How to do Studio Photography on a Budget

studio photography model

Studio photography can be intimidating to the unfamiliar, but the truth is that exceptional portraits shouldn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Some of the most iconic photos ever captured have been taken with minimal equipment.

I’m not going to ask you to take out a second mortgage; everything we’re going to talk about today can be done on a very minimal budget.

Basic Equipment

Here’s what you’ll need to start your studio lighting kit:

  • At least one flash head
  • A light stand
  • Power cable
  • Flash trigger set or sync cable
  • Light meter
  • At least one large white or silver reflector, preferably two. Large sheets of thick, white polystyrene mounted on wheels are what photo studios often use, but fold-up reflectors are pretty cheap and easy to use.

You can buy fairly inexpensive lighting kits if you shop around, and they usually contain two flash heads, two stands, and something like a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella.

If you’re going to do a two-light setup you’ll need another softbox or umbrella, but when starting out just concentrate on mastering one light and a reflector.

Sync cables that connect the flash to your camera and set it off when you press the shutter are far cheaper than fancy wireless flash trigger sets, but the drawback is that you are physically connected to the flash head, so you don’t have quite the freedom of movement as you do with a wireless set.

You don’t need a light meter, especially if you’re experienced, but if you’re a beginner they can save you a lot of time and frustration getting the exposure you want.

Set the correct mode, ISO and shutter speed (always 125th/sec, at a push 1/160th for studio strobe lights and DSLR cameras), hold your light meter in front of your subject’s nose facing the camera, trigger the light, and it’ll tell you which aperture the correct exposure is at and whether you need to turn your lights up or down.

That’s an oversimplified version of what to do with a light meter, but it really isn’t that hard to use once you’ve read the instructions and done it a few times.


blue texture backdrop

There are a ton of great purpose-made portable backgrounds that you can buy, and if shooting portraits is going to be your thing you may want to invest in some. Paper, vinyl, cloth, and muslin are all popular backdrop materials.

Quality of Light

The key is to first learn how to use lighting and then start experimenting for a more dramatic look. One of the most important things in lighting is the transition from light to shadow. It can be soft and gradual, or hard and contrasty. Generally, the bigger the light source, the softer the light is.


The quality of light can be changed in two ways. One is by using a modifier, such as a softbox or beauty dish, and another is by moving the light nearer or further away from our subject.

This may seem a bit backwards, but the closer the light is to your subject, the softer it is, and the transitions from light to shadow are smooth. The further away it is, the harsher the light and shadow transitions are.


The modifiers are the bits that fit over the bulb and tube of the flash head.

There are many different types of modifiers and they’re used for many different things. A few of the more common ones used in portraiture are:

  • Softbox – large, square, octagonal or rectangular boxes that fit over the flash head. They are covered with a removable white material, which diffuses the light from your flash. The larger the softbox, the softer and more even the light. These are good modifiers to start learning portrait photography with.
  • Umbrellas – umbrellas have fallen out of fashion with photographers in recent years, but they are still a useful and inexpensive addition to your kit. They are lightweight and portable – no wrestling to fit a large softbox in the back of your car!

There are two kinds of umbrellas, the shoot through, and the reflective ones. The shoot-through umbrellas are made of a white, translucent fabric, which your flash head fires through, and the reflective ones are lined in white fabric, gold or silver foil. Shoot through umbrellas give a slightly harder light than softboxes, but it’s a very small difference, so they are handy to have.

The reflective umbrellas are pointed away from your subject, and the flash head fires into the umbrella. The light is then reflected back on your subject from the white, silver or gold lining. These umbrellas give a harder, more defined light and contrast, especially if you’re using a silver one.

  • Beauty Dish – A beauty dish is often used for close-up beauty shots, because the light is very flattering on the face.

The image below was shot using a beauty dish with a reflector on a stand at the model’s chest level:

studio photo indoors

Beauty dishes are large, circular metal dishes, with another circular piece of metal just above the flash bulb and tube.

