Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Small scale DIY light tent

I wrote a while back about photographing some camera lenses using a DIY light tent that I made from a plastic storage tub and some printer paper.  This time, I demonstrate that the smaller the subject is, the simpler the lighting gets.  In this case, the subject is the SD memory card that I bent in two a few days ago.

It's not every day that you get the chance to photograph a taco'd memory card for illustration purposes.  Well, not if you like to take care of your equipment, anyway.  When I (ehem) was presented with this opportunity late one night, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity, but I also didn't want to take a lot of time doing it.

Top: bare, on-camera flash
Bottom: flash bounced off paper to right
I quickly grabbed my DSLR, macro lens, and shoe-mount flash to take a couple snaps of the carnage to show my friends.  Of course, at macro lens range, an unmodified, shoe-mounted flash casts some pretty unattractive light, and setting up an umbrella and radio trigger was more than a little overkill for the situation.

The solution?  Two pieces of printer paper and a white cardboard box, all of which were already lying atop my desk, just crying out to be used.

The SD card is no bigger than a postage stamp, so a single sheet of white paper makes a lovely "white seemless" backdrop for it.  I folded up the front edge of the paper to provide a little bit of fill from the front.  I then set the white box on end to one side of the subject to provide some fill from the side.  

Bare, on-camera flash.  Yuck.
The speedlite was mounted on my hot shoe in TTL mode and set to +1ev to compensate for the white surface.  I pointed the flash head sideways about 70 degrees to the right (opposite the box), then handheld the other sheet of paper over in that direction to act as a large (relative to the subject) reflector.  That's another tip:  the softness of your light depends not on the absolute size of the light source, but on how big and how close it is relative to the subject.

Lighting setup described here
The result was a nice, soft light that wrapped around the product, producing mild shadows that still showed plenty of detail.

As with any product lighting setup, you must be aware of the location of your light source (my handheld paper) in relation to any reflective surfaces.  Sometimes you want to avoid reflections and provide a nice, even, ambient light source.  Other times, you need a reflection to light up a surface that would otherwise be too dark.  I ran into both situations when shooting the SanDisk SD card alongside the mirror-like label on the Lexar CF card.  With a handheld paper reflector and a tilt+swivel flash head, it's pretty easy to adjust your position.

The whole environment took less than 60 seconds to setup and tear down, cost virtually nothing, and produced a much more pleasing light than you could possibly have gotten with just the on-camera speedlight alone.

The next time you need to take a quick shot of a small product, don't settle for ugly light just because you're in a hurry or on a budget.  Look around the room and get creative.  To butcher a popular phrase, "If all you have is a light source, everything looks like a modifier."

If you're looking for a more traditional light tent that can change shape and still break down for easy storage, check out this DIY idea.  It's a bit more "finished" than the plastic tub mentioned above.  For other dirt cheap DIY light mods, read about this soft box or this bounce card.

Got any other uber-cheap lighting hacks that work great?  Do tell in the comments below!

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