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How to Make a Photo Light Box on a Shoestring Budget

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Learn how to build a light box for great product photos.

Learn how to build a light box for great product photos.

Light Box for Product Photography

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. A light box was one of his latest requests.

Product photography is one of his specialties, 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. For example, 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 500 watts 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 translucent sheet or cloth on all sides except the front. It is 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 it's smaller and usually made from aluminium. A soft box is a studio light inside a box with a translucent white cloth stretched over the front.

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 bedsheet.

Step 1: 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 500 mm (just over 18 inches) in length, for the height and depth
  • 4 pieces of batten 600 (2 feet) long, for the width

Step 2: Sand It 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.

Step 3: Prep the 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.

Step 4: Use 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.

Step 5: Assemble the Frame

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.

Step 6: Camouflage the Frame

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.

Step 7: Make a Solid White Base

My son wanted the 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

Step 8: Make a Translucent 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 two-foot-wide front opening or the narrower 18-inch side view.

Your Comments

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 09, 2017:

That's a wonderful idea!