Over the years I've often
written about shooting in the studio. Whether it's a huge commercial
studio with a 30 foot wide cyclorama wall or the basement of your home,
having an organized space with some decent lighting equipment is a tremendous
As digital imaging continues to find near universal acceptance, more and
more serious photographers are getting motivated to set up their own studios.
While my own studio is crammed with strobes and computers, it's
the little things that make life easier. While at my local Calumet in
Boston last week I got into a discussion with photo biz legend Steve Freedman
about this topic. Dealing with the top local and traveling pros for decades
have given Freedman a pretty good feel for these things, and, as always,
he hipped me to a few things that I didn't even think of. I went
back to the studio and took a good look at my stuff and what I use every
day, as well as a few new toys I picked up from Calumet that day. Here
for your amusement are my top 10 accessories that every studio rat should
live on clamps. I use clamps by the bucketful. From clamping a sheet of
foamcore to a light stand to pulling a model's blouse tight to eliminate
wrinkles, clamps are where it's at. I have a bunch of different
faves, but the obvious choice would be the ubiquitous Pony clamp. Back
in the old days photo shops charged upward of $6 each for these, but now
I find them in my local home improvement center for around $1-$2 each.
The black plastic clamps with the rotating opposable red jaws are excellent
for clamping stuff to 2x4s, and the very small metal clamps used by upholsterers
are good for fashion shoots. I also keep a bucket full of old-fashioned
wooden clothespins around, and they're excellent for clamping gels
to barn doors. (Try and find a movie set without a bucket of clothespins!)
2. Gels--Once you have the aforementioned clothespins,
you need a mess of gel cine filters. Once upon a time photographers were
forced to frequent dingy cinematographer's hangouts in the bad parts
of town and buy huge sheets of theatrical gels. Thanks to photographer
friendly companies like Bogen and Rosco we now have still-oriented gel
packs that are both cheap and convenient.
Rosco offers a number of gel assortments cut into very handy 10x12"
sheets. I keep several packs on hand at all times, including the Color
Correction Kit (for converting one light source into another), the Color
Effects Kit (for deep punchy color effects), the CalColor Kit (nicely
set up with four different colors in different densities), and the indispensable
Rosco Diffusion Kit (chock full of all your favorite Rosco diffusion sheets).
If you use any type of studio lighting either in the studio or on the
road, you need a full complement of these light filters.
3. Calibrated Gray
Card--Especially with digital imaging, photographers are
learning that a reliable image of white, gray, and black is super handy.
While the cardboard Macbeth Color Checker and the ever-popular Kodak 18
Percent Gray Card are studio legends, I've become very attached
to these little QP Cards, which are calibration cards with sticky backs
that come in packs of 15. Since my Macbeth and Kodak charts are dog-eared
and dirty, the idea of a fresh reference card every couple of weeks is
pretty cool. I stick them on products and on models.
The trick is to shoot one reference shot for every lighting setup, then
remove the card and shoot normally. Once you have the digital images in
front of you it's a simple matter to click on a white, gray, and
black balance, save this setting and batch-apply it to your other images.
It delivers foolproof color balance every time!
4. Magic Arms--One
of the great mysteries of the photo world...how do Magic Arms work?
These Manfrotto Magic Arms are the glue that holds the photography and
film world together. You see them on every movie set, clamped to every
NBA backboard, inside the cockpit of fighter jets, wherever dramatic photos
need to be taken or where light heads need to live. It's literally
an arm with a rotating wrist at both ends, a swiveling elbow in the middle,
and a single control that locks it all surprisingly well.
I've even seen very cramped studio spaces where Magic Arms are clamped
to wall studs and used as mini booms. When buying Magic Arms don't
forget a Manfrotto Super Clamp for each end, which will allow you to position
anything, anywhere, at anytime.
5. Background Light Stands--This one is Freedman's
most overlooked studio accessory--a short and sturdy stand to throw
a light head below seated subjects, behind industrial machines, and near
the floor for cool, seamless background lighting. I bought a couple of
nice little stands when I bought my AlienBees stuff a while ago and find
that I use these stands nearly every day.
though I use a full Balcar Source lighting system in my studio, I've
found that there are always times when you just need one more light head.
