Tuesday, September 27, 2011

DIY light tent + product shot BTS

I have an ongoing series of posts here at Prairie Rim Images in which I highlight many of the older, manual focus lenses which I love to use.  Because these are relatively small subjects, many of the photos that I take of these lenses can be made in a simple, table top studio made of parts scrounged from around my house and lit with only a single light source.

You can buy table top light boxes in various sizes ranging from 16" to 32" for less than $50.  These light tents collapse down into a flat package much like a reflector will, which is great for storage and portability.  But what if you're on a tight budget and never need the studio to leave your own basement?

DIY light tent
In our kids' basement play room, we store many of their toys in large, clear, rubbermaid-style tubs.  I empty one of these 24x16x16" tubs and use it as the shell for my DIY light box.  I lay the box down on its long side and line the inside walls and top with a few sheets of white printer paper.  I line the inside of the box, not the outside, since the plastic box itself will create a very specular reflection.  I use a variety of printer paper or craft foam (which comes in 12x18" sheets for $2 each) for my lower surface and background.

My light source is generally a 32" white shoot-through umbrella positioned just to the right of my camera.  However, because the box itself is transparent, I could bring the light in from any direction I choose.

Final resulting shot, SOOC
I'd like to show a specific, behind the scenes example of how I made the title illustration (shown at right) for my article on the Yashica ML 75-150mm f/4 telephoto zoom lens.  The lens itself is about 5" long and 2.5" in diameter with a black, semi-gloss surface.  I also wanted to display a chrome C/Y-EOS adapter leaning up against the lens.  I needed detail on both the black lens and the chrome adapter.  The lens had great texture that I wanted to highlight on the knurled zoom/focus ring.  I also wanted any reflections on the front glass to be minimized.

I wanted a black background, so I positioned a black 12x18" sheet of craft foam so that the front edge stuck out past the edge of the box and then gently rolled up the back side of the box to form the background.  I positioned the subject lens as close to the front of the foam as I could while still being able to compose the shot without showing the edge of the foam.  I generally try to keep the subject as far from the background as possible in order to keep the background surface as blurred as possible given my choice of aperture.  At f/2.8, background blur is trivial.  At f/16, any little marks on the background are likely to show up in the final shot.

In order to keep the lens -- or any round subject -- from rolling around on the surface, I positioned my car key behind it, out of sight of the camera.  A little wad of masking tape would probably work just as well.  Just make sure that your "anchor" isn't visible underneath the subject, and that it doesn't cast its own shadow on the background.

Initial test shot: no flags or rim light
This foam catches the light better than something like black velvet, so in order to keep the light source from turning the foam light grey (see photo at left), I located the flash head low -- almost at the same height as the subject.  This scrapes the light across the lower foam surface rather than hitting it dead on, which keeps it dark.  Alas, the background will still be light.

In order to keep the light off the background, I flagged the light by hanging a few pieces of opaque material (more black foam, in my case) along the front edge of my box.  This allowed light to peek through directly onto the subject, but kept it off the background.

Because the subject lens was positioned 45 degrees to the camera and perpendicular to the light source, I positioned another sheet of white printer paper directly in front of the lens, just off camera left.  This caught enough of the flash light to illuminate the front bezel of the lens with its identifying text and also provided some nice highlights on the front surfaces.

One of the dominating features of this lens is its knurled focus/zoom ring.  I wanted to highlight this texture and provide some background separation between the lens and the foam.  To do this, I needed a narrow, reflective surface about 6" long which I could hand hold behind the lens barrel to provide a rim light across the knurling.  I found such a surface in the form of a silver USB hard drive case. It took some experimentation to hold it at just the right angle to reflect light onto the back side of the lens without illuminating the background that I had so carefully masked.

My glamorous home studio / office / craft room
I took this shot with my Canon 7D (at ISO 200, 1/180s) through my go-to macro lens:  my old, manual (c.1991) Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8, which was set to f/11.  The flash -- a Vivitar 283 -- was fired at full power and triggered with a Cactus V4 radio trigger.

So that's about it.  A handful of simple, household materials were scrounged to create a very capable small product light tent in which quite attractive product shots may be made.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Be resourceful.  Keep your hard earned cash for more important things.

If you're looking for a more polished (but still DIY) solution that can change shape and still break down for easy storage, check out this DIY idea.  Or, if you're travelling light, try using just a couple sheets of printer paper.  For other dirt cheap DIY light mods, read about this soft box or this bounce card.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below.


  1. Thanks for the step by step! I just received the exact same umbrella set for my birthday. I have radio triggers on order for Friday, hoping to get into a bit off off camera work for food photography and pictures of our baby.

    I'm currently shooting my Rebel XS with a Vivitar 383,because I wanted ETTL when I got the flash. I've only had a DSLR since June, but am wanting to get another flash to attempt what you outlined in your party lighting post. Should I go with Canon (probably a 430 EXII) and make that my flash for on camera work as well, or do you think sticking with 3rd party will work fine?

  2. You're off to a great start. The very first thing I photographed with my umbrellas -- using my Rebel and a borrowed radio trigger because mine hadn't arrived yet -- was a pair of newborn twins.

    I think every general-purpose photographer should own at least one flash that will do ETTL for easy, on-camera lighting. I use a Canon 430EX for that, but if you're already happy with your Vivitar 383 for on-camera bounce flash, then I'd recommend going with one of the cheaper options for your second flash. Personally, I like picking up old, manual flashes at garage sales & Craig's List (I think I own 9 flashes now), but not everybody likes to tinker as much as I do.

    If you prefer to buy new, I'd recommend buying either a YongNuo YN-560 or a LumoPro LP160. Both are manual-setting (non-ETTL) flashes equivalent in power to a Canon 580EX. The LP160 is probably the better built and more featureful of the two, but it costs twice what the YN-560 does. The YN-560 can be a great flash, but a lot of people have experienced quality control problems with many of YongNuo's products. If you're in a hurry to get something you know will work the day it arrives, then, get the LP160. If you're on a budget and have time to deal with a possible return for a DOA, then get the YN-560.

    Oh, and regarding the party lighting setup: A couple weeks ago, I set a new personal best by using six flashes in that configuration to light a large Sunday School classroom. Worked great! Only one of those six was Canon branded, BTW.


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