home studio for $3 [lightbox tutorial]

my wife writes a blog of her own called the tiny hummingbird. it's a pretty good blog, though i can't relate to most of the posts since they usually contain a lot of words like 'cute', 'fabric', and 'delicious'. one part of her blog is a weekly menu post, which contains photos of some of the meals. with her humble point-and-shoot camera, the dim overhead light in the dining room wasn't making for the most flattering pictures. my initial thought was to buy one of those setups that are used for product photography, like this one, until i saw the $310 price tag. $310?? to take a picture of lasagna? there's got to be a better (read: cheaper) way. there is, and this is it:

ok, well that's the start of it. you can make one of these things yourself in less than a half hour and for less than three bucks, assuming you're resourceful enough to score a free box from somewhere and you already have a roll of duct tape laying around. here's the goals:
- you want to be able to get light into the box
- you want the light to be as soft as possible so it is flattering for your subject
- you want a clean white background that also extends to the 'floor' of the photo so that the attention focuses on your subject
- you don't want to spend $310

buy some white tissue paper and a piece of white posterboard. the box size is up to you, depending on your intended use. on the two sides and the top of the box, cut out windows as seen in the above photo. do not gash yourself with the utility knife in the process because big red blood splotches are distracting in pictures. tape up one layer of tissue paper to each window. cut the posterboard to the width of the box and slide it in so it covers the entire back of the box and entire 'floor' of the box. you can hold it in place with a couple pieces of rolled up tape near the bottom, though it mostly should stay in place on its own.

that's it. all you need is a light source. i was eager to try it out and all i had on hand at that moment was a flashlight that came with a power tool set. here's my setup for the following shots:

where you 'inject' the light is up to you and depends on the look you want. i chose to side light the subject, as that tends to beat overhead lighting in terms of depth and detail. here's what raphael looks like while hanging out in the box:

not bad for three bucks, right? here's my son's shoe. as you can see i was hurting for things to shoot. it was late and i just grabbed whatever was near me.

here's what the same turtle shot looks like if you shine the light directly on it without going through the tissue paper (i.e. no lightbox). here you can notice the giant difference the quality of your light makes in a photograph.

it's not necessarily a bad picture. the hard light makes for some extra drama and the shadow ended up looking kind of cool. if this were a plate of food it wouldn't look quite as nice. ok, go make your own. then you don't have to hire a photographer and you can save tons of money! that is, of course, if you want to try to squeeze all your wedding guests into a cardboard box.

some additional notes for those interested:
- light has color. depending on the light source, you will have different color spectrums. this needs to be taken into consideration when adjusting your white balance, otherwise things might look a little funny. this is not specific to the lightbox, but photos in general. there are bulbs available that mimic daylight that would work well for this but they're not necessary if you set your white balance correctly.
- turn off your flash! it will defeat the purpose of this thing if you're flash is firing.
- i shot the photos with my D90 and did minimal post-processing. the photo comes out of the camera pretty much ready to use. here's a shot with my wife's canon powershot elph, which is just your basic point-and-shoot camera. you're iphone or whatever phone camera can be used to take the shots if you want. you'll be surprised at the quality - light is a huge factor in photography.
- a stronger light source is usually better. you're not going to have much luck lighting with a 40W bulb.
- the flaps on the box are left on so you can block ambient light if you want to. i'd recommend having the ambient light be low while taking the shot, so as to not mix light colors and mess up the white balance.
- i will be selling these on an as-ordered basis for $8,438.99 each if you want one but don't feel like making it yourself. order now while supplies last.

the following are shots from my wife's actual point-and-shoot. the only post processing was just some contrast enhancements and brightness; stuff you can do with any basic free image editing program (i.e. picasa). the content of the photos is nothing to submit to a photo contest, but you get the point that it's better than using the dining room overhead light.

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