One of the most important aspect of taking a perfect, crisp photograph is to have good lighting. One of the best ways to have it is to use natural lighting. But what if you want to take pictures of your project to publish on instructables while sitting on your workshop? Well, natural light cannot reach everywhere and everytime. You can't just wait for day and for sunlight to reach your workspace. The only good option left would be to use artificial lighting. There may be several other options for taking photos in dimly lit areas, but they are neither not too effective nor too easy. When taking photos with artificial lighting, you have to make sure that they are powerful enough to provide good light. Most of the lights on eBay and Amazon are too expensive and high power consuming which makes them a work for only professional photographers. The price of most of them can rise to about $20-60 like this one and this one. The fact remains that they are helpful and provide perfect lighting to pro's in their studio but what should we do to take good pictures with cheap lighting?
So here's presenting you a simple and cheap yet effective cardboard LED light panels that can be used to take perfect photos. The cost of each light panel is just around $5 so it easily fit in your budget. Each light panel contains 40 LEDs that provide enough light to take great photos. The panels also have the ability to control the brightness being free from the PWM system that interferes while making videos. The brightness of the panel is controlled by selecting the number of LEDs switched on. This is done using DIP switches that contains several switches in a single small package. Each of the light panels is powered using a separate 5v USB charger. They are much low power consuming than those huge studio lights which also makes them energy efficient. The materials like cardboard used to make it are simple and no power tools are required to make it. You just need some basic electronics and soldering skills which makes it a good weekend project and to get your kids started with electronics. This can not only be used for photography but also for reading and camping.
Here is a video of the project in action:
If you have any question related to this instructable, feel free to comment or ask a question. Do post your pictures if you've made one yourself.
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Here are some features of this lamp:
- Is cheap. The cost of each light panel is just $5 which is much lower than studio lights.
- Provides great light. An example is given above of the before photo (taken without the lights on) and after photo taken with the lights on after a bit of editing).
- Is energy efficient. Consumes very low current when compared to studio lights.
- Is made using simple materials like cardboard, tape and paints.
- Can be made battery operated by making some modifications.
- Can be used in camping and outdoors.
- Can be used as a reading lamp.
- And many more!!
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Step 1: Parts and Tools
The following parts, materials and tools are required to make one light panel. The total cost of the project was around $5 or 300 INR (for one light panel). All of them can be obtained from your local hobby store or over online stores.
- 40x Ultrabright white straw hat LEDs (5mm) (Ebay Link)
- 40x 68ohms resistors (Ebay Link)
- 1x DIP switch (with 8 switches) (Ebay Link)
- 1x Old USB cable (Ebay Link)
- 1x 5v USB charger (Ebay Link)
- Thin wire
- Rainbow cable
- White papers (for covering as well as taking pictures)
- Paper adhesive
- Paper tape
- Soldering iron
- Soldering wire
- Hot glue gun w/glue sticks
- Wire cutter/stripper
- Paper cutter
Step 2: Cut the Cardboard
The first step is to cut cardboard that will serve as the body of the lamp. All the leds will be soldered on it. So cut a piece of cardboard measuring 25x19 cm. You can modify the size according to your requirements. Make sure that you use good quality, thick cardboard. You can obtain it from old cardboard boxes lying around your house.
The plan was to solder the leds with a separation of 2cm. The leds would be soldered to the cardboard in the order 12+8. You can increase or decrease the separation according to your choice. Increasing it would distribute the light over a large area while decreasing it would decrease the area but the intensity will increase.
Step 3: Cover the Cardboard
The next step is to cover the cardboard with white paper. Stick some paper to the cardboard that was cut before using paper adhesive. This makes painting the lights easier.
Step 4: Mark the Position of Leds
For the ease if soldering all the LEDs with accuracy and quickly, the position of all the LEDs must be marked.
For this, leave a 1.5cm gap and start marking the position of each led with a gap of 2cm across the length. For the breadth, leave a 2.5cm gap and mark the LEDs with a gap of 2cm. The markings should be around 1.5cm away from the border.
Step 5: Check the LEDs
It's important to check all the leds before soldering them. Possibilities are that between so many leds, there can be some that do not work. If you solder them and they do not work later, you would face disappointment as desoldering them would not be an easy task.
To check them, simply connect them to a 3v button cell in the correct way. If the led glows, that means it is alright. If it does not, switch the connections. If it still does not work, that means it is faulty. Another option can be to connect it to a 9v battery with a 1K resistor in series.
