I've never been happy with the pictures I take of the stuff I sell. Putting a $1,000 lens on a bed or table, and snapping away with the flash on the camera simply doesn't do the lens justice. So I went on a search to find a simple lightbox I could build to provide better results. I found many, from a simple cardboard box lined with white project board paper, to of course, the ready made kits that bring every thing with it except assembly. Prices ranged from real cheap, to expensive get-ups that you simply take out of a sleeve and everything pops into place. I finally found what I was looking for in a post by Bill Huber over on pBase. I used his basic frame design, but modified his choice of lamps and cloth diffuser. Total cost of parts was about $30. It did take a little more effort and resources in that I had a custom made cloth cover made, instead of simply draping a bed-sheet over the frame. It's a little neater and provides a clutter free work area, something I absolutely insist on having. So, here's my shot at it. I do intend to try other background color variations, as well as different lighting sources. If you're interested in building something like this, make sure to check back here, as I will be updating this page as I vary the project.
Step 1: Procure all the parts.
This lightbox is based on Bill Huber's project which is posted on pBase. I have made some changes to the overall design therefore before you begin, review the following list of materials; Tools; - Hacksaw, or similar tool to cut PVC to length. - Screwdriver Materials; x2 - 1/2 x 10ft. PVC pipe. $0.77 ea. x4 - 1/2 PVC Tees, $.24 ea. x4 - 1/2 PVC Street Elbows. $.24 ea. x4 - 1/2 PVC Caps $.23 ea. x4 - Number 8 hex-head sheet metal screws. $0.98/pkg. 2 yards - White cotton cloth, 200 thread count. approx $4.00. Lighting; x2 - 6" Reflector lamps (in electrical dept) $6.49 ea. 1 pkg - N-Vision 3500K daylight balanced 100w bulbs $4.98 / pkg. 2 - 8" x 2" scrap flat pieces of aluminum, or equivalent material.
The assembly of the frame is basic stuff. If you've measured and cut the PVC pipes correctly, everything should fit together nicely. I found it unnecessary to glue the pieces together, but just the same, you may want to see how they fit together for you. Just be ready to glue if necessary, and if you do, then I suggest you use a T-square to ensure everything is square before gluing. The 22 x 44 project paper is mounted along the rear top-of-frame member with 3 or 4 screws. Pre-drill a very small hole to get the screw started. Refer to the picture below for detail.
Once the frame is assembled and the background mount is installed, study how best to mount the clamps for the reflector lamps. If you can't find scrap pieces of aluminum, simply place a couple of chairs adjacent to the light box frame to use as a place to mount the reflectors. Another idea is to use a couple of metal book ends.
Next is the light diffuser cloth. The best and easiest option is to use a white, twin flat bed sheet, and simply drape it over the top and sides of the frame. The bed sheet costs $4 at Walmart, IF you can find one. After searching 4 stores to no avail, I just went over to the fabrics department and had the lady cut 2.5 yards of 230 thread count white cotton cloth. Costs the same, and even looks to be better cloth than the bed sheet. I didn't like the sloppy fit of the bed sheet approach, so I asked my mother to sew a 16" x 72" length of the cloth, with a small hem on each side to slide a 16" sized PVC pipe on each end. This gives it a neater look, and the added weight of the PVC on each end stretched the cloth nicely for an even fit all around. This also helps in diffusing the light evenly.
Bottom line, a simple bed sheet draped over the frame works fine, but this is much neater and provides for less clutter in your work area. Oh, and the large paper clamps provide even more weight, and prevent the roll from unraveling. One final word about the lighting. You may find the overall light provided by the "efficient" fluorescent bulbs to be slightly off of the advertised light temperature of 3500K, so you might note a slightly warm color to your background. This is likely due to the effects of the cotton cloth. You should thus use your camera's custom white balance feature to set it correctly. This will provide you with a nice white background for your product images. I also noticed that the overall light level was rather low, despite my using 100w equivalent bulbs. I will be experimenting with 100w flood lamps to see how that works, but the low operating temperature of the fluorescent lights are a BIG plus. A better trade off might be to just use a slower shutter speed to allow for more light gathering. Another reason to use a remote trigger on your camera.
OK, here's a look at the entire setup, together with a laptop using Lightroom 3.0 beta. This latest version of Lightroom provides tethered shooting capability. This allows you to either trigger your camera from the laptop, or you can use a wired remote trigger as I do, to avoid any camera vibrations at all. Hope this helps, and if anyone has any questions or suggestions for improvement e-mail me or leave a comment below.