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The Photographic Studio of the 21st Century - Some Introductory Thoughts, The Studio in the 21st Century

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Rochester Institute of Technology

Some Introductory Thoughts

A studio may be defined simply as a space a photographer would make photographs. The studio may also be considered a space that has been designed for and equipped with equipment specifically for the objective of making photographs. Studios may be described as the whole space where a photographer works even though some regions of this space may not be directly used for the making of photographs. Because photography followed painting, early studios were modeled after painters’ studios. A studio would need to have at least one large window or a skylight to be operational. Having a lot of light was important because of the slow emulsions of the time and the minimal availability of artificial lighting. The quality of the light could be adjusted using large translucent curtains. With the advent of electricity, all of that changed in significant ways with many lighting choices coming onto the market at the time of its invention. Today, contemporary studio lighting is almost always accomplished using artificial light, however, some photographers still make use of window light where appropriate. The famous English portrait photographer Lord Snowdon uses natural light exclusively in his studio.

The Studio in the 21st Century

This essay will discuss some of the basic issues required for designing and equipping a professional photographic studio in the 21st century. Photographers who lease or own a professional photography studios on a full-time basis, however, are becoming increasingly rare; especially in large metropolitan areas. In the 1980s, industrial space was relatively inexpensive and full-service studios were common for most professional photographers. This is no longer the case. Today, most photographers will rent studios on a daily or weekly basis for specific projects. In large metropolitan areas an entire industry has developed to service this trend. A typical rental studio will consist of a building with a number of different size spaces for rent. Other options might include cyclorama walls (to be discussed later), full kitchens, professional hair and makeup capabilities, and natural light-only spaces. Lighting and grip equipment is also available to rent as well as high-end digital capture stations (which come with an operator or “digital technician”). Most photographers will now only rent an office space and an area to store equipment, drastically lowering their operating expenses. In smaller markets with lower real estate costs, photographers continue to lease existing space on a yearly basis. These days it is very rare to see a photographer build a studio from the ground up.

The Impact of Digital Photography on the Professional Photography Studio

Since the beginning of the century the impact of digital technologies in photography cannot be understated. In professional photography, digital is rapidly replacing film as the method of image capture. As mentioned, most rental studios offer the capability of digital capture as well. Another service these studios offer is the archiving of digital files for a set period of time. High-end digital files are very large and storing them can cause problems for photographers who are not set up to do this. All files need to be backed up as well, preferably on another machine. Many rental facilities now offer this service. Additionally the photographer, or client, may view the files and place orders online. More on digital archiving will be developed later in this essay. Aside from these issues, digital capture has not necessitated a major change in how people think about studio photography. Lower costs and the ability to rent systems allow photographers to use high-end digital systems for almost any project. Most mid-range digital single lens reflex (DSRL) cameras now work with studio strobes as well as all continuous-source lighting systems. For studios utilizing a digital workflow it is necessary to have one, or more, computer stations. Typically, these are on moving carts and contain a CPU, monitor, and a large hard drive for image storage. These stations are used to download files, evaluate images on screen, perform minor retouching, and burn CD or DVD discs. For those photographers designing a studio from the ground up it is important to consider what is necessary to support digital capture, especially electrical requirements. This should be done even if the photographer has no plans to shoot digital.

When Looking for Space

Since the majority of photographers who will be looking to create a studio will be looking at existing buildings and spaces, there are several considerations before deciding on a space. Once a lease is signed, breaking the lease is difficult if the space is not suitable to a specific need. When looking for a space to use as a professional studio, one should consider several things.


Most studios need to be accessible to both passengers and freight. If the studio is on the ground level, a front entry for clients and some deliveries will be necessary. A back entry is desirable to bring in props, equipment, surfaces, and anything else that is large. If the studio is on an upper floor it should be accessible by both a passenger and freight elevator. The ability to bring large objects (or a lot of small ones) is very important in a professional studio.


