How to Make a Light Box and Macro Studio for Under $20

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Ever wondered how pros take photos of random objects and make them look crisp and clean? The answer to that is a light box or what is sometimes referred to as a light tent. A light box is just simply a cube which is made out of a white translucent material. The object that is being photographed is placed inside and lighting is added to either the sides or the top of box. The walls of the light box acts as a diffuser which softens the intensity of the light and at the same time scatters it which greatly lessens glare.

Light boxes are commercially available for about $40 to $90 depending on the size. But here at Beyond Megapixels, we’re all about saving money because A.) we don’t have any, and B.) you’re better off spending your money on something that you cannot build yourself like say, a 70-200mm f2.8, but we digress. We made our own. All in all, we spent less than $20 for the entire set up, INCLUDING the lights.

Things We Used:
1. Large cardboard box – $2.00
2. Tape
3. Tracing Paper – $1.00 or less. We used Japanese Paper. I’m not sure of the availability in your location or if it’s called the same thing, but if you don’t know what that is, you can always use tracing paper. You can even use tissue, if all else fails. What you’re looking for is very thin, translucent paper.
4. 500 watts halogen work light – $9.00
5. 300 watts halogen work light – $6.00. Something like one of these.
6. White poster board – $1.00 or less

PUTTING IT TOGETHER:
1. Place the box on one side with the open end facing you. Draw a square on the top, left side and right side of the box. The margin should be about an inch or two away from the sides of the box.

2. Cut out the squares leaving the margin of box around the edges, so that you have “windows” on the left and right sides, and “roof” of the box.

3. Fit the tracing paper over the windows and attach in place with tape. The thin paper will act as a diffuser for the light entering the box.

4. Attach the poster board at the bottom of the box, then curve it up inside the box and tape it at the top seam. Make sure you only tape it at the top part of your box so the paper will curve downwards towards the bottom (do not affix it to the back bottom edge or in any way create a fold in the paper). This will be your seamless white backdrop.

5. Put your work lights on both sides of the box. One can act as your main light and the other as your fill light.


We decided to use halogen because it is the cheapest work light that is strong enough to imitate strobes. Don’t get anything less than 500 watts for your main light. It’s better to have a light source that is too strong than one that is too weak. If you find that your lights are to strong then simply move the lamp farther from the box.

Halogen light is very yellow so you need to do a custom white balance reading inside the light box to eliminate any color casts. If you do not have an 18% gray card to do a white balance reading then you can shoot RAW and fix your WB during the conversion process or simply remove the color cast in Photoshop if you’re shooting JPG. You can find instructions for doing that here.


Our gray card inside the light box

Below is a comparison of a photo taken with a 400D’s auto white balance and a custom white balance setting using a gray card.


Camera set on Auto White Balance


Camera using custom white balance from a gray card

HOW A LIGHT BOX WORKS

The light box’s main purpose is to wrap your subject in diffused light. Since all the sides are white, everything around the subject acts as a reflector. Since the light is completely in your control, you can dictate which part of the subject is lit, where the shadows will be, and how distinct or soft your shadows are. You will also get more detail, better depth, more defined textures and better color saturation. You can see this with the series of photos below.


Shot inside the light box using our living room’s fluorescent light. The light is already pretty good because of the the light box.
50mm at ISO 100, f/13, 13secs

Shot with fluorescent light and fill-flash
50mm at ISO 100, f/13, 6secs

Shot using the two halogen work lamps. The elephants are lit from front to back and the texture of the wood really comes out. It also shows better contrast and the subject just leaps out of the background.
50mm at ISO 100, f/13, 1/15

Notes:
1. Halogen gets very hot easily so don’t let it touch the sides of your light box. I hear tracing paper is highly flammable. Be mindful of the heat and try your best not to burn the house down.
2. Use a tripod so you can shoot at ISO 100 and not worry about camera shake.
3. Save on electricity by composing your shot before turning on the lights.
4. With a little ingenuity and enough will, you should be able to build a similar setup for the same amount, or even less. Share your light box stories with us on our Facebook page, and your images in our Flickr Group. We’d love to hear from you.

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