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Studio Photography: 10 tips to becoming a pro studio photographer

Malachai band within museum exhibit

When you’re starting out as a budding student photographer, going into the studio can be a bit overwhelming. But, with a little practice – as well as some good personable skills (often underestimated), your photography can start taking off. Here are the 10 best tips to get you becoming a professional photographer in the studio in no time. 

1. Use a subject that you’re comfortable with

When you are starting out in the studio there are a lot of things to get used to. For your first few shoots you may want to work with someone that you know well and feel comfortable with so that they can support and encourage you whilst you find your feet. Close friends and family are a good start. They will be more forgiving if you make mistakes and allow you to concentrate on finding your way around the equipment. They will also be able to feedback honestly about how you came across during the shoot and offer tips on how to engage your subjects so that you will be less nervous when you have your first experience of photographing a stranger.

Close friends and family are a good start. They will be more forgiving if you make mistakes and allow you to concentrate on finding your way around the equipment.

2. Get to know your subject

As David Bailey once said “The pictures I take are simple and direct and about the person I’m photographing, and not about me. I spend more time talking to the person than I do taking pictures.”

Likewise, when it comes to studio equipment it’s often not what you have but how you use it that makes a great shot. The way you interact with your subjects and their connection to you as a person is what will create a memorable shot. Keep it simple. One camera, a decent portraiture lens, a couple of lights (or even the soft light from a window), a well placed reflector to bounce some light back into the face, a great subject and a lot of imagination may be all you need to follow in the footsteps of the greats. 

3. Using lighting to your advantage

Most studio lights fall into one of three categories. Here’s a handy guide to what they mean. 

  • A Key Light refers to the main light falling on a subject – It’s easy to spot when analysing a portrait (painted or photographic) because it’s the one that creates the strongest shadow. 
  • Fill Lights work alongside Key Lights and are used to soften the shadows a little so that there is still detail present within the deep blacks. 
  • Kickers tend to be quite narrow focus lights that are used specifically to bring out particular details within a shot and are used a lot on advertising – a watch manufacturer, for example, may use a kicker within a portrait of a Hollywood star in order to make sure that the focus naturally falls on the watch that they’re wearing. Kickers are also often used as hair lights. They are usually placed behind the subject and help to create a sharp, lively profile. 

4. Prepare your set-up

During the set up it is important to think about how you want to portray the character of your subject. Do you want to isolate them on white or soften the background with a colour? How will their clothing come across under studio lighting? Very light clothing, for example, may detract attention from the sitters face. Dark clothing may require extra lighting to bring out the shadow details. Preparation in terms of thinking about how you want your subject portrayed is key. A keen amateur mechanic, for example, may feel more comfortable in their oily work clothes than in their smart weekend wear – and you will have a more engaging portrait as a result.

5. Understand your subject’s mood

As part of a common theme in this thread, the best pose is often the simplest. When photographing strangers it is important to sense their mood when they come into the studio. They may be happy, sad, nervous, excited or possibly even in a bad mood. The aim is to make them feel comfortable as quickly as possible. At our creative agency, Hide the Shark in Bristol, whenever we go into the studio we use the set-up process to get to put them at ease and get to know them. Aim to give them a pose that is easy to hold so that you can work around the subject comfortably without them getting tired or uncomfortable. Once you have the subject in frame and are confident they are in focus, it’s good to step away from the camera so that you can have a more direct line of communication with you subject. It will also help you to concentrate on facial expressions and eye movement. A trigger release helps with this. Once you have seen “the shot”, shoot. 

6. Don’t Overshoot

Although it is tempting to hide nerves by over-shooting, if you pop away until the flash bulbs melt you will find yourself in post production snow blind and bewildered wading through hundreds of similar shots and unable to see the wood for the trees.

7. Review your pictures as you go

To help with the above it is a great idea to review as you go. If you have a laptop, tether it to the camera. Failing that even showing the shots on the back of the camera every now and then will open the conversation out to your subject, make them feel like they are part of the creative process and help them to understand what you are trying to achieve. Checking that they are happy and make adjustments in situ is much easier that discovering that they are not happy with the shots after the event. 

8. Don’t overthink your post production

Post production is part of the photographic journey that can sometimes be more fun than the shoot itself. Free from time pressures it is a process of discovery and reflection and a chance to take stock of what was successful and what you would do differently next time. As with point six, it is often useful to do a “cull” and pick the ones you want to work with quickly so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. In terms of what you can do with an image, these days the world is your oyster. Watch tutorials and get to know why you are photoshopping – are you enhancing or are you re-constructing?

Watch tutorials and get to know why you are photoshopping – are you enhancing or are you re-constructing?

9. Get feedback

One of the hardest things to do when starting out is showing your work around, but getting feedback is probably one of the most valuable things that you can do. Often people pick up on things that you hadn’t noticed, or sometimes have a completely different interpretation to that which you were intending. Positive feedback helps to encourage you, but constructive feedback can be just as valuable, especially if you trust the opinion of the person who is making it. Take it on the chin, don’t dwell and get back in the studio.

10. Keep your eyes open

No-one lives in a bubble. Everything you see and do and everyone you meet and know will have an affect on your world view and, as an extension of that, your art. Keep your eyes open as inspiration can come from anywhere. But it can’t hurt to learn from the greats, of course, so use the internet and get out and about to places such as the photographers gallery, tate modern and local galleries – in Bristol there is the newly opened Martin Parr Foundation, for example.

Remember, photography isn’t just studio-based so keep practicing your skills when you’re out and about. Use your phone, enjoy natural light and maybe try film. Try not to get overwhelmed and remember that personable skills are just as important as knowing how to work your photography equipment. 

This post was written to celebrate Hide the Shark’s recent donation of photography equipment to Knowle West Media Centre. You can read the full story here.

Image of Malachai by Hide the Shark

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