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10 Essential tips for setting up a portable photo studio

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Published Aug 16, 2022

As a professional photographer, having the right equipment readily available is essential to ensure a successful career in this creative industry. The good news is that you don’t need a physical photo studio location to fulfil your day-to-day business needs.  

A portable photo studio, complete with the proper tools, is all you’ll ever need for location flexibility and a high-quality customer experience. So, whether you need to shoot from the spare room in your apartment or a flower field atop a mountain, these ten tips will help you put together the ideal portable photo studio setup. Let’s take a look at this comprehensive photo studio equipment guide. 

Setting up a portable photo studio overview

  1. Why do you need a portable photo studio?
  2. What kit works best for your photography?
  3. Choosing the right camera
  4. Choosing the right lenses
  5. Selecting the right lighting equipment
  6. Essential accessories
  7. Choosing backdrops & props
  8. Editing and workflow technology
  9. Organisation & bags
  10. Assistants

1. The Benefits: Why You Need a Portable Photo Studio?

Photographers are constantly on the go, whether it be a professional shoot in a studio or at a location preferred by the client. Although having an established studio location offers a dedicated space for your photography business, it limits the number of backdrops and lighting options. Some clients might request shooting on a variety of photoshoot locations and backdrops, with some even willing to pay for a photographer’s travel fees to shoot at a specific location to take advantage of natural light photography and the benefits it offers. 

A portable photo studio on the other hand gives you the flexibility to shoot in any location and can even save you money on pricey rental fees. By increasing your photography offerings you’ll also increase your clientele, and in return, your total income. Before you rush to purchase a generic photography toolkit, it is important to understand that in this case one size does not fit all, and your setup will need to be customized to your needs. Arriving with a fully equipped photo studio will enhance your professionalism and experience to ensure clients keep booking you for more. 

Setting up a portable photo studio - why do you need one?
Photo by Jeff Hopper

2. Determine what kit works best for your type of Photography

There are various types of photography avenues that a photographer may choose to specialize in. This is the first thing you’ll need to determine when setting up your portable photo studio as each photography category will require different tools. Will you be specializing in portrait photography? Event photography? Product shots? high key lighting? low key lighting? A little bit of everything, perhaps? 

Still photography will likely require more tools for a setup than event photography where you’ll likely be constantly moving around with only your camera. If you’re opening your range to a variety of photography types, then you’ll need a lot more equipment to accommodate different lighting needs, backgrounds, lenses, and even props. There are as many as 28 photography types and styles and each one requires its own unique setup. For a more in-depth description of these, you can find articles like this boudoir photo ideas article. If you’re still trying to figure out what route to take, here are a few photography types to consider:

  • Portrait and Headshot photography
  • Wedding and Event Photography
  • Fashion Photography
  • Food and Product Photography
  • Real Estate Photography
  • Architecture Photography
  • Pet Photography
  • Aerial Photography
  • Nature Photography
  • Landscape Photography

3. Starting off with the essentials: the Camera 

As a photographer, the camera is your best friend. A high-quality camera (or a few) is essential in producing superior imagery that is both editable and eye-catching. With so many camera manufacturers constantly competing with each other and releasing new camera models every year, how can you choose the right one? You don’t need to spend thousands on a camera thinking that it will produce better visuals. A single budget-friendly option can deliver captivating photos or videos without the need to spend your entire budget on just one thing. These are a few questions to ask yourself when searching for the ideal camera:

  • What kind of photography will I be doing? As we mentioned before, different photography types will require different tools. When it comes to choosing a camera, there are several that have been tailored made for specific photography types. The most common cameras that encompass a greater range of photography and are a good starting point for beginning photographers are DSLR and mirrorless cameras. 
  • What is my budget? Cameras can range from a few hundred pounds to the thousands. Unless the type of photography requires it, you can easily select a budget-friendly camera that covers your basic needs. At the minimum, it should offer a high-rating resolution, a high ISO range for lower light conditions, and a variety of lens options.  
  • How many lenses will I need? A fixed lens camera will likely not be enough to cover a variety of photography options. When selecting a camera, ensure that it is compatible with a few other lens options to accommodate various setups and photography styles. 
  • How big of a camera do I need? Cameras come in various weights and sizes. Before you select a camera, pay attention to the weight and size specs and think about what would work best for you. Think about how long you’ll be holding your camera at a time and how you will be transporting it. 
The camera is the key part of any portable photo studio setup
Photo by Reinhart Julian

