Studio Portraits in Small Spaces: How I Make It Work

I’d love to have access to a massive studio space with all of the latest amenities. Who wouldn’t? But in many cases, a living room is all you need to get the dynamic shot you’re looking for. Nearly all of my favorite studio shots were done with my Oliphant backdrops in a 10×15-foot room.

You might be wondering, “What if my walls are red? What if I have low ceilings? What if my carpet is burgundy?” Don’t stress — there are simple ways around all of these problems, and I’m here to walk you through them.

Challenge: Low Ceilings

Having the ability to boom a light high up above your subject gives you creative freedom. But if you’re shooting in your living room and want your subject to remain standing, you might not have that luxury.

Because I’m used to shooting in small places, I’ve learned to love seated poses. Some of my favorite photographers, like Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, and Miller Mobley use seated poses on a regular basis. Taking inspiration from the greats, my subjects often sit on stools, folding chairs, apple boxes, tables, and even directly on the ground.

By having my subjects sit down, I still have the option to boom my light several feet above them without issue.

Challenge: Colored Walls

When I first started shooting with strobes indoors, my photos always had a strange tint to them. The culprit? Walls with creamy off-white paint.

Buy black or white v-flats — both if you have the space and money — or a more portable and collapsible option like the Lastolite Large Standard Skylite Rapid kit.

Along with the Lastolite frame, you’ll receive a clip-on 1.25 stop diffuser and a silver/white reversible reflector panel. From there, pick up a black velvet panel to prevent bounce and increase shadow depth. This portable 6.6′ x 6.6′ kit collapses in a few simple movements and fits into a travel-friendly carrying case. It’s the most elegant solution on the market.

V-flats and the Lastolite kit can help you eliminate unwanted tint from walls and control your light and shadows. By shooting with a black v-flat on both sides of my subjects, I ensure my walls don’t provide too much fill.

Challenge: Small Spaces

Although you might be looking to achieve the softest possible light, if you’re shooting in a cramped room, pay careful attention to the modifier you’re using. Don’t immediately grab the biggest soft modifier you can find. While I love the light my 69” Elinchrom Rotalux Octabox produces, it spills light all over the place and creates a giant wash of light. This is fine if you’re working in a large, open space. But in a small room, it can be a nightmare.

When shooting indoors, my go-to modifiers are the 46” Photek Softlighter and the 39” Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox.

Because of its shallower shape, the Softlighter spills more light, but I haven’t found that to be much of a problem. Both modifiers are outstanding in their own right, and the Photek, in particular, is an excellent value.

Challenge: Ugly Floors

Not only can ugly floors ruin the aesthetic of your shot, but also they can bounce unwanted light back up at your subject — especially if you’re incorporating a seated pose.

I have two main solutions to these problems. If I’m looking to include the floor in my shot, I tend to use snap-together plank flooring from a place like The Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Allure 6 in. x 36 in. Khaki Oak Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring at Home Depot.

While I’d love to shoot in an old factory with weathered wooden floors, snap-together planks from your local home improvement store are the next best thing. They set up and tear down quickly, and they don’t take up too much space.

If the floor won’t show in my shot, I typically use black velvet or a gray blanket to prevent bounce and keep greater control over my light. The fabric you choose doesn’t matter too much, as long as it absorbs light. I’ve found a bit of black velvet or felt can go a long way.

About the author: Brennan Anderson is a photographer based in Chicago who has been shooting for over a decade. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Flickr. This article was also published here.