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Time Out With Tanya

No Studio? No Problem! Part 1: Mobile Photography Studio Kit

By Tanya Goodall Smith on February 24th 2014

Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera and you can come along, if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

Unlike many of the writers here at SLR Lounge, I don’t live in sunny, gorgeous Southern California (or Florida) where one can shoot outdoors year round. Not having a dedicated studio space makes it especially difficult to shoot during the winter up here in the gloomy, grey, pitch-black-by-four-PM, freeze-your-buns-off, Inland Northwest. Which is why I learned to use off camera flash a couple years ago and have built up a nice little mobile kit I can use in a client’s home or office, even if it’s dark and cold outdoors. In this No Studio? No Problem! series, I’ll show you some creative set ups for taking portraits without a dedicated studio space, using natural and artificial light.

In part 1, I simply show you what I have in my kit and why I chose it…


Since I’m a part-time photographer (I only book 1 to 2 shoots per week) and shooting on-location, I’m always looking for gear that will give me the most bang for my buck and be as light weight as possible. Most of the gear in my bag is lower budget friendly, with the exception of a few items…

Camera & Lenses

I’m using the Canon 5D Mark III, which performs really well in low light. This is ideal when working in-doors. A typical lens for portraits is the Canon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens. This lens is incredibly affordable and works great, but sometimes I’m stuck in a small space and need a wider angle out of sheer necessity, which is why I splurged on the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 Mark II zoom lens and it’s on my camera 75% of the time. This lens is versatile and tack sharp. I also have in my bag a Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime, which I only use if I need the extra depth of field or speed in low-light.

Laptop & Software

I’ve always been a Mac user and having a laptop is a great asset when you’re constantly on the go. The small screen isn’t the best for editing, but I make it work. Plus it fits right in my LowPro Camera Bag. I’ve been happy with the MacBook Pro, especially when paired with an Intuos Wacom Tablet and pen. Don’t forget a calibrater (I use the Spyder 4 by Datacolor) and development software. I use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, plus the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System. This set of gear is basically my mobile digital darkroom and I can process photos wherever I happen to be. I also use my laptop for sales sessions on-location.



Lights & Modifiers

I’m always tempted to buy large studio lights, but I exercise a little restraint and stick to lightweight and durable Canon Speedlite 430EX flashes. Someday I’ll upgrade to something a little newer, like the Canon 580EX, or maybe even the amazingly affordable Yongnuo Professional Flash Speedlights. I have Pocketwizard Flex TT5 triggers for my flashes but actually prefer the much more affordable 4 Channel Wireless Trigger for External Speedlights by Cowboy Studio for a simple lighting setup.

I also carry a Wescott 5-in-1 Reflector, and a few different portable light modifiers. My favorite is CowboyStudio’s Pro 30 Inch Octagon Umbrella Speedlite Softbox. For the price, this is an excellent modifier that folds up like an umbrella for easy transport. It has a few flaws, and if I had a little more money to spend, I would choose something like the Westcott Rapid Box. In fact, if I were just starting out, I’d grab the Westcott Rapid Box Portable Portrait Speedlite Kit, which comes with two light stands, two modifiers and a nice carrying case. Score!


If you’ll be getting creative with backdrops, which are especially useful for Newborn Photography, you’ll need a Backdrop Stand. While you can get a portable backdrop system for as little as $40, I knew I’d be hauling this thing around from place to place, and I wanted to invest in something durable and light weight. The Manfrotto Background Support System I’ve been using since 2011 has held up very well and it also comes with a handy carrying case. I keep things pretty simple, as far as backdrops go. A roll of white paper or neutral textured blankets work for me. For more info on all the right gear to use for Newborn Portraits, check out the SLR Lounge Newborn Portrait Workshop.

Transporting It All

Since I work without an assistant most of the time, I need to be able to carry all this gear by myself. While I’m sure there are camera bags made specifically for hauling all your gear, I just happened to have a giant Ogio rolling suitcase, which fits all my gear (except the backdrop supports and light stands, which have their own carrying case). I can literally carry all my gear from the car in one trip with my backpack camera bag, light stands and backdrop support bags slung over my shoulder and wheeling the rest in the Ogio bag. Now I just have to keep telling myself not to buy any more gear, because I don’t want to have to make two trips out to the car to unload everything!

I’m excited to show you some of the creative ways I’ve used the items in this kit for on-location portrait sessions. Check out No Studio? No Problem Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

For more information about creative lighting, check out the SLR Lounge Lighting 101 Workshop DVD, available in the SLR Lounge store. Click here to view more details.

