Archive for August, 2008

This summer, my wife Gretchen and I moved out of our one bedroom apartment into our 3 bedroom house. Naturally, we are excited to have the extra bedrooms for our guests and my office, the back yard for the dogs, and the elbow room we sorely lacked. For my career thus far, I have done 100% of my shooting ‘on location’. This is because I don’t own a studio, and I had no room to set up. All of my equipment was stored in a rolling container that lived in my trunk.

Our new house, though, has a garage. In exchange for the linen closet, which is now known as Gretchen’s Shoe Closet, I have been given full reign over the garage, and am free to do with it as I see fit. This is awesome. It’s certainly not perfect, but you know what? It’s mine. I’m very pumped to have a stable studio environment where I can work and experiment easily. All the challenges and surprises of a location shoot are now an *option*.

So, here, with illustrations, is my hot-rod home studio. Let’s start by looking at the space, so you can see what I have to work with. Here is a shot of the studio from outside looking in.
wide studio shot on flickr

Be sure to look at the rest in the stream, too, there are a lot of descriptions there that I do not cover here.

The total space is about 16 feet wide by 20 feet long by 8 feet tall. The height is a real issue in here, and I’ll explain why later. The walls and ceilings are painted white.

I have only two outlets in the whole garage, and one of them is on the ceiling, running the garage door opener. This presents a bit of a problem, because I have a lot of things to be plugged in: fans, lights, laptop, speakers, flash battery charger, camera batter charger. I am afraid of blowing a fuse if I make some power-strip fractal pattern in order to get the number of outlets I need to keep my fans blowing, my lights lit, my batteries charging and my laptop and speakers working. I do use two power strips here, and I make sure to unplug my batter chargers when I am shooting to reduce the strain.

Another big concern I have in the garage is the HEAT. Granted, it is August in Georgia. Luckily, summer is almost over, so the problem will solve itself shortly (until next year, when I may have a better idea). I am less concerned about heating in the winter than I am about cooling in the summer.

The height issue is a doozy for a few reasons:

I mentioned that the ceiling and walls are all white. The tight quarters means that any stray light gets bounced around quite a bit, making it difficult to restrict light coming from a direction opposite one of my walls or ceiling. This can be a good thing, too. Whenever a big, soft light is needed, I can just bounce it off the ceiling or wall to create a giant, soft light source. Secondly, a low ceiling means it is difficult to have a light positioned above me subject. Short of knocking holes in the ceiling, there’s not much I can do to work around this.

To help with both of these issues, I am currently installing an overhead truss system made from leftover PVC parts from my DIY Art Fair Booth, version 0. You can read more about it on flickr, and on the post I write when I am done building it.

I drilled holes through PVC end caps, and I am drilling through them into the overhead studs in the ceiling to provide a strong support for lights and other equipment. By varying the length of the ‘spacer’ pieces between the end caps and the truss rail, I can vary the height of my mounted equipment. The real beauty of my truss system is the total lack of footprint for my lights. I mentioned earlier that there is an outlet on the ceiling, so the whole system floats independently overhead. Since I don’t own any boom stands, it’s been impossible to get a light anywhere near over a subject’s head (barring the use of a lightstick, naturally). My trusses make this easy and painless. Besides hanging lights, I can also use the truss system to hang sheets of black fabric to block undesirable light spillage/reflections from ceiling and walls when they occur.

I am also proud of my backdrop system, which is almost identical to this one that showed up in my google reader recently. 2 eye hooks, mounted to studs in the ceiling provide the support for my backdrop pole (made of PVC, which sags at this length, soon to be replaced with steel conduit, which doesn’t) which clips to two pulleys with carabiners hooked to 2 more eyehooks drilled into my backdrop pole. Each backdrop has its own pole. To change them out, I just wrap the backdrop around the pole, unclick the carabiners from the eyehooks on the backdrop pole, store it and replace it by clicking in the new backdrop pole and raising it back up. Takes about 2 minutes. His design and mine are a little different. I like his better, but not enough to justify the cost and effort of changing mine, which is perfectly serviceable. He uses a double pulley on one side to make the tension even, and I use two single pulleys and gently hold the nearest end of the backdrop pole as I raise and lower it. Instead of his $50 auto-clicking sailing doohickey, I just use a regular boat-dock cleat to tie off the rope. This system works great for seamless paper and cloth backdrops.

I am currently working on a second backdrop system altogether for other surfaces. I haven’t built it yet, so I’m not yet sure how it will stand the test of use. The idea is to have large wall-mounted hooks from which I can mount a piece of sheet rock. The whole system will hang behind my cloth backdrop to save on space. I can cover it with funky wall-paper, paint it different colors and finishes (remember this from strobist?), hang fake brick on it for an urban look, or spraypaint graffiti on said fake brick for an ever more urban look! You get the idea. Like I said, I haven’t worked out the details of the design, yet. Once I’m done hanging my trusses I will tackle this engineering problem.

