I want to open my own portrait studio and of course money is tight considering I still need to buy light equipment.

Now, I am trying to use what is available to me and I can't afford to rent a building, but I do have a 40ft fifth wheel RV. I am wanting to put a small studio enough to photograph 5-6 people if needed. The problems are low ceilings are about 7.5-almost 8ft tall. I will have up to like 20ft length wise and 8ft wide. I am not that familiar with lighting set up, but wanted to start with something basic stationary. When I worked at a small portrait studio they had a one light set up, very easy set up 1 mono-light maybe like the norman ml600 with a soft box.

Is this possible in my situation? If so what equipment do you recommend? I have searched till I can't search anymore and feel I am getting nowhere. I feel like it is impossible to make this work . If I were to put a soft box above me like size 26' it would be pretty close to my head. I hope you can help with any advice I could even send pics of area.


The width will be a much bigger problem than the height. You can always shoot your subjects seated, and lights don't need to be particularly high for most purposes (unless you're really getting dramatic). Anything centred above eye level will usually work out okay. You can even knock down the ceiling reflections pretty satisfactorily using black paint (or black-painted tiles, black fabric, etc.) if you need something more directional than the room itself provides, or if you want to restrict how much the key light influences the background. You might not have room for booms or anything of that nature, but you can fire a small gridded strobe over the backdrop (assuming you're using a fabric or paper backdrop) — you only need a couple of inches of clearance for something like that — and you can get effective hair/rim lighting, given that you have some front-to-back distance to work with.

The problem is that in order to get any real shape/modelling and you're not shooting a single person who can stand Paramount (butterfly) lighting, you'll need to get the key light off to the side. You can manage it well enough for a single subject, or even a couple who don't mind each other very much at all, but for any larger grouping, there's going to be a distinct difference in the direction and intensity of the light. The only cure for that, unfortunately, is more space (or fewer people).

As long as you are aware of the limitations, you can do a lot in a small space. At the same time, you'll quickly get to know exactly what you would do with any extra space if you had it.

Taking things outdoors when necessary is one idea, but that has its own problems. Weather will be hit-and-miss (more misses than hits if your luck is like mine), and even at the best of times, lighting and so forth are going to require a lot of help staying put. Working with on-camera flash, handheld reflectors and ambient lighting is pretty much the lot of the solo photographer, but if you have anyone who can assist (or better yet, a small army of assistants) you can work with more complex lighting setups.

Another idea would be to look into renting an occasional space/studio. There must be a local venue people rent for celebrations, yoga/meditation classes, that sort of thing, where you're not committing to any long-term real estate deals. It can make sense to rent a larger space for, say, one day or one weekend per month (or even less frequently). Line up a number of clients for that time, then shoot them all while you have the space. It'll be horribly expensive (likely) compared to full-time rental, but it will get you work and referrals you wouldn't be able to get otherwise. If there's enough business to make occasional rental a real chore, there's probably enough business to support a "real" studio of your own.

  • 100% seated portraits is going to get old real fast. 25% of a session is fine, but if the subjects are ambulatory, I wouldn't go beyond that. I agree with the rest of your analysis and still voted up!
    – dpollitt
    Apr 16 '13 at 22:10
  • I'd say it's been more like 60% of the work I've done over the years. Even when the "sitter" is standing, most "sales" (I haven't actually sold anything other than to accasionally recover the cost of prints in a long time) have been half-length or tighter, except for environmentals (which moots the studio anyway). One makes do or quits. Making do is a better option.
    – user2719
    Apr 17 '13 at 0:13

I've had to deal with a similar issue at times. My solution was to stand the lights vertically close to the ceiling in order to bounce the light. This provides a pretty soft spread but can cause problems with colour casting depending on the material the ceiling is made of.

As I was working in black and white it wasn't such a problem for me but to overcome the colour cast you can try using a reflector of choice mounted on the ceiling or post process if you have no other option.


With the dimensions of the trailer: 7.5' high, 8' wide, and 20' long. I assume the 20' is clear space.

So, depending on what you want to do, you have some options.

Hi Key / White Background

The first one is to perhaps build into the back end of the trailer, a double cyclic wall. Ie, ceiling to back wall is a shadowless curve, and wall to floor is likewise a shadowless curve, with the floor being a smooth seamless white coming from the wall-to-floor curve out a ways.

