Studio Techniques: Space Limitations

During my workshops and seminars, people often ask what to do in their own studios instead of bigger spaces? Well to be honest, although I have a nice studio, in most setups I don’t use a lot of space. The images most people like the best are actually shot in a fairly small space. Because this is something many people struggle with, let’s pay a bit more attention to the space itself.

Learning tSee Options in Your Photography Studio Space

The best thing you can learn is to see options in your own spaces. Most people are somehow limited in what they can see as options to shoot, and they’ll claim that their images are not as good as they could be because of space limitations. I believe, however, that if you just open yourself up to the possibilities of shooting everywhere, your work will mature very quickly and best of all, due to smaller constraints, you’ll learn to master your light. 

Overcome the Limitations of your Photography Studio Space

When shooting in smaller spaces or studios, try to make everything interesting. For example, it’s smart to include the whole scene in the shot. You can use background paper in a small space but it might be in the way. The model is standing in front of the paper, so you’ll see shadows in the shot—but that’s not a bad thing. Shadows are the soul of an image and make it “live.” Actually, when you place a model in front of, say, an old wall and you light everything so that the model’s shadow isn’t hitting the wall, you can also make a composite. I always make sure that there’s some connection between the model and the background, meaning that a shadow will always hit the background. 

It’s funny that in the past, you’d always try to steer away from shadows on the wall but as you learn more about photography, you start to realize that the shadow actually makes the image sing. 

Although we have huge softboxes in our studio, I won’t use them for these shots. I want harder shadows so I’ll use smaller light sources, which in a smaller room will work to your advantage. Every strobe that you buy comes with a standard reflector and that’s exactly what I use 90% of the time for these shots. But there’s more that works for you when shooting in a small space.

Inverse Square Law

Light falls off over distance. When you understand this, you can really start to play with your lights and use this knowledge to your advantage. In short, remember that if you place your light source close to your subject, the light will fall off very quickly, which means that one side of the model will be nicely lit and the other side will fall into darkness quickly. So, if you move your light farther away, you’ll have more of the model lit. 

This is also an advantage when shooting in a small place. You want nice shadows to provide some mood in your images (remember, shadows are the soul of an image), so you’ll probably want to place your light source closer to your model, which is easier in a limited space. Let me share some images of my model, Marie, which I shot during a workshop in a space not more than 2×3 meters. 

UsinLight at a Slight Glance

In this shot, Marie stood against the wall and I placed the light at a slight angle. I coached Marie to look toward the light and made sure that there were no nasty nose shadows. Shadows on the nose often fall in the wrong way, so it’s important to check how those shadows fall. Have your model move her head so you have complete control over the shadows. And don’t let your model look straight into the light, but slightly to the side of it. This will ensure her entire pupil won’t be covered when using larger light sources; instead, you’ll get a nice catch light in her eyes. 

Photography studio space - Frank Doorhof

Changing the Angle 

Here, I moved the light just a bit to the side and really close to the model and got a much different image. Notice that the background is nicely dark on the side where the light’s coming from. This might suggest that a grid was used; however, if we’d used a grid, we’d have another problem: the light spread would be too limited. 

You can get the same effect—and still have a larger area lit—by aiming your strobe in front of the model. In other words, instead of aiming the strobe right at the model and getting her in the hotspot, point the strobe away from the model and then move away until you see that the model is hit by the side of the light and the wall in front of her falls into darkness. I sometimes call this trick the “shotgun” technique because you’re not actually aiming at the model but you’re still hitting her with enough light to make the image work. Don’t forget to measure the light on the spot where you want it to be accurate, in this case her face pointing toward the light source.

Photography studio space - Frank Doorhof

More Extreme Angle 

This time, I changed the light to Marie’s side to get a really long shadow on the wall and show more of the structure of her clothing. Always remember that light at an angle will show you structures and materials better, but make sure that your makeup artist does his or her job well because you’ll also see a lot more skin problems.

Photography studio space - Frank Doorhof

Moving Around

Of course, you can move your light, but you can also move around yourself to make even more creative options. For this image, I moved to the other side of the light and included the light source into the shot, creating a nice lens flare and also “promoting” the light to an accent light. This kind of shot will often get my customers excited because it’s not often done in a studio setup.
(It’s sometimes added in Photoshop but I’m from the why-fake-it-when-you-can-create-it school.) So, start moving and experimenting. I’m sure you’ll love it.

Photography studio space - Frank Doorhof

The Portrait

Harder light can be great for portraits, but choose your angle carefully. Again, make sure the makeup artist has done everything correctly; otherwise, you’ll have a lot of work in Photoshop. 

A big studio is cool, but it’s mostly for creating more scenes, storing stuff, and walking around in. Okay, I’m joking! A big studio rocks; however, realize that you should never be limited by your shooting space. Really, the only limitation is your imagination. Maximize what you have. Don’t get hung up on what you can’t do; just concentrate on what you can do, and do the best you can. Your photography will grow beyond your imagination.

Photography studio space - Frank Doorhof

See you next time when I dive into locations close to your home.

 Frank Doorhof can be seen teaching workshops around the globe. For a location near you, try this online course on Creative Lighting (or one of his many other classes on KelbyOne).  Once you have a great image, go ahead and review these print settings with RC Concepcion in this free tutorial on our own website.