Finally, I want the space to be nice. Just because I’m shooting in my garage doesn’t mean I can’t have a pleasing and comfortable environment for my subjects and clients. To this end, I am working on keeping the area clean, dust and cobweb free, improving the lighting and decor, and having plenty of comfortable seating available. To make the garage a more palatable location, I plan to install a sliding curtain down the far left wall to hide our recycling and trash.

Eventually, I think I will stream images as they are shot right to my TV in my living room so my guests can relax in an area that is already comfortable and well-decorated (if I do say so myself) and still keep tabs on the goings-on in the studio.

Anyway, that has to be all for now. I spent a few days on this post, and I need it to be done so I can start the next. toodles.


I’ve been assembling my new commercial portfolio for 2009. My old book was about 2 yrs old, and I’ve been apprehensive to send it out, causing me to lose business. Not good. Starting a new portfolio from scratch is a tough project. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to pare down your entire library to not just your best, but also your most applicable work. What I mean is, your commercial clients won’t be interested in your wedding work and vice versa. It gets far more specific than that, so today I am going to talk about the process of assembling my commercial portfolio.

Your portfolio should show off the best of the kind of work you want your portfolio to generate. So, if you want to generate still-life, table-top and other product photography, don’t show the client a book of nothing but portraits. Be specific, but not a one trick pony. Be versatile, but don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall. On assembling my single 40-page portfolio, though, I felt my range of subjects was too broad. I flitted from portraits to fashion and beauty to product photography to architecture.

Essentially, I was trying to reconcile two key pieces of advice:

Your portfolio should represent the kind of work you want to get. No one will hire you for something that you don’t tell them you do. I want to shoot a broad variety of work, so shouldn’t my portfolio reflect that?

On the other hand, your portfolio should not be so broad as to make you a jack of all trades, and master of none. For a big portrait assignment, would you call the photographer who shoots nothing but portraits, or the one who divides their attention amongst many subjects? It seems that my problem is that I want to shoot architecture, portraits, fashion and product photography. But will the images designed to turn on one set of clients turn off another?

How can I focus my work like a laser beam with a smaller (15-20) number of images, without sacrificing the breadth of the work I want to promote, or going broke printing multiple portfolios?

I thought I’d decided to print on, but I scratched that after reading that some folks have been having real issues with color. check out this quote:

if you think on-demand publishing is an easy way to get a high-quality book you might want to think again. In the best case, you’ll spend a very significant amount of time and money on everything – and then it’s very worthwhile to ask why you wouldn’t do real self publishing.

Jörg Colberg’s blog found via A Photo Editor.


So, back to the drawing board. I believe that I have come up with a portfolio that will satisfy my need for specificity and versatility. Mounting prints in a quality screwpost or ringed binder. For my money, the binder is a great deal for new photographers. Moreover, a binder will allow me to tailor my book to its potential recipient, showing them the best work for their publication or project. I do all the 2 page spread layouts in photoshop, then keep the prints all stored away, until they need to be placed in the book and sent out. This allows me to keep a library of not just images, but pre-designed spreads, so changes to the portfolio can be made quickly.

Pretty nifty!

I’d rather have a low-cost, easily updatable and refinable binder portfolio than to pay more money for something that becomes obsolete, just for a little extra wow-factor on the presentation. I guess I’ll just have to rely on my images being enough to impress potential clients (isn’t that the point?).

Let’s remember that it is the content of your book and your professionalism that will ultimately win you clients. The fanciest book won’t get a crap photographer anywhere. Turd polishing and all that.

Stay tuned tomorrow, when I will actually post some photographs.

Quickie redesign

My non-rss readers may notice that I switched up themes here. This is a bit clearer to my eyes. The lack of header image means I will have to do better about posting photos. You’ll see some in my next post, coming later today.

First of all, sorry for the lack of actual photos in this post. I didn’t document my assembly thus far, but I assure you that you will see the final version when it comes together in the very near future. In the meantime, my ‘diagrams’ will have to suffice. My current design is quite different from what I initially planned. This post will document the evolution of my art fair booth’s design. I’ll describe my design goals, materials used, and explain the problems I faced and how I addressed them. I truly enjoy DIY projects like this. I enjoy the problem analysis, the process of designing a rough concept and distillation into a final product. I kind of have a physics fetish, if you can imagine such a thing. My father in law, Perry Deutsch, is a very skilled carpenter and engineer, and I tapped his encyclopedic knowledge throughout most of this project.

Sometimes I think I’m in photography so I can feed my tinkering habit. In any case, here we go.

Design Goals:

Before I start on any DIY project, I like to set aside some time to decide what features my design should have. In this case, I wanted my booth to:

Break Down Compactly:

I don’t own a truck. Most of the time, I travel in my Honda Civic, and if I need more space, I take my wife’s Toyota Scion XB, which can haul quite a bit, but the length of the car prohibits my having any parts longer than 5″.

