Micro photo studio for small object photography

A completely equipped professional photo studio is expensive due to the required size of the place and the cost of the equipment. Successful fashion and commercials photographers can easily justify the cost of a studio, but what if you’re mainly shooting small objects and products? In that case it is possible to get by with a lot less — call it a mini or micro studio if you like.

For small objects and products you can always buy a table top studio set, which usually comes complete with a pair of lamps and a translucent sheet of white plastic. Some vendors make small ‘tents’ for the purpose. But what if You lack the space for even those or just don’t shoot often enough in such cramped circumstances? I created a short list of equipment that I believe could wel replace the more permanent solution like such a table top studio. All the equipment I propose can be used for other purposes as well.

Proposed equipment

  • 2 LumoPro LP160 manual flashguns
  • 2 Kaiser threaded hot shoe adapters
  • 2 Joby Gorillapods Focus with Ballheads
  • 1 camera brand TTL flash
  • 3 Cactus v5 radio transmitters
  • 2 fixed lights (Joby Blade)
  • 2 large Rogue FlashBenders
  • 1 Rogue FlashBender bounce card
  • 2 white or blue backdrop panels of approx. 160cm x 120cm

The devil is in the details...

This is my product selection so I’m not advising you to buy exactly these brands or products. How did I come to this selection? For starters, I have tested, reviewed and experienced the above equipment and have found it to perform well to excellent. For example, the LP160 flashguns are manual flashguns that perform consistently well. I have tested them in many different settings and they offer excellent value for little money.

An example: the LP160s have an optical slave function. An optical slave function assumes line of sight between the master flash and the slave, but the LP160s have an optical sensor that is so sensitive the flashguns don’t necessarily need to “see” each other. As long as the light burst of the master flash is capable of reaching the LP160 it will go off.

The LP160 mounted on my tripod with Novoflex ClassicBall 5

I’ve tested this by positioning the LP160 slaves behind a low divider cardboard wall (120 cm high with the LP160s at a distance of 15 cm from the wall), with the master flash being the built-in flash of a Sony Alpha 700, set to manual and 1/16th power. The flash compensation for that small flash was set to -3. The LP160s went off without fault.

For the LP160s I have created a cheat sheet with Guide Numbers, power settings and corresponding distances in meters and feet. If you are member, you can get the cheat sheet printed on a polyester substrate sent to your address (email me to send me the shipment address).

Usage

The Joby Gorillapods don’t look like flash stands at all, and flash stands certainly aren’t expensive, so I could have opted for dedicated stands, but I find the Gorillapods to be more flexible in use, certainly if you’re not going to use umbrellas or softboxes. They can be bent around objects but also placed within very confined spaces.

I find the combination Gorillapod Focus / Joby Ballhead X (I got the X because it’s designed to carry a dSLR camera as well) to be even better: when I lack the room to spread the Gorillapod’s legs in order to create a stable and secure stand and there isn’t an object in the neighbourhood that I can attach the Gorillapods to, the Ballhead gives me the necessary positioning flexibility as with an ordinary tripod — the best of both worlds so to say.

LP160 mounted on Kaiser hot shoe adapter and Joby Ballhead X Arca-style QR plate

The Ballhead X also allows me to mount a medium-weight dSLR if I’d need to place it in a confined area. I found Joby’s Ballhead X to be robust and strong enough to carry 3 kilograms of camera equipment. The Ballhead X is made of aluminium and its control “knobs” — for horizontal positioning, ball grasping, and Quick Release plate fixing — are made of strong materials that secure your equipment as good as the Novoflex ClassicBall 5 that I use for reference.

For my mini studio I mount the LumoPros to the Gorillapods using the Kaiser hot shoe adapters. I can screw the LP160s onto the Kaiser hot shoe adapters firmly and then secure the whole thing onto the Gorillapod Ballheads’ (Arca-style; very handy) Quick Release plates. The Kaiser hot shoe adapters come with a short P/C (Prontor/Compur) synchronisation cable that I don’t use, but that can come in handy one day.

Joby Focus Gorillapod with Ballhead X, LP160 and Rogue FlashBender flat on the floor.

A TTL flashgun is used as a master flashgun. I use the optical slave settings most of the time, but for the odd occasion when optical slave really isn’t possible at all, I will settle for a pair of Cactus v5 radio transmitters any time. Actually, Cactus v5 transmitters aren’t available yet, but in a couple of weeks you may expect a review on this site. Before the new version of Cactus flash radios was announced, I wouldn’t have settled for them — I found Cactus v4s a bit too ‘lightweight’. The v5, however, is in a completely different ball game.

When using optical slaves, the digital pre-flash will trigger most manual flashes, but not so the LumoPro LP160s. They have a digital optical slave mode that successfully ignores these pre-flashes and triggers only with the real flash.

The two Joby Blade torches act as fixed studio lights. They are capable of an output of 130 lumens maximum. At this output they’ll run for approx. 2 hours before their rechargeable batteries deplete. I chose the Blades because:

  • They are small
  • They can be recharged via USB port
  • They give a concentrated light spot that I can diffuse by tampering with a large Rogue FlashBender
  • They have very strong magnetic feet so I can literally place them anywhere I like.

I use the large Rogue FlashBenders in different settings. I’ll point one LP160 down to the desktop and attach the FlashBender in such a fashion that it sits underneath the flashgun, its reflective surface pointing upwards. I will often bend the FlashBender so that the light literally ‘jumps off’ it. I also often attach another large FlashBender to the two Joby Blades and position the lot so that it acts as a diffuse fill light of the background.

For backdrop or background I use a thick white cardboard panel positioned upright on my table top, and an identical panel flat on the table. On some occasions I use a blue backdrop for more easy cutouts.

With a mini studio more or less like the above, you can use a dSLR to shoot product and object photos in very tight spaces and still get wonderful results.