Still life studio on a shoestring – Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a friend who is just starting his photography business. As with every new undertaking, there was no shortage of questions – we talked cameras, lenses, traded a few tall “war stories” from the past and so on. A couple of days after that conversation took place, it occurred to me that most of the things he was asking were obvious to me. They were not so obvious to him though. So I decided to share my experience and show you how to start a still life photo studio without going broke or taking out second mortgage.

First and foremost, I’d like to stress that we will be talking about setting up a still life studio, which is a different animal altogether. If you are trying to put together a portrait studio, this article may not be of great help to you. The goal of this article is to show you what equipment (whether bought or home-made) you need to have in order to have a fully functional still life photography studio, which is portable (so you can take it on location if needed without hiring a moving van) and allows you to take great images for the web or even for your portfolio, should you have one.

First things first – every still life photographer needs a stable working surface.
After trying all sorts of  sawhorses, folding tables, carts etc., I settled on these folding sawhorses – you can find them in your home improvement store (mine came from Home Depot). These sawhorses have quite a few benefits over the “traditional” ones:

  • They are much more stable and harder to knock over
  • They are adjustable – you can go taller or shorter depending on your object and the desired camera position
  • They allow you to hold your surface (and the object you are shooting) at 45 degree angle, which comes in very handy when shooting objects for the web over completely white background (more on the topic in the future posts)

Second thing, which is very important in every studio is what collectively is known as “grip” – stands, clamps, C-stands, arms etc. In case you don’t have C-stands in your arsenal – I can’t recommend them enough. They are stable, sturdy, last for generations (no kidding!) and easy to fold and transport. In addition, with some help of a very simple “tool” they can hold your camera in almost any position for all those “look down” or “look up” shots. What tool? Here is comes.

This contraption that I would not be found without, is just a long lug screw (approx. 4″ long, or 10 cm for those metric-inclined 🙂 with 0.25″ coarse thread. You can pick one at your favorite home improvement store along with the spacers and the nuts. I prefer the plastic spacers (the bronze one in the middle makes the whole thing more sturdy) because they provide for much better grip. The whole thing screws into the tripod socket of your camera (see below). It looks rather low-tech but also it allows you to put your camera on the C-stand and hold it at almost any thinkable angle – marked improvement over the regular tripods with folding columns. The total cost – about $3 give or take a few cents.

Last but not least – the color chart. In still life photography, the color fidelity is of utmost importance. The bounced light may pick up some ever so slight color cast that will not be obvious until much later in the post process so I always (and I cant’s stress that enough – always) use the color chart to make sure I’m on target with my colors. It’s a small investment that goes long way and is absolutely indispensable tool in my bag.

That’s it for now folks! Stay tuned for the next episode and have a great day!
– Alex.Stepanov


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