Assemble Easily:

You usually have to set up the morning of an art fair, and you don’t have a lot of time to dicker around with instructions and proprietary parts. I will stick with universally standardized materials.

Prints mount easily:

I display a large number of very small prints, so it must be dirt simple to hang prints and have them stay put.

Adjust to Different Dimensions:

The dimensions provided for your booth space at various art fairs are far from universal. There is a great deal of variety. Most I’ve seen so far are in the 8×10, 10×10 or 10×12 range. I need to be able to easily reformulate my booth to accommodate these changing conditions.

Initial Concept:

With these design principles, I started drawing up my first version. I designed a 10x10x10 square frame made of 5′ lengths of 1.5″ PVC. I started with PVC because it addressed all of my design concerns: easy assembly, adjustability, and small break-down. This choice was ultimately a bad one, as you will see further down as I refined my design.

We’ll call this initial design version 0.

Imagine a cube. The front, top and bottom are open, as they are the opening, ceiling and floor, respectively. The 3 remaining surfaces would be reinforced internally with a cross-shaped pattern. See the diagram below:

I definitely did not slap this together in 10 minutes in photoshop.

Totally not slapped together in photoshop.

With the frame designed, I then tackled the problem of hanging my prints. I needed surface area in order to hang my print mosaics, but I needed the material to address all of my design goals. I decided on 11 foot lengths of dark grey industrial carpeting, a durable, fuzzy-velcro like material. I would mount the carpet to the frame by installing grommets into the material and wrapping it around the top and bottom edges of the 10′ tall frame, leaving 6″ of tail on each end. Bungee cords run from the grommets on one edge to the other would provide the tension to keep my carpet in place. I lined the backs of my frames with hook velcro (I happened to have a ton of it around), which attaches strongly to the carpet.

This design looked great because it solved all my problems, and I could get the whole thing built for about $300. Not bad!


The corner PVC connector piece, the one that links the ‘planes’ to each other, does not exist.

10 foot tall walls are extremely unstable, and far too tall to be useful.

My bungee cords could not stretch the 9 feet necessary to reach from one end of the carpet to the other.

Version 0.5:

Use long bolts through the vertical PVC sections and hand-twistable nuts to attach planes to each-other. I cut some PVC sections down from 5′ to 4′. I lost some of the universality of my parts, but 10′ walls were just untenable. This also solved my bungee cord problem, because my 11′ carpet now wraps around the 8′ wall with a 1.5′ tail on each side. My bungee cords only need to stretch 5′ now, which is about perfect for their tension. At this point, I am able to assemble my booth and stand it up, which revealed more serious issues.


The PVC is still too flexible. Whole structure sags inwardly.

The carpet is very heavy. It causes significant strain on the structure, causing more leaning.

The carpet also makes the structure very vulnerable to wind. I have 3 sides of my surface covered with this material, a total of 320 square feet of material. If a strong wind picks up, I basically have a 320 square foot sail. Without going into too much math, if a stiff wind picks up, I am in big trouble.

Version .75

I abandoned using the carpet and went back to square one in terms of mounting my prints. Perry pointed me in the direction of this stuff. If you can’t tell exactly what it is from the website, go to your local big box superstore, go to the covered garden section and look up. It’s that dark mesh stuff. It’s cheap, light, durable, you can buy it in variable light densities, and wind passes through it exerting very little force. This stuff is great. Velcro doesn’t stick to it, though. So, I rethought my system for mounting the frames, and settled on rare earth magnets, which are extremely powerful for their size. I could glue them to the corners of my frames, and stick them to other magnets on the opposite side of my mounting material and once again have a mounting system that is easy, durable and strong.

To try and deal with the internal sagging of the structure, Perry and I drilled hooks into the corner pieces of our PVC frames, to attach adjustable tension cables. A tension cable is like the string on a bow. Instead of pulling a straight piece of material into something curved, I tried using them to make my sagging walls straight. The tension cables would pull together the top front and bottom rear corners of my side walls. Since these two corners are linked with a cross beam, the opposite forces pulled against each other, stabilizing the whole structure. This worked, but not as well as I need it to be. The structural problems of the PVC were becoming an unsolvable issue. At this point, I decided to abandon the PVC design altogether, and start fresh from square one, with updated design goals and materials.

When DIY projects go wrong, repurpose!

Even though this DIY project was a bust, I’ve held on to my materials, and am repurposing a great deal of my PVC into an overhead truss system for mounting lights and such for my studio space. I will be building that this weekend, so expect a more detailed post on that coming soon. The thing to take away from this post is that when you’re designing something from scratch, you have to expect unforeseen issues, and always be prepared to approach your process without emotion or attachment. Sometimes solving one problem can create several others. Make sure that you are always making progress towards your goal.

Stay tuned for version 1, coming soon. I’m through the design phase and should start assembly soon. This time with pictures.