How To Shoot Great Portraits Without An Expensive Studio

French celebrity photographer Philippe Echaroux likes to keep things fluid. That’s why for a recent session, he changed things up, abandoning a full luxurious studio and instead assembling a tiny setup in a corner to snap in. Sessions like this act as a statement to break from routine, and prove that limitations can often serve as an asset, rather than a curse to a portrait photog.

This isn’t the first time Echaroux has twisted the portrait studio setting. He previously set up a shooting gallery on a city street and photographed pedestrians like movie stars. “I just like the idea of challenging myself and leaving my comfort zone,” he says, explaining his motivation. “Things can be boring when they’re quite the same, no? If you want to keep a good energy you have to try new things all the time. Life is short man!”

Leaving comfort professionally may benefit an artist, but wedged between a lift and a set of doors, it doesn’t sound like his subjects were particularly comfortable in a physically sense. Echaroux answers, “Not at all! We had people passing by this area or going out of the elevator, having to remove my light each time.” Though his subjects were a bit surprised and hesitant at first, Echaroux explained to them that it was an experiment and they went along with it gamely. “I really think we wouldn’t have made the same portrait in the studio,” he tells us.

What makes it possible for Echaroux to act on ideas like this is a solid dedication to educating himself. “I like to do things by instincts. I spend hours learning and getting comfortable with the technical part,” he says. By getting those mechanics down, to the extent that his actions become second nature, Echaroux has earned a reputation for speed, including special recognition for his one one-minute celebrity portraits.


Isabelle Recadre /Philippe Echaroux

“Being quick is my thing,” Echaroux says. “Being quick can increase mistakes but on another level, which is most important for me, it avoids pondering on the subject. That way you’ll have intuitive things come into play. That how I get my portraits!”

The combined results of Echaroux’s intuition and on-the-spot concepts are hard to argue with. This shoot in particular has a certain weight and gravitas to it. “I love things that can stop you for a second. I like to see portraits giving the impression that the picture is looking at you. I love to shoot a strong face with strong lightning.” Echaroux tells us that he specifically uses very harsh light to form “…really dark areas to create intensity.”

He chose to use medium format four years ago, mainly for the shallow depth of field it can produce. He’s particularly partial to a Hasselblad H5D-50c with a HC 100mm f/2.2 lens. “I love the H system for it’s simplicity. I am no camera geek, i just like to have the right tool so I don’t have to think while I am shooting.”

The one piece of gear for which Echaroux expresses the greatest love for is not a camera however, but a lamp. Referring to it as his “best friend”, his Elinchrom ELB portable flash means that a shoot isn’t locked down rigidly. “I always use them. For outdoor work for sure and for every bit of studio work I do. I love the idea of carrying my studio on my back!” It was specifically an ELB 400 that allowed him to relocate to a tiny hallway.

But regardless of the quality equipment on hand, it was still extremely challenging working in such a confined space. Close-up head shots at specific angles were necessary to hide the white background from view and even then, Echaroux had to try to blanket out areas of the wall with whatever material he could find. This even resulted in one of his studio assistants donating the literal shirt off their back.

Rather than difficulties, Echaroux approaches hurdles such as these in stride, as a chance to evolve, saying, “Conditions are one part of the final shoot, every time ! Change the condition you’ll change your shoots!”

Ever waiting for lightning to strike, Philippe Echaroux has no idea of what’s next to keep his creativity fresh. Though he does have words for others finding themselves stuck in an originality rut: “Never be stop with the lack of space or gear. I didn’t start photographing with a Hasselblad Camera or an Elinchrom Flash. Gear is one thing; it makes you comfortable. But the main stuff is already in you! Go find it!”

You can find more of Philippe Echaroux’s work on his website, Instagram and on Facebook