4. Choose the right lenses

Lenses are a key component of cameras and photography. Not only do they increase the range of your photography offerings but also help establish your own style. Although the lens kit that already comes with your camera might be enough for basic photography types, you’ll eventually need to explore other options if you seek to expand into other photography avenues. Here are a few lenses to consider adding to your portable photo studio setup depending on the style of photography you’re looking to try:

  • Standard Lenses: These lenses have a mid-range focal length between 35mm and 85mm and are ideal for portrait, street, and travel photography. Because they offer an authentic viewpoint of what the human eye sees, photos reflect an accurate representation of the subject.
  • Telephoto Lenses: These lenses have a greater magnification factor that allows you to take photos from a significant distance. This makes them ideal for wildlife and sports photography that is often shot from afar. Telephoto lenses tend to be bigger and heavier than other lenses and are likely less compatible with tripods that can’t sustain the weight. 
  • Wide Angle Lenses: Featuring a short focal length often ranging between 14mm to 35mm, wide-angle lenses allow you to capture a lot more within a scene. These lenses allow you to play with perspective and are ideal for shooting in confined spaces allowing you to capture a wider field of view. Wide angle lenses are perfect for architecture, landscape, and some portrait photography. 
  • Macro Lenses: Made specifically for macro photography, these lenses capture close-up imagery with extreme accuracy and sharpness. This makes macro lenses ideal for nature photography and even product photography where attention to detail is demanded. 
  • Prime and Zoom Lenses: As you expand on your photography skills you’ll likely end up with prime and zoom lenses in your toolkit. Prime lenses are usually a standard with a fixed focal length, meaning the only way to get closer or further from the subject is by physically moving. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, offer more flexibility by allowing you to manually change the focal length. However, zoom lenses do tend to be slower than prime lenses so it's best practice to keep both in your arsenal.

5. Select the ideal lighting equipment

Lighting is everything. In photography, lighting is used to establish tone, mood, and atmosphere and can even become a recognizable feature in your photography that makes you stand out from the rest—even in simple natural light photography. Thankfully, you can rely on a daylight studio hire to achieve a similar effect while having more control of the environment. A poorly lit backdrop will result in low-quality imagery that is either too overexposed or too grainy to edit. 

Certain circumstances like a product photography lighting setup can make or break the results of the photo shoot, so ideating product photography ideas in advance is highly recommended. Poor lighting can quickly make a photographer appear like an amateur and decrease your chances of being booked again. When putting together your portable photo studio setup, these are a few tools to keep in mind:  

  • Umbrellas: Perhaps one of the most widely used lighting tools in photography, umbrella lights help diffuse light to achieve a softer, more natural look in your photos. Although they are often shaped like an umbrella, hence the name, they can also be boxed and even rectangular. These can be paired with a variety of diffusers for specific lighting and colour effects. 
  • Reflectors: These often-circular lighting tools offer a reflective surface that is used to redirect light onto or away from the subject. They are particularly helpful in outdoor photography setups where you have little to no control over lighting. 
  • Extension Cords and Lightbulbs: As a rule of thumb, it’s always nice to keep an extra colour-accurate lightbulb for your umbrella lights in case your current ones decide to give out mid-shoot.  Depending on where you’ll be shooting, having an extension cord available will give you more flexibility on your location and prevent any setup headaches. 
Lighting equipment is another essential part of any portable photo studio setup
Photo by Harry Cunningham

6. Make sure you acquire these additional accessories

Now that we’ve covered the basics, there are other accessories you’ll need to ensure you have a well-equipped portable photo studio. Regardless of what type of photography you’ll be specializing in, you’ll likely need access to a tripod to stabilize your camera and take sharper photos. In addition, tripods are essential when shooting in low light and when capturing long-exposure shots. Make sure the tripod reaches the ideal height for your photography and is strong enough to carry the weight of your camera without wobbling. Other accessories to keep in mind are:

  • Spare Batteries and Memory Cards: There’s nothing worse than a dying battery or full memory card without backups. Not only will this make you look like an amateur, but you likely won’t be able to complete your photoshoot. Always carry additional, and fully charged, batteries as well as memory cards to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted session! 
  • Drone: You likely won’t ever need a drone unless you extend your offerings to aerial photography. Certain events may call for drone shots and having one may be beneficial when taking photos of architecture and real estate that require point-of-view shots.  
  • Camera Filters: Filters are a multifaceted tool to keep handy. Each lens filter available serves a specific purpose, from minimizing glare to adjusting colour. These filters easily pop over your camera lens and take little to no space in your camera bag. Although not required, these would be fun to experiment with in the long run for achieving unique photo styles.  