The ideal studio would have high ceilings. The fewer pipes, electrical metal conduits, and HVAC piping, the easier it will be to adjust the lights and the sets that will be required for projects. Anything that hangs from the ceiling can get in the way. Some ducts and pipes may occur naturally in the studio, such as the fire sprinkler system. As a renter, you will not be able to move these fixtures. When a drop ceiling is present installing a track-lighting system or the use of fixtures for equipment support may be tough to accomplish since this ceiling will take up valuable height.


The studio flooring can be made of anything that provides a smooth surface to work on. Wood or tile is nice because either could be used as part of a room in a photo setup. The feel of a facility is heavily influenced by its flooring and much of the studio’s design is influenced by its big open floor. It is worth maintaining the floor for both the sake of appearance but also for some not so obvious reasons. A well-maintained floor will stay smooth and flat longer. Water damage may cause buckling and a floor may become uneven. A smooth floor of concrete will help when moving lights, stands, and booms that have wheels requiring smooth surfaces to operate easily. Often products for catalogs will arrive in carts and bumpy floors can cause damage. Concrete can easily be painted with various colors as needed.

Having a level floor is not a big factor, but it is much easier to make things level when the floor itself is level. The floor should not be too flexible, as is often the case in older buildings, because the set may move when someone walks too heavily or there is vibration resulting in blurred images when long exposure times are used. Since liquids are often used, it is best to not use a carpet in the shooting space. Not only will hard floors assist in cleanups, but they will prevent residual damp spots or odors that will make the next setup more difficult.


An efficient photography studio needs to be divided into several separate and distinct areas and be as big as can be afforded. Take the time to evaluate whether the space will accommodate the studio’s clientele and allow for an efficient work environment. For a professional studio there should be separate and distinct areas for: shooting, the office, camera storage, prop and surface storage, client/reception area, and a kitchen.


The design of a studio is based on individual tastes, space availability, rental costs, and the type of photography that will be undertaken in the space. If the studio will support catalog work, having a large space to enable the building of many sets makes sense. For a portrait studio, having a medium to small space seems logical to start. Once a space has been determined, a way to proceed is to use graph paper and plan space usage before starting to divide the space up. Each square on the grid paper should represent a unit of distance, e.g., one square equals one foot. Everything that will be in the studio can be drawn to scale on pieces of paper and cut out to allow them to be moved around in a scale drawing. This allows one to visualize relationships and how the space can be laid out.

Building and renovation

Building in the studio space typically means building a few walls to divide the large open space into areas such as a shooting area, dressing area, or storage area. Consideration should be given to building walls that are strong enough to hang backdrops or which allow the attachment of shelving. It is often practical to have walls that will accommodate the hanging of prints, office notes, ongoing work in the finishing area, or newly completed work in the reception area. A great wall covering for this purpose is called Homasote, which can be painted with burlap and glue and then the studio colors. Homasote comes in standard 4 × 8 foot sheets and allows the temporary hanging of papers with push pins.

Electricity and power requirements

There are never enough outlets in any space used for photography in this era. Computers, lights, cameras, and many other pieces of equipment all require electricity. If there is not enough power or outlets, new wiring will need to be put into the space. This should be done by a licensed electrician and must conform to local building codes. It is never a good idea to be deceitful with this installation. An error with wiring can cause electrical fires and jeopardize the studio’s safety.

The electrical power requirements for the studio will depend on the type and amount of lighting that will be used at any one time. Electronic flash equipment is the most common; however, photographers still use tungsten hot lights. Having enough electrical amps in the system is important. When talking about electricity, three terms are used to describe the system: watts, volts, and amperes. A watt defines the fundamental electrical power in a system, a volt is the unit of electrical force, and the ampere is the volume of electrical flow. An analogy for a volt might be found in water pressure. The ampere is the equivalent flow rate and the amount of current flowing at a given pressure defines its power. The power or wattage of a circuit is defined as watts = volts × amperes.

Electrical wiring can be purchased in different grades or thicknesses depending on the wattage to be carried by the wire. The wire must be of the correct thickness to carry the expected amount of electricity or load to the outlet boxes and to the general lighting. Common household wire would be characterized as 14/2 gauge.

