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The World's Simplest Ministudio for the Konica Minolta 5D

A ministudio is nothing but an arrangement of light sources, backgrounds, and light control surfaces that make it easy to get pleasing and consistent results when shooting small subjects. Such a studio can be a lot of fun and can serve a practical purpose for a variety of applications like product and catalog shots, eBay auction photos, and all sorts of hobby photography. You can buy custom-made studio kits, but it's also quite easy to assemble something yourself than can work very well. Here's a solution with nothing at all to build, and only a few essentials to buy.

The Equipment

Since I have a Konica Minolta 5D I'll be talking specifically about that camera - but the principles can be applied to a wide range of other cameras as well. Aside from the camera and an appropriate lens, this is all you'll need (and most of these things you probably already have):

An external flash unit, preferably with wireless control and adjustable manual output
(the Minolta 5600HS (D) is ideal, but many other models will work)
A table in a room with a white or nearly white ceiling
A sheet of flexible white posterboard
A flash diffuser (optional, but recommended)
An off-camera flash cable (optional, depending on the flash unit)
A tripod (optional)

Here's a photo showing everything (except the camera, lens, and ceiling!):

This is exactly how my ministudio was set up for the example shots below. As I mentioned, the flash diffuser, flash cable, and tripod might not be necessary but can be helpful for obtaining the best possible results. You could also try white tissue paper or cloth instead of an actual diffuser.

Setting Up

Place the posterboard on the table, and put something behind it to hold the back end up at a slight angle. Arrange your subject(s) on the posterboard. If you're using a tripod, set it up at an appropriate location and height. If not, you can just hand-hold the camera. You have a wide range of choices regarding which lens to use, but 50mm is a good focal length for subjects of this approximate size. For these shots I used the Konica Minolta 18-70mm kit lens set at 50mm.

 Set the camera to 'A' mode at f/5.6, ISO 200, and set white balance to Daylight or Flash. If you have a wireless flash like the 5600HS (D), set the camera and flash for wireless mode and set the flash to manual operation. With the 5600HS (D), try a 1/4 power setting. For wired flashes, connect the flash using an off-camera cable. Place the flash unit on the table pointing straight up, as shown in the photo.

Shooting and Tweaking

 Now frame and focus on the subject and take a shot. Check the LCD to see how it turned out. Chances are it will be under or overexposed, so you'll need to make adjustments to the lens aperture and/or the flash output and try again. Remember that changing the aperture will also influence depth of field for creative focusing effects. If your flash doesn't have adjustable output you can try reducing the light intensity with layers of white tissue paper or cloth. You might also want to move the flash around to different positions on the table. Keep shooting and tweaking until you get the exposure you want. Ideally the white background should look very close to solid white on the LCD, and show some blinking highlights in the histogram display.

Fine Tuning with Wireless Flash

If you're using a wireless flash system with the settings described above, the camera's internal flash should contribute slightly to the illumination of objects facing the camera. You can further fine tune the relative intensity of the internal flash to obtain more or less direct illumination. This can be done by adjusting the lens aperture or the camera's ISO sensitivity. But changing these settings will also affect the way that the external flash illuminates the scene, so some trial-and-error will be required to achieve a precise balance between the two light sources.

You can use a diffuser to decrease the direct lighting and also help eliminate any distracting shadows thrown by the internal flash. This often produces the best results.

If you don't want the internal flash to contribute to the exposure at all you can try blocking the flash from reaching the subject, or using a flash cable. With a wired flash connected, the internal flash is closed and does not contribute to the shot.

And Now the Easy Way

Guess what? There's actually an even easier method if you're using a wireless automatic flash like the 5600HS (D). I didn't say so earlier because I wanted you to think a little about manual flash concepts first. Do the same things described in Setting Up above, but instead of using the flash in manual mode, leave it set to the automatic TTL mode at full power. This way the camera will take care of the combined flash output without you having to think about it, and you should get good results at apertures from around f/2.8 to f/11. Your job here is to make sure that the overall brightness of the scene is correctly captured, and you do this with the camera's flash exposure adjustment, found on the Function Button menu. Without this input from you, the camera would attempt to make that bright white posterboard look like a medium gray, heavily underexposing the scene. With the above setup, a compensation setting of +1.3 stops produced a very nice exposure. Diffusing the internal flash is highly recommended in this approach as well, to eliminate any background shadows.

The Results

Here are three sample images made with the ministudio. The first was done with the internal flash operating normally in wireless mode. In the second I had the diffuser covering the internal flash, and the third was done using an off-camera cable, disabling the internal flash completely. I should point out that the posterboard I used is not pure white, and you can tell that in the photos. If I wanted to do something important with those shots, I'd have to 'purify' the white in post processing first - or get some new posterboard!

Normal wireless mode. The internal flash produces strong catchlights and reflections, and also visible background shadows from Santa's hat and the right edge of the bowl.

Wireless mode with a diffuser on the internal flash. The catchlights and reflections are still present but not as strong, and the background shadows have been eliminated. This is the approach most likely to produce a pleasing shot.

Internal flash disabled using an off-camera cable. No catchlights or reflections. All light is coming from the external flash bounced off the ceiling and the posterboard. The subject is not as evenly lit and shadows are deeper than in the other shots, as seen between Santa's feet and at the right of the bowl.

That's pretty much it! So, is this ministudio really the world's simplest? Maybe not. You could actually eliminate the requirement for external flash by setting up your table outdoors during the day, in open shade. But then you might have to contend with changing light conditions, wind blowing your posterboard around, and debris or insects entering the scene. So let's say that this ministudio is about as simple as you can get while still providing a good level of control.

Text and images 2007 Ray Lemieux