Learn how to take professional portraits in the studio

Dark fashion with filter

This is a dark and moody fashion portrait. We used a Lee filter to add some haziness to the bottom-right of the frame. It was a fairly experimental approach to create an atmospheric look

Many photographers long to establish their own studio, or have a space that they can use to explore their photography. However, getting the very best from a studio environment is not a straightforward process that will magically transform your photography. 

There are many considerations that need to be taken into account if you are to truly get the best from the studio, and these encompass everything from how you work with clients through to the lighting kit that you equip yourself with.

Over the next few pages, the team from Double Exposure Photographic (dephotographic.com) will give you an insight into how they use their studio to capture professional portrait and product images for a wide range of clients.

Everything from working to a brief through to the post-production process is covered here, and you’ll discover a whole host of tips to help you understand how to make a studio work for you in the most professional way possible.
 

WORK TO A BRIEF

The best way to achieve the images that your clients want is to work together with a plan

Working at a commercial level requires lots of thought, organisation and skill that ultimately shapes your photography. Photographic projects can be broken down into three parts: preparation, shooting, and post-production. All are important.

The more prepared you are, the better and easier parts two and three will be – and that means having a brief. Being prepared for anything in life stands you in good stead, and as photographers we’re often trying to capture an image that’s in someone else’s head, which is especially difficult to do if you haven’t put a plan in place to communicate those ideas. On a logistical level, if a client wants 100 products shot front-on and half of them need an additional angle, you need a clear way to communicate this.

Briefs come in many shapes and sizes. Most of the time we’re happy to work with any clear instructions that the client sends us – that said, it’s important to get a written brief if possible, so you can refer back to it. Often with product photography, this can comprise a spreadsheet and an explanation in an email. With portraits or style photography, it can be a mood board. Better briefs go further than how something needs to look: it’s also important to know how the images will be used. If you shoot a dozen images in a square format and the client’s website banners are letterbox-shaped, you’ve spent time shooting essentially useless images.

It is vital that you get a brief from the client: it helps everyone visualise the end result. Ask a lot of questions at the start and you’re on your way. A good brief will also let you prepare the correct equipment – you may need to freeze motion or make some video, so if you were expecting a fairly standard stills shoot, you’re potentially not going to achieve the image the client needs. You know your kit and working practices better than anyone, don’t get caught out: make sure your can align the expectations of your client with your deliverables!

COLOUR CORRECTING FILTERS

If you are adding light to an environment, it’s likely that you’ll have a mixture of colour temperatures fighting each other. Colour-correcting filters from a company like Lee Filters are very useful to have in your kit bag to counter this. Some LED lights allows you to change the colour temperature with the twist of a knob.

FIVE LIGHTING OPTIONS

Get the kit to cover any brief

HCP Jetset

Creative photography projects can be the most difficult to pin down, but can also be the most rewarding. Some clients want full control; others are happy to leave you to it. Ideally you want clear direction from them, and then put your spin on it – after all, they came to you!

TRIGGER WIRELESSLY

Free yourself up from the traditional sync cable

Wireless triggering is useful in so many scenarios. On the most basic level it saves another trailing lead – but more importantly, it gives you freedom. You don’t have to be too close to any of your lights: you can trigger them up high or far away, outside or in other rooms – it gives you creative control over your lighting. There are so many options on the market nowadays, and you can pick up a set of transmitters and receivers fairly cheaply. Do your research and make sure you get a set with the functionality you need.

Wireless wizardry

Pocket Wizard has positioned itself at the top end of the market for wireless triggering. You need to consider the range, channel options, compatibility with your camera and sync capability when you’re looking for the right triggers for the photography you do – if you need to freeze motion, for example

Large industrial product shoot

Wireless triggering is perfect for larger lighting setups: it’s reliable and keeps the studio space tidy

CONSIDER THE ATMOSPHERE

Create the right type of environment for creativity

A good professional atmosphere is most likely to yield good results. If the model is late and you’ve forgotten a prop, there is no way the shoot will be 100%.

If the brief is good and everyone knows what they are doing, you will achieve, so don’t rush. Talk to the model before shooting to get a good rapport going. 

BE READY FOR ANYTHING

A photo studio has to be a practical space that allows you to adapt to any shooting situation

Studios can be very reflective of the work that you do, but in essence good studios will have a lot of similarities. The first thing that comes to mind is ‘usable clear white space’ – but what does that really mean?

