how to build your own lightbox for cheap

Posted on Oct 27, 2011 in Career

Hi guys! I mentioned creating a lightbox last week and a few people requested that I write a tutorial. Well, I’m definitely not the photography expert in the family, so here is a guest post from Babyface!

I am going to do a little show and tell here today folks, so I hope you have your grade school excitement in check! Now don’t worry, I’m not going to bust out my pet Tarantula or exhibit my ability to put my legs behind my head. I’m not even sure I can put my legs behind my head anymore and I’m not sure this is the time nor the place to attempt it.

The topic of today’s session is how to make your own lightbox for cheap, cheap, cheap!

For all of you food photographers out there, this can come in handy for close-ups and detail and if you want to avoid distracting backgrounds. It also is a nice thing to have around when the days get shorter and natural light is in short supply. I’m gonna go ahead and spill the beans and give you a little preview of the before and after. Both of these were shot at 9pm. One with just regular, household lights and one with the lightbox. Big difference, right?


So let’s get to it!

The first thing you want to do is acquire a cardboard box. The best way to do this without spending any money is to hit up a local big box establishment and ask them if they have any empty boxes kicking around. If this is not an option, you can purchase one for fairly cheap anywhere they sell shipping supplies, such as Wal-Mart or Staples.

The size of the box can really depend on how big or small of objects you plan on shooting, but generally, I would aim for somewhere around an 20″ x 20″ x 20″, give or take a few inches. This should be a good amount of space for separate food items and plated food and not be too much of a burden to store when you’re not using it. The box I snagged from the local hardware store (a.k.a. where I work) is 21″ H x 21″ W x 16″ L.

It would be better to get a box that is more square, where the 16″ would also be a 21″, but this will work. It’s just going to be a little more narrow or short than I’d like, depending on how I orient the box.

You’ll also need white tissue paper big enough to cover each side of the box. You could use any standard gift wrapping tissue paper for this, provided your box is smaller than the paper. If it’s bigger, it’s probably too big! We bought a 25 pack from Michaels for $2.99, but you’ll only need three sheets. I would go ahead and buy a little more than that though, as tissue paper tears really easily.


Also, you’re going to need a sheet of white paper as wide as your box and long enough to drape down the back of the box and come out the end of it. If you skip ahead to step 6 you’ll see what I mean. We figured the best course of action was a 30″ x 15′ roll of banner paper because we’re messy and are bound to drop food onto it, so we needed something where we could just unroll another length.


The roll was $3.29 at Michael’s. You could also use sheets of poster board, but I imagine the banner paper would give you more bang for your buck.

Additional supplies needed are a pencil/pen, box cutter, scissors, a measuring device, packaging tape, scotch tape (not pictured), and a kick-ass playlist.


If you skip to step nine, you’ll see a suggestion to use some black poster board. You may want to purchase this in order to have some control over the light coming from certain directions. It’s personal preference. I like to light uniformly from all sides, so I chose to do away with this for my own purposes. This can just be picked up at the same time you get your white poster board/roll of banner paper.

Let’s get to creating, shall we?

STEP ONE

The first thing you want to do is turn on your sweet tunes, and while you’re rocking’ out, tape one end of the box closed with the packaging tape. It doesn’t matter which end. Add some more tape on the inside to keep the flaps out of your way

STEP TWO

Lay the box down with the opening facing you. The side you just taped will be the back of your box. On the top and two sides, measure two inches in on all four edges of each face and draw a square.

STEP THREE

Take your box cutter and cut out the three squares you just marked on the top and two sides.

STEP FOUR

Use your box cutter once again to cut the front flaps off.

STEP FIVE

Lay and cut a piece of tissue paper over the holes you just cut in the box so that it hangs over the two-inch border but not over the edge of the box. Use the scotch tape on all four sides of the paper to stick it to the box. Do this for all three holes.

STEP SIX

Take your poster board or roll of banner paper and cut it so that it fits almost snug in the width. We just cut the whole roll so that in the future it’ll be easier to just snip off a length of it.


STEP SEVEN

Tape the paper to the top of the back, as shown in previous picture, and let it flow out of the front of the box, being sure not to crease the paper at all. You want the paper to be continuous and seamless, creating an infinite space for your photographs. If you’ve used a roll of paper, you can either leave it on the roll or cut it off. If you cut it off, leave enough so that you can fold the end under the box, otherwise it’ll roll back up on you once you’ve cut it.

At this point, the box is done and it’s time to gather lights!

STEP EIGHT

Gather lights, whether they be studio lights, strobes, or desk lamps, and use them to light from either (or both) sides and the top. A lamp from each direction would be best so that the light is equal on all sides, but you may want to get creative with your lighting. In my experience with this box, lighting from the left and right is plenty, so you really only need two lamps. Bringing light in from the top is simply a nice bonus.