Keeping the building safe is the purpose of a fuse or circuit breakers. Fuses or circuit breakers are located in a box near where the main line comes into the building. The fuse box is the terminal where the electricity is distributed to various outlets and to the lighting used in the studio. Circuit breakers stop the flow of electricity if a load is too great for the system that is pulled through the wires. If a high load is required, there is a danger that the wire’s insulation could melt resulting in a fire. A fuse is also a part of many pieces of equipment and is calibrated to the exact amount of electricity for which the line/equipment is rated. When a higher load is drawn on the circuit, the fuse wire will melt and stop the flow of electricity before a problem occurs.

Circuit breakers accomplish the same thing and consist of a switch that closes, or trips, when too much electricity is drawn. This switch can be reset after the problem is corrected. The circuit breaker has a visible on/off position that makes it easier to determine which circuit has tripped; a fuse requires looking at the metal band to see if it has melted. Of course, to most easily locate the tripped breaker, each circuit in the junction box should be clearly labeled to indicate which set of lights or outlet boxes connect to each breaker. Circuit breakers have a built-in time delay that allows this surge to occur without tripping. The surge is not long enough to melt insulation and start a fire, so the time delay circuit breaker prevents nuisance tripping of the circuit when electrical equipment is first plugged in or turned on.

The power required by most studio flash equipment would be 20 amps. If each outlet in the studio is connected to a 20 amp circuit and each box supports one pack, there should be no problem with having enough amps to run the flash equipment. Having sufficient power for each strobe pack allows the equipment to operate properly and recycle quickly.

Finally, when considering the power requirements for a studio do not forget to consider the computer and heating or cooling requirements of the space. Run an imaging computer system as well as a window air conditioner with the photography studio lighting equipment and the electrical consumption will significantly increase.

Climate control

It will be expected by visitors, clients, guests, and employees that the indoor temperature of a studio will be comfortable. Comfortable might be described as a temperature of 20°C or 68°F. When temperatures significantly deviate from this, various things might happen that would be evidenced by lower productivity in the staff or product changes, e.g., flowers spoiling or models perspiring and damaging their clothes. The equipment that is used to make pictures also generates heat, which contributes to the warm temperatures found in midsummer in the United States where the average temperature of 85°F is common in August in New York City. The average winter temperature in New York in January is 28°F. Attention should be made to determine the capacity of the system that is located at the studio and its capability to maintain a comfortable environment during these extremes. The heating ventilation air conditioning system (HVAC) should also be capable of simply circulating air as well.


It is not a problem to have windows in a studio area and the reality is, there may be no choice. Having fresh air and a bright open space leads to a pleasant place to be when not making pictures. When working in a studio though, it will be necessary to block all light transmitted by windows for total control of the lighting. Extraneous light competes with the artificial light on subjects. When doing multiple exposures there must be no ambient light at all. Blackening all window light can be difficult. There are products such as blackout shades for windows that photographers can buy. Rolls of black paper or plastic can be used quite easily and hung over the window frames, but this is a hassle. Many kinds of photographs, especially fashion and furniture, can benefit from window light or with window light as an addition to artificial light. If the space does not have windows and is located in a hot climate, make sure the building has central air conditioning. Photography equipment generates a lot of heat.

Security and insurance

Security, insurance, and safety issues are things to seriously consider. Camera equipment has long intrigued thieves of small portable and expensive items. A studio most of the time will have many pieces of equipment such as laptop computers and digital cameras that must be secure as well as clients’ products that are maintained in the studio. Perhaps even more important, the photographer might also be storing irreplaceable negatives, transparencies, and digital archiving equipment in the studio. Even though these materials may not have resale value, they have great importance to the photographer for future sales. To help with security, the doors into the studio from outside should all be solid core or metal with deadbolt or other industrial “type” locks. A studio should absolutely purchase an insurance policy for potential theft and loss coverage but also for personal liability coverage for accidents incurred while in the studio. A client could fall or experience a personal injury as a consequence of simply being there. In either case, not being personally responsible for such events should be a studio’s goal. A sizable loss from either type event could be so large a financial burden that it could close the studio.

