Tricking out my new home studio

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.

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  1. Manena

    I cannot view your backdrop system, please can you send me a picture, I am in Africa, trying to setup backdrop pulley system but can’t seem to figure it out!




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