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How to set up your own home studio

Get creative with flash photography and learn how to shoot stunning portraits on a budget.
Canon Camera
You don't always need a dedicated studio space or a set of expensive flashes to create polished, professional-looking studio shots. With a few simple pieces of kit and a space to shoot, anyone can set up a basic studio in their own home. Here we explain how to do just that with the minimum of both kit and expense. Along the way, we'll also explore some of the fundamentals of studio photography, such as utilising light modifiers and setting up your flash exposure. With simple skills and the right gear, you can craft all kinds of stunning images, from high-end portraiture to polished product shots, still-life art and more.

1. Basic kit list

A Canon EOS RP, with two Canon Speedlites, a tripod and a white umbrella laid out on a wooden tabletop.

Getting started with home studio photography requires a few simple pieces of kit – here we have two Canon Speedlites – a 470EX-AI and 600EX II-RT, a Canon EOS RP camera with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens, a light stand, a white shoot-through umbrella and an umbrella holder.

A man looking through the viewfinder of a Canon EOS RP with a Speedlite flash attached.

To trigger your off-camera flash, use either a second Canon Speedlite flash, a wireless flash trigger or (if compatible) your camera's pop-up flash.

A simple home studio setup like this won't break the bank, and it can be packed down to save on space. Essentially, aside from your camera, you need one or two Speedlites that you can position and fire off-camera. A light stand is ideal, but you can also use a spare tripod (the plastic stand that comes with most Speedlites can be screwed onto a tripod thread) to hold your flash. A simple white umbrella is another inexpensive yet effective piece of kit for getting flattering light. You'll need a means of attaching the umbrella to the stand, such as an umbrella holder. Finally, you'll need to be able to fire the off-camera flash using wireless triggers. Alternatively, if you have two compatible Speedlites, you can fix one to the camera's hotshoe and use it to fire the other one. This has the added advantage that you can control the power of the off-camera flash remotely. If your Canon camera has a compatible pop-up flash, you can also use this to trigger and control off-camera Canon Speedlites.

2. Choosing a space

A man shooting portraits in a home studio, with a grey background and a white umbrella to soften the flash.

Pick a space with a large bright wall, or use a makeshift backdrop for a simple, clean background.

A room with a plain white or cream wall is ideal for a home studio set-up. If the walls aren't plain, you could always pin up a white sheet or, even better, invest in a pop-up backdrop like this one. When choosing a room to shoot in, a high ceiling is helpful as it will allow you to elevate your light for top-down lighting on the subject's face – which tends to be more pleasing to the eye. Be aware that light takes on some of the colour of every surface it bounces off, so if the walls have a strong colour they may tint the light falling on your subject.

Don't restrict yourself to one type of room though. If you've got some photogenic stairs then these can work as a great location for group shots, while shooting looking down on your subject can produce some really nice and relaxed portrait shots.

3. Pick a portrait lens

A Canon EOS RP with an 85mm lens attached.

An 85mm lens, such as the RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM used here, is ideal for portraits because the focal length offers a pleasing perspective for faces.

Different focal length lenses can have a marked effect on the look of your subject. A wide-angle lens may exaggerate a person's facial features by unnaturally elongating the nose and the forehead – especially if used for close-ups. Exaggerated perspectives can sometimes be put to good effect, but in general longer focal lengths tend to be more flattering. So if you're using a kit zoom lens then step back and zoom to the longer end of the lens. If you plan on shooting lots of portraits then consider using a dedicated portrait lens. A focal length of 85mm (or a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera) is regarded as the perfect lens for portraits because of the way it captures a face in the most flattering proportions.

4. Enlarge your light source

A man in a green jumper holding a Canon flash on a tripod pointing towards a white umbrella.

A white shoot-through umbrella is inexpensive, versatile and ideal for beginners who want to soften the light when shooting portraits.

Like a bare lightbulb, your Speedlite flash is a relatively small source of light. So the light it produces will be hard-edged, resulting in hard shadows and bold contrast. Often with portraits, you'll want to diffuse the light so that it falls more softly across a face – a modifier will help you achieve this. Much like a large window, a simple modifier such as an umbrella or softbox will enlarge your source of light, enabling it to wrap around your subject and gently fill in the shadows.

You can either angle the umbrella towards your subject or have it facing away to bounce light back at them. Often with portraits it works best to bring the light in fairly close to the face, as this enlarges the light source in comparison to the subject.
A portrait of a woman with brown hair, her face illuminated by a flash.

