10 Must Have Studio Accessories
The Stuff I Use Nearly Every Day

10 Must-Have Studio Accessories

Over the years I've often written about shooting in the studio. Whether it's a huge commercial studio with a 30 foot wide cyclorama wall or the basement of your home, having an organized space with some decent lighting equipment is a tremendous asset.

As digital imaging continues to find near universal acceptance, more and more serious photographers are getting motivated to set up their own studios. While my own studio is crammed with strobes and computers, it's the little things that make life easier. While at my local Calumet in Boston last week I got into a discussion with photo biz legend Steve Freedman about this topic. Dealing with the top local and traveling pros for decades have given Freedman a pretty good feel for these things, and, as always, he hipped me to a few things that I didn't even think of. I went back to the studio and took a good look at my stuff and what I use every day, as well as a few new toys I picked up from Calumet that day. Here for your amusement are my top 10 accessories that every studio rat should own.

1. Clamps--I live on clamps. I use clamps by the bucketful. From clamping a sheet of foamcore to a light stand to pulling a model's blouse tight to eliminate wrinkles, clamps are where it's at. I have a bunch of different faves, but the obvious choice would be the ubiquitous Pony clamp. Back in the old days photo shops charged upward of $6 each for these, but now I find them in my local home improvement center for around $1-$2 each. The black plastic clamps with the rotating opposable red jaws are excellent for clamping stuff to 2x4s, and the very small metal clamps used by upholsterers are good for fashion shoots. I also keep a bucket full of old-fashioned wooden clothespins around, and they're excellent for clamping gels to barn doors. (Try and find a movie set without a bucket of clothespins!)

2. Gels--Once you have the aforementioned clothespins, you need a mess of gel cine filters. Once upon a time photographers were forced to frequent dingy cinematographer's hangouts in the bad parts of town and buy huge sheets of theatrical gels. Thanks to photographer friendly companies like Bogen and Rosco we now have still-oriented gel packs that are both cheap and convenient.

Rosco offers a number of gel assortments cut into very handy 10x12" sheets. I keep several packs on hand at all times, including the Color Correction Kit (for converting one light source into another), the Color Effects Kit (for deep punchy color effects), the CalColor Kit (nicely set up with four different colors in different densities), and the indispensable Rosco Diffusion Kit (chock full of all your favorite Rosco diffusion sheets). If you use any type of studio lighting either in the studio or on the road, you need a full complement of these light filters.

3. Calibrated Gray Card--Especially with digital imaging, photographers are learning that a reliable image of white, gray, and black is super handy. While the cardboard Macbeth Color Checker and the ever-popular Kodak 18 Percent Gray Card are studio legends, I've become very attached to these little QP Cards, which are calibration cards with sticky backs that come in packs of 15. Since my Macbeth and Kodak charts are dog-eared and dirty, the idea of a fresh reference card every couple of weeks is pretty cool. I stick them on products and on models.

The trick is to shoot one reference shot for every lighting setup, then remove the card and shoot normally. Once you have the digital images in front of you it's a simple matter to click on a white, gray, and black balance, save this setting and batch-apply it to your other images. It delivers foolproof color balance every time!

4. Magic Arms--One of the great mysteries of the photo world...how do Magic Arms work? These Manfrotto Magic Arms are the glue that holds the photography and film world together. You see them on every movie set, clamped to every NBA backboard, inside the cockpit of fighter jets, wherever dramatic photos need to be taken or where light heads need to live. It's literally an arm with a rotating wrist at both ends, a swiveling elbow in the middle, and a single control that locks it all surprisingly well.

I've even seen very cramped studio spaces where Magic Arms are clamped to wall studs and used as mini booms. When buying Magic Arms don't forget a Manfrotto Super Clamp for each end, which will allow you to position anything, anywhere, at anytime.

5. Background Light Stands--This one is Freedman's most overlooked studio accessory--a short and sturdy stand to throw a light head below seated subjects, behind industrial machines, and near the floor for cool, seamless background lighting. I bought a couple of nice little stands when I bought my AlienBees stuff a while ago and find that I use these stands nearly every day.

