Most everyone has probably been to some type of event that had a photo booth set up for the guests. Photo booths seem to have gained a lot in popularity, especially at weddings, but you may see them at birthday or retirement parties, or a variety of other gatherings. They can be lots of fun and offer little pressure to those being photographed. Even those who generally don't like sitting in front of a camera will often break out of their shell, garner a few props, and take a few silly photos. Not only is it a fun experience that will leave some fond memories, but the resulting photos can be a valuable keepsake for the guests who get involved as well as the event's honorees.
Recently, I was asked if I could set up a photo booth at a big surprise going-away party. This wasn't a paid gig, but rather a favor for friends and something I wanted to try out. After all, it's just a matter of setting up a camera, a light or two, and letting people take pictures of themselves. Pretty simple, right? Well, there is a bit more to it than that, so I took to the internet to learn what I could about setting up a photo booth. What I found was information that was either over-simplified, using a point-and-shoot camera and maybe a flash, or a much more complicated system utilizing a full enclosure and lots of fancy (and expensive) gear that I don't have. I knew that there had to be something in between, that would provide some decent images with good lighting, without being overly complex and expensive to set up. That's what I set out to do and this article provides some of the things I learned along the way. Note that this article does not deal with the business side, such as how much to charge for your photo booth, insurance needs, or contracts, but rather the gear that is necessary and how to set it up. So, let's get started!
Scout the Location
As with most types of photography, but especially where portraits of people are involved, it's a good idea to scout out the location of the shoot to get a ‘lay of the land'. There are a few things to look for on these reconnaissance missions that will help you prepare your gear and to make sure you have everything you need when the shoot starts. This will help to increase your confidence level and also help to remove some of the variables so that you can focus on providing the best experience possible. For my particular experience, the event was being held in a location that I was familiar with, so I already had some idea of what to expect. However, it was still a good idea to set up several hours in advance to determine the best layout for the photo booth in relation to how the venue was arranged and the activities that were going to take place. Additionally, it is important to figure out the location of the nearest electrical outlets to plug in chargers, battery packs, lighting, or your laptop. As they say, if you fail to prepare, then you prepare to fail. So don't skimp on this part.
OK, so it is Tip #2, but safety should always be paramount, especially when we are photographing people, and particularly for a photo booth, because there is lots of activity, with people coming and going. Be sure to eliminate or at least minimize any tripping hazards, such as cables, extension cords, tripod or light stand legs, etc. If anything is left unsecured, there is a chance it could take a tumble if it gets bumped or someone catches a foot on it in all the excitement. I learned this the hard way. Within 10 minutes of opening my photo booth, one of my light stands ended up lying on the floor, mangling the brand new umbrella that was attached. Thankfully, no one was hit and the umbrella was still functional after a little ‘persuasion', but this could have been avoided. Since the light stand will be top-heavy, consider using sand bags to add some weight to the bottom. If possible, even consider attaching the legs of the stands to the floor, possibly with duct tape. Make sure that all cables and cords are secured with cable ties and routed in areas where there will not be any foot traffic. After setting up the photo booth, make a precursory run through it and check for anything that could be a potential problem and deal with it then. Make sure to make getting in and out of the photo booth as easy as possible, with plenty of space between the flow of traffic and your gear.
Establish Some Rules
This one kind of goes along with the previous tip. A photo booth will generally consist of lots of photography gear, including your camera, tripod, and lighting setup. People will be in and out of the photo booth all evening, so you want to be sure that equipment stays just as safe as the guests. Unless you plan to closely monitor the photo booth (and even if you do), it's a good idea to set some rules beforehand. This is particularly applicable if there will be a lot of kids at the event. In all of the busy-ness, it can be difficult to keep track of everything that is going on and what each person is doing. It's a good idea to ask that all children 10 years old and younger be accompanied by an adult. We all know that kids can be quite curious and may wonder about what all those buttons on the camera do. The last thing you would want is for a young bundle of energy to get up close and personal with your gear.
