Guide To Photography In The Studio

Written by Ian Bonner on April 11th, 2016

So you want to do some studio photography for your band? Or maybe you’re a photographer being asked to come into a recording studio for the first time?

Well, look no further, this blog will give you all the basic knowledge you need to get your recording studio photography well on the way to looking professional and creative!

 

Firstly, you might be thinking, to take great photos in the studio all you have to do is switch the camera on, point and shoot! Great! Except that won’t work as well as you might have hoped.

You see most studios work in low light levels for a multitude of reasons, for example, as an attempt to save money on the electric bill since all the audio gear is fairly power hungry as well as bringing in a visual effect in order to trigger an emotional response to get people in the mood for musical creation. The issue with this for photographers is that cameras are a lot more sensitive to light than the human eye.

First things first

If there only one thing you take from this blog, I insist that it is this… GET OUT OF AUTO. Flick your camera into manual mode, and I will explain why…

Auto mode will automatically adjust the camera’s settings to take what the camera believes to be the perfect photo. Sometimes that’s all you need for a quick snap, but in this situation, this is bad. In dim lights the camera will slow your shutter speed right down, raise your ISO through the roof and open up your aperture without limits so you will end up with noisy photos covered in motion blur. Unpleasant to say the least.

 

To get the best results when your camera is in manual mode, you must know your camera well. By this I mean know how to change settings quickly and technical limitations you may want to set for yourself. All cameras are different so unfortunately, there is no secret settings recipe, but here are a few tips to work around. Drive up your ISO steadily (ISO is the image sensor’s light sensitivity). Higher ISO levels will give you more light sensitivity but at the cost of noise. This is where you need to know your camera, because noise levels differ between different models so watch what you are doing, you are going to want crisp sharp images but with proper exposure so don’t be afraid to raise the ISO but watch out for that grainy noise look.

Shutter speed

Let’s move on to shutter speed (the time in which the sensors shutter is open for). You can expect lots of movement in a studio so you need it relatively high without compromising your exposure. Now I’ll leave creative choices to you, raise the shutter speed for complete sharpness or have it a little lower to get motion blur from the drummer who is rocking out. The point I’m trying to make is you’re in manual now, you have that choice. Because I’m nice, here is a free tip for you. If you are worried about faster shutter speeds resulting in underexposed photos, don’t, if you got your other settings right and you’re shooting in raw, then a darker image can always be brightened up in post.

Check out the comparison below to see the difference in speeds and how the motion can be blurred for frozen.

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Aperture

Now let’s move on to the aperture (how open the lens is), easy, the higher the F-stop number the less light going into the sensor but the higher the depth of field (what’s in focus), the lower the number the more light allowed in and a lower depth of field. Another creative choice for you to make. Balance your settings to get what you want from your photos. As a quick hint from experience, I’ve never felt the need to go higher that 5 or 6. But I like to keep the point of interest clear and simple, but more about that later.

In this photo with F- 1.8 the depth of field is very small to the outlines of the violinist’s face as she looks into the control room, keeping the rest of the image blurred.

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Lighting

You may be thinking “why is light such an issue, bro I have flash!”. Yes, a flash would help a lot, but there are  reasons why I don’t personally use them in studios. Reasons being, they are horrible for close ups, as it creates much focused light in a single area of your photo. A light bounce helps but the issue is still apparent. Secondly and most importantly, in my opinion, flashes are very distracting. You really don’t want to distract musicians when they are recording, it can be very difficult to focus on performance when a very bright light keeps flashing at random intervals.

 

Now my personal non-distracting yet effective fix for low light in studios is filming lights. They’re constantly on, so no distractions for musicians and really helps in low light situations. Something to watch for is your shadow on the photo. Other shadows are fine but the photographer’s shadow is a big no! Also the position of the lights, a partly creative, partly technical exercise. You ideally want an even spread of light so you don’t have to change settings as you move around the studio. I’m personally a fan of light contrast so my lights will tend to stick to one side to get contrasting light on faces and instruments, a creative choice. Some people prefer perfectly even light but I will leave that to you.

Gear

It may surprise you but this next bit will talk about equipment and will also be a very short section.

The camera makes and models.

The best brand to use; Canon, Nikon, Sony (and all the others)? Time for a big industry secret, are you ready? It doesn’t matter! The only thing that matters is you like the results your camera gives you and you learn its features and controls, every brand has pros and cons.

I personally love Nikon because of their big dynamic range and clean yet bold colour saturation. I also know the cameras so well that I can very quickly change all the settings I want. Other people prefer Canon for their “flatter” dynamic range and subtle colour saturation. It’s all opinionated, use what you prefer. In terms of lenses, the same, use what you prefer although I would advise you to stick with shorter focal lengths and get in on the action. But more importantly have fun with different lenses and experiment.

Composing the frame

Now we’ve talked a lot about light levels have given a few tips to getting well-exposed photos. But that’s only half a job, so now you have to frame your shots. What do I mean by that? I mean find a point of interest, focus and frame it before you shoot. Often overlooked in beginner photographers but it is vital to getting great photos if you have to take your time then do so. It is also way more fun than burst shooting at eye level. This really is the chance to get creative try low angles, try high angles, try the body of the guitar in focus, try just the headstock in focus really be creative with your shots and they will look professional. Be different, think outside the box and capture the moment and tell a story.

 

 

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So there you have it, some tips and starting points to get you on the way to taking some great shots in the studio. Remember to get out of auto and just practice, practice, practice. Any questions? Feel free to ask and I’ll be happy to help.

 

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