Having a security alarm is an absolute. Security systems can be an inexpensive or professionally installed system. Features of alarms might include motion or fire sensors as well window and door switches. A good alarm is in constant communication with a central alarm monitoring facility that notifies the proper authorities when triggered. These systems normally require monthly fees.

Studio storage

A studio will never have enough storage space. Space to store the photography equipment, backgrounds, and props is just the beginning of this problem. Clients will often bring things to the studio that will remain there for many months. The supplies required to build sets such as lumber will seemingly multiply with each job and then there it is, all over the place.

The storing of equipment includes cameras, computer and imaging equipment, and lighting equipment and its related accessories as well as props and backgrounds. Camera and computer equipment must be stored so as to minimize the chance of damage. It will require a good shelving system, which provides a safe and sturdy place for putting things. Keeping cameras in their cases leads to them staying cleaner and well protected from accidental damage from water and dust when not in use.

Backgrounds come in many types and sizes. Standard 108-inch seamless paper must be stored vertically or it will bend and may develop ripples. It should also be kept in its box with a plastic bag to minimize fading and damage from moisture. There is a rack system that can be purchased for this type of storage as well. This system requires very little floor space and keeps the seamless paper easily available on a wall rack. Formica and other surfaces for photo shoots are also common background materials that will need to be stored. Plexiglas also involves special considerations because it is so easily scratched, which can ruin it. Cloth drops can be rolled or folded and stored on shelves as well.

Props are more difficult because they will be a variety of sizes and shapes or even breakable. Even though photographers these days depend more and more on stylists for providing props, there are always some items that are used repeatedly for a particular client or to create a particular look; for example, small pillars for portraits, special chairs, or vases.

Image Archiving

The digital capture environment has its own storage issues. Although a refrigerator-sized system is not necessary, most high-volume studios will need a server system (two or more computers configured together to handle large storage capacity) set up to handle the large files generated and produce a backup file of all images captured digitally.

Many photographers still have a large archive of transparencies and negatives that are stored safely in metal filing cabinets. Filing cabinets that lock should be considered for extra safety and development of a cataloging system. Many photographers store important materials relevant to a shoot, its layouts, overlays, receipts, invoices, etc., together with the resulting photographic materials for a period of time. A very convenient way to store these materials uses a vertical filing or “job” jacket system. Photographic prints can be stored in flat files or print portfolios as well. These boxes are designed to protect the prints from the effects of light fading or environmental influences. Color and inkjet prints do not require archival storage. All boxes will require labeling. Some materials should be stored using acid-free materials. This type of storage would be characterized as archival.

A big problem for older established studios is the storage of transparencies, negatives, and prints from previous years. A database is often the solution for cataloging all the images in storage. This consists of a list of all jobs with a short description of the subject that was shot. A filing code should be established. It can be oriented to the date or to the client and it should be simple. Excellent database software products for this would be Extensis portfolio® or FileMaker Pro®).

It is a good idea to list the client in these databases. Many photographers will include a description of the type of photo shoot it was (product, architecture, portrait), the type of client (agency or direct), and the amount billed as a means of tracking the type of photography most often done. This allows for quick access to all previously photographed jobs and to information that is critical to planning the future of the studio. This job log is crucial to the efficient running of a studio.

Digital imaging archive

While digital image archives do not take up as much room as film archive—given an equivalent number of pictures—they have their own issues. Image backup is probably the most important. It is recommended that at least three copies of each file be kept. Two can be at one site (the studio) and one should be kept off site. Two files should be kept on site because of the potential for file corruption; that is, data in the file deteriorating for some reason, making it unusable. This is unique to digital capture since film rarely deteriorates, at least during the lifetime of the photographer. A copy should be kept off site in the event of theft or a fire. Digital capture has an advantage in this respect since multiple copies of any file can be generated with no quality loss. Files can be kept on large hard drives, magnetic tape, or DVD discs. Sophisticated archiving software now exists allowing the photographer to find files specific to any project.

