How To Light A Photobooth

posted in Thirsty Thursday

How To Light A Photobooth

The photobooth, fun booth, crazy booth, funky booth, whatever you want to name yours…  it’s a super fun and very popular addition to any event.  As a photographer, I’ve been setting them up at a lot of wedding receptions the last few years, but also some charity events, sorority houses, and even middle school dances.   A few people have been asking me (for a while now) to do a writeup on the setup and the lighting, so here goes! IMG_9275_web SPACE & VENUE CONSIDERATIONS:   I typically have my huge 9′ wide seamless ‘super white’ roll of paper (Savage brand) on some background stands with a crossbar — that’s my background that allows for groups, action, etc. and in my book trumps the little ‘booths’ in lighting, space, image quality, versatility etc.   The tradeoff is that I do not print on-site, but upload them to Facebook and my online store that same night.  They also show up instantly on the nearby iPad, which I’ll describe later. I’ve since purchased a large sheet of white spandex, but have yet to actually test out the stretching with A-clamps.. to see if the wrinkles actually go away under the light.  Maybe this winter.  But this 9′ roll of paper is getting old, amiright?? This takes some space at the venue: BP4_2183Space and location are the first things I ask a potential photobooth client…   And ceiling height is sort of a big deal, if you care about getting the light up above people who are standing.   I’d say 10′ high is the minimum for me.  High ceilings in ballrooms are great!    Sometimes I’ve had smaller setups, but it’s rare.  Here was one instance where we were *very* limited on space, but I got creative with the grip and just tried to hang everything from the ceiling: 257073_10151139545988678_898454509_oWhen we took the camera in-hand, nothing was left touching the ground except my feet.  This was a bowling alley, with my back to a pinball game, and the ‘booth’ is between the staff desk and a pool table.  I deviated from my normal modifier too, and used a strip box instead because of the low ceiling. Here was the result: img_8655 BACKGROUNDS:  As you see above, I don’t always have to use the background and 9′ wide paper — which is really nice at the end of a long wedding day!  Here are two examples where I just used the venue’s walls and some decor from clients: bp3_0450-1920x1280 bp3_0757-1920x1280And then there are instances where clients want their own backgrounds: bp4_3178 gridiron-3035-1920x1280 I’ve even used Thunder Grey a few times, but I think I’ve retired that option for now.. guys horns_ masthead White is a great clean look, and you can even dress it up a little: bp3_0240-1920x1280 Here’s a pullback of that event: Processed with VSCOcam with s1 presetLet me just note that I do not provide tables-full of props — they are responsible for bringing their own items, theme, and style and I just augment it with a frame or two, a few sunglasses and hats, etc.  Whatever has not been destroyed in the last year of photobooths!   Often times they will donate props to me after the booth..   This all really helps keep the cost down for both of us.

LIGHTING THE SET:   This is actually the easiest part of the whole thing, in my opinion.   It’s just one strobe in a 60″ Photek Softliter II.  (Paul Buff’s ‘Einstein’ strobe, but any 320-640 wattsecond unit would work.  A small flash or two would work, albeit more hassle).  You could also use a plain 60″ umbrella, or shoot-through, or a big octa, etc., but I like the quality of light from the Softliter and it packs up in my stand bag very nicely.   The stands are sandbagged of course, and the power pack is Buff’s mini-lithium pack.  I bring a spare and sometimes dip into the second battery at the end of an event when the first goes down to 1 bar.    (EDIT:  I’m now using a Profoto B1 (500ws) and a 60″ shoot-through umbrella.  Yes it’s overkill for this gig, but I use it for other shoots…. and love the lack of cords, receiver, and separate battery) 

The strobe is set on 1/4 power, and this is for two reasons.    First to conserve battery life, but mostly to increase recycle time between shots! The light is always about 10-12′ away from the background, maybe 12-15′ sometimes, and this is for two foundational lighting reasons:

1.  to light the subjects and the background with the same amount of light.    If the light is closer,  the falloff to the background will be more noticeable  (it will go darker than the people).  This is not necessarily bad, but I want to retain the white look of the white background — so I want it to get as much light as the people standing in front of it.  More distance helps this, and since I have a big 60″ umbrella with a diffusion panel…. the light quality is still pretty good at 10-15′ away.   Any time I can fly the umbrella up over my head at about 12′ away, I do.