Step 6: Calculate Resistor Value
Calculating the resistor value:
R = V/R or
(Source Volts - LED Volts) / (Current / 1000) = Resistance
Since ideal voltage of white led is 3.6v, source voltage is 5v and current is 25ma
Resistance = (5 - 3.6) / (25 / 1000)
= 1.4 / 0.025
= 56 ohms
Therefore, the required resistor value is 56 ohms
Step 7: Solder a Set of Leds
Now this is the most important part in the making of this project. To add a feature of controlling the brightness, I soldered leds in different sets each controlled by a switch. There will be 8 such sets. The reason that I used this method is that It cannot be done using PWM as it works by switching the leds on and off at a fast rate. This causes problem in making videos which will defeat the purpose of this project. Using a potentiometer directly can also be done but that would be an unnecessary waste of energy. This method is much more energy efficient and will also control the intensity light by controlling the number of LEDs that will be switched on. Since there are 40 LEDs in total, there will be 4 sets having 4 LEDs each and rest 4 sets having 6 LEDs each. Refer to the image above for the arrangement of LEDs.
Now solder 6 LEDs to make a set in the positions that were marked earlier. Use a pin to punch holes in the cardboard and pass the wires of the LEDs through the holes. Next solder a resistor to the positive terminal of each led and then connect all the remaining second terminals of resistor together.
For the negative terminal of LEDs, since the length of the leads of LEDs is less than 2cm you need to connect the gnds with some wires. For now, connect the negative terminals of one led with another to form pairs.
Step 8: Solder Other Sets
The next step is to solder the remaining 7 sets of LEDs. Repeat the step 5 to solder the remaining sets. Refer to the image and schematic above for reference.
Step 9: Connect the Gnds Together
The negative terminals of all the LEDs must be connected together so that all the leds can glow at the same time as the switching of LEDs is controlled through the positive terminal only.
For this using some thin wire, connect negative terminals all the pairs that were soldered earlier together. Refer to the image above for reference.
Step 10: Solder the DIP Switch Onto a Piece of Perfboard
Cut a small piece of perfboard and solder a dip switch on it. Connect all the 8 pins of it on one side together. This will be connected to the positive terminal of power supply later.
Step 11: Connect the DIP Switch to the Leds
Stick the soldered dip switch on the cardboard by making a hole in it. Connect the remaining 8 pins to all the 8 sets of LEDs. Refer to the schematic above for reference.
Step 12: Connect the Power Wires
Taking some rainbow cable, connect a wire to the negative terminal of any led. This wire would be connected to the negative terminal of power supply. Take another wire and solder it to the connected 8 terminals of dip switch. This wire will be connected to the positive terminal of power supply.
Step 13: Cut the Excess Cardboard
Cut the remaining middle portion of the cardboard using a paper cutter. Make sure you leave some space for the dip switch. You can cut it in different shapes to make it look good. Beware of the sharp blades of paper cutter and work safely.
Step 14: Add a Back Cover
To prevent the connections become loose or break, it is necessary to add a back cover to the light panel. For this, cut a piece of cardboard having size same as that of the panel. Stick it to the panel and cut the remaining portion of cardboard. Use some paper tape to smoothen the borders.
Step 15: Paint It
Paint the cardboard using some acrylic colors and a paintbrush. The choice and design of colors completely depends upon you. Make sure that you don't paint over the leds. If accidently you do, immediately wipe it with a cloth before it dries up. You can use different shapes and patterns to make it look better.
Step 16: Make More!
That's a fact that you won't be able to take good photos with just one light panel. So you should make more by repeating all the previous steps. Make as many as you can. The more the number of panels, the better your photographs would be. For taking good photos with them, 2 of them would be just sufficient. So you should atleast make one more light panel.
Step 17: Add a Clamp (Optional)
You can't just hold the lights with your hand or ask a friend to do so while taking pictures. For the lights to stand properly in the correct place and the correct angle according to your requirements, you should make a clamp for them to stand still. This optional if you choose to connect your light to a shelf, find a good place to hang them or already have a tripod.
For making it, its completely your choice as to how to make and what materials to use. I used some metals parts that I got from a kit to make 2 clamps.
Step 18: Connect a USB Cable to Each of the Panels and Power It
To power your light panels, connect a USB cable to each of them. You can use old USB cables used to connect your mobile phone, mp3 player etc. to your computer. Cut the other end of cable. You will find four wires, cut the white and green. Connect the red wire to panels positive wire and the black wire to the panel's negative wire.
