If I were asked to make a guess on the total cost of equipment used in a sufficiently outfitted photo studio, minus the cameras, lenses and rent, I’d pin it down somewhere around $3,000.
In all likelihood, I’m probably well short of the mark, but the point is three grand is a boatload of money for the average enthusiast to spend. If you can take away the cost of the professional-grade lighting equipment and get a little creative with your backdrops and light stands by substituting some household items, it’s not difficult to set up an easily assembled and disassembled photo studio for portraiture in your backyard.
Now we’re using the term “photo studio” loosely, because all we’re really talking about here is suspending a white bed sheet as a backdrop and another as an overhead canopy to create a clean, evenly lit space for portrait photography. I’m also not saying that a backyard job such as this can replace the quality that you’d get in a real photo studio. However, if you’re looking to try your hand at becoming the next Richard Avedon, this may be a very small but really cheap step in the right direction.
In addition to the white sheets mentioned before, all that is really needed is some strong tape (Gorilla Tape is preferred), anywhere from four to six hand clamps that you can find at a hardware store and, finally, a means of suspending both the overhead sheet parallel to the ground and the backdrop sheet perpendicular to the ground. The final product may be best visualized as a square tent made of bed sheets with only a ceiling and one wall.
A taught clothesline that stands about 6 feet or so above ground is perfect for suspending the backdrop as long as you’re not photographing Cole Aldrich. Just hang the sheet as you normally would to dry and then attach a couple of hand clamps to the bottom to keep it from blowing around too much. If you don’t have a clothesline or if it’s too droopy, you’ll have to get a bit more creative. Another way of doing this is to tape the backdrop sheet on all four sides to any flat surface like a garage door. (Note: Gorilla Tape can be strong to a fault in that it can remove paint, so you may try a less-adhesive tape if you decide to go this route. Otherwise, have some touch-up paint handy in the event you decide to put it against your house.)
Once you’ve successfully suspended the backdrop, we now want to work on the overhead sheet. (Note: If it’s a cloudy day, don’t worry about the overhead sheet because the clouds should diffuse the sunlight sufficiently on their own. However, if it’s sunny, the overhead canopy can do a great job of spreading a nice, even light over a subject. Also, the lower the thread count, the more light will pass through.)
OK, so if you went with the clothesline-like approach, secure the second sheet directly in front of the first, with tape, a good amount of clothespins or hand clamps. If you chose the flat-surface option, tape the second sheet’s top edge about an inch above the backdrop sheet on your chosen flat surface.
When you’ve completed this step, we’ll be looking for a means of bringing the second sheet’s bottom corners up so that the second sheet will hang parallel to the ground. By doing this, afternoon sunlight will be diffused when it passes through this sheet onto the subject underneath. In a demonstration video that can be viewed at LJWorld.com, I clamped the corners to two light stands and pulled the stands an equal distance away from where I hung the backdrop. The light stands worked just fine, but I could see a couple of stepladders working just as well.
When everything is secured and in place, grab a worthy subject like a husband, wife, child or pet and place them underneath the shade created by the overhead sheet and a few feet in front of the backdrop sheet to begin photographing. One additional note to keep in mind is that because the entirety of what you are shooting is in the shade, you’ll want to overexpose a bit to brighten up the white background and your subject.