Well after turfing out all of the rubbish you find in a garage, like bikes, tools, cars (OK I lie, we never put a car in the garage), I have managed to fill it with a 'studio'. It is small but does provide a workable area.
When I was working my budget out for equipment I was not sure about getting a Lastolite HiLite but I am glad I did in the end. The HiLite works like a giant softbox really. It measures 6x7 feet and is about a foot deep with slits in the side allowing one or two flash heads to be fired internally. it is designed to produce a high key background using very little space. I also bought the 6x7 feet white vinyl train for it covering the floor. Not only does the HiLite use little space and provide a great high key background but it also hides the outside freezer and tumble drier quite nicely!
I was also going to buy some additional Lastolite backgrounds with various mottled designs in grey, purple, blue and a terracotta kind of colour etc. However, with these I would have needed to buy a stand and in total the costs of backgrounds would have been pretty high. Not only that but they all measure about 4x6 feet and would limit me to three quarter length poses. In the end I opted to buy a plain white and plain black knitted stretchable background but they are both 3 x 7 metres allowing me to do full length poses and much larger group shots.
The mottled terracotta backdrop on the right is one I have bought previously along with 3 or 4 others. All of these older ones are much smaller in size but are still useful for adding variety (and covering up nasty brick walls).
Another item I could not decide on whether to invest in was the posing tubs you see placed around the studio. Again I am glad I did get them in the end. Having initially used them to do some shots of my daughter they are amazingly useful! They are a seven piece set, four larger tubs for sitting on, and three smaller ones mainly for raising feet and legs but also for small children to sit on. They come in a kind of Russian doll configuration allowing them to be stored within each other. They are black but I also added some white covers which allows them to be used in both high and low key poses. With the large 3x7 backgrounds you actually have enough length to cover the tubs and obscure them to good effect.
OK, so now to the main lighting. I eventually decided to go for 2 Elinchrom D-Lite 4it flash kits. I had also been looking at the Bowens heads similar to ones I have used at work (I recently landed a nice role of photographing ID type shots, nothing exciting but better than sitting in front of a computer screen all day). Both sets have 400 watt heads and are roughly the same price but the Elinchrom heads are lighter, have a built in wireless receiver and come with a wireless trigger for firing them. I do have a wireless trigger and receiver but I would then have to rely on a single wireless triggered head to fire the other flash heads using slave cells which detect light from a main flash. The flash heads are digitally controlled with tenth of a stop increments in power and an overall range of about 5 stops. Each kit also comes with two 60cm square decent quality softboxes as opposed to brollies. Generally speaking it seems that brollies are not highly regarded in studios although they do have their uses.
Key to portrait work is being able to modify the flash lighting. This is usually done using a vast array of strangely named contraptions like snoots and gobos! My light modifier of choice is my 135cm octagonal softbox (you cannot miss it in the picture!) It is reasonably large, allowing pretty much full length lighting on a posed model. Inside there is a second white layer of material to produce even more diffused soft light and an option to fit a reflector dish inside that. Good softboxes provide a soft, consistent equal light across the front of them and onto the subject. If you are thinking of setting up your own studio I cannot recommend getting something like this enough and the bigger the better. Elinchrom do a 175cm version but at £350 I am going to need to sell an arm or something before I am allowed to get one that size!
To the left of the picture is my second modifier a parabolic dish (or beauty dish as it is more commonly know). This is a 44cm dish and is typically used for creating that 1940's film actress style lighting. A white or gold reflector sits in front of the flash bulb and bounces the light back into the dish before it is bounced back onto the subject. You can optionally put a white diffuser sock over the beauty dish as well to soften the light more. I've not really had the chance to play around with this yet (I used it on myself and contemplated sending it back under the trades description act!)
The flash head on the right of the picture has a barn door attachment on it. These are used to direct and focus light into particular areas to give a more dramatic effect. It can be used to place a highlight on dark background behind a subject to separate them from it, or place a narrow band of light onto a subject for 'character' (old look) portraits and the likes. In a similar way, the reflector dish the barn doors are mounted on, also holds a honeycomb grid. I have four honeycomb grids which each focus the light onto a particular area with different angles of spread. Typically these are again used to focus a spot of light behind a subject or to direct light onto hair.
Finally one of the most important bits of kit is the flash meter. I do have an old flash meter but it had a limited range of settings and accuracy. My new flash meter measures in tenth of a stop increments and can also be used for measuring ambient (the natural surrounding light) as well. This will be important if I ever reach the technical ability to mix natural and flash light! It is important in the studio setup to ensure one light is doing one job, backlights for the background, key lights for the main subject lighting, a hair light or spot light and finally a fill light providing an overall light wash to raise shadow detail. Each light, whatever setup you use, should be metered individually to understand its impact on the overall scene. In short; the light meter is a must.
... and no, I don't leave it all in the garage. Much to my wife's annoyance, it is something else to fill the house up with!