Sunday, January 25, 2015

An Overview of My First Studio-Style Photoshoot

Better grab something to drink and use the washroom before you sit down since this is a long one.

In an alternate reality I work in the entertainment business in Toronto and I have a lot of friends who are DJs and producers. Since most are egotistical photo-whores in need of images for promotional material, I found myself with a bevy of willing subjects when I decided  I had learned enough about lighting to attempt a studio-style photo shoot. I often toss around photography ideas with another friend and entertainment industry colleague I call Dylan, who happens to also be a photographer, and not long ago, we decided to put in together and plan a shoot. Though Toronto has a multitude of surprisingly cheap photo studios for rent (search on your favourite local classified site or Vistek's website if you're in Canada) I managed to convince an organization I work with to allow me to use their warehouse as an impromptu photo studio. I chose to go this route because it didn't cost me anything and it, being an audio/visual production warehouse, is full cool goodies I could use for our shoot. So it was that with much excitement we planned and executed our photo shoot, my experience of which I will share with you in the hopes it will inspire you to attempt something similar while avoiding some of the mistakes I made. It was an excellent learning experience and tons of fun in the doing. Many people might not be so lucky as to have access to such an ideal space but, as the Internet will tell you, the same results can be replicated with a modest space and a trip to the local hardware store and fabric store.

I built the confidence to attempt such a shoot by watching videos on flash photography on and reading the (you guessed it) Strobist blog. I found the course Fundamentals of Flash Photography with Ben Long as well as David Hobby's videos on exceptional in clarifying key concepts and demonstrating basic technique and how to 'work the shot' with strobes. If you have access to I would highly suggest both resources if you're interested in learning how to use strobes in your photography. The Strobist blog is also and excellent resource and David Hobby is both funny and pragmatic in his writing. Convinced of my new found strobe-God powers I decided that the only option at this point was to endeavour a high key style shoot so as to put as much of my learning as possible to use.


Those who know me might tell you I'm well prepared. If so, they're being very moderate because I'm a bit of a planning nut. I have a list, chart, spreadsheet or similar tool organizing almost every aspect of my life and I find great pleasure and calm in creating and maintaining those lists. That trait served me very well when it came to organizing a shoot since I had zero experience to reply on. In order to put together my plan I read several dozen online articles on the subject and noted the following functional areas I judged important to prepare for:

  • A look and concept
  • The models, their appearance, clothing and accessories 
  • The space, equipment, and setup
  • Posing and direction
  • Post production, delivery and use of the photos

My first order of business was booking some models. As I mentioned earlier I was flush with volunteers and easily able to book a full day's worth of talent to shoot. This was my first mistake. Inspired and overconfident from watching all these pros work in online videos I booked myself a few hours with each model which proved to be insufficient. Being an utter newb I was making everything up on the fly and didn't have the skill building a rapport with or directing the model that is necessary to get good shots in a timely fashion. By the time I had got into a groove with one model my time was over with him and I had to move on. The full day of shooting I had arranged proved to be very taxing and I found myself a little worn out and getting frustrated near the end. Next time I'll limit myself to a single model and a shorter session.

After securing some models I began to contemplate what look I was going for and for what purpose the images will be used. I had mostly DJs coming, for which I envisioned dramatic lighting styles to evoke their outrageous musical styles and personalities in promotional material. I also had one professional coming for whom I wanted to do flat beauty-style lighting for a LinkedIn profile picture. Conventional wisdom would have that one should plan a look and concept and then find models to suit the look but when you are trying to shoot people volunteering their time you work with what you have.

With models secured and a loose concept in mind I began to bend my thoughts on how to prepare my models for the shoot. I use the terms 'model' and 'talent' loosely as none of these folks had any experience in front of the camera and would, I knew, require substantial preparation and direction. After spending considerable time thinking and reading on how to prepare them, I devised and sent to each the following checklist:

  • Bring a few outfits, hopefully somewhat dissimilar.
  • Iron, steam, lint brush and otherwise prep your cloths.
  • Bring lots of different accessories (hat, sunglasses, necklaces, rings, etc...)
  • Bring a few props that are demonstrative of or iconic in reference to your work. 
  • Bring a few pairs of shoes and clean/shine them up.
  • Do your hair and bring extra product and brushes or combs in case you need to redo or touch it up.
  • Don't forget to shave, trim, or otherwise tame your facial hair. 