Once you have your brief, the project becomes all about problem-solving: “How do I turn this idea into an image?”, “What background do I need?” and “What lighting will let me achieve what I need to do?” This is all easy to tackle if you have a clear and organised space in which to build your setup and lighting.

Being organised and having a home for everything that lives in your studio is a very good way of working. If it’s not in use, it gets put away: that way everyone knows where it is when it’s needed again, and it means the space is clear. Racking or shelving and wall brackets can make a studio space very efficient! Some practicalities to think about are things like storage and accessibility. Storage is fairly straightforward in a lot of ways: you need your cameras and lighting, and the cases go into another room or onto racking. Sometimes you’ll have your clients products for a while, so is there somewhere for them to temporarily live? If you get into set-building, do you have the space for the project? In terms of health and safety, one of the main considerations is electricity; high-powered lighting is a risk, along with the trailing leads.

Your studio will give others an impression of you. At all times you must be professional, make people feel welcome, and have a clear area for them to sit – it can be a nice touch to offer them tea or coffee. Although shooting is normal for you, a day out of the office might be unusual for your client, so make it a positive experience!

Keep the energy up

If the shoot you’re doing is going to take all day, order some lunch in, and take a break. Provide refreshments, and be as accommodating as possible to keep the energy and mood of the shoot up.

ESSENTIAL MODIFIERS

Every studio needs these to give your lighting variety and interest

Beauty dish

If you’re serious about great studio portraiture, get a beauty dish. The light is reflected back and out, producing a good balance between hard and soft light. It’s punchy yet flattering.

Gridded reflector

If you want to show off texture, get a simple reflector that will take a honeycomb grid. Hard light isn’t appropriate for everything, but if you want to add some contrast to an image, it’s worth exploring.

Softbox 

Soft light is flattering and often looks natural. You may want a lot of direction in your lighting, possibly from a harder source; fill light from a softbox will bring out detail without distracting.

TETHER FOR SUCCESS

Tethering lets you see more of what you’re shooting, allowing you to make critical decisions on the fly 

For professional photo shoots, gathering around your camera to look at the shots you’ve been taking on the tiny screen at the back just doesn’t cut it. Shooting with a camera tethered to a computer is not a new thing: photographers have been doing it since the dawn of digital.

Working with a program such as Capture One gives you so much control over your images and the shoot as a whole: you can see each image better, meaning that you can make accurate decisions on framing and exposure. Additionally, you’re shooting to your computer’s hard drive, which in turn means you don’t have to worry about memory cards and the process of uploading the shots later. Another benefit is the ability to apply settings in real time, which again means you don’t have to do it later.

You can shoot to specific crop ratios so that you can be sure the image is fit for print or editorial guidelines. Getting ‘sign-off’ from the client while you’re shooting can also be hugely beneficial, again saving time and making them as happy as they can be by viewing the RAW results immediately. 

All of those benefits still exist if you’re working on location: you just potentially have a few more considerations. Portability is one. A laptop will be fine if you’re not moving around too much, but you must consider battery life – if you’re not near power, you may need a battery pack that can run your laptop. If that’s not a viable option and you need to be more portable, look into wireless tethering. These products typically comprise a small router that emits a Wi-Fi network, just like at home. Join that network on your phone or tablet with a downloaded app, and your camera’s images appear on the device.

Which format?

Understand image file types so you can give your client exactly what they want

Image formats can seem a little confusing, but they really don’t have to be. For the most part our workflow only uses RAW, TIFF and JPEG. We shoot in RAW for the best possible quality; export TIFFs from Capture One, which then get worked on in Photoshop; then we save as JPEGs to send to the client. Sometimes clients request PSDs or PNGs; these are all options in your normal editing software, so it’s easy to save file variants from the finished TIFF file and send them off.

Bridge: Bridge is an incredibly useful program. It works with Photoshop for organisation and batch-processing files. Almost all the formatting options you need are here

Drew Allen: If you’re not shooting an experienced model, sometimes you need to be patient before they come out of themselves for ‘the shot’

The Mighty Jerkstopper

Tether Tools has built a company around solutions for tethering issues. Its orange tethering cables have become synonymous with pro studios. As an add-on it invented the Jerkstopper, a small accessory that hooks your cable to your camera to stop the cable getting ripped out!

Simon Pirie Benches: Shooting large products needs consideration. Tethering allows you to see how objects sit together. It also lets you tweak the lighting more effectively

SOFTWARE OPTIONS

There are plenty of choices on the market for you to consider

Capture one

Capture One is made by Phase One, and is the most popular tethering software among professional photographers. Its RAW conversion capabilities are excellent, and you have a seemingly never-ending amount of control over your imagery.

