How to build a simple and effective "light box" for product photography and more.




A light box is a very useful photography tool. When you need to shoot small objects and isolate them from the background, you need a light source that hits the object from all angles (sometimes referred to as an "omnidirectional light source"). This is when a light box comes handy. If you often post images to a website and need a "clean", professional-looking  background, you'll appreciate this.

There are of course many commercial products available (see this one from Amazon for example), but in keeping with the DIY philosophy in this website, I'll show you how to build your own. Most closeup photos found in my articles were taken using this contraption.


Figure 1 - The finished light-box

What you'll need

Figure 2 shows the main items you will need to build the light box. For the main box itself, I decided to use an Ikea "Sortera" box. This is a clear plastic box normally used to store laundry. The semi-transparent clear plastic and solid construction is what attracted me towards this box. If you can't find this exact box, I'm sure you can easily find a similar sized storage box at most stores.

For light sources I decided to use two 40W (equivalent) Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) commonly used for home lighting applications. I *do not* recommend incandescent lights for this application as they generate way too much heat and can melt the plastic. Since I wanted a self-contained unit, I decided to use tupperware boxes to encase the lights permanently and attach them to the sides of the main box. While keeping the lights externally can give you more flexibility, I decided to trade flexibility for convenience in this project.

The lamp chords with built-in power switches allow you to turn the two lamps on and off independently. (You can buy these chords from Amazon as well). Besides these main items, you will also need some bolts and nuts to attach the items together.


Figure 2 - Things you will need


The tools I used in this project are very basic (see Figure 3). A drill is useful to drill the holes in the main plastic box and Tupperware. Some screwdrivers and X-Acto knife also come handy.


Figure 3 - Tools you will need

Putting things together

Figure 4 shows how I assembled the light box. Start by drilling four holes in the corners of the Tupperware and corresponding holes in the main box. These holes will then be used to attach the Tupperware boxes and light box together. It's also very important to drill holes on the top portion of the Tupperware boxes so that the heat from the lamps can flow upwards. This is *very* important as you don't want a fire hazard when you leave the box ON for extended periods of time!

Though not shown in the Figure, I installed the lamps inside so that they wouldn't touch the plastic directly (using a metal wire frame). CFLs are relatively cool compared to fluorescent, but they still get hot and can melt the plastic if not installed properly. Also be careful not to break a CFL lamp. These lamps have some nasty chemicals inside, including mercury, so breathing the air next to a broken CFL is a dangerous thing to do.

To finalize the box, I placed a sheet of photo paper (13x19 in) in the bottom surface. This gives a very clear and clean background to the photos. By flipping the paper from the "bright" to the "matte" surface you can also get different effects which is a nice option to have.


Figure 4 - Assembling the box

Using the box

Using the box is straightforward. Plug the two lamps and turn them ON through the switches. I usually allow a few minutes before starting to shoot because CFLs are notorious for talking a long time to achieve peak brightness (one of the few disadvantages versus incandescents). When the lamps "stabilize", I start by placing the object inside and move around the top cover to get additional light boucing from the top (See Figure 5). Remember that the key here is to get even light from most angles, so you also want light bouncing from the top. 

When shooting using this box, I usually set my camera to RAW mode . I do this primarily because I can easily tweak the white balance in post-processing using Photoshop. CFLs have a "cool" color temperature and can easily produce strange color casts if the photo is not corrected for white balance. If you are not a "RAW" type of person, and prefer to shoot in JPEG, then I suggest at least setting the camera to a custom white balance to avoid color casts.

I've been using this box for a couple of years now and I'm happy with the results. If I was starting again today, I would also consider high-power LEDs instead of CFLs, though I worry that LEDs are too "directional" which is a disadvantage for this particular use. I'm also considering making a "mini" light-box where LEDs may be a better match, but that may be a topic for a future article...


 Figure 5 - Adjusting the cover


Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com