We moved into this place almost two years ago -- 20 months today, according to my landlady -- and we're moving out soon. Sometime between now and June. London property prices are more ridiculous than ever, the landlady wants to sell up and move to a house by the sea, and who can blame her? She's awesome. All the best to you, Tracie.
"This place" is a small-ish ex-council flat, a one-bedroom thing in Brockley, the next up-and-coming suburb of London to which all of our creative-type friends moved because rent is, again, ridiculous, and the mile-or-so radius around Brockley Overground station is pretty much the last affordable place in this city. There's a lot of talk about a "housing crisis," which I don't think is true. There are enough homes -- Deptford, about mile and a half down the road, is full of huge new-build flats standing there empty -- but nobody can afford them. We have a rent crisis. Even this small Zone 2 flat has cost me and Janina £1000 a month, and that seems like the absolute minimum unless we want to move into a literal bedsit. It's a ridiculous city, but it's the only place in the UK where I can realistically do this job, so here we are.
Plus, I guess I love it here. Some days I don't know, but most of the time I love London.
I found our flat on Gumtree, fell in love with the brightly-coloured accent walls in each room. Landlady Tracie is a decorator by trade and a bohemian by nature, so there's a blue kitchen, a red living room, a chroma green bedroom, and a purple bathroom with a huge Godzilla: King of the Monsters! poster in it. (Okay, so the poster is mine) I fell in love with the view from the balcony, with the coffee shop around the corner, with the first barbershop to ever give me a half-decent haircut, with the beer garden down the road. Brockley is wonderful. Don't move here. It's getting trendy enough.
The living room, though? I saw the living room and gazed into the face of opportunity.
It's a box about 15ft by 12.5ft (187 square ft, or about 17 square metres). It's not the biggest, but it's wide open with hardwood floors and massive, South-facing windows on one end of it. Looking "down the barrel" of it, it's the perfect spot for a little home studio.
Like, okay, it's not a universal solution. I'll grant you that. It's good, mostly, for headshots, basic portraits, product shots, and the odd bit of mucking around. In this space specifically, you can get some full-body shots with a 50mm lens (or a 35 on a crop sensor). It works fantastically, and you don't have to hire a studio, which reduces your overheads on a per-shoot basis. The economics work out most of the time, but if you're shooting some fashion then yeah, hire a studio. That's really something you can charge to your clients, anyway.
Still, if you've got the space, I'd recommend it. You're going to be moving stuff around every time you shoot, so your floor space is going to be less than the absolute dimensions of the room, and if you're as clumsy as I am you're going to break at least three things per year, so don't get attached to your stuff.
I'm sure you have questions.
Is this expensive?
It can be expensive, or it can be not-expensive. My attitude is that you don't need expensive stuff. Again: don't get attached to your stuff. It ends up in heartbreak.
Do people care that it looks kind of ramshackle?
Not in my experience! The results speak for themselves, and my clients quite like that I have a wide selection of teas on offer.
If I make a home studio, am I going to piss off my girlfriend or my boyfriend or whatever my situation is?
I mean, yeah, probably. But you chose the photographer's life. You knew the risks going in.
Here's the basic stuff you'll need:
I like the stuff over at Creativity Backgrounds, who have a massive stock of colours and sizes. The stuff you're seeing here was shot against 1.35m x 11m paper backdrops; paper is cheaper, for one thing, and when you scuff it up on the floor -- and you will scuff it up on the floor -- you can just rip off that bit and keep on rollin'. Paper also stays flat without having to iron it, so that's something. If you need to carry it around, get a muslin thing you can fold up and shove in the back of your car. I don't have a car. I live in London. I'm not taking a big paper thing on the tube.
Get the widest backdrop you can get away with. Trust me on this. You can photoshop your way around a narrow backdrop pretty easily, but that's just extra work you have to do later. Also, your best choices are a white or a storm/slate/18% grey; don't get a black backdrop unless you're sure you want one. Black backdrops are the bane of my fucking existence, I swear. They're hard to light.
A Backdrop Stand
Oh, yeah, you'll need to put that up somehow. If you're just starting out and you want to get a foothold in studio photography, you might be fine looking around on eBay. I got my current stand for about £30 and it's lasted a couple of years, but it's going to fall apart soon. So if you like this way of working, spend some cash on it.
Also, advice from a 5'4" guy: get a stepladder so you can actually set it up.
