View Full Version : Portable Skylight Studio

Cameron Cornell
4-Jan-2017, 16:39

I shoot portraits on an 8x10 Ansco Studio No. 5 using natural light. Cloudy bright has always been my preference, but over the summer I began making portraits at outdoor concerts and the like (shoot the portrait for free, retain the rights, and sitter can buy a print if they like it), and in Washington State that usually means shooting in full sun (our reputation for rain is built on the months Oct-Jun). A few venues have asked me to sign on as an official vendor next summer making portraits.

Here is my question:

Has anyone tried setting up an outdoor canopy tent as a skylight studio in the style of the 19th Century portrait ateliers? There is a tent with a peaked roof that measures 18x20' with a minimum height of a little under 7 feet at the sides and a maximum peak height of just over 11 feet (the King Canopy - Hercules at Home Depot). I have been brainstorming the notion of not using the white cover that comes with this tent, but instead draping materials to recreate the lighting of one of those great old portrait studios.

I'd be shooting portraits with a Wollensak Vitax 3.8 / 16" and a Voigtlander Heliar 4.5 / 14", so I could work with pretty modest light. What would be the best configuration? If the tent is running east to west, would I darken the south side facing full sun and leave the northern exposure wide open, or would it be better to use white fabric on the south side in full sun and darken the northern exposure? I know that studios often have northern exposed skylights, but I've also noticed that in many of the photographs of old portrait studios there are panels of fabric draped over the skylights that seem to be filtering full sun.

If it were cloudy bright, I'd just set up and shoot outside of the tent. Rain or high winds, I'd cancel.

Look at the following website (no affiliation) for an idea of some of the old studios I'm talking about: http://kadenca.tumblr.com/F

Obviously, what this will take is getting the actual materials and experimenting in three dimensions just like everything else. I just thought before I begin that process I'd throw it out to the forum to see if anyone has feedback, ideas, questions, or experience that could cut down my learning curve.

Thank you.

Cameron Cornell
Bellingham, WA

Drew Bedo
7-Jan-2017, 06:43
I have seen advertising for Llight stand supported screens and back drops that include translucent overhead panels to provide that cloudy-brighe look yhou want. They sell these components at my local camera store here in Houston, Houston Camera Exchange.


I am sure that this stuff can be had from online suppliers like Adorama and B&H.

If you want to DIY on the cheap, rig up something with tent poles and shower curtens.

Peter De Smidt
7-Jan-2017, 09:06
It looks like it would work well, but it would involve a lot of work setting up/tearing down.

Other options: http://shop.sunbounce.com/en/94-cages-scrims

7-Jan-2017, 12:21
Irving Penn did this over 40 years ago...look for a copy of his book "Worlds In A Small Room"

7-Jan-2017, 12:39
And FYI, you can buy bolts (15 yards) of 100% cotton muslin from Walmart for $90 with free shipping. I'm bought it a few times in the stores to make backdrops.

Cameron Cornell
7-Jan-2017, 13:10
Thank you fellows for your feedback and ideas. I just ordered the Irving Penn book- thanks for the recommendation. For a few years back in the 90's I worked for Aperture at the Paul Strand Archive up in Millerton, NY. When we assembled exhibitions, we did it in their book warehouse that had every Aperture book ever published, as well as seemingly every other book on photography under the sun. I used to use it like my own private lending library. I can't believe I never came across this one before! It looks like exactly the setup and lighting that I want to try to create. I'm going to get the frame of one of these canopies set up on our property and experiment with different ways of draping it to filter the light. I know it's a huge undertaking to set up and break down, but I'm only looking at doing this at events where I can set up ahead of time. If anybody else has any input, I'd love to hear.

7-Jan-2017, 22:04
For the parts for the frame, just go to Ebay and type in "canopy parts). Fyi-that $90 is for a bolt of 120" wide muslin.

"To invent something, you need a big pile of junk" Thomas Edison

Leszek Vogt
8-Jan-2017, 01:28

It's kinda rough and ready, but IMO functional. And don't laugh about this "paint" sketch. You could get a tent and install whatever background you wish inside. The sides can be cut out and rolled up, giving you as much light as you wish and you could control it too. If you desire softer light, you can put a plastic piece/tarp (the gray) over the whole thing....less wind interference, perhaps. Also, if you wish to convolute this contraption some more and add more light, you could get a video LED panel light/s (on batt, if AC not available) and dim it as you wish and tweak the WB if necessary. Might need some sand bags too to hold the stands down.


8-Jan-2017, 06:37
For more about Irving Penn and his tent, you might find these links interesting...

I wish this one was easier to read: