What is Studio Photography?

In its truest sense, studio photography is preformed indoors, in a managed setting where the photographer has complete control over all of the elements that go into creating a photograph.

Studio photography is used to shoot a wide variety of subjects, including people, animals and wide variety of products, from automobiles to jewellery. A photography studio will usually start out as a blank space, meaning just an empty room. The photographer will then develop backdrops and decide what to include and exclude from the photo, such as costumes for models and props.

What is Studio Photography - Shootfactory

The key difference between studio and location photography is the studio photographer can control every aspect of the photo shoot. When on location, photography may be preformed either indoors or out. When shooting at an outside location the photographer has to contended with wind, rain and varying light conditions. When shooting at in indoor location the photographer may have to contended with less-than-perfect lighting and distracting background objects.

When shooting on location the photographer must bring some of the elements of the “studio” to the location. While this can help give the location a more professional atmosphere, it is almost impossible to set up a location shoot that will match the ideal conditions in a properly setup studio. However, when shooting in the controlled environment of a studio the photographer has ultimate control over every aspect of creating the perfect photo, including setting up the ideal lighting scheme.

Studio photography will use a variety of backgrounds of different genres. These will include simple monochromatic background for portrait shots and complex background that simulate outdoor scenes, such as a beach or busy street, to make it look like the shot was actually taken on location. Specialised attire and props for models are frequently used and props can be anything from a period-specific costume to a pair of reading glasses.

Lighting is the lifeblood of good studio photography, and all the best models, costumes and props will not make up for poor lighting. Lighting needs can vary greatly, depending on the type of camera, whether the medium is film or digital, the size and type of the subjects, the skin tone of the models, the colour of the clothing and whether the shot is a portrait, still life or specialised fashion shoot.

In studio photography, both placement and colour of the lighting is critical to achieve the desired look. In some cases the photographer may want to produce a dramatic shot with strategically-placed shadows, whereas for other shots, like shooting a product like a diamond ring for an advertising campaign, the photographer will arrange the lighting so there are no shadows at all.

The cost for a professional studio photography shoot can range from just a few pounds for a simple portrait to ten of thousands for a high-tech advertising campaign. The high prices that some shoots command did not come about overnight, In order to truly understand what studio photography is today, it is imperative to understand its history.

The History of Studio Photography

Studio photography dates back to 19th century and photographic technology has been continuously evolving since the first photographs were shot with all-natural materials in 1824. With today’s modern digital SLR cameras capable of capturing razor-sharp images without film, it may be a little hard to believe that the first studio photographers had to carefully combine chemicals in precise amounts for every single exposure.

The earliest studio photography were only capable of producing black and white images. Capturing today’s crystal-clear images in spectacular colour without film would have been as inconceivable to them as flying from New York to California in a few hours would have been to the Wright brothers.

With advancements in equipment, technology and techniques, studio photography began to take hold as it became easier to produce high-quality images indoors. The first commercial studio photography was portraits of people and by the 1940s studio photography had almost completely replaced painting for portraiture as the photography process was much simpler and took far less time. However, it is worth noting, the first studio still portrait was taken in 1826 and required an eight-hour exposure!

Advancements in Lighting Techniques

There is no question that one of the greatest advancements in studio photography was lighting, but the history of studio photography began quite some time before studio photography lighting was available. The earliest studio lighting borrowed from the lighting techniques used by painters, and this is where the term “fine art photography” originated.

During those early days of studio photography, photographers used an open window for the primary lighting source. Most painters’ studios used a large, north-facing window or skylight to illuminate their subjects. This was intentionally designed to take advantage of the most indirect and diffused source of natural light. In this way the light doesn’t hit the subject directly, effectively muting the light and giving the subject a softer appearance. Many of the best studio photographers still use this natural-lighting technique today.

Studios photographers begin using artificial lighting for photography in 1840 and experimented with many different techniques in an attempt to cope with the challenges of properly lighting subjects in the studio. However, many of these early techniques were very expensive and not altogether safe.

Flash powders were one of the first methods of generating artificial lighting that produced adequate brightness. Another early types of flash was commonly referred to as a “hot light” and stood the very real risk of exploding! By the 1860s better, and safer, lights were commonly used in studio photography. Roughly 100 years later, in the 1970’s, strobe lights, or “flashes,” had become commonplace.

The first time what is typically thought of as “flash” photography dates back to the early 1800s when limelight was used to photograph microscopic subjects. This type of flash photography was most likely inspired by the theatre that was using limelight to light stage productions. A flash was produced by adding chunks of lime to a flame fuelled by oxygen and hydrogen. However, this technique did not produce very good results for photography, with harshly lit pictures and overexposed skin tones.

Flash powder was invented in 1887, with the main ingredient being magnesium that produced a bright-white light. Latter, magnesium wire replaced powder and when used with a reflector it created an ideal artificial studio lighting source. However, like limelight, magnesium had its own issues.

