Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017

Getting Started in Still Photography / Building Your Own Studio

March 17, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

When I first started in photography in 2012, I didn't have a clue what I was doing.  I didn't know anyone who knew anything about photography and I was pretty much on my own.  This likely isn't much different from most people getting started in photography.  There were so many questions; what equipment to buy, how to use my camera, what do all those buttons and dials mean, and how to make sense of all of those menu items to name just a few.  But after countless YouTube videos and video lessons on, I slowly began to learn and practiced a lot.

My primary photographic interest was with landscapes.  Four years ago, we retired to western North Carolina and I was immersed in the region's beautiful scenery, especially all of its stunning waterfalls.  I've taken thousands of photos and while I'm far from an expert, I have improved my landscape photography.

But I'm mostly a fair weather photographer.  Yeah, yeah, I know the best photographs are often found in less than desirable weather.  I do get out in lousy weather at times but in the heat of summer or the cold of winter, I often can't motivate myself to get out.  We've endured droughts where waterfalls have turned into a mere trickle and flooding rains where they turn into muddy torrents.  So there are periods of time when I want to photograph but my normal landscape options are limited.

For those times when getting outside may not be an option, I was looking for another photographic avenue to pursue.  I watched a ton of videos and really started to like still life photography including food photography.  The creativity of it and the challenge of having total control of all aspects of the shoot appealed to me.  But man, this is not simple.  Lighting, staging, styling, composition are all up to the photographer.  You're in control.  You don't have to worry (most of the time) where the sun is, the wind or having people walk into your composition.  But if you mess up, you did it.

Early on when I didn't know what I was doing, I bought a Nikon SB-600 speedlight.  I thought I'd use it mostly for indoor family gathering times and group shots.  But I had no idea on how to really use it.  I never found a good source of flash education.  Yeah, I bought some books and a DVD course but they didn't help much as they seemed too advanced for me.  YouTube videos also seemed hard to use as they weren't about my specific flash unit.  Later on I also learned that all speedlights don't all produce the same amount of light.  In the end, I never used it all that much.

Later on, I made some DYI lights using clamp lights from the hardware store hung on makeshift light stands.  But the results weren't all that great.  In several videos, the use of two light sources were touted.  Since speedlights were the less expensive options and I didn't understand the different types of lighting, I opted to buy a Nikon SB-910 speedlight to give me the two light option.

At that time, Nikon used their Creative Light System (CLS) for triggering off camera flashes.  I learned early on the benefits of using off camera flash, i.e., where  the flash(es) aren't attached to the camera.  Using CLS, your other off camera speedlights would trigger from the flash emitted from the camera's pop-up flash. The pop-up flash functions only as a trigger and does not add light to the scene.  The advantage of this method is that it is relatively easy to use and it doesn't require the use of remote triggers like Pocket Wizards.  On the negative side, CLS required line-of-sight from the pop-up flash to the other off camera speed lights.  The Nikon speed lights have a sensor on them that must be lined up to "see" the remote pop-up flash.  This is often not possible.

But I continued to stumble along never really getting the hang of using speedlights.  Last year western North Carolina set record rainfall amounts, which really affected landscape photography possibilities.  Waterfalls looked terrible, trails were washed out, trees were down and some roads were closed by mudslides.  So I became really motivated to learn how to use my speedlights.  Additionally, I bought the new Nikon D850 in the spring.  Nikon decided to remove the pop-up flash on the camera so if you wanted to use off camera flash you had to get radio triggers.  Oh boy - more gear to buy.

Since I was unfamiliar with radio triggers I again had no clue what to do.  Luckily a guy in my camera club was familiar with flash photography.  We discussed the many trigger possibilities and how I planned to use them.  I opted to get the same ones that he uses both because they were well rated, had a "reasonable" price and he was available to help tutor me.  I purchased the Phottix Odin II trigger and receivers for Nikon.  Be sure your triggers match up to your camera.  They don't come with any real manual and YouTube really doesn't have any good videos on them.  So I was lucky my buddy could help me out.  So without too much trouble I was up and running.

Earlier in my photographic journey when I was initially getting interested in flash photography I learned that using speedlights generally produced harsh shadowy light.  So I got some umbrellas to use to soften the light.  They are very cheap and easy to set up and use.  But as tried out my gear with various still life compositions and the more I learned about flash photography, I learned that using umbrellas have limitations.  The main ones are you lose a lot of light as it is reflected light and the light goes everywhere and can't really be directionally controlled.  Some people use natural light by shooting next to a window.  That wasn't an option for me as the only place I had to shoot in my house wasn't near a window.