Some Kind of Lighting Setup
You knew this already. Unless you're lucky enough to have floor-to-ceiling windows for natural light all year round, get some lighting equipment. Strobes, speedlights, tungsten, whatever works for you. Stands and lightboxes. Reflectors. If you're starting out, get one thing and learn to use it well before you spend all your money on lighting equipment, because you will never be satisfied with what you have. Trust me on this. There's always a new toy. I have my eye on a parabolic reflector that's literally as tall as I am.
I mean, okay, that's not that tall. I just said I'm 5'4". The point remains.
In my opinion, you only really need the one light, especially if you're starting off. Put that behind the biggest umbrella softbox you can find, you're in business. Then you can go further with it. This is kind of a big subject. I'll write it up as a blog post at some point. Generally speaking, if you can stretch your budget to it, a classic three-point setup will serve you well. One key light to illuminate your subject, a fill on the other side to reduce shadows and make stuff even (if you want it to be!), and a backlight to separate your subject from the background. This is "aesthetic choices" business, though. I can't tell you what to do. You've got to find your own voice, dear reader.
And Some Less Basic, But Incredibly Helpful Stuff You'll Want:
No, no, hear me out! This has proven to be weirdly essential. A lot of this job is meeting new people, and meeting new people can be awkward. Not always, not if you're lucky, but sometimes. Music is a great way to break up the silences, a good conversation topic, and the great universal connector of human beings. Get a small, inexpensive bluetooth speaker because everyone has smartphones now, and I like to put my subjects in charge of music. Bluetooth just means pretty much everyone who comes to your home studio can connect to the speaker. This practice largely came about because I'm old and I don't know what the kids are listening to nowadays, and because I want new stuff to hear all the time, but it helps give people a sense of being in charge.
Or you can make a playlist, I guess. I'm not your boss. Do what works.
Okay, so you can buy different backdrops and dedicate a corner to a bunch of paper rolls like I have, but your other option is to point a flash at your backdrop to illuminate that to a greater or lesser degree. Just shove it down and to the side, adjust it as needed. This is how you get an infinite white background, of which I'm not a fan. You can get big sets of coloured gels for like a tenner; stick one of those bad boys on your flash or light or whatever, illuminate the backdrop with that, and you've got an instant coloured backdrop you can change as many times as you like!
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of this effect, personally (hence why I don't have any examples here) but it's an option available to you. Of course, you can always colour correct in PhotoShop afterwards, but again: that's more stuff to work around.
A Selection of Snacks and Drinks
Seriously, your subjects will thank you. Your future self will thank you. Don't get cheetos or croissants, nothing that gets dust on the hands or sticks in the teeth, but like, crisps and popcorn and stuff. Get a selection of tea and coffee. Not everybody drinks caffiene, and I know that's weird, but it's true. This isn't a technical consideration but a professional one. Treat your subjects well, dudettes and dudes.
Something portable, essentially, but big enough to be useful for touching up make-up and hair and whatnot. Keep it on hand so your subect can fix things themselves if need be. Unless you have a make-up artist and/or a stylist with you, in which case, they know best.
A Cool, Backless Seat
When I first moved in, I got this little wooden IKEA stepladder which works pretty well if you like the whole "oh, hello" vibe. The whole "I didn't see you there" vibe. But it's worth scouring second-hand furniture stores and, yes, the internet, for alternatives. I got this incredible industrial iron-and-wood adjustable stool for about £50 on eBay.
The "backless" part is important: the back of a chair is a distracting object. A normal dining chair can be a great prop, but you want the option of having it rather than having to work around it, you know?
On Taking Light Where You Can Get It
If you're lucky enough to have a place where you get a lot of natural light through the windows, then by all means use it. We get quite a bit, but we're quite limited by location; traditionally, London isn't a great place for sunshine, and we get about three hours' daylight in the winter. The photo of Katherine, above, was shot using the light from the window with a reflector to camera left. It works for what you need it to.
Use the background if you want to, but you can also just use the environment. There's something kind of nice about shooting a super-casual setup using what you have and what you can get your hands on, you know?
The Point Is:
You can shoot from basically anywhere, and a home studio is one way to do that. I've given you some ammunition to give to the people you live with, whoever they might be, and if they still need convincing give them my email address. Actually, please don't. You're on your own.
Also if you know of any nice flats up to let with massive rooms and a ton of natural light in the SE4 area, definitely let me know. I found one with a literal studio on one level recently and it was in our price range. Obviously it was already inhabited. So, if you live in that flat, know that I envy you.