Use an Appropriate Backdrop
There is a wide range of backdrop options that you could employ for a photo booth. As with any type of portraiture, you want a nice, pleasing background that doesn't distract from the subjects of the photos. Granted, photo booth images aren't going to be works of art, but the background should not be overlooked. Photo booths are typically found at events that have a party atmosphere, so you may want something that is bright and cheery, or that conveys the fun of the evening. For my photo booth setup, I used three of these gold fringe curtains from Amazon. (That's it in the cheesy graphic above). There are several other colors that would work just as well, but I wanted something a little brighter and shiny to contrast with the darkened room that we were in. Although these aren't particularly durable, they can be reused if they are handled with care.
You could also use a muslin material or seamless paper that is specifically made for photography backdrops. Muslin is a lightweight, cotton material, and can be found in various sizes and colors. A muslin backdrop would be more durable so that it could be used many times over and typically will have a rod pocket at the top end so it can be hung easily.
Fellow columnist Martin Schendel published an article just a few days ago discussing the pros and cons of muslin versus seamless paper backdrops. For more detail, check out his article here.
Prepare Your Props
This is an easy one. Photo booths are meant to be fun, and the props are what make it that way. Make sure to have a wide variety of props for the party-goers to choose from. And the sillier the better. You can purchase photo booth props in a kit like this one from Amazon or other retailers. Better yet, ask friends and family to dig into the deepest recesses of their closets to see what they can come up with. Props are something that can be accumulated over time. Just keep an eye out for anything unique that may show up in the clearance bins of local stores or at garage/rummage sales. Look for a wide variety of hats, masks, and other accoutrements. As you collect these items, place them into a storage bin to keep them all together and so you know where they are the next time you need them.
Automate the Process
Chances are, you will not want to stand behind the camera all evening triggering the shutter to take the photos. One of the things that makes a photo booth successful is the spontaneity of the images. This is due in large part to the absence of a photographer, which removes the pressure to ‘pose' for the camera, and provides a much more relaxed atmosphere for people to just be themselves (or to be someone else if they choose). There are a few ways you can set up your photo booth so that the shutter is triggered automatically and so you don't have to stand by pressing a button all night. Most of these options will require that a computer or laptop be part of your setup. Regardless of which option you choose, it's a good idea to have some way of displaying the photos on a screen as they are taken to add to the fun. You could just use a remote trigger and let the card in the camera store the photos, but most people enjoy the immediate satisfaction of seeing their photos pop up on a screen so they can see how they look.
Specialized photo booth software is one way you could automate the process of taking the photos (and even edit and print them, if you would like). There are lots of software options out there, so make sure to research the one that has all the features you want and is compatible with your operating system and the camera you plan on using. One of the most popular photo booth software packages available is dslrBooth, which sells for either $50 or $150, depending on if you get the standard or professional version. It is compatible with Windows and Mac operating systems, but is limited to use with Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLRs. Once the software is installed and the camera is tethered to the computer, you can set up a timer to automatically trigger the camera and take three shots at five second intervals. There are tons of other features, including templates for image borders, sending the images directly to a printer, or even sharing the photos via email or text. As with most software, there is a free trial version that you can download and see how it fits in with your workflow. Just note that with the trial version, a huge watermark will be plastered on your images. If you want to use it ‘for real', it will need to be purchased.
Another option is to use a simple remote shutter release to take the pictures. I would suggest a wireless version to avoid the additional cable and so that someone in the photo can trigger the shutter themselves. These can be purchased on Amazon for generally less than ten bucks, so it's hard to go wrong. Just make sure to get one that is compatible with your camera make and model. This is the method I chose for my photo booth. The remote was sitting out on a table next to the props, along with a few quick instructions on how to use it. It really couldn't be much simpler, though. After all, it is just a remote control, and most everyone knows how to use one of those. Just point at the camera, press the button, and get ready for the picture. By the way, the camera was set on a 2-second timer so when the remote button was pressed, there was still time to get ready. A few seconds after the photo was taken, it would show up on a laptop screen for the guests to see. This works great and provides instant gratification. If someone had their eyes closed, or if they wanted a slightly different pose or different props, they could immediately take another photo and check it again on the screen. Check out the next tip on how to tether the camera to your computer.