The shadows are harder in this image because the Speedlite has been used bare. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/11 and ISO100.

A side-profile portrait of a young woman in a grey turtleneck looking towards the camera.

Think about your light source – for example, direct sun, shade, indoors or from a window. Position your subject to make the most of natural light. If the light is too bright, simply stop down your aperture or quicken your shutter speed. If the weather is overcast, why not try using an artificial light source indoors or find out more about homemade lighting hacks. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 85mm, 1/100 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100.

5. Setting exposure and flash power

The settings screen of a Canon EOS RP.

Set your manual exposure first then tailor your flash power to suit it.

A person adjusting the settings on the back of a Canon Speedlite flash to shoot a portrait.

Set your Canon Speedlite flash to Manual (M) mode – you may have to experiment with different powers, but start with ¼.

Using flash gives you a tremendous amount of freedom over your exposure. You can set your flash to overpower the ambient light, or make the two work in harmony. Here's a simple stock setting for your flash exposure: set your flash to Manual (M) and choose a power – ¼ power is a good starting point. As for exposure settings, switch your camera to Manual exposure mode and set your shutter speed to 1/160 sec, or whatever is the max flash sync speed.

Set the ISO to 100 and Aperture to f/8. Take a test shot and then simply adjust the flash power until the light over the face looks right. You can change the power of the flash either by adjusting the output or by moving the light closer to or further away from your subject.

6. Positioning your flash

A portrait of a woman wearing a grey roll-neck, on a grey background, lit from the side.

Placing the light to one side creates 'split' lighting and plunges the opposite side into shade. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

A portrait of a woman wearing a grey roll-neck on a grey background, lit from above left to create a triangle of light on the right cheek.

Angling the flash down from above left results in 'Rembrandt lighting', with an attractive triangle of light on the right cheek. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

A portrait of a woman wearing a grey roll-neck on a grey background, lit from above.

Firing the flash directly above the face gives us 'butterfly' lighting and accentuates the cheekbones. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

A portrait of a woman wearing a grey roll-neck, lit from below.

Under-lighting from below looks unnatural, as we're used to seeing daylight coming from above. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

One of the best things about using off-camera flash for portraiture is the control it gives you. Where you place it has a dramatic effect on the look of the face.

7. Experiment with ratios

A side portrait of a woman on a grey background.

Backlighting a subject from behind enables you to create an atmospheric, low-key portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

A portrait of a woman wearing a large green necklace, on a grey background with a white spotlight on the backdrop.

With a second flash placed behind our subject you can create a spotlight on the backdrop. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/5 and ISO100.

If you want to take your flash photography to the next level, introduce a second flash and experiment with ratios. Try training one flash on the backdrop and the other on the subject. Set to a low output, the rear flash will create a subtle spotlight on the background. By contrast, set to a high output the background light can blow out the backdrop for a high-key look. Of course, you can also use the second flash to lift parts of your subject. For instance, if you angle it back towards them from behind you, you can create an attractive edge light along the outline of the figure.
A portrait of a woman wearing a large green necklace and a white top, on a white background.

A second flash placed behind your subject can blow out the flash for a high-key look. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/5 and ISO100.

A portrait of a woman wearing a large green necklace and a white top, on a dark grey background.

Using a second flash placed behind your subject, you can also angle the flash back at the subject for a hair or edge light. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100.

8. Use gels

A Canon Speedlite flash with a pink gel attached.

A Speedlite fitted with a pink gel is placed on a stand directly behind the subject here and angled towards the backdrop.

A portrait of a woman wearing a blue beret, with a purple background.

Using a coloured gel is a simple and effective way of inserting some vibrance into your shot. It can also add contrast to an image, if you use colours that clash with your subject. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/5 and ISO100.

For bold colours try adding gels to your flash. These inexpensive pieces of coloured acetate can be fastened in front of your flash and used either to tint the light hitting your subject, or to create bold backdrops for your studio shots. When experimenting with colours think about how you can use props and outfits to complement the colour scheme, and use a colour wheel to determine what might look best. Here, a bold blue beret adds a secondary splash of colour to the shot. You'll be sure to find lots of props and accessories around the house that can be used to add interest and character to your own portraits, while you'll also be able to fashion your own light modifiers as well. Our DIY photo accessory hacks article shows you how to make a softbox and spotlight tube from a cardboard box and foil-lined crisp tube. Simpler still, you can make your own reflector from some cardboard and tin foil that can be used to bounce light off from the Speedlite and lift the shadows of your subject.



Written by James Paterson

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