Let there be light!

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.

Comments closed
    • donkeycrock
    • 11 years ago

    interesting stuff here…But now that i starting noticing back grounds…other sites like anandtech, i think it would be nice to see if you can do different colors, like black or blue or anything other than white.
    just my 2 cents

    kind of finding white boring and ordinary now.

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      I like a challenge. 🙂

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    I was always under the impression that a 100W CFL equals 100W incandescent in power used. It’s the measure of lumens that’s different?

      • jss21382
      • 11 years ago

      100w cfl’s are usualy 23w bulbs that are equivalent to 100w incandescent

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      Not just glossy screens, but glossy finishes as well. The 1000HE and WD TV were a bit difficult to shoot.

      • Pax-UX
      • 11 years ago

      Cool, we have a similar set ups

    • Pax-UX
    • 11 years ago

    Something that I’ve used to help light object is tinfoil, the type for turkey is the biggest I could find. The dull side is an excellent diffuser, put it on a bed and then pat it down and so it’s no longer completely flat. Then mount this on some cardboard, I just cut up old boxes. This can then be used to light parts of objects you’d like a little brighter.

    I do some videoing on YouTube and by putting tinfoil on celling + 2x500w builder lamps pointing up all the light I get is defused. Then using the cardboard diffusers I can create a box depending on the size of the objecting being taped.

      • Pax-UX
      • 11 years ago

      For the video I use a Canon VIXIA HF100 and also use a Nikon D60 with 18-200MM F3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX.

      Do you have a Macro lens for your Canon? As most of you shots are of smallish objects?

    • insulin_junkie72
    • 11 years ago

    /[

    • Buzzard44
    • 11 years ago

    CFLs? Oh, you mean swirly bulbs. Why didn’t you say so?

    This article is neat and interesting. If you were here right now, Matt, I’d give you a girl scout cookie, just for writing this article. And I’m relatively stingy with my girl scout cookies.

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      What kind of girl scout cookies? I’m a Thin Mint man, myself.

        • Buzzard44
        • 11 years ago

        Thin mint is the only type of girl scout cookies I eat. I got 24 boxes this year, enough for me to eat ~2.5/day for the next year. Of course, they still probably won’t last a year.

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      Compact Fluorescent Lamp/Light (CFL) is the official name.

    • insulin_junkie72
    • 11 years ago

    /[

    • sativa
    • 11 years ago

    Even with seams in the box that are visible to the naked eye (in person), they will disappear if you have enough light and the angle of the camera isn’t ridiculous.

    • Smurfer2
    • 11 years ago

    Thanks! Photography has become a major hobby for me and while I don’t shoot items that need a white box yet, any information on different shooting techniques are greatly appreciated!

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      q[

        • bdwilcox
        • 11 years ago

        It’s not just the translucent material. It’s the fact that the diffusor material completely envelops the item (thus “tent lighting”) and gives completely diffused light/fill with as little reflection/specular highlight as possible.

          • zima
          • 11 years ago

          IMHO – don’t treat disgustingly reflective objects any different than matte ones when doing photos for review/etc. Shine light on them the same way you would do on any other item.

          It’s about presenting the product in an honest way, right? Why “shiny” things should get more attention? And that includes not wiping fingerprints off of them – after all

          a) matte ones don’t need it…

          b) it’s about presenting the product…well, and that’s the way it’ll look while in use

    • satchmobob
    • 11 years ago

    If teh CFLs are too harsh or whatever, can you not just cover them temporarily with somethin’ like 80gsm paper, frosted perspex(plexiglass) or some such..?

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      That’s a good idea. I might try tossing some white pillowcases over the lights.

        • satchmobob
        • 11 years ago

        As the flash was directed upwards, maybe if you diffuse the flash with your pillow case and direct it forwards??? I’m no photographer but it should relieve any shadows on mario’s face and maybe compliment your CFLs. I think the object here is experimentation with identical shots from the camera and different lighting scenarios. ie: diffuse the CFls, diffuse the flash, reposition the flash, reposition with diffusion.

        • continuum
        • 11 years ago

        That is a good idea… or just some white construction paper or binder paper, maybe…

    • derFunkenstein
    • 11 years ago

    this is very cool.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    Don’t forget to white-balance to the new lights, but I assume you already knew that.

    • GFC
    • 11 years ago

    You know, i always wondered how do people make the background white, well.. as it appears — it’s not so easy as it might look from the first sight.
    BTW, nice article, ty.

    • MaxTheLimit
    • 11 years ago

    This is actually very informative.
    I know nothing about photography.
    Normally when I take pictures of hardware it’s sitting on a towel, or my freezer.

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    What effect do you get if you omit the flash entirely and just use the CFLs?

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      The flash does a good job of lighting the top, as well as cleaning up some of the shadows behind the figure.

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 11 years ago

        Wouldn’t having different lights (temperature-ly) be a bad thing from a white-balance/color perspective?

    • Dposcorp
    • 11 years ago

    How do you get the swimsuit models inside that little box?
    Same way you get popes in a Volkswagon?

    Thanks, I’ll be here all week.
    Try the veal!

    • khands
    • 11 years ago

    You guys are going to get me into photography if it kills you aren’t ya?

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