Lights, Camera, Action!
You would think that a tip about the camera settings would be higher up the list, but this was really one of the last things I was worried about. I had already scouted the location, knew where the photo booth was going to be set up, and also was aware that there was not going to be much ambient light to work with. Additionally, I knew that the lighting in the room was not going to change much throughout the evening. That meant that I could set the camera up, set up the lights, get the exposure right, and pretty much just leave it alone the rest of the night.
For the camera, I was using my Nikon D7000 with the 18-105mm kit lens attached. Note that this is not a super-expensive setup. In fact, I didn't want it to be. Just in case of an accidental tumble, I wouldn't want a more expensive camera and lens combo crashing to the hard floor. Besides, the photos that are taken are simply snapshots, and any DSLR would work just fine for that.
The camera settings were consistent throughout the evening since the ambient light was not changing in the area of the photo booth. I had the camera set to manual mode, which is typically how I prefer to shoot with flash. Shutter speed was set at 1/160th of a second. If using flash, you want to be sure the shutter speed is below the flash sync speed. This will vary slightly from camera to camera, but is generally 1/200th to 1/250th of a second. Since there are likely to be small groups of people taking their pictures in the booth, it is important to select an aperture that will allow enough depth of field to get everyone in the group in focus. I chose a middle of the road aperture of f/8, but could have stopped down to f/11 to provide a little more room to focus. Generally, you want to keep ISO as low as possible to minimize noise. However, you may want to bump it up a stop or two so the speedlights aren't working as hard and will recycle quicker between shots. For my setup, I settled on an ISO of 400, which is still pretty clean with the camera I was using. One of the nice things about setting up a photo booth is that you can pretty much dictate where people will stand (or sit) to get their photo taken. You may even want to use some tape to mark an ‘X' on the floor to give them an idea of where they need to be. This will allow you to pre-focus the camera and then turn off autofocus on the lens and/or the camera. That way, the camera won't be trying to find focus for every shot.
The camera was tethered to the laptop and the photos were automatically saved to a folder on the desktop and imported into Adobe Lightroom for viewing. Just a few seconds after each shot was taken, it would pop up in full screen mode on the laptop. As noted before, this allowed people to instantly see their photos so they could make changes and take more if they wanted. I think it also provided them some satisfaction to actually see their images and increased the fun factor by invoking some laughs from each group as they watched their photos roll across the screen.
Now, a little more about tethering. As previously mentioned, I use Adobe Lightroom for my photo management and editing software, so that is what I used to tether the camera to the computer. If you don't use Lightroom, then your photo software of choice may have tethering options (Capture One and Apple's Aperture support tethering). There are also many other software options (some free) that are specifically made for tethering.
In order to tether your camera to the computer, you will use the USB cable that likely came with your camera when you purchased it. It is the cable with a regular USB plug on one end and a mini USB on the other end. You know, the cable that is probably still in the box or buried in a drawer somewhere with a variety of other photography gadgets. I had to dig mine out, too, since I don't use it all that often. If your camera didn't come with this cable (or if you can't find it), you can purchase one on Amazon or at a number of other photography gear retailers.
Speaking specifically of Adobe Lightroom, after connecting the camera to the laptop and turning it on, go the File > Tethered Capture > Start Tethered Capture. This will bring up a dialog box that gives you the option to name your photo session and give instructions on where you would like the photos to be saved. After doing that and clicking OK, a heads up display with your camera make and model should appear on the screen. This means you are ready to start capturing images and they will be saved on your computer and added to your Lightroom catalog.