I thought I had covered most of my bases but in fact I had forgotten some critical items that became quite obvious to me during the shoot and later during post processing. In light of what I consider my second mistake I added the following to my checklist:

  • Apply quality chapstick starting the night before. Trying to retouch heavily chapped lips in post isn't very easy.
  • Wash the bottom of the shoes you plan to wear for the shoot and don't wear them to the shoot. Dirty shoes mark up the white seamless very fast (more on this later). 

Having no experience and only some knowledge on posing, I watched many videos and downloaded many posing cheat-sheets on my iPad which I intended to reference during the shoot. This was a great idea as I found myself looking at the guide periodically for ideas. I only wish that I would have studied them in depth beforehand and perhaps pre-selected some poses so as not to have to break my report with the talent so often to look in the guide. Every time I stopped to look something up I found it interrupted the cooperative development of the concept between the talent and I. Something to be aware of.

Being friends with my models I wasn't overly concerned with formalizing the terms of the shoot. I knew how they intended to use the images and I made it clear they were getting the free photo shoot with the understanding that: a) it was a learning process so they had to keep their expectations in check and, b) I was going to use the images in my portfolio, blogs, social media and other outlets to promote myself and them. All concerned were very happy with the arrangement. From all my readings on the matter I would highly recommend not going about it that way and having more formal agreements. Something else to think about since your mileage may vary. I also made it very clear that I will be dragging my butt considerably with respect to the post processing since I am generally very short on time and I am also learning how to post-process in LR and PS so the going will be extra slow. Given the price they were paying and considering our friendship, again, they were more than happy.

Gratuitous camera porn. Notice my highly professional duct tape snoot. 
As for equipment, I resolved that I needed a backdrop, lighting and of course cameras and lenses. The cameras and lenses were the easy part. I charged up all my cameras' cells, cleaned my equipment and placed it in carry bags so as to be ready to go. I won't tire you with a complete list but Dylan and I together brought a few zooms and a variety of primes to cover focal lengths between 24 and 300mm and since we both shoot Canon we could share lenses on the shoot. Dylan was kind enough to bring a tripod.

To light the shoot Dylan and I brought a collection of five strobes, two 430EXIIs and three manual flashes of different brands that I have bought second hand on the cheap. The three manual flashes contained optical triggers which I consider absolutely essential for off camera flash so as to cut down on the requirement for triggering devices. I had a few sets of cheap Cactus V2 triggers and transmitters so that Dylan and I could both fire the Canons which would in turn fire the other strobes. To hoist the flashes I brought three stands with ball head umbrella swivels, an old cheapo tripod and my Gorillapod Focus along with tripod adapter feet to mate flashes to the tripods. Four saddlebag style sandbag came along to anchor the stands down. To diffuse and shape the light I had a few shoot-through umbrellas of different sizes and some snoots and other shaping devices I fashioned from cardboard for the price of some duct tape and some old boxes. The night before I charged up all my rechargeable NiMH AAAs and AAs. For Pete's sake don't use disposables save for backup unless you have to. They wear out faster, provide slower cycle times for the flashes and most importantly they're bad for the environment. Don't do it!

The backdrop we settled on was a roll of white seamless paper 10 feet wide. This width turned out to be ideal since we wanted to get some wider angle shots which the size did allowed. This was probably the most expensive part of the shoot at around $75 and, sad to say, there's no way to get around the expense.  I do  consider the purchase a good value since the roll is 36' and we will only need to consume about 6 feet so we will be able to use it a few times. If you go this route don't forget to bring scissors to trim the paper. To hold the backdrop in place and anchor it when it wasn't on the floor I purchased half a dozen A clamps on sale from the Home Depot. These particular ones are well weighted and almost completely rubberized and so worked splendidly for our purpose and didn't mark the paper at all. It's also worth mentioning we had a sturdy ladder to get up over our models for high angle shots.

Not knowing exactly what to expect I envisioned setting it all up according to the following diagram:

The Setup

An audiovisual production warehouse makes for an exceptional studio with high ceilings and a flat concrete floor. As I mentioned, our backdrop was a roll of seamless paper so we were going to need a backdrop stand which was a problem because neither Dylan or I owned a backdrop stand. We ended up rigging one up from some heavy duty production lighting stands and drape piping that was lying around. We set up black drape runs on either side perpendicular to the backdrop in order to block stray reflections from the orange shelves and metallic cases stacked along the walls. To illuminate the backdrop two of the strobes were mounted and turned 90 degrees, one on a ball head swivel and another on the cheap tripod with a three-way head, and aimed towards the opposite side of the paper. Doing so allowed for better coverage of the backdrop since the strobes output a rectangular beam. Each was also outfitted with one of my home-brew flags to block the light from the backdrop strobes from illuminating the model.