The lights we’ve chosen are a fantastic alternative to regular 60 watt household bulbs, especially for photography. They’re a 42 watt daylight balanced bulb that is the equivalent of a 200 watt bulb, so it gives off a decent amount of light. You should be able to find these at any hardware store. We picked ours up for $7.62 a piece. They give off a blue cast to the eye, but when combined with using the “cloudy” setting for white balance on your camera, the results are very natural. We also have these bulbs in the light over our stove so Cass can shoot while she is cooking on the burner.


STEP NINE

Now test it out! Put some sort of object inside the box and go to town. In some cases you may want to block light from certain directions, so if you picked up the black poster board, cut these to size to block light from entering through the tissue paper. Like I mentioned before, I’m all about as much light as possible, so blocking light off isn’t for me.


You can see the difference using a box like this makes versus using available light.

The image of the adorable moose without the box was shot at night under a ceiling light. For those of you photography nerds out there, the first image was shot at 3200 ISO, f/2.8 @ 1/60 of a second and the second was 100 ISO, f/2.8, 1/60 of a second.

So in all, I spent a total of $22.22 on this project. If you have to purchase a box, it would come to around $30. If you stick with the bulbs you already have in your lamp, you’re probably looking at about $15. Not too shabby for great photos all winter long.

If you have any questions, feel free to post them! I may very well have left something out or confused you, so let me know!

Happy shooting!

26 Comments

  1. I want to do this for my knitting projects! I want to showcase them on my site so maybe this would work for me. I have a decidedly not fancy camera (just a plain old Canon point and shoot) but I’d figure this technique would work even with this, too!

    Yay! I like this a lot!

    • This will definitely help even if with a regular point-and-shoot. I think good lighting is so much more important than type of camera. :)

  2. This! This will be my birthday present from Nathan. I just need to send him here…

    • Husbands are the best lightbox makers. :)

  3. I just added another project to my husband’s list!!!

    • Yay! It’s a quick 1 hour project. It won’t be too painful for him. :)

  4. Great tutorial! Thanks for sharing! I’ve had a similar tutorial bookmarked for a while now, but I’m just a lazy person and haven’t gotten around to making it yet. I saw another post once about making a lightbox for small object by using a milk jug. I thought that was a great idea…but I don’t drink milk. I also don’t really take pictures of small stuff. So, yeah, not high on the list of priorities.

    • Hahah! The milkljug sounds like a great idea, but I doubt I can fit a plat of food in one. :P

    • I’m pretty sure you can also get distilled water in those same milk jugs! :)

  5. If I knew a way to do the smiley face with hearts-for-eyes, that is what you’d see here. Just sayin’. I abso-freakin-lutely LOVE!!!! this idea! I have never seen its like. Of course, I still think it’s acceptable to post pics from my cell phone on my blog, so is anyone surprised?

    :D

    Thanks for the post Craig!

    • You have to make one! It’ll even make cell phone pics better. :)

  6. VERY cool! The Geezer is looking to start making jewelry again, and will need a light box. Thanks!

    • This would be perfect for jewelry! And you could probably make even a smaller one since jewelry is decidedly smaller than an 11×17 pan of food. :P

  7. Thank you SO much for this. I have a small lightbox, but could never get my lighting right, now that I know about the bulbs I am running out tomorrow to get them!!!

    • The bulbs make all the difference! They look super blue in person, but with the right while balance setting, they look just like daylight ‘in” the camera. :)

  8. THANK YOU so much. I am linking to this today! What a great tutorial. I think I have almost all the supplies!

    • Awesome! Glad you liked it. :)

  9. Thank you for such a wonderful tutorial! I can’t wait to give this a try.

  10. Very cool. I’m going to try that … I was just playing with my camera settings (again) and make no progress! I wonder if my kid will go inside so I can take their pictures.

    • The lighting will definitely help! And I think it’d definitely work for kids, too. :) You just need a bigger box!

  11. Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!!! This is so easy and cheap!!! I have been looking for a way to shoot jewelry and this is by far the best!!!!

  12. wish me luck!

  13. Thank you for this! I have pretty much all of these, except for the lightbulbs, readily available as it is! Finally I can take good pictures of my collectables!

  14. Hi Cassie–Thanks so much for this easy-to-understand (and actually try) tutorial! I am off to find a box…. :-)

  15. I think this is easy I will try this for my Handicraft stuff that I post on my website.

    Thank you.

  16. I love this idea I have seen quiet a bit of tutorials all around the blogoshpere but havent sat down to actually doing it. This way I dont have to wait for sunlight to click pics. Do you have ideas for making my own distressed wood in teal colors etc? I would so love to read that too!

    Shobha

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