herts portrait photographer | mobile studio mayhem

So how did the weekend before this one go for Alex Saville Photography? As you will have read in my last blog, I was all set to do the St Anthony’s School Fayre in Watford. Well, ok, I hadn’t actually been that specific about where. Ros (my lovely girlfriend, and assistant for the event) and I took to the road to start setting up at 11am, pausing only to get some sandwiches, water and Werther’s Originals (essential supplies!) from a minimart.

Alex Saville Photography Watford Photographers Photograph of mobile studio
Alex Saville Photography comes to the Gateway2Wellbeing Expo!

To date, aside from the live music shoots, party shoots and corporate event/conference shoots, I’ve done only a few shoots at indoor locations. This was the second outing for my mobile studio, the first being the Gateway2Wellbeing expo some weeks earlier. I’ll talk about that first, as it was quite an eye-opener for me.

Running a studio in a fixed location is one thing – running a mobile studio at an event is another. Sure, there are things that apply for both (such as don’t knock the lighting stands over), but a lot of the challenges you’ll face are ones that are specific to the fact that you are in an unfamiliar location. As indeed I was.

Here are my top 5 basic lessons for running a mobile studio at events:

1) Know exactly how much space you require, and communicate this. This is tricky, especially if you’ve never done it before. Don’t assume just because it’s a mobile studio that you’ll need less space. Think about your background, your lighting, where you’ll be shooting from and how many people you’ll be shooting at a time. A 5ft wide backdrop is great for shooting an individual, but groups?

2) Turn up as early as possible. If you get the option to set up the night before, take it, even if there’s no way to secure your gear overnight safely – you can always pack it down – think of it as a dress rehearsal.

3) The sooner you can test out your lighting and get it right, the better.

4) Take some sandbags or bags with heavy weights to weigh down the lighting stands. It’s more likely that you, or someone else, might knock over a lighting stand. This is especially pertinent if you’re shooting outside, where you’ll be at the mercy of the elements as well as your own clumsiness (guilty as charged!). I use sandbags with mini dumbbells in them. It’s worth having some for every light stand, just in case you forget while you’re moving lights from a short stand to a longer one. Secure them near the bottom of the light stand – they’ll be more stable that way.

The Alex Saville Photography mobile studio backdrop ended up resembling a large bandaid...
The Alex Saville Photography mobile studio backdrop ended up resembling a large bandaid…

5) Carry gaffer tape. Lots of it. At the St Anthony’s School Fayre, after setting up the background support system (2 heavy-duty lighting stands and a crossbar, with a cloth backdrop covering a pop up background), I was feeling rather pleased. This turned out to be short-lived pleasure, as a gust of wind promptly brought the whole lot crashing down. Fortunately, I caught it and it was before we started. Some gaffer tape later, and the backdrop was taped to the window behind it. Not elegant, but it got the job done. At regular intervals, we’d have to stick the tape back up. Admittedly, if I’d used really, really heavy bags to weigh down all the stands, this problem might have been avoided.

There are some challenges which are very specific to the environment. Having the studio indoors is usually easier, once the logistics are sorted out. If shooting outdoors, however, there are more concerns – for one thing, you have to compete with the elements. The ground might be uneven, the wind can be a pain (see earlier comments), water can cause some serious electrical problems leading to fire. Fortunately, although there were a few drips of rain, luck held out. Then there’s the sun.

The battle with the sun at the school fayre, was a bit more serious. The sun is a very bright, very small (relatively speaking) light source. And unless you can hide it (a large gazebo was a bit out of my budget), it’s hard to control. You can diffuse it, sure, but ultimately, to have the photos under your control, you’ve got to be able to overpower it with whatever lighting you’re using.

Often this might mean shooting at smaller apertures than you’d like (e.g. f/22 instead of f/11) – thereby letting in less light – so less sunlight. So you use more power to the strobes. That leaves you with a decision to make – stick with the increased depth of field or not? Some might say, what’s wrong with f/22? In principle, nothing. It will give you great front-to-back sharpness. If that’s what you want. It will also emphasise every bit of dust that might accumulate on your camera’s sensor when you’re switching lenses. Bearing in mind you generally don’t have time to do retouching, f/22 might not be such a good idea after all…

You can widen up the aperture by either using a neutral density filter or making the shutter speed faster. The former reduces ALL light reaching the lens – including the strobes. The latter reduces only the ambient light (i.e. the sunlight), because the strobe flash happens in an instant, whereas the ambient light is around all the time. In the studio, I use the former. Some say it reduces image quality, but I’d say not noticeably so if you’re using good glass. It does make it harder to focus in a studio, but you should be alright outside. A polariser might be an alternative, though with different effects. The other consideration is that variable ND filters and polarisers are easy to accidentally rotate, so you must be vigilant. Overall, I’d say that outdoors, using shutter speed is usually a better option. There is a limit to how fast you can make the shutter speed (a theoretical 1/250s for a Nikon D3x, as opposed to 1/125s which is the usual setting for studio work) before the dreaded black bar appears on your images, so keep that in mind too.

There’s another way the sun is not your friend – namely glare on your laptop’s screen. This can be remedied by carrying around black card/foam sheet/plastic (white will help if you’ve not got any black, but black is ideal. Basically, you make a hood around your laptop screen with the card and gaffer tape. About 3 A4 sheets should do the trick.

Technical challenges aside, the bottom line though, is that I took photos which made my customers smile, and that’s what counts.

On occasion, I was able to wander about a bit taking photos of everyone else, and of some of the school kids doing country dancing, which was rather cute.

Alex Saville Photography Watford Photographers Photograph of Girl Getting Manicure at School FeteAlex Saville Photography Watford Photographers Photograph of Children Morris Dancing at School FeteAlex Saville Photography Watford Photographers Photograph of Bouncy Castles at School Fete

So that’s a little bit about my adventures. I should also thank Bonnie Freechyld, who helped me at the Gateway2Wellbeing Expo, Ros (of course!), Ros’s mum for babysitting while we went off to the St Anthony’s School Fayre, Idit and Ronit the event organisers for the Gateway2Wellbeing Expo and Jane Emma Dye, who invited me to have my stand at the St Anthony’s School Fayre. Oh yes, that’s the other “rule”: always have an assistant. When it gets busy, don’t expect to be able to do it alone.

Keep well, and be good 🙂

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