The ceiling-to-wall curve would likewise need to be seamless and smooth for a ways.

In this manner, you would be able to shoot standing portraitures of folks, and so long as the background represents a smooth gradation or is blown out(hi key), you can expand the empty space in post.

Dark Background

Using the above, or draping matte black cloth, you can shoot with a black background and black ceiling(am thinking hooks, velcro, etc). Shoot with the background faded to black and expand the black space as with the white, as described above.

Sitting Subjects

Another way to avoid the problem of head-to-ceiling issues it to have your subjects sitting or posed in a fashion where they won't be standing.

Leverage Your Vehicle Externally

If your subjects all need to be standing or if the subject count is too great, you can use the side of the RV as a back wall, and with sufficient fabric and support structure forming an awning, you can have an external studio formed using one wall of the RV. Since you now have the height of the RV tires and clearance from ground to floor added, you've gained about 2' under the "tent" attached to your RV.


Portrait lighting is all about the shadows and light. You are constrained a great deal by the 7.5ft ceilings in this case.

You can probably setup short or broad portrait lighting in your RV, but the issue is the vertical axis. Usually you try to get the light high enough so you don't cast shadows from the eye socket on the eye, and so that you can actually have both eyes lit as well. You also want to pay close attention to the nose and neck. I don't think you will have great luck in such a short environment unless you plan to only photography shorter children or babies. I have seen people convert a bus or similar for doing portraits of kids, and the results are usually pretty good. Adults in the 6ft+ category aren't going to do so well in the RV environment. Not only a single adult, but 5-6 adults! 8ft across is not big at all for a group of 5-6 adults. This is when you might even start to have issues not just with the vertical space but the horizontal space.

Can you get away without any overhead lighting, and the softboxes and key lighting directly horizontal to the subjects face or even slightly below it? That is hard to say. I wouldn't recommend it. It could be done but is not the best idea. The other thing that many people like to add is a hair light, which would have to be located essentially directly above the subject, and I don't think your setup would really allow that unless you cut a hole in the top of the RV.

To wrap this up, what do you need? More vertical space, or subjects less than 5ft tall.

This isn't exactly what you are describing, but you might find it interesting: http://www.photobus.co.uk/


You don't need an actual studio space to open a portrait photography business.

A small studio is worse than no studio, you'll won't be able to position the lights the way you want and you'll have problem controlling the light because it will bounce everywhere.

You can use the RV to store lighting equipment and props if you want and before a shoot just find a nearby shaded location and put up a backdrop stand.

If you are getting studio strobes anyway you'll have no problem killing the ambient light - or using it as a fill if you want.

There really is very little advantage to a "true" studio unless it's a really huge room (for light control) or very nicely decorated (to make you look more professional) - your RV is neither of those.

Edit: When you can't shoot outside there are indoor public locations you can use, you can use your living room or a room in a friend's home, you can contact local business that have room that are no always in use and ask to use it when it's free (maybe for a small fee) you can even shoot in parking buildings - be creative.

  • 2
    They don't have wind or rain where you live? A studio is a place that you know will be available (and where you can leave stuff half-constructed or set up for tomorrow -- something that seems to have eluded Mr. Hobby, no matter how many times it was pointed out to him). If you want to be in business, you need to be able to shoot when you're scheduled to shoot, and if your clients aren't providing the space (Hobby is exclusively a location shooter) then you have to. And not all clients have a suitable space.
    – user2719
    Apr 16 '13 at 21:30
  • I agree that strobist has a special use case, but the point that Nir brings up is valid. You don't necessarily need a studio. Plenty of locations exist even in a northern climate like Minnesota that allow indoor photography with paying clients even for free(many museums, gardens, public open areas, etc.)
    – dpollitt
    Apr 16 '13 at 22:09
  • @StanRogers - I didn't mean to say studios are useless (yes, the Hobby quote does say that, I'll remove it from the answer), there are some very big advantages to having a studio - but a tiny room is not very useful as a studio and you'll be better off shooting elsewhere - and if all your free/cheap locations are unavailable (and you can't/don't want to reschedule the shoot) than you can always rent a proper space for a few hours. -- an actual studio can be very useful - but only if you can afford it.
    – Nir
    Apr 17 '13 at 11:57

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