Let there be light!

— 11:20 AM on March 27, 2009

It all started a few weeks ago when I sent a picture over to Jordan, our resident podcast guru, showing off the light box I put together for our Eee PC 1000HE review. Of course, the first thing his eyes focused on was the new MacBook that was sitting on the desk, but after bringing it up in the podcast that week, he expressed an interest in learning a bit more about my product shots. Since my photos have also received some positive attention from our readers, and Cyril already showed off his homebrew studio, I thought I'd take a moment to demonstrate my solution.

A light box is a great tool for taking product shots, the goal being that the object you're photographing gets uniformly illuminated, thus eliminating harsh shadows. Some photographers construct a light box out of translucent materials draped over a skeleton frame. Then, by placing their lights on the outside, the diffused light that passes through is much softer, resulting in even illumination. This method is essentially like placing the object inside of a soft box. However, I went with a different, opaque approach for my light box, courtesy of a fantastic homemade light box guide I found online. With five pieces of Elmer's foam board, some tape, a white poster sheet, and 20 minutes of construction time, here's what I ended up with:

I admit, my light box doesn't look very impressive. But that's not the point—it's the photo that has to look good, not the tools you use to take it. The idea with this light box design is that by bouncing the light around all of the surfaces, the subject is uniformly illuminated. Why the poster sheet? Removing the hard edges of the box in Photoshop can be a pain, so I placed a background inside that provides a smooth surface throughout. Unfortunately, the light box alone isn't enough to properly illuminate the subject. Even with a high-power flash bouncing light around inside the box, the resulting effect just isn't uniform.

The flash was angled at the top of the box, somewhat diffusing the light, but the shadows still make it very obvious that there's only a single light source. The solution is simply to add more light.

The Home Depot sells inexpensive clamp lights, and after inserting four 100W daylight CFL bulbs, I was in business. Daylight CFLs are a bit pricey, but they have a higher Kelvin color temperature than their less expensive counterparts, so they're ideal for product shots on a white background. CFLs are also more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, though that might just be the California propaganda talking. At least they manage to keep cooler than other studio lights I've used in the past. The only real downside is that the CFLs usually take a minute or two to get to their peak output, but that's time I can spend getting my camera set up. With 400W of illumination, along with a flash bouncing off of the ceiling of the box, there's more than enough light now.

That's much better! Notice the hard shadows are gone, and Mario's face is no longer drowned in darkness. My light box might look like a goofy contraption, but I can't argue with the results. Unfortunately, having taken a number of products shots over the past few weeks now, some problems have come up. Perhaps the biggest issue is that photographing objects with a glossy finish can be a real pain. I have a feeling that a soft box design would do a lot better in this scenario, because glossy subjects just love to catch the light from my bulbs—even when they're not aimed directly at the subject. More diffusion should solve that.

One more reason to use a soft box design is that it's easier to store, unlike my foam box monstrosity. Translucent light boxes are usually just made out of PVC pipe with a cotton sheet resting over it, making it trivial to disassemble the box when you're done with it. My light box gets to live in the garage when I don't need it, which leaves me looking for spiders and dusting it off every time I bring it into the house.

The final issue that's presented itself is that, at times, there seems to be too much light inside the box. 400W plus a flash is a lot, and it makes the task of photographing laptops with their screens on quite difficult. My solution thus far has been to turn off a pair of lights, but that can cause more shadows to creep into the photo. Ultimately, I think I'll have to pick up another set of bulbs with lower wattage to swap in as necessary.

If you've got a remote interest in photography, want a classy way to list your wares on eBay, or need to show off your latest Warhammer figure to your buddies, a light box is a fun afternoon project. Just remember to set your white balance before you shoot, and use an indirect flash if you can. Having a tripod around can also help for those pesky shots when you need a long depth-of-field, making you close down the aperture. If you're interested in seeing a few more shots of my light box in action, you can find some extra photos in the image gallery below. All of them were taken with my Canon EOS 20D, except of course the one of the camera itself. Unfortunately, I was forced to shoot that with my camera phone.

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