They give a soft, even light, with nice, circular catchlights in the eye. (Catchlights are those little reflections of light that you see in the eyes of people who’ve been photographed with some kind of studio light. You can tell what kind of modifier was used, and how many lights the photographer used by looking at the catchlights).

Find a Practice Model

So, now you have a backdrop, lighting and a modifier, and you’re raring to go.

What's next?

You need to know roughly where to place your light and reflector(s), and what effect that will have on your subject and the images you take of them.

Find a patient, willing victim with plenty of time and no expectations of brilliance from you, and start practicing – a close family member, a partner, or even your dog or cat if they will sit still for a while. Don’t try making your young children sit for you while you practice. They will soon become bored and fidgety, and it’ll be an unpleasant experience for you both.

If you can’t find anyone to shoot, try setting your camera to timer mode and shooting yourself. The purpose of practice is to find out how light works, how it shapes, and what the best position for the lights are.

Don’t book a proper shoot with someone without practice. It’ll put massive amounts of pressure on you to deliver the goods when you’re still not sure what you’re doing.

Easy One Light, One Reflector Set-Ups

Photography Model

Try these with a single large softbox and one white reflector. The image above was taken using just one softbox and a large, white polystyrene reflector to the shadow side of the model.

Rembrandt lighting is probably one of the most popular dramatic portrait lighting setups.

It uses one light, placed at roughly a 45-degree angle from the subject to one of the sides. It’s also usually slightly higher than their head. You know you’ve got a classic Rembrandt light going on when you can clearly see the ‘triangle’ of light on the side of the face nearest your light. The eye should be within this triangle, and the nose and cheek shadows should meet.

If you want to add some light to lift the shadows on the unlit side of the face, try placing the reflector near to your subject’s face at the side opposite of the light. This will throw reflected light back into the shadows when the flash fires.

You may have guessed how this style of lighting got its name – iconic painter Rembrandt painted most of his portraits with the light falling on his subjects in this way.

Bounce Back Soft Light

If you really like soft light and you’re somewhere with white walls or ceiling, try bouncing the light back off the walls to make a huge light source. The bigger or closer the light source, the softer the light, remember?

Take the softbox or other modifier off your camera and put on a reflector bowl. Point the light at a wall, ceiling or corner of the room, and shoot the photo. The light will be very even and soft, but beware of shooting against walls that aren’t white – this can give you horrible color casts on the images. If you want to shoot and convert to black and white later then color casts won’t matter.

Butterfly Lighting

This is slightly harder than the other two, as your light needs to be almost directly above and in front of the subject’s head, so you’ll need a boom arm with a weight to secure your light. The aim is to get that small butterfly-like shadow directly underneath the nose.

If you like, place the reflector or get your subject to hold it up horizontally about chest height, so it will reflect the light back upwards and decrease the neck shadow. In the image above a reflector would have shown, so I didn’t use one, but you can see where there is an area of shadow under the model’s jawline.

This type of lighting is great for accentuating your subject’s cheekbones, and adding a touch of glamor. It was commonly used to photograph Hollywood film stars back in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Final Thoughts

person with photography backdrop

Practice, practice and practice some more. Once you get good with one light, you can start adding different lights such as fill, background and rim light. There are loads of good lighting tutorials and set-ups for you to look up and you can get lots of inspiration for your own images from websites like Pinterest.

Studio lighting can seem very daunting, but it needn’t be if you start simple with one light and add more as you gain confidence and knowledge. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll love the versatility and extra edge that studio portraits can have.

Dawn Gilfillan started her love affair with photography quite late in life, and is currently doing a Bachelor’s degree in commercial photography. She enjoys most types of photography, but specializes in fashion and portrait. Dawn lives in Durham, the cathedral city in the North East of England. You can follow her adventures or drop by and say hi on Instagram: @dawngilfillanphotography or at her website:


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