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How to Make a Photo Light Box

Updated on January 09, 2017
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As an amateur photographer I take a lot of inspiration, and learn new skills, from my son who is a qualified professional photographer.

Photo Product Light Box
Photo Product Light Box

Intro

Having obtained his degree a few years ago at Bath Spa University in ‘Broadcast Media’ my son become a freelance professional photographer. While he’s building up his business he often comes to me to make bespoke studio equipment on a shoestring budget; with a light box being one of his latest requests.

Product photography is one of his specialities so using the light box as a ‘photo product box’ has proved to be a great asset to his business.

Studio Lights

In using studio equipment to create stunning photography the lighting needs to be near daylight brightness and as close to true white as you can get. Most lights, whether they’re LED, Fluorescent or tungsten, fall far short of this e.g. tungsten lightbulbs emit a yellow light.

Proper studio lights which can emulate daylight can cost hundreds or even thousands, but from our experience two or three high wattage halogen lights (about 500w each) can be used to produce satisfactory studio lighting for a fraction of the cost.

What Is a Light Box and How Does It Work?

A light box is a small square box e.g. 18 inches square, covered in a white translucence sheet or cloth on all sides except the front. Like an inside out soft box in that the light source is on the outside rather than on the inside of the box.

To use a light box you set up studio lights close to the box on both sides, and optionally from above, so when you photograph an object placed inside the box the shadows are defused and soft.

Most people are familiar with the ‘umbrella’ in photography studios, which reflects bright studio lights onto the subject to create defused shadows, rather than the sharp shadows that would be created if the lights were pointed directly at the people being photographed.

Other lighting equipment used to create different shadow effects (and lighting mood) includes the beauty dish and soft box. A beauty dish is similar to the umbrella except its smaller and usually made from aluminium. A soft box is a studio light inside a box with a translucence white cloth stretched over the front.

Build a Light Box on the Cheap and Take Gorgeous Photos

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Design Concept

For me to design and build a bespoke light box that would meet my son’s expectations and requirements, and be practical and functional, he gave me a set of criteria:-

  • The frame to hold the fabric firmly in place needed to be as thin as possible so as to not obscure the lighting and create its own shadow on the product being photographed
  • While the light box needs to be small enough for easy storage it also needs to be large enough to house a wide range of small sized products for photographing, and
  • It should be lightweight to easily move around.

With this in mind I considered various materials for the frame construction, including metal, plastic and wood. With a metal or plastic frame white sheeting could have been sewn together to slip over the frame like a glove and held in place at the opening with Velcro.

However, I opted for wood because that’s the one material that I’m familiar with. Therefore, in routing around my workshop for scrap wood, I found some roofing battens that would be ideal for a small lightweight frame.

Below is a step by step guide to how I used the battens to create the frame for the light box, which my wife subsequently covered in white cloth made from an old bed sheet.

Measure and Cut to Size

To make the box you need 12 pieces of wood, but the box doesn’t have to be a perfect square so the wood doesn’t need to all be the same length. If it’s slightly wider then it can be turned 90 degrees horizontally or vertically to photograph objects that are wider or taller.

Therefore using a tape measure, square, pencil and saw, I measured, marked and cut:-

  • 8 pieces of batten 500mm (just over 18 inches) in length, for the height and depth, and
  • 4 pieces of batten 600 (2 feet) long, for the width.

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Measuring the wood for cutting.Using a square to mark the cut line.Timber cut to size.
Measuring the wood for cutting.
Measuring the wood for cutting.
Using a square to mark the cut line.
Using a square to mark the cut line.
Timber cut to size.
Timber cut to size.

Sanding Smooth

As the timber was rough cut I used my belt sander to get the wood relatively smooth and then finished off with a fine grain sandpaper in an ordinary sander to get the wood really smooth.

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Belt sander to smooth down rough-cut roofing battens.Sander with fine grade sanding paper to make the timber smooth.
Belt sander to smooth down rough-cut roofing battens.
Belt sander to smooth down rough-cut roofing battens.
Sander with fine grade sanding paper to make the timber smooth.
Sander with fine grade sanding paper to make the timber smooth.

Joints

As the timber was quite thin I used a combination of half and butt joints; half joints for joining the horizontal pieces and butt joints for the four uprights.

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Using the timber as a template to mark the correct position for the joint.Making a neat line with the square.Cutting along the marked line.Using a chisel to make the half joint.
Using the timber as a template to mark the correct position for the joint.
Using the timber as a template to mark the correct position for the joint.
Making a neat line with the square.
Making a neat line with the square.
Cutting along the marked line.
Cutting along the marked line.
Using a chisel to make the half joint.
Using a chisel to make the half joint.

Using Metal Angle Plates

Making sure the corners were square, I fixed the four uprights to the side pieces with butt joints and wood glue, and for added strength secured them in place with angle plates.

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Using metal angle brackets to add strenth to the butt joints.Using a bradawl to start the holes for screwing.Screwing the angle brackets in place.
Using metal angle brackets to add strenth to the butt joints.
Using metal angle brackets to add strenth to the butt joints.
Using a bradawl to start the holes for screwing.
Using a bradawl to start the holes for screwing.
Screwing the angle brackets in place.
Screwing the angle brackets in place.

Frame Assembly

Having made two squares for the side panels these were joined together with the four front and back pieces; fixing them to the side squares with the half joints, wood glue and screws.

After checking for squareness, and before covering it in white sheeting, I left the unit overnight for the glue to set.

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Fitting the pieces together to make the frame.Assembling the frame.Making the pilot holes.Screwing the frame together.
Fitting the pieces together to make the frame.
Fitting the pieces together to make the frame.
Assembling the frame.
Assembling the frame.
Making the pilot holes.
Making the pilot holes.
Screwing the frame together.
Screwing the frame together.

Camouflaging the Frame

Whiter Than White

To minimise any shadows created by the frame and maximise on lighting it was essential to camouflage the frame by making it white.

The obvious solution is paint, the first consideration being white gloss. However, from my experience white gloss paint discolours to a magnolia after just a few years. So I opted for a white vinyl silk as emulsions, although not so reflective as gloss, retain their whiteness for many years; a lot longer than gloss paints.

Solid White Base

My son wanted to light box to have a solid white base to sit the objects on; and although this restricts the use of the box in that it can’t be turned on its side for photographing small tall objects, he doesn’t generally get requests to photograph such items so for his needs it’s only a minor limitation.

So to make a solid white base I cut a piece of thin plywood to size, and then covered it in white sheeting before I stapled it into position inside the box.

Plywood base, covered with white sheet on the inside.
Plywood base, covered with white sheet on the inside.

Translucence White Cover

The following day I measured and cut a piece of white cotton from an old bed sheet to fit over the top and down the back, and another piece for one of the sides. These were then securely fixed into place with staples.

I then cut two other pieces of sheeting, one to fit over the front and the other on the side; these being held in place with Velcro.

Using Velcro on the front and on one of the sides gives my son the choice of photographing small objects from either the 2 foot wide front opening or the narrower 18 inch side view.

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View with front cover open.View with side cover open.Inside view.
View with front cover open.
View with front cover open.
View with side cover open.
View with side cover open.
Inside view.
Inside view.

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 months ago from Oklahoma

      That's a wonderful idea!

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