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Johnathan Downer

    curious… you said you’re using a paper backdrop.. what size (width) roll did you use so you could still fit it in your bag?  the bag i’m looking at getting is 32″.  but i’d want a 53″ roll.. so it wouldn’t fit. is the bag you’re using long enough? the one liked didn’t seem that long

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  2. Marisol Diamond

    My dream is to start a mobile studio and shoot kids portraits at daycares and pre-schools but I don’t know yet how to go about developing the photos :-(

    Any ideas and tips are welcome!  I am very eager to work for my self, corporate America is killing me!!!

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  3. Johnathan Downer

    Nice setup for a mobile studio. definitely going on my pins. though it’ll probably take a few years for me to get everything here… or even equivalents. just due to cost…but a great place to start on building and getting the tools needed

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  4. Robin

    Thrift not theft lol

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  5. Robin

    I transport my backdrop and lighting stands, backdrops, steamer and umbrellas in a rolling travel golf bag I found at a theft store for $8.00 lol

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  6. Rocio Perez

    OMG. Thank You!!! This is excellent, Love it….

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  7. Audra White

    I have the Cowboy Studio 4 channel wireless trigger and regardless of what I do – it never fires consistently. I use it with a Yongnuo flash. I cannot find any documentation online as to what the problem is. I know my channels are right and I can usually get it to fire once but then no more. Suggestions?

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    • Tanya Smith

      Generally if mine doesn’t fire it’s because the batteries are low or the hot shoe connection isn’t secure. Otherwise I haven’t had any problems with them. Good luck!

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  8. Einstein

    Love the idea of this series and looking forward to it. The link to sign up for your weekly emails is broken.

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  9. Ken

    The Raveli ABSL is a great cheap backdrop that is tough enough to handle 107″ paper but modular enough to do 53″. I have a similar setup with a few additional Yongnuo flashes (2 for the backdrop, 1 for fill in addition to the key). I initially got the 622N triggers but discovered that I never use TTL and the 603s are fine.

    You also forgot: LOTS of batteries.

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    • Tanya Smith

      Yes to the batteries! In fact, I just ordered a set of rechargeable batteries for the first time today because I’m tired of buying batteries constantly. I hope they work ok with the flash…

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  10. Camille

    How difficult is it to set up the backdrop stand by yourself? I’ve been using the Westcott X-drop kit for one or two people. I’m thinking about the Calumet portable backdrop for larger groups.

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    • Tanya Smith

      No problem whatsoever setting mine up by myself. This particular one I use has air in the shaft so you can raise up the stands without problems. Not sure of the technical term for that feature but it helps.

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  11. Kirk Sunglieng

    Thanks for sharing your creativity and tips on how to work on the fly.

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  12. Paul Tucker

    Very curious to know what stands you’re using for the backdrop, lights and probably most of all, the reflector arm. Thanks for this series. Looking forward to reading more!

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    • Tanya Smith

      Hey Paul,
      I’m using a Manfrotto backdrop stand (see the link in article). It’s a little pricey but very light weight and durable. It’s held up well over the last couple years and still looks brand new. I’m actually using a generic reflector stand and it’s not the greatest. In fact, I rarely use it. Anyone else have a recommendation for a good one?

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  13. Parri

    Great idea for a series. Here in the grey UK we also suffer from a lack of year-round light.
    I look forward to reading the other articles.

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    • Tanya Smith

      Same here! It’s so dreary and half the time I can’t even get any decent window light coming in at noon. I’m excited to share some of my little tricks.

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  14. Stuart Bailey

    Just the type of write up I’ve been looking for. We don’t have a studio and do most of our work on location. The excellent suggestions for a mobile studio are greatly appreciated. Thanks

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  15. Graham Marley

    When you upgrade from the 430, pay the extra money and go with a couple 600EX-RT’s, especially if you have a 5D3. The functionality is definitely worth it over the 580 with radio triggers (especially if you’re actually going to drop dime on PWs)

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    • Tanya Smith

      Thanks for the tip! So, you don’t need triggers with the 600EX-RT’s? That would certainly be nice!

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  16. LPMurph

    I actually have those triggers as well, I have definitely been pleased with them. This is really all you need, a second Speedlight might be a bonus but really the only thing I’d add to that is my Tripod and remote trigger.

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    • Tanya Smith

      I do use a second light on occasion and a remote trigger and tripod if I’m doing something technical. I’m usually working hand held for portraits. Should have mentioned those as well, though. Thanks!

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