Magnesium can be somewhat unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Sometimes the wire wouldn’t ignite and the ignition speed would vary, making it difficult to predict exposure times. The burning magnesium wire also produced grey smoke and noxious fumes, making it highly problematic for studio photography.

In 1887 Johannes Gaedicke and Adolf Miethe began combing magnesium powder and potassium chlorate to create a new type of flash powder. Being able to create a bright flash of instant light meant studio photographers could now take pictures in very dark conditions. However, as the new powder was actually an explosive, accidents were commonplace. Sadly, more than a few photographers met their end when mixing up a batch of powder.

Flash Bulbs

The introduction of the flash bulbs didn’t start in the studio, but with underwater photography. The world’s first underwater photographer, Louis Boutan, came up with the concept of placing powdered magnesium in a jar. Shortly thereafter the German Hauser Company created the first true flash bulbs in 1929 by replacing the magnesium wire with aluminium foil that was set on fire with an electronic battery.

The new technique produced a light that was strong, soft and diffused, providing photographers with the lighting technique that would truly revolutionise studio photography. These new flash bulbs were the first truly-safe method of creating artificial lighting that caused neither explosion nor smoke and became the accepted light source for all types if indoor photography.

These new flash bulbs enabled studio photographers to set a precise shutter speed, instead of having to open and close the camera’s shutter manually. This was the beginning of the on-camera flash era that eventually created the technology that allowed the big studio-photography lights to flash together in synchronisation. It was not long after the invention of the flash bulb that mass-market cameras became available to the public.

Electronic Flash

Just a couple of years after flash bulbs were created, the invention of the first electronic flash in 1931 once again revolutionised how photographs were shot in the studio.

American photographer and electronic engineer, Harold Edgerton invented the first reusable flash called a “stroboscope.” Edgerton’s invention worked by connecting a bulb containing mercury gas to a battery that would excite the gas and create a brief, but very bright, flash of light. This flash was easily manipulated by increasing or decreasing the charge times, allowing photographers to control of the duration of the flash.

The new flash could be set to as short a time as 10 microseconds, allowing photographers to capture things a fast as a bullet in flight. The battery allowed the flash to recharge, making Edgerton’s stroboscope the first reusable flash. The mercury gas was later replaced with xenon that allowed for much smaller flash units. While strobes didn’t become widely available until the late 70s, Edgerton’s stroboscope was the foundation for the technology still used today in modern studio photography electronic flashes.

Camera Exposure Control

With the advancements in lighting and film, studio photography needed to create a way of shorting exposure times, as using just a lens cap or blackout curtains to manipulate exposure was no longer practical. To adjust to faster exposure times, studio photographers began working on designing a mechanism to control the exposure time of film.

The first camera adjustable shutters allowed for between 1/100th to 1/1000th of a second exposure times. With this advancement, studio photographers quickly realised the need to evaluate the intensity of the light. This led to the birth of the light meter and it quickly became an indispensable tool in studio photography. With a light meter, studio photographers were able to tell exactly how strong the light was and adjust the exposure time for each photograph accordingly

Photographic Plates and Film


Heliography was crerated by Nicéphore Niépce around 1820s and is the world’s first-known photographic process. The key component of the heliography was a naturally-occurring asphalt known as Bitumen of Judea. The process involved covering a metal or glass plate with Bitumen that would solidify at different speeds, depending on the exposure to light. Once the exposure was taken the plate would be washed with lavender oil, leaving only the hardened Bitumen that revealed the image of the objects the plate was exposed to. This is the process that was used to create the earliest known surviving photograph, known as “View from the Window at Le Gras.”


After Niépce’s passing in 1833, L. Daguerre came up with one of early photography’s most significant advancements. Called the “Daguerreotype,” this technique paralleled the same principles as the heliography but with a different developing process. The daguerreotype process started with a plate made up of silver-plated copper that had to be precisely polished by a daguerreotypist. After polishing, the daguerreotypist would treat the plate with mercury to make the plate light sensitive. After exposure, a chemical was used to stop the plate’s sensitivity to light.

Compared to a heliograph, which really resembled a drawing, daguerreotypes created a sharp and very detailed image. However, the problem with the daguerreotype was it required at least a 30-minute exposure to light to capture an image!

The Calotype plate was introduced during the 1840s, allowing the production of negatives that allowed the photographers to print as many copies of a photo as needed, strengthening the foundation for studio photography. Portraits called “Ambrotypes” started being produced during the 1850s. This reduced the exposure time from hours down to between two and 20 seconds.

A bit of studio-photograph trivia; the first selfie was made in the 1800s when studio photographer Robert Cornelius removed the lens cap of his camera, ran and sat in the frame for one minute and then ran back our of the frame to cover the lens.

