Basic Space & Equipment For A Portrait Photographic Studio!

by William Lulow

So, you have decided to do studio portrait photography! What kinds of tools do you need? And, what kind of space should you have? Here are some basics:

The studio is ideally a place where you can control the light you give your subjects. If you’re only doing headshots for actors, say, you normally wouldn’t need a large space since full-length shots aren’t all that necessary. (Although, some headshot photographers like to shoot more than just a head-and-shoulders image these days). You do need space enough to be able to control the background light. So, you’ll need to place your subject at least 8 feet or so from the background. If you shoot with a slightly long lens (say and 85mm or 105mm), you’ll need some space in front of your subject as well. I’d say another 8 feet at least. So, you’re now talking about a studio space that’s at least 16 feet long. More would be better, say, 25 to 30 feet, but 16 feet is probably the minimum. Now, backgrounds come in many different sizes, but the most common size for background paper is 9 feet wide by 12 yards long. So, your studio will have to be at least 10 feet wide to accommodate a background and stands, but preferably 12 to 15 feet wide so that you have room for extra gobos, reflector cards, etc. Therefore, any space that’s around 200 to 250 square feet is probably the absolute minimum you would need to do good portraits. Can you use smaller spaces? Absolutely! But you may not be able to accommodate all lighting situations that you may face. My studio in Manhattan was 3500 square feet which was certainly large enough for all sorts of photographs from full-length fashion to having 10 – 15 people in a shot! My small studio in the suburbs can handle groups up to about 6 people. But, since it’s quite a bit smaller, it’s good for portraits of 1 to 3 people comfortably. It’s approximately 350 – 400 square feet.

Next, you’ll need something to hold up your background. Denny Manufacturing Company makes a background kit that includes two heavy duty stands that support a crossbar to hold the background. I use Autopoles that fit floor to ceiling by spring tension. They are great because they take up virtually no floor space and can be used for backgrounds or lights. You then don’t need light stands to hold your backgrounds. However, you’ll need light stands for your various other flash units or whatever lights you use and extra stands for gobos, reflectors and shades. At least 5 large stands and two small ones should do.

Lights themselves, are largely a matter of personal taste. Suffice it to say that most photographers today use some kind of portable flash units that either have self-contained power sources or separate ones. Units with power packs and separate flash heads are more powerful but require electricity. (I once had to do a location shoot and had to bring a gasoline-powered generator to supply power to my flash units). You will need a number of umbrellas and smaller softboxes with corresponding mounting hardware.

You will also need some A-clamps in a couple of sizes, a posing stool or bench, a couple of boxes you can use as props, and a couple of large, black&white reflector cards to be used as gobos (flags) or to reflect light.  That probably covers the basics and it’s enough to get you started on equipping a good studio, but you will find yourself adding other things from time to time. I’ve published many articles detailing how to set up your lights, so you can refer to them when you get started. They are very straight-forward and progress from using just one light, all the way up to using five lights! I’ve purposely not included cameras, but a good, sturdy tripod is a necessity as well.

Here’s a shot of part of my studio set up:


Here you can see the use of the Autopoles for background and Accent lights, the powerpack and the posing stool, etc. Just behind the camera is my umbrella main light. In this small space (much smaller than my New York City studio was), I have room to set up five or six lights and enough length to shoot with a portrait lens.

 Photo Studio Studio Light Kit Studio Light Kit_2