A few months ago, I decided I wanted to work on portraits more with photography. So I looked into getting a couple softboxes, which were rather expensive. Then I stumbled across an article on building a lightbox, which I figured would be immensely helpful, as I do have to photograph small things for my label, zines and books mostly, and getting lighting right on these is tedious. As I had a huge box sitting in my hallway, I decided to give it a go.
To make this, you take a big box. Put it in front of you, with the box flap opening facing towards you. The back wall of the box should already be taped shut, if it’s not, tape it (the end that was originally the bottom). Assuming this orientation, you cut the left side panel, the top side panel, and the right side panel. Just take an utility knife, cut an opening leaving about a 1 to 2 inch border around each cut to the corners (for strength). Then get some tracing vellum, a heavy, semi-translucent paper. Make sure it’s not actually translucent, you should be able to see a shadow of your finger behind it when holding it, but not details of your finger. And then tape that over the cut outs in the box. I did mine on the outside of the box. Gorilla tape works great for this. Then get a very long piece of very white paper, tape it to the top of the inside back wall, and let it fall (don’t fold it) down to the floor of the box, extending out it’s front a bit. And that is your lightbox.
Now you need lights. I went to the hardware store, and the lights cost about $90 total. Get five or six of the biggest tin lights (the ones with the crappy aluminum shound and the squeeze clamps, little shop lights essentially). Then get a 2-to-1 bulb adapter for each tin light you have. And then buy a pair of 75-100 watt CFL bulbs rated at 5000 K color for each tin light. (5000 K color is extremely important, lower rating will yield yellow light, higher rating will make everything blue-ish).
Install the bulbs in the adapters, install the adapters in the tin lights, and place them around your lightbox. And you are done!
First few shots, minus the paper backdrop. You can move the lights around outside the box, on the sides, and from above, to highlight the object in the way most pleasing to you.
The shot above is a good example of how not to use a lightbox. I should have placed a light above the lightbox to get the cover to show up correctly. And the side lights were shooting in higher than the book was, so essentially it just illuminated the box itself, rather than the object, causing the ivory cover to absorb more of the box’s color.
At this point, I just started throwing random things in the box to see how they looked, including my hand. The second shot should have had more front lighting, as the plane of the top of my hand wasn’t in a position to reflect light from either of the sides. I only had five lights, which is why I recommend six (or more, if budget permits), two lights on each side, one or two above, then one or two to hit from either above or in front.
From here, I took the shots I wanted to take, of two of the most iconic things in the world today. These photos ended up in my show, ‘millions’. Again, as described above, the one on the right lacks a bit in frontal lighting.
I also experimented with putting the lights inside the lightbox, making it something of a softbox, to illuminate people for portraits. This worked rather well. If I had an additional lightbox, it would have been perfect. Notice on the first shot, the area on the front of the hand is starting to blow out from direct light. The second softbox, instead of a direct light, would have prevented this. It also would have prevented the subject from covering their eyes. These lights are incredibly bright, and not the thing you want to face early in the morning.
And keep in mind, every single shot I just took above was done with a recent Canon point-and-shoot that cost $199 new, which actually has a white balance setting called “Fluorescent H”, for daylight fluorescent, which is what the 5k color bulbs are. A DSLR would have done a bit better (mainly because of the more controllable focus and depth-field of a lower f-number lens), but it just goes to illustrate how important light really is.