Rise of Studio Photography: Rapid Advancements in Technology

The 1840s saw a rapid expansion in the science that would further the advancement of studio photography. The earliest photographic studio was most likely that of Niépce and studio photography started becoming commonplace around 1840 due to the invention of Daguerreotypes. With people wanting to have themselves and loved ones captured in the new medium, most of the early photography studios concentrated on portrait photography because of its commercial viability. Notable discoveries and improvements of the era include:

  • Hippolyte Bayard discovered a way to use silver iodide and silver chloride to create photographic impressions on paper.
  • John Herschell experimented with sodium-hyposulfite baths that stopped the exposeure process. Herschell’s fixer is still used today to create photo negatives.
  • Hippolyte Fizeau invented the short-focal lenses in 1841.

The Golden Age of Studio Photography

The 1850s were considered the “golden age” of photography in Europe. The typical studio portrait of the time was a formal shot using the same stereotypical “portrait” pose. Photographers like Cameron and Nadar, inspired by fine art, began expending the limits of photography by posing well-know subjects, such as actors, artists and poets, in uncommon poses and using unique costumes and lighting techniques.

While studio photography remained fairly out of reach to those outside the upper class in Europe, studio photographers in the U.S. were bringing their Yankee ingenuity to bear. While the European studio photographers pursued photography for the sake of art, the Americans pursued it for business.

Daguerreotypes still had an approximate twenty-minute expose time when the technique hit U.S. soil in 1839. Americans quickly reduce the exposure time to just a few minutes. This was accomplished by using chemical adjustments to increase the light sensitivity of the plate and mirrors to improve light transmission. This resulted in over three million daguerreotypes being produced every year in the United States by 1850.

Celluloid Film

While setting the proper shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure is one of the first things a studio photographer has to master, cameras didn’t even have shutters for the first half century of early days of photography. During this time exposures took several seconds and photographers either just removed and replaced the lens cap or used some form of blackout material, like curtains, to block the light prior to and after the negative being exposed. This all changed when Richard Meaddox discovered the significance of using gelatin in photography in 1871.

Until this time, photographers had been using a slightly upgraded technology based on the Calotype invented 30 years earlier. Because of the long exposure duration, the Calotype restricted what could and could not be photographed. Meaddox found that adding gelatin to the chemical base images could now be exposed in just fractions of a second. A short time later, George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, would employ Meaddox’s technology to create celluloid rolls that became referred to as “film.”

Colour Photography

While many artists tried to hand colour black and white photographs, the technique didn’t produce realistic images and never really caught on. Due to the lack of realistic colour in photographic portraits, conventional painted portraits saw a resurgence in popularity.

Colour photograph was first produced in 1861 by James Clerk Maxwell who hypothesised that shooting a black and white photo through a red, green and violet filter would cause the human eye to perceive the shot in the actual natural colours. Chemists didn’t actually figure out how to reproduce colour on film until the late 1800s.

The Lippmann Method

Many studio photographers stayed loyal to the Maxwell method until physicist Gabriel Lippmann figured out how to create the first fixed-colour photo in 1891. The Lippmann method, later named “interferential” photography, is fairly complicated, but involved taking advantage of standing light waves.

A standard black and white emulsion, placed backwards in a camera, came into contact with a mirror made of mercury. The resulting effect was that colour was recorded on the plate. This discovery was such a pivotal turning point for studio photographer that Lippmann was awarded the Nobel Prize for it in 1908. However, because the process is so complicated, even today the technique is neither widely known nor used.

Layered Film

In 1935 colour photography became more widely accessible when L. Godowsky and L. Mannes invented a new type of film that was made up of different layers sensitive to the colours of red, blue and green. Used in conjunction with a new chemical developer that gave a different colour to each layer, colour studio photography became a realistic enterprise.

Originally created for Agfa, and dubbed Agfacolor films, Kodak purchased the rights to the new colour-film technology and renamed the film “Kodachrome.” While photography has since seen many other technological advancements, even today’s modern-film technology relies on using the same main components in colour film.

Digital Photography Begins to Replace Film

While digital photography has only become advanced enough to be used for studio work in the last several years, digital photography had its origins in the “Space Race.”

Not just about being the first country to land a man on the moon, the biggest part of the space race was gaining the ability to spy on enemies. For obvious practical reasons, taking photos on film from satellites in orbit wasn’t the most expedient methods of espionage. With necessity being the mother of invention, digital cameras were created in the 1950s and sent into space.

Breakthroughs in Digital Photography

The first digital photograph was actually a scanned analogue, or printed, photograph. The first key advance in the digital-photography age was the ability to transfer analogue to digital signals. This was the same technology that was used to create videocassette recorders, or VCRs.

Digital technology took a giant leap forward when Willard Boyle and George Smith invented a device in 1969 that was able to change light waves into electric signals. The first true digital camera, capable of capturing 0.01 megapixels, was invented in 1975 by Eastman Kodak. Compare that with some of today’s high-end studio photography cameras boasting over 800 megapixels and costing over 100K!


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