To power the panel you need to separate USB outputs as each of them can supply only 1A while both panels connected in parallel would take >1A current. This will cause in dimming the lights. For powering, you can use USB mobile chargers as well as USB ports in a laptop or computer. Best option would be multi-USB port chargers. You can also use a battery to power it but it would not last very long.
Step 19: Taking Photos - Setting Up the Background
So you're done with making your own photography lights! Now its time to take some photos with it. Start by taking photos with white background first. The first step to do this is to prepare the background to take photos. Do this by taking a big white sheet of paper. Place it on the table like the image above - standing perpendicular to the base of the table. Do not fold it but keep it in such a way that it lies slanting on the table. Make sure that your paper has no marks that can disturb the background and lead to bad photos.
Step 20: Taking Photos: Setting Up the Lights
Set up the light panels in such a way that the light falls on the entire background rather than in the center. Position the lights according to your requirements and switch them on. You can also select the correct brightness of the lamp by adjusting the number of dip switches on.
Step 21: Taking Photos - Setting Up the Camera
That's the most important part to take a photo. Without selecting the correct settings of the camera, you would never be able to take good photos. I used a digital camera so didn't need to do much. DSLR would be a better option that digital. Phone camera can also be used to take pictures with this method. Use a tripod to take pictures with different heights and angles. Mine was Sony Cybershot (12.1 Mp). For setting up your camera, you should select:
- The right ISO
- The right aperture (or exposure)
- The right shutter speed
Step 22: Take As Many Pictures As You Can!
When you're all done setting up stuff, find a good object to photograph. It can be almost anything that can fit within your background. Take as many pictures as you can with your lights on. Select different brightness to meet your needs and experiment with different angles and heights. You may need to do some editing to make your photos better (see next step).
Step 23: Editing the Photos
Your pictures can't be just perfect without some editing (exceptions apart). The images I took with my camera had a little bluish background which was not looking great at all. On the corners, there were some silver spots. So to correct these things, you need to edit your photos. Find the correct software to edit them such as Gimp and Autodesk pixlr. I used Photoshop so the instructions below are just for Photoshop.
- First create a duplicate layer of the image to easily correct any mistakes you will do.
- Then crop the image a little by selecting the 'crop' icon on the left side of the page. Do not over-crop the photo as the size will decrease on cropping it. Make sure that all the silver spots in the corner are vanished.
- Next step is to brighten the image. I am not a PS specialist so I don't know the correct way to do that but still did it somehow. First select the 'filter' icon on the upper part of the screen.
- On bringing the cursor to 'render' select 'lighting effects'.
- Now spread the light throughout the image.
- Select the correct brightness by adjusting the intensity of light. Do not keep increasing it as the image would then look overexposed
- Increase the focus of light so that it falls throughout the image.
- Finally save the image to the location you want.
Step 24: Some Examples
Here some examples of the photos taken with the light on. The first photo is an example to show the photograph when the lights are off. No editing was done in the yellow background photos while editing was done in the white background photos.
Step 25: Photography Tips, Tricks, and Links
Here are some photography tips and tricks to take even better photos! Please note that I am not a pro so you can't expect much complicated things here.
- Have good lighting. This can be a difficult job but this instructable makes it easy! Natural light can be the best option to take good pictures.
- Focus on the subject. Remove distracting tools and stuff from your setup that interfere in focusing. Focusing not on the subject can lead to blurry photos.
- Edit your pictures if needed. Editing it makes them look far better than earlier.
- Find a good background. Photos with bad background makes the subject look worse even if it is better.
- Use the correct settings. Set your camera according to your surroundings and the amount of light.
- Use a tripod if necessary. Using it really helps in taking steady photos.
- Keep your hand stationary while taking a picture. Moving the camera can make the photo blurry.
- Make sure that the ISO does not remain too high nor too low. Higher ISO make the picture grainy while low makes it dim.
- Use flash if necessary. It really helps in taking good picture in dark but not using it properly can lead to bad images.
- Make it simple. Photography is not rocket science unless you know some basic things. It is not too difficult if you don't make it difficult.
Here are some links to photography hacks and tips:
20 Easy Photography Tricks That Will Make You a Picture Taking Master (from lifehack.org)
77 photography techniques, tips and tricks for taking pictures of anything (from digitalcameraworld.com)
9 Weird Photography Tricks That Actually Work! (from improvephotography.com)
Step 26: The End
Finally this brings this instructable to an end. Hope you like it. If you have made your own light panels, did some modifications or took some great pictures, do post it in the comment section below. Feel free to comment or ask a question if you have any doubt or found a mistake.
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