So I did a lot of research on lighting and decided to go the soft box route.  But man, there is a lot to know and they can get very expensive quickly.  I thought at some point in the future if I really like still life, I might get into doing some portraits.  I purchased a Profoto RFi Octabox 3'.  It seems like a good compromise size at three feet.  Plus the octagon shape would give some nice looking catchlights for portraits.  But these aren't inexpensive.  Since speed lights only emit so much light, I got a soft box bracket that could hold two speed lights, the Profoto RFi speedring - again, not cheap but its built like a tank.  The soft light it produces is fantastic.

For my other speed light I was modifying the light with a Rogue Large Flashbender.  This is a really cool little accessory for flash photography.  It can act like a mini softbox that can be bent into a few shapes to provide more directional lighting.  It was also be shaped into a snoot.  For an on-the-go flash, this is a very nice and relatively cheap light modifier.  But after seeing the results of my Profoto softbox, I was itching to get another softbox.  Since I had my main soft box I looked for a less expensive alternative.  The Godox 80cm square softbox filled the bill.  With the softbox, grid and mount, it was only around $65.  If produces nice soft light.  But you get what you pay for.  The Godox is not nearly as "beefy" and well made as the Profoto but it's a great value.  One disadvantage that isn't too bad is that the soft box attaches to the mount by simply snapping into place around the mount.  So its not the most secure connection but I haven't really had trouble with it yet.  But you would probably not want to use it outside and carefully move it around your setup in case it fell off.

Another consideration for using speedlights is that they use batteries and eat up a lot of power.  For me, since I was not anticipating recycle time to be a major consideration I went with rechargeable batteries.  In the short run, they are more expensive and you have to buy a charging unit.  But you should easily save quite a bit in the longer run.  I also bought two chargers to help shorten the time needed to recharge all my batteries.

Finally, for still photography you generally need some type of backdrop.  There are an exhaustive list of these.  I chose to use simple rolls of black and white paper for the time being.  You can get really creative if you want.  But with backgrounds you also have to have some way of holding them.  Thinking a bit longer term I went for the Savage Multiple Background Stand. It can hold up to two rolls of paper or any other type of backdrop.  So if you want to easily switch backgrounds it can be done very quickly.  Its a quality product and is very sturdy.  It also has the ability to get quite wide should you need it.

Lastly, if you want to try food photography, you will need some backgrounds on which to place your food.  Take a look at this video for ideas,  The "Bite Shop" is a great YouTube channel for food photography as is "We Eat Together".  I used the ideas from this video to make three backgrounds. But going forward I'm just going to buy vinyl sheets.  They look great and don't cost much.

Here are some early photos I took with my setup.


So what are "my" lesson learned?  If I had to do it all over again, I'd likely go with studio strobes vs. speedlights.  They can be costly for sure.  But they are more flexible and have more power than speedlights.  There are also more light modifiers available for them.  You can also get continuous lights which help you see in advance where the light is falling and the amount of shadows you'll have and where they are.  But if this isn't going to be your primary photographic interest, studio strobes might be a bit of overkill.  For me, I think my overall cost would have been less.  But if you want to see some fantastic flash photography with speed lights, check out Joe McNally on YouTube.  He is the Jedi Knight of speed lights.

The key takeaway in today's blog is to do lots of research in advance of getting any gear.  And you get what you pay for.  Yes, you can get some cheaper speed lights from China, but you'll lose key features of your camera if you don't get their models.  Be sure to know what you'll be getting if you go the off brand route.

Here are just a few key questions to ask yourself:

  • Why do you want to get into flash photography?
  • Is this an interest you are committed to for the long term?
  • What area of your photography requires artificial light, i.e., portraits, weddings, still life, food, macro?
  • Would DYI lights and modifiers work just as well as flash accessories?
  • What is your budget?
  • Can you rent or borrow equipment to test it out?
  • Do you know the difference between speedlights and studio strobes?
  • Do you mind using power cords or do you need the flexibility of batteries or battery packs?
  • Do you know about triggering your off camera flashes, i.e., radio triggers?
  • How many lights do you need? Why?
  • ​​​​​​​Do you understand the power ratings for flash units?
  • Do you understand how to consider the color rating of your flash units?
  • What type of backdrops and backgrounds do you need?  Why?
  • ​​​​​​​Do you have the physical space to set up your lighting equipment?  While it's not really difficult to set up or tear down, it is a bit of a pain and takes some time.


This has been a pretty long posting but I hope you've gathered something from it.  If you have any questions, I'll try to help.  Just drop me a line.


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