Studios can be outdoors too!

Did you know studios can be outdoors too? We’ve all seen amazing behind the scenes glimpses of indoor studios, but until recently it hadn’t occurred me to do the same outdoors. Duh! Right?

Let me back track a few months to that time last fall when I visited Kristina in Sweden. Part of our adventuring was to visit all the places that she takes her amazing photos. If you were to visit me, this would take days since I’m prone to driving 60 minutes and hiking another hour to get to a perfect spot near my favorite mountain steam. Kristina showed me that this isn’t necessary.

As it turns out all of Kristina’s favorite photography spots are a few minutes walk from her home. It’s not that Kristina lives in a particularly beautiful place, she simply showed me that you can do a lot with very little. Of course, awesome light helps. Brett has a similar situation which he has alluded to; he has a little garden he created with his wife just for toy photography.

When I returned home I started looking around for something that I could use to create an outdoor photography studio on my kitchen porch. I chose this location since it’s has good morning light. The rest of my yard is too shady for what I had in mind. I appropriated a circular steel pan from my sons workshop and filled it with water. I’ve been playing around with this set up for a few months and I’ve been pleased with the results.

Its not much to look at, but Ive created some magic in this little pond!
You can see the light source adds a little color to the skeleton heads.
Winter Fun in the Over World!

Of course there are limitations to my outdoor studio.

  • the water has an edge which I have to work around
  • the story needs to be stronger since I can’t rely on the background to carry the image
  • I’m photographing into the sun so I often need an additional light source
  • I’m limited to the 30-40 minutes of photography before the sun is blocked by trees

The benefits out weigh these limitations. Since I pass by my little studio everyday, I’m always thinking about the next photo. I can also take advantage of the light even if it’s for only a few minutes.

Returning home.

When the winter temperatures dropped and my pan of water froze, a whole new world of possibilities opened up. I never would have thought to create my own private ice rink, but I have one. The frozen surface has opened up a whole new set of possibilities including imbedding items into it.

Of course, your outdoor studio doesn’t have to be a pan of water.  It could just as easily be a cookie sheet decorated with moss, gravel, sand, sticks or rocks. Whatever your creativity dictates. You can even add small mini figure scaled plants .

I’ve seen plenty of photographers set up elaborate indoor studios to simulate a variety of outdoor situation. No matter how cool the results, I can’t image myself doing this. For me there is a magic to the sun that I want to capture. My hope is that by creating a small outdoor studio I can have the best of both worlds. I can capture the beauty of the ever changing sun while still experiencing the convenience of a photo studio right outside my door.

Thank you Kristina for showing me there are simpler (and better) ways to get the photo. 🙂


Do you have a studio, either indoors or out, that you use to simulate a natural environment? If so, what does it look like? 

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  1. Shelly,

    Thanks for this post! I agree completely. I see some amazingly extravagant dioramas in some BTS shots and I’m just thinking; that would take forever!?

    I used to travel to places far away as well but then I realized my shots don’t really focus at all on the background… so I now just look low and find my own natural dioramas in the undergrowth of bushes or the small weathered holes in sandstone.

    The outdoor lighting really brings out the best colors and light. I’ll have to replicate your solution on here as I have been trying to do reflection shots in puddles and the wind hasn’t cooperated – having a small “lake” or reflective pan in my back patio that is shielded from the wind is perfect!

    Thanks again!

    • Shelly Corbett

      Im glad I was of help Joseph! When you’re photographing a macro environment and you’re bringing the subject, then light really is the only variable to be considered. I hope you will share your set-up when and if you get one together. Mine seems pretty minimal and Im thinking about creating an upgrade and I can use some inspiration. 🙂

  2. I’m so honored that your visit to my home landed in this experience. As I have told you time after time I’m lazy. When you do a photo a day you can’t go to far to get the shot, so I had to find the most convenient place to do my photography. For me is the limitation an asset, both in locations and with the window of light, – it’s always is to short 😉

    This post made me smile – I’m so happy you shared this!/kristina

    • Shelly Corbett

      I wouldn’t call you lazy, I would prefer the word ‘expedient’. I think you’re right that limitation is an asset; you have to really think about the story…and the light!

      Im so glad I made you smile! 🙂

  3. I also have an outdoor “studio” I use for a lot of my shots, technically it’s my porch, but it’s covered and one side looks out to shrubs and plants that I use a background. Most of my shots in my IG feed that have a blurred out green/blue/ochre (depending if I play with hues at all) background were taken there. The porch has a railing (very similar to the one you showed) that I put a piece of plywood on. That plywood is similar to a stage, where I can change the looks and stories using various “set dressings.” I do have to be careful though because it’s so easy to shoot there that if I’m not careful my work can begin to have a sameness too it in feel because of the background. Actually, I know it’s happened, so I have to deliberately avoid shooting there at times. But it’s nice knowing it’s there. I even shoot there comfortably when it’s raining.

    • Shelly Corbett

      After reading this I think need to make my ‘studio’ bigger. I don’t have any room to move my lights around. I also worry about background fatigue. So far Ive gotten away with it but I also realize the story needs to be more important than the setting. A mini out door studio is a great tool to have in your tool belt, but it’s no replacement for the real thing. Now you’ve making me jealous of your awning! I still kneel in the rain (or lately the snow) to get my photo. Thanks for joining the conversation Mitch! Its always good to hear what the pros are doing! 😀

  4. thereeljames

    Fantastic post, Shelly! I love that you found a little spot on your porch to capture such great photos. I would have never guessed that some of these were taken there, or that they were all taken in the same spot! Each one is so distinctive and stands perfectly on its own.

    One thing I love about toy photography is that you really can find fantastic shooting locations in unexpected places. You really don’t need a ton of space since it’s all on a macro scale!

    I’ve been working on finding some sweet spots of my own near home, as I try to do more outdoor shots. I love your portable pond and will have to try that out for myself!

    • Shelly Corbett

      James, your right, with macro photograph you need a little interest and some great light (and an interesting plastic subject) and not much else. While I love traipsing around the PNW looking for interesting locations, I can also use my convenient little studio just as easily. Let me know what you come up with if you make a little pond! Shelly

  5. Carlos @legophotographica

    Hi Shelly,

    In my case I wear always a small zip bag with maybe ten-to-twenty legos, and I wear it everytime (even to work inside my bag!!). Depending on the time frame I have, I can create a more elaborated picture or just place the “Actor” there and shoot.

    I wear the bag as well when I go for a walk with my gf, who knows…

    But anyhow, as we mentioned already, the funny and amazing thing is using the “real world” as studio, indoors or outdoors. It keeps you focus.

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