6. Monolights--Even though I use a full Balcar Source lighting system in my studio, I've found that there are always times when you just need one more light head. On location shoots I always have a need for a head a long distance from the main strobe pack. Rather than run miles of pricey light head extension cable, I've resorted to a few compact moonlights.

While I own several Balcar monolights, I find that I always wind up grabbing a slick little AlienBees B1600 instead. I travel with three of these in a separate case, all equipped with extra long 20 ft power cables (purchased from my local electrical supply shop). Since the Bees use the standard Balcar mount all of my accessories fit, though their somewhat weak clamping system preclude the use of really large softboxes. For your own setup at least one small monolight is a great tool to have, even if you're loaded up with proper studio strobe packs and heads.

7. Good Slaves--Every studio needs slaves, those little remote eyes that sync everything up optically. I use a small IR transmitter on my camera and everything fires wirelessly, flawlessly. The secret to really good cordless performance is to only use the good pro slaves. While those little "peanut" slaves and the eyes built into most packs are fine for syncing with another main wired strobe pack, for syncing with a very small on-camera flash or an IR transmitter you need super-sensitive slaves. I own a drawer full of Wein XL and SSL slaves, as well as mega-sensitive Super Slaves from Perfected Photo Products in California. Though the Super Slave takes a 9v battery, it seems to work with everything.

8. Focusing Spotlight--It seems that photographers fell in love with umbrellas and softboxes to a ridiculous extent. For most of the 1980s and '90s everything was soft and sensuous "window light." Softboxes are great, but every good studio photographer should own both a set of inexpensive grid spots for converting a standard reflector into a focused light source, and a focusing spotlight. I own a Norman Trilite (modified for use on my Speedotron packs), which is an excellent focusing unit. The Trilite looks like a slide projector with a strobe tube inside, and offers a variable image circle, true focusing lens, and the ability to project everything from steel masks to actual transparencies onto a surface. I use mine all the time.

9. Real Gaffer Tape--Put away your masking tape, your duct tape, your auto-body tape, and your Scotch tape. Real photographers use real gaffer tape. Sure it's expensive and a roll weighs a ton, but this stuff sticks to everything, leaves no residue behind, and is strong as hell. I now insist on only rolls of genuine 3M Highland 6910 tape. It's super strong, stays tacky forever, and rips into smaller sizes easily. I first got a roll of this stuff from a pit crew at a NASCAR race. They called it "200mph tape," and that seems about right to me.

I have a couple of strips stuck to all of the aluminum legs of my Bogen tripods, both to keep the silver-colored aluminum from reflecting into my images and also to have a constant source of tape available when I travel. (Like I said, this stuff stays tacky forever.)

10. Cinefoil--The most often overlooked accessories around most photo studios are weird light shaping devices. Sure everyone has a set of barn doors and a few sheets of foamcore, but what about interesting ways to shape light? Well for years I've been purchasing large rolls of Rosco Cinefoil from my local theatrical lighting supply house.

It's heavy-duty aluminum foil covered on both sides by a matte black coating. Besides turning practically any room into a darkroom, I've used Cinefoil to wrap around bare bulbs and reflectors to selectively eliminate light, and it's great in a pinch to make a quick and sturdy hand-crumpled lens shade. Once you get some Cinefoil you'll figure out a million uses for it, and finally Rosco makes it in small portions for those of us without Hollywood budgets.

So there you have it--lots of smart and usually cheap ways to enhance your own studio. There are probably 100 other weird and interesting tools that I use on a daily basis, everything from Lektro-Stik wax to Formica laminate surfaces, and I'm sure that you'll find a few must-haves of your own.


(877) 714-3381

Bogen Photo Corp.
(Gel Filters, Manfrotto Products)
(201) 818-9500

Calumet Photographic (QP Card)
(800) 453-2550

Photo Control Corporation
(Norman Trilite)
(763) 537-3601

Rosco Laboratories Inc.
(Gel Filters, Cinefoil)
(800) 767-2669

Wein Products Inc.
(213) 749-6049