut of good quality second user guns available on the market. The reason for this is simple. In the days of 35 mm, the cameras hot shoe operated a mechanical switch. This was capable of sinking hundreds of volts without damage.

Newer DSLRs use an electronic switch, usually only capable of sinking between 5 and 30 volts. The old guns on the market going cheap will fry your DSLR!
Never use one of these guns directly on the camera hot shoe!

Any damage done to your camera if you disregard these instructions is entirely your own fault. I can't be held responsible if you are silly enough to connect the gun to your camera!

We bought a Sunpak 2400 flashgun for £10.00 off e-bay (including delivery!).

This gun develops 131 volts across the terminals as measured on our test meter.
Never connect this to your hot shoe.
The gun has a number of advantages for us. It has a variable power output, a swivel head, a swivel mount, and a PC sync cord.

Step 3: Triggering System

Next we need a triggering system. These are available as a cheap far eastern import. There are loads on e-bay.
You could go for an RD-616 system, or a PT-04 system (they have different mounting arrangements). In both cases you are looking at around £15.00 GBP.($20?)

In both cases there is a transmitter which fits the camera, and a receiver that fits the flash gun. This isolates the camera from the gun and allows the flash to be triggered up to 100 feet away.

It also electrically isolates the gun from the camera preventing damage due to the high voltages. Saves your camera!

Step 4: Support and Light Modification

Next we need a method of supporting the flash head. We need a standard lighting stand (around £25.00 GBP, or $35.00 USD), and a mounting bracket (around £10.00 - $15.00). The mounting bracket holds the flash head, and allows a brolly to be fitted.

There are two kinds of brolly we can use. A reflector or a ‘shoot through’. Again these are cheap on e-bay and we bought a slivered reflector, and a small shoot through brolly for £20.00 GBP the pair.

The reflector type will give bright 'sparkling' highlights, whilst the shoot through will give a broad softer light. Both can give pleasing results.

Step 5: The Reflector

The problem of single source lighting is that it tends to produce dark shadows, so we need a reflector to complete the system.

Professional reflectors can be very expensive, so don’t buy one of those unless you can afford it. An excellent alternative is to use a truck windscreen sun reflector available from the large motor supplies shops (we bought a big one in Halfords for £6.00 GBP).

These are a fold out sun visor made of tough sponge and covered with a silvered plastic reflective coating. Not only cheap, but ours is around 6 feet high by 2 ½ feet wide. This means that full length body shots are possible.

You will need an assistant to hold this reflector, or alternatively use a second lighting stand. A microphone stand is also a possibility and these are cheap on ebay as well.

Step 6: Setting Up and in Use

Assembling the items is easy. Connect the mounting bracket to the head of the lighting stand. Connect the flash and the receiver to the bracket, then choose your brolly and slide it into the slot on the bracket.

The transmitter has a test button on it. Turn the flash on and once the charge cycle has completed, press the button to test the flash fires correctly. We found recharge times to be around 3 seconds with a freshly charged set of 2500mAh AA batteries. Not blindingly fast, but acceptable for a home studio set up.

Fit the transmitter to the cameras hot shoe, set the camera to manual operation.

Next we need to set the flash sync speed. Most modern DSLRs are capable of high shutter speed operation with a dedicated gun costing hundreds. We don’t have that luxury, so set the shutter speed to 1/100th of a second or less.
Start with an aperture of f8 as a mid point. Test fire the gun by taking a shot, don’t bother trying to actually shoot anything at this stage, we simply want to test that the gun will fire correctly when the shutter release is pressed. If everything works we can set up our first shot. Go for a simple portrait. For this you need a victim, preferably one who has some patience!

Initially go for the classic ’45 – 45’ or ‘broad’ or ‘short’ lighting.
Do a Google for either of these terms and you should find some pages listing the major lighting set ups. These do have differing terms, but the general principle is that the light source is placed at 45 degrees to one side, and 45 degrees above the eye line of your subject. We chose to seat our subject and placed the light to the left of them.

Our truck screen reflector was held to the right of the subject as close as possible without getting it in the shot. This bounces some light back into the shadows.

Starting at f8, take a shot. If it's too dark, open the aperture to f5.6 and take another. If it's too bright, close the aperture down to f11 and try again. The only settings you should need to adjust are the aperture and the focus. Simple eh?

Have a look at these sites for descriptions of the major lighting sets for portraiture work: The links now seem to have broken. I will try to find some alternate sites.

Site One

Site Two

Both give good descriptions, and are easy to follow.

Step 7: Results

The advantages of the system are price, portability (it all fits in a gym bag), and it’s lightweight.
The major drawback is that there is no ‘modelling’ lamp so you can’t tell exactly where the light and shadow will fall. This becomes trial and error, take the shot, move the lamp, take another shot, and so on until the desired result is obtained.

So what can you expect of a system like this? Here are the results of the first test shoots we did with Jess:

More of my work, including more images using this set up can be found HERE