2.  to light groups of people evenly.   Like when they try to cram 3 rows of people in the set!  I want the light on the front row to be the same as the back row.  Inverse square law.  Learn it, do it.

(This also means that I can shoot with my 50mm prime lens, which fills up the background from that distance, and has a nice normal look to it.  Longer lenses help visually compress groups of people onto a background behind them, and wider lenses will show things beyond the edges of the BG more easily.  50mm is just right at about 10-12′ for this BG.) 

The umbrella is literally right over my shoulder when I shoot.  I try to keep it centered on the set if I can, and angle it down a bit since it’s so high overhead. If you look at the shadows on people’s faces in the above photos, you can see what angle the light is coming from.   My foot is touching the light stand. PLUS, if you give yourself more space you can do cool action shots:

img_9414-1-1920x1280 OK, back to the lighting part.   Here are my camera settings: Processed with VSCOcam with c2 preset An aperture of f11 on the 50mm prime is giving me the best image quality, and to help get 2-3 rows of people in focus at once.  On a 5D3 the ISO can be up to 800 and it’s still very clean.    I’m always at f11, always at 1/160th to sync my strobe, and then the ISO varies between 400-800 depending on where my strobe location lands  (I keep my strobe on about 1/4 power).

If the light is a bit further away, like in the above gymnasium stage scene,  I bumped up the ISO to 640 but kept the strobe on 1/4 power.    Or you can also just shoot at 1/2 power and keep a lower ISO.  They are reciprocal, and it’s all about the same at that point.  I opt for slightly faster recycle times, since the change in ISO is pretty negligible and inconsequential for a photobooth photo.   If you try using speedlights, crank up the ISO and shoot at f8 or f5.6.  And get closer if you have to. Totally doable.  External AA pack would help.

Another camera tip is to put it on ALL POINTS autofocus.  Or at least a large cluster.   The AF on the mk3 is much better than past bodies, but in low light venues I’ve found it helps to have it on all points AF and then it just grabs focus on anyone and then the whole set is in focus.   (f11, remember?).  If it gets really really dark, I’ll just put one of my Canon flashes on top, and use the AF assist light but turn the flash firing off.  But it’s rare that I need that.

My white balance is usually set to a custom Kelvin setting between “daylight” and “flash” on the 5D  (the Einstein is ‘daylight’ balanced), but above I felt like the warmer ‘flash’ setting was looking better.  Below is why I cared that it looks great right out of the camera…

THE FUN PART:   The fun part is the EyeFi card and iPad setup.   I use an EyeFi card in the SD slot of the 5D3 that is configured to send small .jpg copies to the iPad (small, ‘fine’, jpegs; just about HD size for the iPad.  I also shoot raw to the CF card and do any necessary edits on those later).   This is great because it is in “Direct Mode” which doesn’t require a wifi connection in the venue.  The iPad is using ‘wifi’, but it’s actually the card that is sending the signal!   So I don’t have to depend on whatever wifi the venue does or does not have.  Sometimes it drops, and then comes back a few minutes later, but it’s been rock solid for a few years now.  I have a backup card just in case one doesn’t work.. but they always do.   Guests love seeing the photos right away, and swiping around the iPad to see what everyone else did.  It’s funny when they try to log in to their email and send a photo.. I have to explain that it’s not on wifi.   Then they just take a picture of the iPad.  But I hand out cards that have my Facebook page address on it, so they can find them later that night.   Super easy marketing, because they tag people all over  :)  I also put some highlights on Instagram and Twitter.


THE REALLY FUN PART:   The way to get really good photos and ideas out of a photobooth is to still be a photographer, exercising some creative control, directing the humans in front of  your camera.   Yes, alcohol “helps” :\  but a shy 2nd-shooter or assistant is just not going to get the same photos that I am…even if the lighting is the same and the people are the same.   Just something to think about.

/beard break/ bp4_4963-1920x1280 Well that’s all I got.   If I’m missing something, please leave a comment or a question and I’ll post an answer!

Stay tuned for a BTS on how I light the Purdue Fashion Show every spring… both the iso-on-white set, and the actual runway.




  1. Hey Ryan, there’s no limit to the size of mod you can use! I’ve used a 60″ umbrella with a small flash :)

  2. Scott, yes, good lighting will always make the images ‘better’. Also, lower iso, better lenses, better cameras, etc. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

purchase brand cialis