Fashion photography in small rooms

In a real studio, you’ll never face the problem of insufficient space, but you can often find yourself in pseudo-studios, which are too small or too low. Moreover, a photo shoot is sometimes taken with the use of a studio backdrop positioned in a flat (that’s my case). I’ve encountered the latter problem, i.e. insufficient height, but the methods of coping with it are similar to those of dealing with too small surfaces.

Most of my photos have been taken in claustrophobic conditions, but I’ve already written a lot about beauty shots, so now it’s time to focus on fashion photography. The photo shoot I’m going to show here as an example was taken in December 2013 in Bangkok. The space in the room was barely sufficient. Well, the room itself wasn’t small, but I was able to use only a part of it (about 20 m2) as a studio and the distance I was able to maintain between me and the model allowed for nothing more than a 50 mm lens. This is actually enough for me, but if I had wanted more, I could have dealt with it (I did so during another photo shoot): there was a big entrance door behind me, so I could have opened it and stood in the corridor, using even a 500 mm lens. However, there was one problem which would have shortened the time of taking photos that way to 3 minutes: the temperature. During a photo shoot, the temperature in the flat is approx. 22oC, while in the corridor it reaches 35-40oC. Opening the door at such a difference is a really poor idea. You can’t allow the “studio” to become so hot, at least because of the make-up. Anyway, whenever I position studio equipment in a room, I always try to do it a way allowing me to increase the distance between me and the model as much as possible if need be.

The model at the photo shoot presented today was a Polish girl – Kinga Hołownia (NEVA Models). She contacted me on Facebook and I liked her portfolio. It later turned out that Kinga heard at one of the castings that someone taking beauty and fashion shots had come from Poland to Bangkok – only during our photo shoot did we discover that they meant me. The make-up artist was Damian Black – he was born in Minsk, Belarus, but it seems that he feels settled here. As usual, the assistant was Mateusz “Pro” Prociak.

Which focal length to use?

I use a 50 mm lens (full-frame) to photograph entire silhouettes. 35 mm would also have been OK (or even better) at times, but I bought that lens quite late. I’ve sometimes used a greater focal length, e.g. 85 mm, but it requires more space. I use 135 mm only if the space is really big (unlike in the case of beauty shots, for which I always use 135 mm). If the space is small, 35-50 mm is all you can get.

A lot depends on the effect you want to achieve. I think I’ll use 35 mm more often in the future. With small focal lengths, the model looks more dynamic – the proportions become a bit distorted, so a hand or a leg directed at the lens seems lengthened. Moreover, the height and the angle at which the camera is placed are very important – the smaller the focal length the bigger the differences. A 35 mm lens placed high and directed slightly downwards will make a 178 cm tall model look like a dwarf, while a reverse position will lengthen her legs. When using 50 mm, I usually squat down or sit on the floor and take shots this way.

You must remember, of course, that if the angle is wider, more background will be visible in the frame. This is sometimes problematic because, for instance, the model’s head begins to protrude above the backdrop edge. The bigger the focal length the smaller the problem. 50 mm is fine in approx. 3 m high rooms, but it may cause difficulties in lower ones (a lower ceiling = a lower backdrop edge). However everything depends on the distance between the model and the backdrop – the further the worse (you then have a bigger chance to take a bad shot). To sum up, I think that 50 mm is an optimal solution in small rooms.


Kinga Hołownia - Neva models

schemat oświetlenia fashion

The backdrop

I choose a cardboard backdrop, of course. It must be at least 2.7 m wide because a narrower one won’t really work. I take hardly any photos with a bright backdrop, so my usual problem is that the shots are too bright, not too dark. Thus, I buy dark backdrops (currently smoke grey) because in a small room I wouldn’t manage to darken a bright one by moving the model further away from it.

In a big studio with a cyclorama wall, there would be no problem to make its white color appear grey (even dark grey) in the photos. In theory, you could also obtain that effect in a small room, using a setup similar to the one I used while taking the photos presented today – but you don’t want to position the lights the same way for each and every photo shoot, do you? I’ve also been asked about the best method of backdrop installation. The answer is simple: choose the one that’s comfortable to you. I would go for an electrically lowered mounting kit for at least three backdrops. However, backdrops hung on stands are mobile – and this can be an advantage in small rooms.


Anyone who has read at least a few posts on this blog knows that I love to use a 70 cm beauty dish as the key light – but when I photograph entire silhouettes, I use it only when I have quite a lot of space at my disposal. This modifier requires a bigger distance from the model and needs to be positioned high in order to distribute light evenly, otherwise the legs will be strongly underexposed. In rooms with a small surface area it’s better to use a larger modifier such as a 90 cm beauty dish or a 90-120 cm softbox. I don’t use bigger ones because the shadows are filled too much then. I sometimes use an approx. 180 cm high strip box – it produces a narrow stream of light which is easy to control: it allows me to light the model relatively evenly, but it retains deep shadows on the person and doesn’t light the backdrop. However, such light is often too hard (in an unpleasant way – it’s a softbox, after all, not a beauty dish). Each of those modifiers usually has a honeycomb grid on. I’ve already described photo shoots with a strip box as a key modifier on this blog.

My rim light for fashion shots is nearly always a strip box (of approx. 90 x 30 cm) with a grid. A bare light is unable to light a close-standing person evenly – this is much easier to achieve using a strip box. Moreover, a light with an ordinary dish directs too much light to the sides in such photos. Therefore, regardless of the available space, you end up with a strip box as the rim light.


I’m going to mention this issue only briefly because the size of the room doesn’t matter here – I always choose the same lights: at least 800 Ws as the key light (it’s advisable to use a stronger one in order to have a power reserve) and 300 Ws as the rim light. In theory, lights with smaller power are sufficient in small rooms (much light is reflected by the walls), but since I always use selective lighting and honeycomb grids, the difference is insignificant in my case.

Coming back to the photo shoot…

I found the styling for this photo shoot in the same place as for previously described shoots – a shop which makes various outfits. I haven’t visited it in several months now – I must go there again and see what new clothes they’ve created. The dress in which Kinga posed was actually quite a standard one, but they also make many outfits which are much more original.


Kinga was in Bangkok under a three-month contract. She then came back to Poland and, as far as I know, she can currently be found in Shanghai.

Many of my previous posts have already presented similar photo shoots, so feel invited to read them. When the space is small, I take fashion photos using maximally a 50 mm lens. The modifier is usually an octa or a strip box, and the rim light is nearly always a strip box (all of them with grids).

The studio equipment used during this photo shoot was supplied by