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Video: How to Create a Home Portrait Studio for Under $20

As I mentioned up top, this is the “Master Your Craft” series, and part of mastering your craft is realizing how little you need to capture great images. In this article, we’ll show you how to create a home portrait studio using a $20 reflector and the camera that you already have. Join me as I set up the studio, capture our shot, and edit the image in Lightroom and Photoshop.

You can download the exercise files here to follow along as we work through post to create our final images.

Okay! Let’s get started!

Capturing the Shot

Step 1. Find a Door

find a door photography home studio cheap

People often come up with excuses about things they don’t have that they need to get the shot, but it should be pretty easy to “knock” out this first step. Simply put: find a door. Any door should work, especially if it leads outside. We’re going to open the door and use the incoming light to create a nice, flat light pattern on our subjects.

Bonus Tip: Depending on the color of your hallway, you might even get a little bit of fill light (from brightly colored walls) or negative fill (from darker colored walls).

Step 2. Get a Background

get a background photography home studio cheap

Inside of every 5-in-1 reflector,  you’ll find a scrim. Grab that scrim and take it out. If you don’t already have a $20 reflector, now’s the time to buy one. It’s a useful tool and you should have one. If you’d rather not spend any money, then you can always use a bed sheet (white, black, etc.).

Either way, you’ll need to hang your scrim (or sheet or whatever) near the doorway. For this exercise, I used a chair to hold up the scrim. You can use an A-Clamp (or something similar) from Home Depot to adjust the height and hold it in place. Viola! You have a background.

Step 3. Face Your Subject Toward the Open Door

face the light clamp the backdrop cheap home studio
The subject is positioned to face the light (see the clamp used to hold the scrim to the back of the chair)

Facing your subject toward the open door will allow a nice, flat light to fall on your subject.

[Related Reading: 5 Primary Light Patterns and Their Purposes]

Step 4. Dial In Your Exposure Settings

Once your subject is in place, dial in your exposure settings. For this shot, I’m using the Canon EOS-R with a 50mm f/1.2 RF lens. However, any 50mm prime lens on pretty much any camera should yield similar results. If you don’t have a dedicated camera, we’ll go over how to do this with your phone as well.

Assuming you do have a camera and a prime lens, I would recommend shooting this with a wide-open aperture, ideally somewhere between f/1.2 to f/2.8.

Step 5. Shoot on Your Phone if Necessary

Most phones should work, and if your phone camera features portrait mode, even better – turn it on. All that’s left, really, is to zoom in and snap away.

Screen Shot 2020 10 28 at 5.34.48 AM

If you look at the images above, it’s probably hard to tell which one was shot with a phone and which was shot using a dedicated camera. Most people will not recognize the difference between the images. In other words, use whatever camera you have to get the shot.


Make sure you’ve downloaded the exercise file so that you can follow along with this next part.

If I were editing this image on my own, I’d start with Visual Flow’s Soft Light Preset from the Pastel Pack. Each pack features a different look that is adapted to a number of lighting conditions, and the Pastel Pack works especially well with bright and airy images. If you don’t have these presets, no worries. We’ll walk through the settings for achieving a similar look.

I’ll start by pressing CTRL+’ to create a virtual copy. This way, I can apply a preset to see the look we’re going for, and then we’ll try to recreate it, step-by-step.

Step 1. Start with the Tone Curve

Before after tone curve adjustments

Create an “S” Curve

In the preset version, you’ll find an “S” curve that is designed to increase both exposure and contrast. To make this “S” curve, do the following:

  • Select the point curve option from the Tone Curve box
  • Hold down “Shift” and click on the curve. Holding down the “Shift” button will allow you constrain your movement either up or down in a straight line. If you don’t hold down the Shift button, your point will go side to side and all over the place.

You’ll notice that the upper part of the “S” curve represents pulling up the mid-tone values, which brightens the image. Anything we pull down (which you can see in the lower portion of the curve) will darken the curve. You can always add more points to the curve to make further adjustments. In effect, we can use the “S” curve to simultaneously add contrast and brighten the image.

Add a Matte Look Using the Tone Curve

Matte tone curve example cheap home photography studio

If you adjust the corner points in the tone curve, you can add a matte look to the image. Pulling down the point in the upper righthand corner of the tone curve turns the whites into a sort of bright grey. Likewise, pulling the point up in the lower lefthand corner of the tone curve lifts the blacks and creates the “matte” effect.

[Related Reading: Mastering Tone Curves | Things You Don’t Know About Curves]

Step 2. Adjust the White Balance

Before and after white balance dropper tool
Before (left) and after (right) using the White Balance Dropper

There are a couple ways to go about adjusting the white balance.

  • Use the White Balance Dropper: Press “W” to bring up the White Balance Dropper and then select a neutral color (grey or white is ideal) in the frame. Most people limit their selections to white areas in the frame, but the dropper’s suggestion states, “Pick a target neutral,” which also includes various shades of grey. The important thing is to make sure there are not other colors in the neutral target you choose. Once you make your selection, the white balance should then automatically adjust.
  • Use the White Balance Sliders for Temperature and Tint to manually adjust the white balance.

Step 3. Adjust the Base Tones & Presence

adjust base tones in lightroom home studio

To further refine your edit, adjust the base tones and presence under the Basic Panel. For this edit, I lifted the shadows & blacks and lowered the highlights and whites. I also wanted to adjust the vibrance to mellow out the colors a bit, but we’ll do that using the HSL sliders.