Lightroom

Lightroom is brought to you by Adobe, the maker of Photoshop. The two programs complement each other well, making them very attractive as a package. Lightroom is also a powerful cataloguing tool, making it easy to store and find your old images.

CamRanger

The CamRanger allows you to wirelessly tether. It’s useful on location, where you can view the images on an iPad without a hard-wired connection to the camera. You’ll be saving to a memory card rather than your computer’s hard drive, but it is still very useful.

FINISH THE JOB

Share the workload

Balancing shooting photos with post-production

Post-production can be quite a personal thing. Your tastes might shape how your photography looks, meaning you’re reluctant to let others do it. However, most photographers get into photography because they like shooting – not because they enjoy Photoshop. If this is the case, then it might be worth considering outsourcing some or all of your post-production work, or even taking on an in-house retoucher.

If you’re very busy and you’re shooting every day, you may struggle to fit the post in, making it a good opportunity to look at spreading the workload. Ultimately, think of your clients: what do they want the images to look like, and when do they need them?

Post-production plays a vital role in your final images

Post-production can mean a lot of things. Some images will require clipping and spot retouching, others just tonal adjustments. With portraiture, have a conversation with your client about retouching – how natural or airbrushed do they want their images to look? In terms of product photography, dust and dirt is your everyday nightmare; each image you shoot will at least need some minimal spot retouching in Photoshop.

The first thing you can do to minimise this process is to clean the thing you are shooting! Keep cloths and various cleaning materials in the studio: you’ll likely be given dirty or scratched items to shoot, so they may as well be the best they can be before exposing them to your sensor! An air compressor or handheld ‘hurricane blower’ are also great additions to the studio – you can give whatever you’re shooting a quick blast of air before the final shot to clear any settled dust.

Throughout your workflow, aim to maintain the integrity of the image as much as possible. Starting with your camera, you should shoot RAW, and shoot it right: the more adjustments you have to make later, the more those pixels will degrade. Export TIFFs or PSDs – the file sizes are large, but you’ll retain more information as you progress. If you’re looking to enhance your shot, it’s completely up to how you like to work, but tonal changes (exposure, contrast, white balance) are better done in the first instance in your tethering software, like Capture One or Lightroom. Photoshop is great at everything else, like spot retouching, clipping paths, airbrushing and sharpening – do these next. Bridge is a useful accomplice: it organises your workflow, and has lots of batch options that will save you time, such as renaming and saving as different file types.

If post-production really isn’t your speciality, consider outsourcing. It’s half the job now –and although there’s plenty of advice online, sometimes the right thing is to bring in the right expertise to take care of it while you keep shooting. 

Makita SDS

To shoot this Makita drill, we made a mini set in our studio. The brief was to convey an industrial feel, so the materials needed to reflect that. Ultimately the brick wall we put in place was too dark and the detail of the brick texture wasn’t the most attractive, so we dropped a lighter, smoother (but still industrial) image behind the still in post-production

Use a Graphics Tablet

Graphics tablets are fantastic. They are the right tools for the job – so if you’re still clicking away on your mouse, consider a Wacom tablet. The entry-level models are fairly inexpensive so could be worth trying!

Deliver the work

You’ve done the job – now you need to get it to the client

Technology means that images can be sent and received quicker than ever before. Cloud systems such as Dropbox and WeTransfer are fantastic: you simply upload what you want to send, and your client gets an email with a link that allows them to download their images straight to their computer.

It’s also a nice touch to present the work for them in a format they can see instantly: this can be via a PDF that you attach to an email, or an upload of JPEG images to a website that allows them to see an online gallery.

MAKE IT EASIER ON YOURSELF

Avoid unnecessary retouching work with a clean studio

If you’ve ever been frustrated about having to retouch someone’s fingerprint off of a product or removing lots of dust from something, you’ll know that a bit of time spent cleaning before you shoot is well worth the effort! Having a clean space or area for whatever you’re shooting helps you to get organised in terms of cleaning and shooting, so it’s worth prepping an area before you start.

It’s also worth considering what you do in your studio day to day. Dust is unavoidable, but if you can avoid messy, dust-making activities, you’ll save yourself a headache.

Black cosmetic products

Cosmetic products and other small plastic items are particularly susceptible to dust, dirt and scratches (photographically speaking) – they just show up more! However, it’s important that they look clean by the end of the project

All images © Double Exposure Photographic