Building a Professional Photography Studio on a Budget

Written by: Zach Sutton, Published on: 25 April 2016

Building a Professional Photography Studio on a Budget

Savage no doubt makes some incredible products, but many of their functionality thrives when in the studio. Studios can be incredibly expensive to build, and is the reason why so many photographers choose to rent studio space rather than building their own. For this article, I’m going to tell you how my studio partner and I were able to cost-effectively build a professional photography studio, with a small budget.

See More: Studio Space: Renting vs. Owning

Why Did We Need a Studio?

Living in LA is incredibly expensive. Between rent, parking, gas, and other expenses, it can be very difficult for someone to be full-time photographer. Among those costs is studio rental. Upon moving to Los Angeles, I priced out some of my favorite studios to use for headshot photography, my specialty prior to moving to LA. Many of the smaller studios were rentable for $50 an hour, and some of the larger ones could easily break $100 an hour. These costs can quickly cut into my profits, and last year alone I did over 125 photo shoots for clients. Pricing that out at $50/hour for 2 hour sessions is over $12,000 dollars that would annually go to studio costs alone, and that’s not a financial burden I’m interested in taking on. So my next option was obvious, let’s build a studio.

Our Little ~300 Square Foot Studio

Along with my longtime friend and fellow photographer, Alex Stone, we decided to take a garage he was using for a makeshift studio and really make it our own. In its starting condition, it was used, but only for personal shoots with friends and family. Because of the condition of the garage, it couldn’t be used for professional level shoots, and so we decided to change that, and turn it into something we’d be proud of.

photography studio rebuild

The garage itself is a standard garage you would find at many homes. At 15’x19’, the total space is just shy of 300 sq. ft., so we wanted to maximize the space we had to turn it into something usable on a personal level. The first step was the easiest; the garage needed some fresh paint and desperately needed a new floor. Being a garage for many years, its floor was made of concrete, and had become stained with oils from a long life of use. Furthermore, the baseboards were brown with dirt and stains, and the white paint had become faded and ugly over time. So we looked at our options, and went to Home Depot to buy supplies.

Painting the Studio

First on the list was some fresh paint. Because we wanted to keep the floor plan open and looking big, we decided for white and grey walls. While the space is small, it is large enough to not have to worry about any significant bouncing of light, so we chose to mix and match the front and back wall with a standard matte white, and the side walls with the appropriately colored “Sutton Place Grey”. After a night of work, we were able to do a pretty good job of cleaning up the studio, removing the previous furniture stored there, and painting the walls.

Cost of Paint and Painting Supplies - $80.00

Total Cost So Far - $80.00

photography studio rebuild

The Floors

Next, we decided on what we wanted for the floors. We were given a bunch of different options, and decided on hard wood floors to complement the walls. Now, this is probably the place where people can save the most money. Technically, you can lay down some black or grey paint over the concrete, and get a really nice and clean look. For us, because we do the occasional product shot, we decided the hardwood floors would be a nice background for those occasional product photos and agreed to splurge a little bit to get what we wanted. We were able to purchase the floors from an online vendor we trusted, and through the help of Alex’s dad, we found someone who would fix the baseboards, lay down the pre-foundation for the floors, and completely install the floors into the space for $500. Done and done.

Cost of Floor and Installation - $1,100.00

Total Cost So Far - $1,180.00

photography studio rebuild

The Vanity

With the bulk of the foundation work now complete, we could focus on some of the little details to really bring our tiny studio to the next level. Since both myself and my studio partner work in portrait, we decided a vanity would be a worthy investment, and looked into purchasing one. After seeing the prices of nice vanities, we then reconsidered purchasing, and figured building one would be easy enough. With a quick trip to Home Depot, we found a 24”x36” mirror that would work perfectly for $20, and got all the mounting glue and tabletop brackets for just a few dollars more. We then proceeded to Ikea, and found the 48” tabletop called the LINNMON for only $20. With about $50 spent, we then turned to Amazon to find some vanity lights. Two 24” fixtures and one 36” fixture is all we would need, and we began the process of putting together the vanity. With a little bit of elbow grease, and some admittedly sketchy wiring, we got a vanity set up, and with bulbs, the total cost sat under $200 for a nicely functioning vanity.

Cost of Vanity Build - $200.00

Total Cost So Far - $1,380.00

photography studio rebuild

Mounting the Backgrounds

One of the one things we had already set up in the old studio but want to redesign was mounting our paper rolls to the wall. We chose to use the Interfit wall mounting kit. This is a permanent solution, but for the spirit of this article, I also recommend the Savage Multiple Polevault system if your space will have less permanence and needs to break down. By mounting this to the ceiling, we can make sure we maximize our clearance, and have plenty of options that can be switched in and out quickly. For paper colors, we’ve decided to go with:

Savage #01 Super White, Savage #27 Thunder Gray, Savage #47 Baby Blue, Savage #71 Deep Yellow and Savage #91 Plum.

This will get us plenty of options to work with in studio, and help diversify our look.

Cost of Paper Mount/Seamless Papers - $250.00

Total Cost So Far - $1,630.00

photography studio rebuild

Organization

Finally we came to the issue of organization and keeping the place looking nice. Prior to the redesign, a small hook on the wall was used as a “clothing rack” and all of the gear was collectively stacked in the corner with no sense of organization. We concluded that a storage closet would be in order, and help keep order, so we looked at our affordable options, Ikea. Initially, we determined that some storage racks would allow us to properly store what we need, but then decided that a storage closet might be the cleaner option. Then we found the DOMBÅS at Ikea, and thus, found our answer. At only $129, this storage locker has plenty of space, and will allow us to quickly and comfortably store all of our light modifiers, as well as storing away all of the accessories included with having a studio (clips, gaff tape, speed rings, etc. etc).

photography studio rebuild

To further keep the place organized, we then cut our Seamless Paper Storage Holder to hold 3 rolls of paper (Instead of the standard 6) to the side of the storage locker, providing a nice place to show off some of our colors, while also keeping things looking neat. By cutting the Seamless Paper Storage Holder in half, we have the option to also mount three more paper rolls to the back of the wardrobe if we choose.

