Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2019
Starting a Studio
Several friends have asked me for equipment recommendations for setting up a studio. If I were to set up a studio for still photography today (and I hope to soon do so), I’d invest in a set of Paul C. Buff’s Einstein flash units. I’ve used Paul’s flash equipment with complete satisfaction since he first started building it in Nashville, Tennessee. At the time of my conviction I was using several of Paul’s Alien Bees flash units, and some of his older units that are no longer made. Today I’d buy as many of his Einstein units as my budget would bear. They have every feature I could ask for, and can be used anywhere. On my European trips I used to take a Buff unit that Paul loaned me made for European voltage and a medium umbrella, since European hotel rooms tend to be small, and I used hotel rooms as impromptu studios when traveling.
Other flash systems I have tested that work well are Multiblitz, Hensel, Profoto, and Visatek by Bron. I’m sure there are others. Stick with well known brands, because others tend to go out of business, leaving you stranded if you need parts or accessories. I have one of those orphans, a Venca power pack and three heads. If it ever needs parts I’m stuck.
I’ve not used them, but I’ve been reading about the new LED flash units in Photo District News. Their advantage is zero recycle time. Their disadvantage is lower light output, but with today’s digital cameras that’s less of an issue since images shot at higher ISO settings are perfectly usable. The days of the xenon-filled flash tube may be numbered. But I wouldn’t call traditional flash down for the count just yet.
Regardless of light source, I prefer softboxes to umbrellas when there’s room. Speaking of softboxes, I have used a number of different brands and types, but generally feel the bigger the better for my fill light, since I like to mimic natural diffuse daylight. For years I used Photoflex softboxes, but have not seen mention of them for years and don’t know if they’re still in nusiness. For quality of construction and neutrality of color, I don’t think you can beat Chimera. Gary Register’s Plume Wafer boxes are also excellent, and thinner (but pricier) than others. I also like Photek. While film was generally somewhat forgiving of color cast and mismatches between softboxes, I’ve found that digital really shows these differences, so it’s probably not good to mix brands.
Light stands: The old standard Matthews C Stand is hard to beat. I’ve kept several in my studios for years. Otherwise, the Manfrotto stuff is tried and true. I prefer stands with wheels to make moving lights easier. I avoided cheap knockoff stands. I remember once watching in horror as the upper tube section on a cheap stand I was testing twisted and buckled, sending one of my flash units crashing to the floor. Thankfully the flash’s landing was cushioned by the attached softbox and it survived. The same caution also applies to background support systems. To handle rolls of seamless paper I’ve used the Manfrotto system since the 70s. You can mount the support brackets on light stands, but for a more permanent setup I mounted the supports high up on a wall in my studio and used the plastic chains to wind the paper up and down. That way I could keep three rolls on hand at all times for quick changes. A bunch of Manfrotto Super Clamps and their attachments belong in any serious studio. They are indispensable for hooking things to light stands, pipes, 2 X 4 studs, and numerous other things.
You’ll also want several rolls of real gaffer’s tape. Don’t try to make do with cheap duct tape, which will let you down and leave a mess behind when you strip it off. The real stuff can be peeled off and leaves no residue behind, and will support a surprising amount of weight.
Whenever I needed a dead black background I used a velvety cloth backdrop from Photek. It works much better than any black paper, and can be washed if it gets dirty.
One invaluable piece of studio gear is the plastic “milk crate” sold in many stores. Mine came from CVS. They’re great for storing things, and strong enough to be stacked up to support things. To make a raised platform in my studio I used eight of them stacked two to a corner to support a 4 X 8 foot Radva foam plastic insulating panel. This was strong enough to support several people. Just don’t let any of the models wear spike heels — they’ll punch right through the foam.
If you want a fog machine and have a nearby source of dry ice, Wayne Collins showed me a trick years ago to make lots of fog. Just buy a cheap shop vac. Put a few inches of water in it, throw in the dry ice, put the lid on, hook the hose to the outlet, and turn it on. Fog will pour out and you or an assistant can control where it goes. (If you want to get fancy, add an AC motor speed control, sold in hardware stores). This works better than expensive commercial fog machines because those use mineral oil based “fog juice,” and the mineral oil will condense on your cameras and lenses, and on everything else in your studio, as I learned the hard way. Unfortunately, dry ice is not readily available everywhere, and can’t be bought in advance and stored for any length of time. There are dry ice making machines, but they’re very expensive.
To fire the flash units you can use the old-fashioned long PC cord, but I’ve never liked tripping on cords or getting tangled up in them. For years I used the infrared systems from Wein products, made by my old friend Stan Weinberg. But, sadly, Stan has shut down the business. I also used radio slave systems when infrared didn’t work, because it won’t work around corners. A number of companies make radio systems for firing flash units, and all of the ones I’ve tested worked well.
Where do you buy all this stuff? My sources for all my studio needs were Adorama and B&H. For the more unusual items I went to The Set Shop in NYC.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: http://tonywardstudio.com/blog/bob-shell-americas-puritanism/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.