7. Invest in backdrops and props

If you’re working with various photography styles then it’s likely that at some point, a backdrop might come in handy. A basic white background is always recommended as the standard for most photography types. Although offered in various colours and materials, a versatile cloth background might be easier to travel with than one made from vinyl. These backdrops are often budget-friendly and will take little to no additional space in your setup. Others to consider are:

  • Green and Blue Screen Backdrops: A green or blue screen backdrop will allow you to change and manipulate the background of an image. These are great when shooting portrait or product photography with a specific background but without having to travel to a specific location. 
  • Abstract Backdrops: Compared to their solid colour counterparts, abstract backgrounds often feature various patterns, textures, and symbols to add more dimension and interest to an image. 
  • DIY Backdrops: Use your creativity, while saving money, and create your own backdrop with items you already have at home. White sheets, muted curtains, and even towels can make perfect backdrops for a few quick photo sessions. 

If your photography type requires it, having a few props to set up a scene can enhance the overall look of an image. For example, if you specialize in pet photography, you should invest in a few different scene setups to expand your portfolio, attract more clients, and deliver more visually striking photos that stand out from those with plain backgrounds.  When photographing people, props give them something to interact with resulting in more authentic poses and even decreasing customer shyness and discomfort. 

Consider what colour backgrounds you need as part of your portable photo studio setup
Photo by Yehor Milohrodskyi

8. Opt for reliable technology

Delivering high-quality imagery to your clients requires a sustainable toolkit of reliable equipment. However, the quality of a photo can also be determined by the editing process that comes afterwards. Your digital toolkit is just as important as your physical one and equipping yourself with these basics will ensure a smooth editing process and high-quality images. 

  • Computer: Invest in a reliable computer with plenty of storage space and memory. Some photography experts also seek out screens and monitors with high-quality colour displays to ensure an accurate colour depiction. 
  • External Hard Drive: As a professional photographer, you’ll likely be working with several image files at a time that even a computer with the most storage space will not be able to handle. Having one or two external hard drives handy for additional storage space will spare you from constantly having to delete files to clear up space. These also offer a safe and easily accessible storage space for your files in case your computer crashes or is lost.  
  • Card Reader: Unless you buy a computer specifically made for editing, it is likely that it won’t have a card reader slot. In this case, you’ll have to purchase a card reader with a compatible cable to connect to your computer. Most card readers are inexpensive and can be easily stored in your camera bag.
  • Editing Software: Different photographers work with one or multiple photo editing software to finesse their images. Although some popular ones like Photoshop and Lightroom have become a standard, it is okay to find other software options that work best for you and your photography style.  

9. Keep everything organized: storage units and bags

With all the equipment you’ll come to gather for your portable photo studio, staying organized will help you keep track of everything, especially when travelling to various locations. Proper organization also helps the setup and cleaning process go much faster when everything has a dedicated storage spot. 

Purchase a camera bag large enough to hold your primary camera and standard lens kit, as well as any other small accessories like batteries, memory cards, and lens filters. To store bigger items like backdrops, lights, and tripods, invest in a good-quality storage case thick enough to protect your equipment from damage and the elements.  

Finally, a kit bag is a great item to finish off a great portable photo studio setup.
Photo by Skye Studios

10. Determine if you’ll need an assistant

Yes! An assistant can be a key element in your portable photo studio, especially for more demanding jobs that may require more than two hands. Whether it be for holding the reflector in place, holding props in specific positions, or setting up an extensive backdrop an assistant is a considerable addition. You likely won’t need to hire a full-time employee and maybe the only time you’ll need an assistant is for more demanding jobs like event photography.  

Final Thoughts 

Are you ready to set up your very own portable photo studio? If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the long list of steps it apparently takes to put one together, don’t be. Start with one item at a time until you end up with the perfect toolkit that best works for you and your business. Remember that a little goes a long way and some of the best photographers deliver more with less. 

Looking for a physical or permanent photo studio? We can help!

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