On location shoots I always have a need for a head a long distance from
the main strobe pack. Rather than run miles of pricey light head extension
cable, I've resorted to a few compact moonlights.
While I own several Balcar monolights, I find that I always wind up grabbing
a slick little AlienBees B1600 instead. I travel with three of these in
a separate case, all equipped with extra long 20 ft power cables (purchased
from my local electrical supply shop). Since the Bees use the standard
Balcar mount all of my accessories fit, though their somewhat weak clamping
system preclude the use of really large softboxes. For your own setup
at least one small monolight is a great tool to have, even if you're
loaded up with proper studio strobe packs and heads.
7. Good Slaves--Every studio needs slaves, those
little remote eyes that sync everything up optically. I use a small IR
transmitter on my camera and everything fires wirelessly, flawlessly.
The secret to really good cordless performance is to only use the good
pro slaves. While those little "peanut" slaves and the eyes
built into most packs are fine for syncing with another main wired strobe
pack, for syncing with a very small on-camera flash or an IR transmitter
you need super-sensitive slaves. I own a drawer full of Wein XL and SSL
slaves, as well as mega-sensitive Super Slaves from Perfected Photo Products
in California. Though the Super Slave takes a 9v battery, it seems to
work with everything.
8. Focusing Spotlight--It
seems that photographers fell in love with umbrellas and softboxes to
a ridiculous extent. For most of the 1980s and '90s everything was
soft and sensuous "window light." Softboxes are great, but
every good studio photographer should own both a set of inexpensive grid
spots for converting a standard reflector into a focused light source,
and a focusing spotlight. I own a Norman Trilite (modified for use on
my Speedotron packs), which is an excellent focusing unit. The Trilite
looks like a slide projector with a strobe tube inside, and offers a variable
image circle, true focusing lens, and the ability to project everything
from steel masks to actual transparencies onto a surface. I use mine all
9. Real Gaffer Tape--Put away your masking tape,
your duct tape, your auto-body tape, and your Scotch tape. Real photographers
use real gaffer tape. Sure it's expensive and a roll weighs a ton,
but this stuff sticks to everything, leaves no residue behind, and is
strong as hell. I now insist on only rolls of genuine 3M Highland 6910
tape. It's super strong, stays tacky forever, and rips into smaller
sizes easily. I first got a roll of this stuff from a pit crew at a NASCAR
race. They called it "200mph tape," and that seems about right
I have a couple of strips stuck to all of the aluminum legs of my Bogen
tripods, both to keep the silver-colored aluminum from reflecting into
my images and also to have a constant source of tape available when I
travel. (Like I said, this stuff stays tacky forever.)
most often overlooked accessories around most photo studios are weird
light shaping devices. Sure everyone has a set of barn doors and a few
sheets of foamcore, but what about interesting ways to shape light? Well
for years I've been purchasing large rolls of Rosco Cinefoil from
my local theatrical lighting supply house.
It's heavy-duty aluminum foil covered on both sides by a matte black
coating. Besides turning practically any room into a darkroom, I've
used Cinefoil to wrap around bare bulbs and reflectors to selectively
eliminate light, and it's great in a pinch to make a quick and sturdy
hand-crumpled lens shade. Once you get some Cinefoil you'll figure
out a million uses for it, and finally Rosco makes it in small portions
for those of us without Hollywood budgets.
So there you have it--lots
of smart and usually cheap ways to enhance your own studio. There are
probably 100 other weird and interesting tools that I use on a daily basis,
everything from Lektro-Stik wax to Formica laminate surfaces, and I'm
sure that you'll find a few must-haves of your own.
Bogen Photo Corp.
(Gel Filters, Manfrotto Products)
Calumet Photographic (QP Card)
Photo Control Corporation
Rosco Laboratories Inc.
(Gel Filters, Cinefoil)
Wein Products Inc.