The lighting setup for a photo booth can be pretty simple. Mine consisted of two Yongnuo speedlights (one YN 560 II and the other a YN 560 III), each attached to a light stand on either side of the camera. By the way, check out Jim's flash gear recommendations here. White, translucent, 33-inch shoot-through umbrellas were attached to each light stand to diffuse and soften the light. Using two lights provided even lighting and minimized dark shadows falling across people's face in small group shots. The speedlights were triggered using the Yongnuo RF-603 flash triggers. One was attached to the hot shoe of the camera and one to the Yongnuo YN 560 II speedlight. The YN 560 III and newer versions have a built in receiver, so attaching a trigger is not necessary. The Yongnuo speedlights are fully manual flashes, but are really easy to set up and use. Just a couple of test shots and subsequent adjustments is usually all that is needed to get the lighting set to where you need it.
If you do use a backdrop for your photo booth, you will need some way of supporting it. It may be possible to attach it to a wall, or there are some relatively inexpensive and portable support systems that could be a good investment. These systems consist of two stands and a crossbar that extends between them for holding the backdrop material. The stands will usually be adjustable and typically extend up to about 8 feet. The crossbar will come in 3 or 4 foot sections that can generally be extended out to 12 feet in length. The support system I opted for can be purchased here. This is a very inexpensive system and provides enough space for most any smaller group shots. After setting up the stands and crossbar, the backdrop is held in place on the crossbar using clamps like these. As with the light stands, it is a good idea to add some kind of weight to the bottom of the support stands to alleviate tipping hazards.
Capture Your Audience
Whether you are a full-time professional photographer or a weekend warrior looking to make a few extra bucks doing something that you love to do, the photo booth can be a perfect opportunity to build up or add to your contact list for potential clients. Display your business name (if you have one) or at least do some networking to let people know you are the photographer. There is always someone who is preparing for a wedding, needing some family portraits, looking for someone to shoot senior pictures for their son or daughter, or is in need of some type of photography. Your first responsibility is to of course make sure the photo booth is a success, but if you are looking for these opportunities, then why not use this venue to promote yourself to some extent. If you have business cards, then you might want to set them out for people to pick up and take with them.
Another good idea is to have some way for guests to leave you with their contact information. Email would be the best form of contact and could be captured using a simple sign-up sheet. Primarily, this would be used as a way to share a link to the photos (see below); however, you could also ask them to indicate if they would like additional information about who you are and the type of photographer that you do. That could open the door to sharing your website, a newsletter, special deals, or other promotional materials.
Share the Shots
Last (finally), but certainly not least, you need some way of sharing the photos that are taken for the event. One option is to have a printer available that could provide a print and that instant gratification. This option will of course be added expense and also additional complexity in the form of things that could go wrong. If the printer goes down, then suddenly the photo booth person is the bad guy…
Perhaps a better option would be to upload the images to an on-line service and provide a link that would allow access and downloads. Most people would like to have the digital version of their images anyway, and they could make prints on their own, if they choose. There are photo booth software and applications options that can be used for not only the instant viewing of images, but also provide a means for guests to email their images to themselves right from the event. If you use Dropbox, then a special link just for the photo booth images could be set up prior to the event and photos can be automatically uploaded as they are taken (provided that you have internet access). Guests can access the link (and their photos) and save them to their smartphone or even share them on social media. These are just a few options for sharing, so you will need to decide which works best for you and your workflow.
I hope you have found some of these tips to be useful for you and your photography. If you are a wedding or event photographer, adding a photo booth to your list of services or an add-on for these events could be a way to separate yourself from the competition. An added plus is that the setup doesn't have to be elaborate or prohibitively expensive. Not to mention that a photo booth really ups the ante on fun and will provide people with many memories from the event and possibly even set you up with some future clients. If this is something you have been thinking about trying, then go for it. As long as you prepare and do your research, it will most likely be a really fun experience. I know that in my case, I had as much fun with it as the people who were there to get their pictures taken.