There is a story told of Akira Kurasowa, the great Japanese film director, who was asked about a particularly beautiful scene in one of his movies: “how is it you came to frame that scene exactly like that?” Kurasowa replied something to the effect that if he had moved his camera one foot to the right, a major highway would have been in the shot, and if he had moved it one foot to the left, an oil refinery would have been in the picture. That is what everyone and anyone with a camera in their hand must confront from time to time. How you go about creating beauty between a rock and a hard place is the real magic in your work, whether on the road or at home in a makeshift studio.
Every photographer needs a place to work. Whether it’s outdoors or indoors, sooner or later a client is going to ask to go indoors (especially if you live in one of those places where it may snow now and again). You cannot always subject yourself or your clients to the whims of weather. So you head indoors to work and the first question that you need to ask yourself is: where and how big or maybe even more to the point: where and how small? You see, a photographer learns by increments and the things you will learn in a small studio and on the road are the beginnings of learning how to work in a larger studio, maybe the one in your dreams. To get there you have to start small and make it look big, make it feel big. Once you can do and then do it again and again, then you can truly say that you are a professional.
You need some space and to start it can be anything at all. You can put a studio in a basement, if you have one, or a garage, a spare bedroom, or even the dining room. It might require you to set up for a shot and then break it right back down, but anything in that realm is better than nothing at all, which can often mean between getting a job and losing one. In creating a studio from existing space you need to be both inventive and flexible.
One of the major problems with converted living spaces is low ceilings. In a studio setting, light control is paramount and you may experience reflected light in places where you don’t want it. Since it’s unlikely that you’re going to paint your living room or dining room ceiling black, other options will have to be considered: overhead black scrims are the obvious answer. Just make sure you finish your work before it’s time to have dinner or you might find yourself in the middle of a domestic discussion.
A garage might be the right answer, but do you live in a climate that will allow you to work in the winter? If the garage is the potential answer, what will it cost to insulate it and convert it into a working studio, a space that serves as a more permanent home for all your equipment and setups? There is no better feeling than finishing a shoot at night, knowing you can come back in the morning and continue working right where you left off without having to break down and attempt to replicate what took so long to setup the day before.
Change Your Lens
The one thing that can make a small space look large (or at least different) is your lens. Try to avoid using a wide-angle lens in a small space. The compression you’ll get from a portrait lens or longer will serve as “blinders” to eliminate any unwanted detritus to the left and right of your subject.
Materials in Small Spaces
The very first thing you can do once you’ve determined there is a room in the house that can serve as a studio is to find a way to remove as much clutter and furniture as possible. Then turn your thoughts to the kind of equipment that can work in a tight spot. Collapsible backdrops can be a great first step to working in a space where a full backdrop might be physically impossible. Or, consider one of Savage’s Economy Background Kits that include up to three 5’x9′ fabric backdrops with a support stand. These backgrounds are large enough to capture fuller portraits while remaining compact. Also, if you are in a space where the floors are not worth looking at, consider using floor drops. And you don’t have to buy a long roll of seamless to go along with them – it likely won’t fit, but smaller, four-foot rolls will work perfectly. If you have to, cut one of the longer rolls in half with a saw. Floor drops in combination with those smaller width rolls of seamless will turn the ugliest spots in the world into classic settings.
Another consideration is current: electrical current. In a domestic setting, flash units, especially several going off at once may prove a tremendous drain on household currents. You may find yourself running to the circuit breaker every so often. Continuous Fluorescent Light will not drain as much juice and when used properly, will afford you the luxury of not waiting for your flash to recycle, giving you the ability not only to see right away what you’re lighting looks like, and afford more uninterrupted attention to your clients.
If you are a photographer who shoots a lot on the road, the lessons learned when you’re shooting in locations you’ve never been to before can daunting enough to make you yearn for the comfort of that tiny space you have at home. Take the lessons of that last road trip, or the wisdom necessitated by Kurasowa’s choices and use them to your advantage. Being inventive and learning on the fly with small space limitations is a gift, not a burden. Once you’ve given yourself the larger space, you’ll begin to see how all the lessons learned in a tight space was teaching you how to be a better photographer.