X marks the spot.
Our key and fill lights consisted of two strobes on stands with white shoot-through umbrellas. I planned to use a fifth strobe as a rim light or to illuminate the portion of the paper on the floor for shots in which it was to be pictured but one of our strobes, an old Vivitar H285HV,  didn't work with our cheap triggers. After trying to troubleshoot it for a short while we judged that the cheap triggers didn't output enough trigger voltage to set it off. Word to the wise for anyone planning to use this strobe for off camera flash setups. Needless to say it was up for sale on Kijiji the following day. I also brought two white foam-core boards to serve as reflectors. I didn't use them at all during the shoot but that because not only did I not know what to do with them but also I had put them down in a corner and forgot about them. While we were setting up and testing as well as for part of the shoot we had the paper only rolled down partially and weighted down with some of the A clamps so as to avoid the model walking on it when before it was necessary. We test fired the lights many times in order to set our exposure correctly and then taped an 'X' on the floor where we found was the furthest point where there was no light spill on the the model from the backdrop lights. One mistake we made was not using our camera's highlight warning to asses the blowout of the background. We sort of eyeballed it until it looked good on the camera LCD but, as you may have guessed, that wasn't the way it worked out when we review the images for editing. We had different tones across the background and shadows in some places where the flashes didn't cover as well. Satisfied with our test shots, we began to get down to business.


Shooting with two photographers was a great experience for a first time shoot since neither of us felt the sole pressure of running the shoot and keeping the flow going. It's always nice to have someone to turn to and say 'what do you think' or to take over the attention of the model. Sometimes I really enjoyed an idea Dylan explored and sometimes I didn't see what he saw in which case I stepped back and he took the lead which gave me time to regroup and think of my next move. I do wish I had more poses and variations in mind. It's much harder to find info on posing man than on posing women. I've checked our many books and online articles and I could really use some suggestions if someone can send them my way.

We were able to experiment with many different angles with the lighting, raising and lowering the key light and moving it from side to side. Moving the stands with the lights raised and the umbrella out was very awkward and slightly unstable, causing the light to wiggle around on top of the stand. This wouldn't be a problem if the lights were installed tightly but the shoes on the cheap triggers are not well suited to the Canon locking mechanism and so the flash sits loosely on the shoe. At one point in the shoot I was moving an umbrella and the stand shook enough to pop one of the flashes off the shoe and drop it  to the floor. My reflexes were almost fast enough to catch it and I got a piece of it on the way down which slowed it considerably but my 430EXII hit the deck pretty hard. I was shocked when I picked it back up only to find that it was working perfectly after falling from about nine feet. My opinion of the build quality of the unit went up considerably to say the least. In the future I will be applying a bit of gaffer tape to the shoes to firm it up. I felt I should have also lowered the light when I was moving it but since I didn't know what I was doing I was moving the lights around a lot experimenting and that would have slowed me down too much.

Taking a little break from the shoot to take some fun snapshots.
 Our models were very cooperative and did their best to give us a variety of looks. We took breaks every so often to chit chat and discuss poses and looks which gave us a much needed break from the physical strain. Between each break Dylan and I loaded our images on to our respective computers so we each had copies which served as backup as well. We discussed shooting tethered so we could more clearly see the results but we decided it would be too cumbersome and perhaps even dangerous with two shooters constantly criss-crossing each other.

One thing that quickly became apparent to me as I was shooting was that I had spent a lot of time focusing on my models' cloths and little on mine. I would highly suggest taking some time to consider comfortable cloths when shooting. The jeans I wore were not the most comfortable and my sweater was a little too hot, each frustrating and distracting me.

When I was working close up with some of my primes I was focusing with the centre AF point and then recomposing. Later when I checked my images some were noticeably softer in the face than I would have liked. I've used this technique with good success before but I will try and do so with the closest AF point available to minimize this potential error.


Though I didn't walk away with as many keepers as I would have liked, I learned a lot and gained some much needed experience on the shoot. My friends were happy and I continue to slowly trickle images to them as I get the time to develop them. Perhaps more import is that I got a sense of some of the things I really need to work on in order to be more effective in both planning and execution my next shoot.

Below I've posted some of my favourites from the shoot. Let me know what you think. If you would like to see high resolutions versions with the EXIF data and setting used please check out my Flickr page where all of the images are hosted.


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