Step 4. Use HSL Sliders to Adjust Colors

HSL adjustments cheap home studio edit

Looking at the preset, you can see we’ve done a lot of shifting with the HSL sliders to get the pastel look. You may need to adjust the white balance again after applying these changes.

If you want to make adjustments to achieve a different look, you can either move the sliders for each of the respective colors under each HSL section, or use the dropper (the small circle located to the left of Hue, Saturation, and Luminance). Just select the dropper and then click and drag the dropper over the area in the image that you want to adjust. You may notice that multiple colors/sliders are impacted when you do this. That is because the area you selected contains all of the affected colors.

Step 4. Try Split Toning to Further Enhance Your Edit

Updated Highlights Graphic

One of the tools I like to use in Lightroom is the Split Toning panel. One way I like to use this tool is to warm up the image a bit. To use Split Toning for this purpose, simply do the following:

  1. Select the Highlights pop up to access the dropper (see number 1 in the image above).
  2. Click on a color in the Highlights pop up and drag it onto the image  (see number 2 in the image above). You will then have a dropper that you can move around the image and see how it will affect the colors of the image in real time.
  3. When you’ve found a look you like, release your click. This will select the area of the image you’re using to base the Split Toning adjustments on.
  4. Finally adjust the slider in the Highlights box to dial in the look you’re after (see number 3 in the image above).
  5. Repeat this process for the Shadows.

Step 5. Sharpen the Image to Taste

Detail panel masking slider for edits home photography studio cheap
A screenshot illustrating the masking slider at work in the Detail panel in Lightroom

Even if your image is already sharp, you may want to make some adjustments to further refine the sharpness. Under the Detail panel in Lightroom, you’ll find a slider for Radius (among others). If you hold down alt/option and drag the Radius slider back and forth, you will see a mask that reveals in detail the effects of the changes you’re making. Do the same thing for the Detail slider and you’ll see which details are being sharpened as you move the slider back and forth. Be careful here, however, as significantly sharpening the details can even sharpen the pores in your subject’s skin, which you may or may not want to do. I prefer to leave the pores intact while sharpening stronger areas of lines.

Finally, the “Masking” slider (illustrated in the image above) will show you exactly what is being sharpened when you hold alt/option and move the slider. This feature is great because you can adjust the masking slider to only affect stronger lines (as I mentioned before), which means you can make bolder adjustments using the sharpening tools without affecting the entire image. Your adjustments will only affect the areas highlighted with the mask. If you over do it a bit with the skin details, you can always increase the Noise Reduction a bit to subtly soften the skin.

Step 6. Make Lens Correction Adjustments

I like to click the “Enable Profile Corrections” option to remove the natural vignetting caused by the lens, especially when editing intentionally brighter images. If an image has bright edges, I like those edges to stay bright. You can also use a slider to make further adjustments to the vignetting in the frame.

Step 7. Make Final Adjustments to White Balance

We’ve already touched on white balance, but I recommend revisiting it and making any necessary adjustments after all of the work we’ve done with the HSL sliders and other tools. The finished settings will depend on your preference. There is no “right” white balance, really.

Step 8. Fix or Remove Distracting Elements in Lightroom or Photoshop

Spot healing lightroom cheap home photography studio

For this image, I needed to fix the top corners. It’s easy to do in Lightroom, but we can also jump into Photoshop. Let’s start with Lightroom. Simply press “Q” to select the Spot Removal tool, and then brush over the areas you want to fix. You may need to play with it a bit to get the fix just right. Make sure the tool is set to “Heal” and lower the feather rate to avoid weird transitions around the area you’re fixing.

If you’re spending more than 30 seconds on fixing distractions, then it might be worth jumping into Photoshop. For workflow purposes, press “Command+J” in Lightroom to create a new layer, and then export that image into Photoshop.

Patch tool in Photoshop cheap home photography studio

Once in Photoshop, select the area you want to fix (you can outline the area using the Lasso) and then select the Patch Tool. Using the Patch Tool, drag the selected area down or around to a spot that presents a good match. You’ll quickly see that Photoshop does a great job fixing the area in little to no time at all. Plus, since we’re already in Photoshop, I like to use the spot healing brush to fix little temporary blemishes (like pimples, etc.) or other distractions around the frame.

When you’re done, save it out and go back to Lightroom.

Step 9. Add Final Touches in Lightroom

Eye whitening brush retouching toolkit home studio cheap

Before calling it a day, I like to add some final touches to the image, like whitening the eyes. I normally use the Eyes Whitening brush from the Visual Flow Retouching Toolkit. If you don’t have the toolkit, copy the settings in the image above and save them out as a brush. It’s a gift from me to you!

Drag the brush over the whites in the eyes to make the adjustment. In order to ensure that you’re not going too far and making the eyes pop in an unnatural way, I suggest zooming out (press “G” to go to Grid View) and check to see if the adjustment stands out too much. If it does, go back in and adjust the brush. Just select the pin you dropped over the eye with the brush, and then click and drag it to the left (to lessen the effect) or right (to increase the effect). You may also need to select the Erase tool within the brush and paint off (or remove) the brush spill over the shadows around the eyes.

Iris brush retouching toolkit home studio cheap

Here’s another brush I like to use for intensifying the iris. Copy the settings in the image above, and then brush over the iris just like you did the whites of the eyes.


Before After home studio cheap 01

[Related Reading: Create a $20 Photography Studio You Can Take Anywhere]


We hope you enjoyed this article/video on how to create a home portrait studio for $20 (or less, if you already have a scrim). With just a bit of simple retouching, studio-quality images can be created in unassuming places, including the doorway of your own home. It goes to show that little stands in your way of creating, no matter what.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!