Cost of Storage Supplies - $189

Total Cost of Studio Rebuild - $1,819.00

photography studio rebuild

Bonus Area

After getting the studio area complete, we then decided to take advantage of our motivation, and also create a nice little area outside of our studio in the backyard area. We’ve made claims that this little area can be used for client meetings and such, but let’s be honest….it’ll probably be spent used as an area to be merry with friends on cool summer nights.

photography studio rebuild

Summary

Split two ways, and taking advantage of a very long and busy weekend, we were able to convert a dirty old garage into something we can feel comfortable taking clients to for their photo shoot. While the cost isn’t incredibly cheap, it was done with affordability in mind, and will save us thousands in studio rental costs in the long run. It’s small, but it’s more than big enough for individual clients and to use as a starting ground for building a photography business here in LA. Hopefully you can use this as a reminder that you too can find a small studio space in a place you already own, and has convinced you to take what you have and turn it into something great. If you’ve reconverted a studio yourself, let’s see some Before and Afters in the comments below.

 

About Zach Sutton

Zach Sutton

Zach Sutton is an award-winning and internationally published commercial and headshot photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His work highlights environmental portraiture, blending landscapes and scenes with portrait photography. His work and writings have been featured on Fstoppers, SLR Lounge, Profoto Blog, DSLR Photography Magazine, Phototuts+, Photofocus, Resource Magazine, and more. When not shooting, Zach often dedicates his time to help with education in the field of photography and videography. He often teaches workshops and gives lectures all over North America, as well as contributing to various publications in the field of photography when he has time. You can see some of his work on his website.

Comments (10)

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    25 April 2016 at 22:32 |
    Love the setup. I can't believe how easy you make this look. Those foam storage dividers for the seamless backdrops are genius.

    reply

    • Zach Sutton

      Zach Sutton

      25 April 2016 at 23:13 |
      Thanks Jennifer!

      It surprisingly was pretty easy. Both Alex and I had very limited construction experience prior to this renovation, but it all came together without any major hiccups. It's just important to slow down and plan ahead. I was more impressed that we get 95% of these work done in a single weekend.

      reply

  • Ryan Moser

    Ryan Moser

    27 April 2016 at 01:01 |
    Zach awesome setup!!! Now I am very tempted to convert my garage.... Maybe even add a CYC wall... Killer work!!

    reply

    • Zach Sutton

      Zach Sutton

      28 April 2016 at 15:51 |
      Get it done, Ryan!

      Glad I inspired you. I wish we had the space for a cyc wall...but alas, the paper rolls work well for what we need.

      Good luck on your DIY project, and don't hesitate to send me an email if you have any questions.

      reply

  • Sheila

    Sheila

    04 May 2016 at 16:00 |
    Quick question. What did you do about heating and AC?

    reply

  • Zach Sutton

    Zach Sutton

    09 May 2016 at 19:54 |
    I live in southern California, so heating will never be an issue. Though we're looking to install a small AC unit in the coming weeks.

    reply

  • Paul

    Paul

    19 May 2016 at 15:51 |
    Zach, great job!! Thanks for sharing!! We converted our garage in 2007 to a studio and it is more for client meetings but works great....we added a portable AC for those few weeks when it gets too hot!

    reply

    • Zach Sutton

      Zach Sutton

      19 May 2016 at 17:24 |
      Thanks Paul. Currently shopping for an AC unit myself, as the studio is only going to get hotter in the coming months.

      reply

  • Justin

    Justin

    19 May 2016 at 19:30 |
    Hey Zach,

    Great work! I really like the addition of the vanity. I am currently wrapping up the build for my garage studio. I have a slightly larger garage than yours. Unfortunately I had to compromise with my fiance and put up a dividing wall for her mudroom. Initially I was just going to out up a new ceiling and the wall and call it a day. But it eventually took on a life of it's own. The ceiling had to be done as the previous one was just some 2x4's and sparse plywood holding all of our Halloween and Christmas decorations. The 2x4's were sagging really bad and were becoming a hazard considering I too live in LA and even a small earthquake would surely have brought the whole thing down. So the project went from fixing the storage and a wall to.... new ceiling joists, a wall, outlets and light switches on both sides of the new wall, a drop down ladder to the attic storage in the mudroom, attic lighting, attic insulation, attic flooring, ceiling and wall insulation, drywall, heating and air conditioning in both rooms, track lighting, paint (Black ceiling, white walls, black garage door), white garage door insulation, wall mounted boom arms, wall mounted backdrop rollers and eventually a new handmade reclaimed wood desk which I'll be starting in a few weeks.

    I will now be adding a few of your ideas like the vanity, storage closet and seamless holders. So thanks for the additional hole in my pocket.

    I've added a link to some of the images of the build. The studio is farther along than what you see in the images. I just haven't taken any updated photos for a few weeks.

    http://imgur.com/a/KvdDO

    reply

    • Zach Sutton

      Zach Sutton

      20 May 2016 at 18:39 |
      Wow, you're really going next level with yours! It looks like it's really coming along.

      I wish our was bigger, but it's just not a possibility at this time. We've done our best with the space we have, and I'm still really happy with the end result.

      Good luck with the vanity, and if you got with the same Ikea storage locker, be sure to be patient with it. Like all Ikea stuff, it's kind of a pain to put together.

      Looking forward to seeing the final photos!

      Best,
      Zach

      reply

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