Cyclorama Wall

Having a large coved wall is a huge advantage for a studio. This wall is called a hard, seamless background or a cyclorama (cyc). A cyc solves several problems for a studio. It is readily available for shooting and can quickly be repainted and maintained rather than buying seamless paper, it cannot be damaged by rolling heavy subject matter across it (computers, cars, etc.), or it will not be torn by models walking or dancing across it. It can also be constructed wider than the commonly available width of seamless paper. Cyclorama walls were more common years ago when studio space was plentiful and cheap. They are very common in rental studios but might not be found in a small studio today. A cyclorama should be located in a dedicated space that is not used for any other purpose.

Studio Safety

One common function of all photography studios is the importance of safety. A photography studio is a complex place, consisting of cords, cables, lighting and camera equipment, light stands, grip equipment, and the objects or people photographed. The studio is also a dark place; when pictures are taken the only light should be on the subject itself, which means the rest of the studio can be very dark. Further, there may be clients and non-professional models present people who are unfamiliar with this type of environment. The last thing a photographer wants to experience in the studio is an accident: damaging expensive equipment, or worse, injuring a client or model. With this in mind there are several things that can be done to make the studio environment safer:

  1. Make sure any cords and cables in the way of foot traffic are securely taped to the floor. The tape should run parallel to the cord so all of the cord is covered. If the photographer, when designing the studio, has the ability to place electrical outlets where he desires they should be placed behind the areas where most sets will be constructed. This means that the electrical cables will, for the most part, be out of the way.
  2. When photographing models, make sure they have a clear path to the set. Having a model step over and around cables and lighting equipment should be avoided whenever possible.
  3. When shooting, try to have some ambient light in the studio so people can find their way around. If strobe lighting is used, this should not create any color temperature inconsistencies in the photographs. If hot lights are used, care must be taken so that the ambient light does not affect the lighting on set.
  4. When using a boom arm for a light or light-modulating equipment use a counterweight whenever possible. A better way to ensure that a boom arm does not fall over is to place it directly over one of the legs of the light stand. With this method, the weight of the boom is absorbed by the leg and it is impossible for the stand to fall over. Placing the boom between two legs is not recommended, even if a counterweight is used.
  5. Make sure all clamps and grips are securely tightened. This is common sense but photography equipment is heavy and slippage can occur. The worst that can happen is that your equipment will collapse; it is also possible that a light will slip and change positions, altering the lighting on the subject.
  6. Communicate with your clients and models. Make them aware of these issues and encourage them to be careful when they are in the studio environment.

Types of Studios


There are as many types of studios as there are photographers. The requirements of each person’s photography will determine the way the studio will be used and how it should be designed. In general, studios can be broken down into four broad types: the professional studio, the artist studio, the amateur studio, and the location studio.

The professional studio

The professional studio, designed to take a wide variety of photographs to fit the specifications of different clients, is more complete than any other type of studio. If you are about to design a professional studio space, try to visit some existing studios. During trade shows in larger cities there are often studio tours in which several of the local studios are open for visitors. The professional photographic organization in your area may also have an occasional tour of local studios. Also, photographers are usually very proud of their studios and will often be amenable to a visit. Seeing how other people solved the design problems of their studios can be invaluable. An efficient professional studio should consist of the following seven areas:

Shooting area

The shooting area should be as free of extraneous objects as possible. It should not be used as a storage area for props, camera, lights, surfaces, or computers. If any of this equipment needs to be in the shooting area it should be stored on moving carts that will allow the greatest flexibility for set construction and lighting. Clients and models will also be in the shooting area so you want to keep that area as open as possible (see the section on studio safety). The larger the shooting area the better, but consider a smaller area if this will allow the storage of non-essential items to be elsewhere.

Reception and display area

The professional studio needs some areas that other types of studios do not require because the professional studio is a place that is visited by clients. The studio entrance should lead to a reception area for the convenience of clients during meetings or a shoot. The reception area usually contains facilities for the display of the photographer’s work. This is not only for the entertainment of clients but may also suggest to a client a different type of work that the photographer is capable of doing. This is a subtle way of increasing sales. This area is not only for the display of print work, but also for the display of transparencies and electronic media. It is also nice to have a magazine table or some sort of shelf where photographers can put brochures, magazines, catalogs, etc., that contain samples of their photographs for viewing by clients.

