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How to Use a Light Box to Take Great Photos of Small Items

Eugene is a keen amateur photographer, primarily interested in nature. He has a portfolio of images on YouPic.

How to Take Great Photos With a Portable Photo Studio Light Box

How to Take Great Photos With a Portable Photo Studio Light Box

If you take a snapshot of a subject, you might notice the results are often less than satisfactory. The background can look cluttered, and using the camera flash or even taking photos in bright sunlight usually results in harsh, ugly shadows in the background. Often, too, areas of the object can look too dark. If you sell items on eBay or want to take photos for your website, there's an easy solution to get more impressive images.

Dark shadows and cluttered backgrounds. A light box solves these problems.

Dark shadows and cluttered backgrounds. A light box solves these problems.

How a Light Box Works

An inexpensive portable light box or photo studio solves the lighting and background clutter problems when photographing small items.

  • The studio is usually a box with white walls and "ceiling".
  • One or more strips of LEDs illuminate the object from the front (and sometimes the back).
  • The white ceiling and walls diffuse and scatter light so that it comes from all directions and harsh shadows are reduced or eliminated.
  • Photo studios are usually supplied with several plain colour backgrounds. These are clipped onto the back wall of the studio and curve down onto the "floor" and towards the front, with no seams showing.
Typical photo studio light box.

Typical photo studio light box.

My photo studio was supplied with 6 different colour backgrounds. a USB cable for the light, a handy carry bag and instructions. The studio itself folds flat.

My photo studio was supplied with 6 different colour backgrounds. a USB cable for the light, a handy carry bag and instructions. The studio itself folds flat.

How to Use a Photo Studio Light Box

  1. Clip the background into place.
  2. Position your subject.
  3. Connect the LED light strip to a mobile phone charger (or the power supply supplied). Do this before you plug the power supply into a main outlet. The charger should be able to provide two amps (2A) of current. Most modern chargers can supply this current.
  4. If you're using a white background, you'll need to manually compensate for exposure.
  5. When taking photos of objects at close range and under artificial lighting conditions without flash, it's advisable to use a tripod to avoid camera shake. You can buy a small tripod for a camera phone or use a smartphone adapter for use with a standard tripod. Alternatively, make do by resting the camera on a raised surface such as a small food container.
Taking a photo of an arrangement of batteries.

Taking a photo of an arrangement of batteries.

Small Portable photo studios have one or more strips or rings of overhead LED lights.

Small Portable photo studios have one or more strips or rings of overhead LED lights.

How to Adjust Exposure When Photographing Subjects on a White Background

If you take a photo of a small subject on a white background and the camera is set for auto exposure, the background will look mid-grey colour in the image. The subject will also be too dark. A camera (smartphone or traditional camera) tries to adjust exposure to produce an image that has an overall average mid brightness. Cameras are "dumb" and don't "know" what the subject is, so if you take a photo of a pure white surface or one where the subject covers a small amount of the white background, the camera will think the scene is overly bright and try to reduce exposure, causing white in the scene to become a mid grey colour. If you take photos when there's snow, this is why the snow often looks grey or blue-grey.

  • If you have an SLR camera, you can increase the exposure by 1 or 2 stops using the menu or controls.
  • In a smartphone app, set the camera to manual. Then tap the exposure button and use the slider to increase the exposure. The method of doing all this differs slightly between camera apps. You'll need to try experimenting with different increases in exposure compensation, depending on how much white there is in the background of the image. Typically increasing by 1 to 2 points helps. The procedure below is for the native Android camera app.

Step 1. Choose the Manual Setting in a Camera App

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Step 2. Tap the Exposure Button

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Step 3. Increase Brightness Compensation

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Setting the White Balance on Your Camera When Using a Photo Studio

The idea of the white balance on a camera is to correct for different lighting conditions (e.g. incandescent lighting, fluorescent lighting, flash, bright sunshine, clouded skies). Our brains automatically compensate to some extent for different colour lighting when we look at things, but a camera doesn't by default. So the white balance setting tells the camera software to filter an image to make white look white, irrespective of the illumination type (Before digital cameras were available, filters had to be screwed onto SLR lenses to compensate for different types of lighting.)

For my studio, I leave the white balance on auto and photos look fine. Ideally, you shouldn't use the flash on your camera, because the mix of illumination from flash and LED illumination in the studio can cause a colour mix that the auto white balance of the camera can't correct. The preset colour balance settings don't work either (daylight, flash, etc.) with flash and LED combined and I've found the result is that a white background ends up looking blue. The results you get will depend on your camera, however, so experiment with white balance if you use flash to see which setting gives the best looking photos.

Final Image after Touching Up in Paint Shop Pro

Image cropped and lightened slightly. I also used a retouching tool in my photo editing software to lighten the background and remove some remaining shadows.

Image cropped and lightened slightly. I also used a retouching tool in my photo editing software to lighten the background and remove some remaining shadows.

Touching Up Images Using Photo Editing Software

You can use your favourite photo editing software to clean images. Photoshop is expensive and you need to take out a subscription, however there are free alternatives. Personally I have been using Paint Shop Pro for over 20 years and it can do most of the things that Photoshop can do at a fraction of the price. The latest version is Paint Shop Pro 2022 Ultimate, available here from Amazon.

Once you save your image onto a computer, you can:

  • Crop it.
  • Straighten it.
  • Increase brightness if the image was a bit dark.
  • Lighten and rub out any remaining shadows on the white background.
  • Draw shapes and text.
  • Rub out pieces of the image.

Buying a Portable Photo Studio

Studios are widely available on Amazon, costing from $15 to $20.

This Puluz brand studio from Amazon is the same as my model and has one LED striplight. It doesn't include a power supply, but can be powered from a 5 volt phone charger with 2A output.

This other Puluz model from Amazon has an additional light at the back of the box which helps illuminate the background better. The spec. indicates that it is supplied with a power supply and twin lead cable for powering both striplights.

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Eugene Brennan