Surprise Surprise

Many people are surprised at the size of my studio. Clients are amazed when I explain that all of the studio sets they see on our websites are shot in the same space they are now standing.  Of course, in an ideal world I would love a larger space in which to shoot and add more variety to my repertoire. But then I have also found that the self-imposed space restrictions have given me the inspiration to be inventive and creative with what is available to me.

In fairness, the process of creating a selection of semi-permanent studio sets has been one of evolution rather than a definitive plan. Looking back at some of my earlier creations I can smile with a degree of embarrassment at the “Heath Robinson” style construction and less than convincing results.  But then again it’s all a learning process and without those early attempts and subsequent modifications over the years, I would never have ended up with the successful version now in use.  The nice thing about evolution of course is that it never stops.

Bricks & Mortar

My first studio learning experience began with wall construction – actually it was probably hole digging but the story of single-handedly digging out collapsing foundations is less interesting.  You see for those not in the know, I took it upon myself to build the studio myself from the ground up.  I quickly became a brick layer, labourer, carpenter, plumber, electrician…you get the idea, before finally thinking about producing a workable shooting space with all the trappings needed for a successful studio.  We had decided that the cost-effectiveness of adding an extension to our home from which to run our business was too good an opportunity to miss. Doing the work myself made it even more feasible  (and I was too poor to pay a construction company to do the work!) The icing on the cake of this studio-next-door was that climbing a set of stairs each day would be the furthest I would have to commute to work. On the subject of stairs, the decision to include a spiral staircase from office to studio was definitely one of the better ideas. The space that this saved within the office and the studio was totally worth the added expense. The extra shooting space alone was justification enough.

As I previously mentioned, more space would be lovely.  More height would be lovelier – I dream of high ceilings!  However, you work with what you have and I have a wonderful, comfortable, versatile, twenty four or so square meters of usable studio space in which to ply my trade.

My Eureka moment came after I had been using the studio for a few months and I had become tired of setting up arrays of background support stands on which to hang a multitude of blackout material, voiles and other assorted fabrics to create amongst other things, a realistic window effect. So I had the idea to create a number of solid black panels than could be removed or pushed into different positions allowing me to create a solid black wall as well as several different window effects in different locations along the plane of the background. This also then created an area behind the background panels to store equipment, furniture and props not in use. Such a simple idea but then the best ones always are.

KIS(S)

So what about gear? Well I’m a bit of mixed bag when it comes to owning equipment. I love my gadgets, I’m a real techie geek at heart but I’m also not one for spending hard-earned cash on stuff that only gets used once in a blue moon. The studio currently boasts six Bowens flash units. Why six? Well I don’t really have room for seven would be the clichéd answer! In truth, any more would be overkill. They are all 250 joule matching strobes and the simplicity that this brings makes for an easy life. It means never having to swap lights into different locations because one is more powerful than another. It means all my modifiers fit any light unit. It means that if one fails I’ll always have another to swap it out with. You might be spotting a trend here! I learned long ago that in photography as in life, the words of my very first boss still ring true, “Keep it simple”. He actually added the word “stupid” to the phrase apparently to enable the acronym “KISS” to work properly. Looking back now I have a sneaky suspicion that the “stupid” may well have been directed at yours truly, especially as he repeated it endless times while looking directly at me.

Studio overview showing floor to ceiling window light.

Anyway, with simplicity in mind a ceiling track from which to suspend my array of Bowens lights also makes life far easier. No three-legged friends to trip over in my studio and no sudden cameos in my images from supporting stands. The lights move pretty much anywhere I want them to and by having them suspended I can shoot completely backlit when required without worrying about how to eliminate light stands from the shot.

My modifiers consist of the usual array of softboxes, honeycombs, snoots, reflectors and barn doors…and of course the obligatory umbrellas in white, silver and gold. In truth these rarely get used here. My quest and love for contrast and key/rim lighting relegates them to the “only-occasionally-used” cupboard.

I’m a Nikon man through and through but only because I always have been (with the exception of my very first camera – a Pentax ME Super – I didn’t know any different in those days). I have no axe to grind with Canon or others, truly believing that a good photographer can create great images with a shoebox and sheet film! My first digital camera was a Nikon 990. I got some terrific results from it and still have it today as a “museum” piece. Compared with today’s DSLR behemoths, it’s not much more than a child’s play thing with its three mega pixel sensor, but it did a fine job back in the day. I currently shoot with a Nikon D750 and my three prime lenses 50, 85 and 105mm and one 28-85 zoom are all I currently own. They are perfectly sufficient for the size of my studio and if I need anything longer for a location shoot then I’ll hire one as needed.

Macs, Wifi & Zena

Finally, I have my studio iMac. This is my necessary luxury. I shoot with an EyeFi card installed in one of the two SD slots in my camera and this transfers the low res jpgs straight to the Mac. The RAW files stay on another card in the second slot. I can view the “previews” almost immediately and even more importantly I can show my clients how they look under the magic of my lights periodically throughout the shoot on a full-size screen rather than showing them a tiny image on the back of the camera. This is an amazingly useful tool as it immediately generates trust between the client and myself (important when most of what you shoot is naked!). It shows me if I need to tweak a light here or there, adjust a pose or spot badly behaving underwear before it’s too late. I should add that I am also blessed by having my partner Zena present for most shoots and she “drives” the Mac, viewing the files as I shoot and shouting if things are going awry. “Assistant” is too poor a description for her studio role, having a person present who can not only spot anomalies but add creative input and suggestions is invaluable. Every studio needs a Zena!

To think back to when I first shot in a studio and all I had to go on was a flash meter, a little experience and (if I was really lucky and feeling flush) a packet of Polaroid film with an interchangeable back, I realise how the times have changed and how far photography has progressed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years!

If you would like to learn more about how my studio works and shoot in it, you can come on one of my Photography Workshops or arrange 1-to-1  training with me – visit my workshops website for more information: NX Workshops

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