When it comes to studio accessories, photographers are spoiled for choice. There are a lot of great options available, whether they be dedicated studio tables, extra large reflector panels or even backgrounds that studio lights are fitted onto. These accessories can all be brilliant, but one thing they are usually not is portable. They can also be cost prohibitive. What do you do if you get into a conversation with an acquaintance or a shop-owner, and they ask you to do some photos for them on the spot? You could, of course, decline, and attempt to get them to come to you sometime in the future, but this may lead to complications for what could be an otherwise easy task.
The easiest way to get around some of these problems is to build your own solution. This may bring about visions of complicated engineering skills and power tools, but it really does not have to be that way. In the end, all you really need is the ability to shape and modify the light you have available to you, and that doesn’t need to be complicated.
This tutorial will teach you how to make a simple tabletop studio setup with things you are likely to already have on hand, or at the very least, you’ll have little trouble obtaining: paper and tape. As it is so simple, this setup is ideal for straightforward record and product shots.
It can be modified in a variety of ways for different effects, but if you’re looking for an elaborate and permanent solution, this is probably not what you need. However, if you need something that can be set up in moments, with next to no cost, then read on.
What you need
- Two sheets of black paper/ card (thicker paper provides more stability)
- One sheet of white or colored paper/card
- A base (a block of wood or similar that will raise your subject above the bottom of the setup.) Simply choose something that will look good in your photos.
- Extra paper (assorted colors, plus extra black and white)
Putting it together
Assembly is as easy as taping the sheets of paper together as illustrated in the diagram below. The only thing to watch out for is to ensure that the edges of the paper are flush and not overlapping. You should be able to fold each sheet over one another without difficulty.
Here it is is in all of its unbridled glory:
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter what it looks like on the table. You’re the only person who ever has to see it. What matters is the results you can get in lieu of having no other options.
Putting it to use
The entire point of any studio equipment is to modify light. It doesn’t matter what the source of that light ism and this setup will work as well with strobes, as it will with natural light. With that said, the best results from this setup will come with a single directional light source.
With your light source illuminating the subject from the front, the black sides are acting as flags and are controlling how much light hits your subject. This creates, and emphasizes, a narrow strip of light on your subject. It also increases contrast and can help to illustrate depth.
Because the sides are not fixed into position, you can move them inward and outward as you see fit to alter the effect. When doing this though, you need to watch the background. Make sure that the sides are not casting any shadows over any part of the background that will be in your final images. Any such shadows will show up as ugly gradations in your photos.
Because your subject is mere inches from the background, a proper exposure for your subject should, in most cases, allow for a correct exposure of the background as well. However, if you’re using a white background and the results aren’t satisfactory, try to insert a piece of colored paper and compare the results.
It really is as easy as that: meter for your subject and go.
However, you do need to take special care with your compositions. Because of the small amount of space you have to work with, you will need to pay extra attention to ensure that the edges of the background do not make it into the frame.
In most situations, especially in natural light, your light will probably be coming from above your subject. This can cause deep shadows where you may not want them. The easiest way to combat this is by adding a small reflector and laying it flat in front of your subject. In most cases, this will be enough. Reflectors are easy enough to make, but there are also inexpensive 12″ circular varieties on the market, that are portable and fold up. These make good additions to any camera bag, especially if you find yourself photographing small subjects, such as flowers, a lot.
In situations, like the photo above, where there isn’t a lot delineation between the subject and the background, you can add a reflector from behind. Anything white or silver will do the job. Try something like an index card. In this example, I used the white balance portion of my ColorChecker Passport.
The spice of life
Aside from simplicity, the real beauty in this setup is the scope of variations. The only limitations for how much you can change things to suit your needs are only limited by your imagination. Here are a few changes you can make to get wildly different results.
Side panel colors
Instead of the black cards acting as flags, tape aluminum foil to the inside of the panels. This will still shape the light falling onto your subject, but instead of deepening contrast it will fill in the shadows, and result in brighter images. If the effect is too strong, try making only one side a silver reflector. For a more subtle effect, try using white paper as the sides. The shadows will still fill in, but the effect will not be as strong.
Exploring these options may result in flatter images, but depending on your needs and taste, that may be perfect.
If the paper or card you’re using for a background is thick enough, you can cut most of the center of it out, being sure to leave enough to allow it to be taped to the sides. You could then tape tissue paper to the inside of the background, covering the hole and acting as diffusion material.
Then face the back of the setup toward your directional light source, effectively back lighting your subject. When doing this, it’s best to use a reflector to fill in the inevitable shadows and high contrast this will cause. To fashion a makeshift reflector, simply tape a bit of foil to a scrap of cardboard.
Of course, you’re not limited to solid color backgrounds. As long as the material you choose to make the setup will support the weight, you can use anything from fabric to wood. If it seems like it might work: try it.
A favorite trick of mine is to use old prints that I have scattered about. Once they’re in position you can have anything from an abstracted, colorful background to a landscape.
Everything here has been on a pretty small scale, but you can make this setup as big as you need, provided you can find the materials. You may have trouble trying to build one for an elephant, but a trip to a hardware store should provide the right materials to make an affordable portrait sized setup.
In the end
This solution may not reek of elegance or creativity, but what it is in fact is: fast, cheap, and effective. Folded up, the whole thing can fit, undamaged, in a bag with a laptop, so it can go anywhere you do. Of course, this is only one option. As such, you could pull it out to isolate a wildflower in a field for a record shot. Or you could build one in minutes to create product photography for a friend’s e-commerce site.