Conference area

There is often a separate room or space with a large table where the requirements of the photo shoot can be planned and discussed with the client. This space should be provided with a telephone for client use during a shoot. Very often clients will want to conduct business or do design work while waiting for a shot to be set up. A room such as this will provide space and privacy for the client. A large flat screen monitor at a high-speed workstation that is connected to the Web is, of course, an absolute.


For those photographers who are going to do food photography, a large kitchen area is necessary. This area is often adjacent to or even within the studio. If located in the studio, it can also be used as part of a set for photographing food preparation. This kitchen should contain an unusually large amount of counter space. This is necessary because food for photography is often prepared in multiples; six turkeys, four apple pies, etc. Also, the food stylist will need room to prepare the dishes and lay out the props in preparation for transferring them to the set. Even if the photographer is not going to specialize in food photography, at least a small kitchen is handy for the preparation of the occasional food shot or for the convenience of clients.

Dressing room

Most studios have a dressing room for models. It should be large enough for the model to feel comfortable or even for the makeup artist to work. Outlets for hairdryers and curling irons are required. A small sink for washing off makeup or for the application of certain kinds of hair or facial treatments is a nice convenience. Since shoots with models often require a large number of garments, a space for hanging them in a way that they can be seen and selected makes things more convenient. Mirrors are a must, of course.

Finishing and shipping area

Since prints usually have some finishing work required, and work is often shipped to clients either by mail or overnight delivery, it is very helpful to have a print finishing and packing area where the materials used for these procedures are stored and readily accessible. A counter with cabinets will hold all packing materials and provide a surface for postage meter, scale, and retouching area. The retouching area can be equipped with a magnifying lamp that makes any retouching procedure much easier.


When preparing for shoots or just performing simple maintenance, the photographer is often called upon to do various sorts of building or altering of products and props. A workshop for simple equipment repair or for building sets and preparing props is not only a help but almost a necessity. There should be a sturdy workbench with convenient electrical outlets. The bench might have a vise and behind it shelves or a peg board for hanging tools. This work area is sometimes enclosed or in some way separated from the studio area because of the dust that may be generated by sawing wood or using a file. For those photographers who do a lot of scale model work, the installation of a spray booth for model preparation may be necessary.

The artist studio

An artist’s photographic studio will depend on what type of work the artist in interested in doing. If the artist is essentially a photographer who finds subjects in the outside world, then the studio may contain only a desk, storage, darkroom, and an area for looking at finished work and work in progress. Those artists who also work in studio settings, whether for portraits, nudes, dance, etc., will require a studio shooting space with some of the areas described above. Artists often have studios in their homes.

The amateur studio

The requirements of amateur photographers are often modest because of the expenses required to maintain a formal studio. Usually some portion of their living space is set aside for their hobby. This does not mean that they have to do without many of the things that the professional finds necessary. With a little ingenuity and some compromise, the amateur can have an efficient, versatile, and still modest studio.

The location studio

These days more and more commercial photography is done on location at the client’s facility since it is difficult to bring operating machinery and computers to a studio. Even art photography has its location studio contingent. This is exemplified by Irving Penn and his famous location studio portraits. Mr. Penn has made a career of moving entire studios complete with large cloth backdrop to such exotic locations as the jungles of New Guinea and the Peruvian city of Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital. For a location shoot, photographers put together what can be called a portable studio. All the necessary equipment (cameras, lighting, backdrops, imaging computers, etc.) is packed in a way that is both convenient to move and to get at on the job. There are specialized packing systems to make location work easier. These usually consist of a canvas bag that holds many accessories for the lighting system. These bags can be unfolded at the job site and hung on light stands so the contents are visible and accessible. A major requirement for a location studio is a strong assistant.

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about 7 years ago

Thanks for the great resource with clear, concise and sound advise.