KC mentioned the other day in her blog that we recently created a home photo studio. Leading up to this purchase, I spent a lot of time researching the easiest things to buy and I wanted to share it with others who might be looking to do the same thing.
First, we have Canon EOS cameras and we already had two of Canon's latest flash units, which are capable of being wireless slaves. We also wanted to be able to take the expensive parts of our equipment to Chicago and use them there. We chose the cheaper and more portable route of using our existing flashes rather than buying monolights. The main drawback with flashes is the lack of a modeling lamp, so you often don't see where the shadows are going to lie until you take the picture and look at the back of the camera. If one were using film, this setup seems like it would be an exercise in frustration.
We bought the Canon ST-E2 transmitter, which goes on the camera and transmits signals to the flashes. It also allows us to use E-TTL, which is the same type of metering used all the time with this camera. The transmitter signals the flashes to preflash, gauge the metering, and then do the real flash. This system is super easy to use, unfortunately it is incompatible with monolights, so if you want to use monolights, you're going to have to buy a light meter and use that instead of the meter in the camera. (if you have such an EOS camera). The only way to make that work is to use Flash Exposure Lock to do the preflash, let the monolights trigger off of that, then wait long enough for the lights to recycle to take the real picture. No, thanks, I'll stick with flashes.
I also figured that we'd be tearing through batteries and I was right. A friend recommended Thomas Distributing as a reputable dealer for batteries and I found great MAHA 2200 mAH batteries there for half of what Radio Shack charges for 1800 mAH batteries. These batteries have been great so far.
Stands and Backdrop
We have two flashes, so we went for two 7' cheapo light stands and a portable backdrop holder. We chose a Lastolite Mississippi 10'x12' backdrop as well as several rolls of paper. Paper is great because it's cheap, it's seamless and creaseless, and it's very flexible. You can bring the paper down far in front of your subject so there is a seamless background underneath and behind them. By getting white or black, you can easily isolate the subject from the background. Plus, it's so cheap that you can buy a few rolls of different colors and experiment. You also need a mount to go on the light stands, we bought cheapo “Universal“ mounts that even have a flash shoe mount on them so you just mount the flash right on. They have a hole in the middle to pass the umbrella pole through.
For umbrellas, on our first try, we went with regular Westcott 45“ white satin umbrellas with removable backing. I noticed a few pictures that had some lens flare - when shooting into the umbrella, the flash reflected off of the metal spines of the umbrella and hit the lens, causing some little green spots. I read about Photogenic “Eclipse“ umbrellas and decided to try one of those instead. It has a piece of white materal over the splines. It's a little more diffuse and probably throws light over more of an area but at least no flare.
We bought everything mail order except for the paper. Because I did my homework and knew what I really wanted, I felt OK doing that. If you would rather give the local store a 50% markup in exchange for them telling you exactly what you need, that's a good option. I was given some good advice that you should buy paper locally, because shipping costs are exorbitant. A 9' roll of paper is about $35 mail order but you'll pay $25 to ship it. We bought the exact same paper (Savage) for $40 locally.
Here are some of the studio pictures I think turned out the best:
I really need to work on not catching both flashes in the subject's eye. It makes them look like an alien. I think the solution is to pull the “fill“ light farther back so it's on the side of the subject, and pull it farther away from the subject. As Scoble says, “I'm learning a lot“.
Here are some of the sites that I used to learn about lighting: