The purpose of this instructable is to show you how to build a portable object photography soft-light box using low-cost materials and simple tools. The box should easily fold up and store under a bed or behind furniture. Then when it's time to shoot, the box can be quickly reassembled and set up.
- Attach velcro strips to the rear flaps of the box
- Cut a hatch on top
- Attach hinge and pull handle to hatch
- Cut side windows
- Attach diffuser fabric to side windows
- Whiten box's interior
- Install background sheet
- Test shoot
- Test box collapsing and reassembly
- Lessons learned and ideas for improvement
Before you start, read this instructable from beginning to end; it should make your building experience much easier and much less tedious. However, I added enough pictures that if your English is limited, you can still follow the instructable by looking at the illustrations. (Move over, IKEA!)
Step 1: Gather Your Tools
- Sharp Scissors or shears
- Box cutter or large blade hobby knife
- Straightedge* or ruler
- Marker, pen or pencil
- (Optional) Clothing Iron
*Note: if you use a non-measuring straightedge, you'll need to obtain a measuring tape or ruler as well.
Step 2: Gather Your Materials
- Cardboard box
- Flat-white tape
- Neutral-white muslin fabric
- Large format heavy white paper or poster board
- Adhesive Velcro strips
- White Sheets of Printer/Copier Paper
- Blue masking tape (painter's tape)
ABOUT YOUR PROJECT MATERIALS
We do allow much flexibility on choosing your materials as your needs may vary. It is the intent of the description below to let you know the intention of how the materials are used:
Choose a cardboard box that will suit the average size of the object you'll be photographing. It is important that the box is large enough to allow ample room around the object to give you some flexibility composing the shot with your camera. For my project I chose a shipping box measuring approximately 25 x 25 x 25 inches (635 x 635 x 635 mm). You don't have to choose a cube-shaped box like I did, but I chose mine because I felt a cube would be much easier to work with. You'll see why further on in the construction steps.
Ideally the white tape should be flat white (matt white) to aid in diffusing the white light bouncing inside the box. A 2-inch wide (about 51-mm wide) white-paper Artist Tape should work well. The Artist Tape can on occasion be a bit pricy, so if you know of a good alternative, please share that information in the comments section. Your contribution would be much appreciated. The tape has to be sticky enough to hold the fabric taut across a cutout window of the cardboard box.
- Note: later on in the construction, I noticed that the Artist Tape was not flat white, but close to a satin finish. However the glare from it was minimal so in practice it became a non-issue.
The purpose of the white muslin fabric is to diffuse white light coming into the box from your external light sources. If the fabric is too thick, it might diffuse better but will also attenuate the light excessively. If it's too transparent, you might lose the diffusing effect that is essential for soft light photography. When you find the fabric, hold it up to the light to test how much light gets through. The size of the fabric, at a minimum, should be large enough to cover both sides of your box. I bought 6 feet (1.8 m); I wanted to have some left over for other projects.
The large format heavy white paper or poster board, which will be used as a background, needs to be as wide as the interior width of the box and as long as the height + length of the box. For example, if, hypothetically, the interior of your box is 20 inches wide by 26 inches high by 30 inches long (508 mm by 660 mm by 762 mm), cut the the background 20 inches wide (508 mm) by 56 inches (142 cm) long. If you want your shots to look professional, it is worth going through the effort of obtaining a roll of large-format white paper. The last thing you want to do is taping two sheets together to make up the length and end up with an ugly seam the picture. My poster board was too small, so I splurged and bought for $19.51 USD a roll of inkjet printer/plotter paper measuring 24 inches by 150 feet. That should last me for a while. I calculated that it might render about 35 background sheets. You don't need to spend that kind of money. There are economical alternatives that you can exploit such as using the reverse plain white side of a roll of a heavy-weight gift-wrapping paper. Again, we welcome your ideas.
The Velcro strips should be the kind that has a pressure-sensitive adhesive side with the peel-off backing. Both hook and loop strips should each have an adhesive side. You can still use the ones that don't have adhesives, but you'll need to find another way to affix them to the box, whether you use hot glue, regular glue, staples or other adhering methods of your choosing.
The white sheets of printer/copier paper are used for covering any exposed color from the interior box walls. If the box is white inside, you have no problem. If the interior is cardboard brown, then you should cover that up with white paper. The idea is to reflect diffused white light within the box for even illumination. You may opt for spray-painting the interior of the box with flat-white (matt white) paint instead of lining with sheets of paper. Ensure that paint is as neutral white as it can be.
The blue masking tape (painter's tape) is optional but useful. For example, the tape is used as a hinge for a hatch. If you choose to remove the hatch entirely, the blue tape will peel off the box without damaging the box's surface.
Not included in the materials list is something that you might need in the future, packaging tape. Eventually you might need to make repairs to the cardboard box. Rather than using your expensive white or blue tape, you may consider buying some packaging tape. They are fairly inexpensive if you know where to look. Try not to use the packaging tape inside the box as the tape tend to be very glossy.
For the following steps we're going to assemble the box and apply the velcro strips.
Step 3: Unfold and Reassemble the Box
Close the inner flaps of one end of the box. Leave the other end of the box open.
This side is now designated as the rear of the box and--obviously--the opposite end is now the front.
Step 4: Cut and Adhere the Velcro Strips to the Inside of the Outer Flap
Cut the strips approximately 3 inches ( about 8 cm) in length.
Peel the backing of one side of the velcro strips and adhere near one corner of the flap and press against it firmly. I placed them at an angle about 2 inches (5 cm) from the corner, but the angle shouldn't be critical.
Step 5: Peel Off the The Second Strip and Remove the Backing
Separate the fastened strip if you haven't done so already.
Step 6: Lightly Place the Strip Back on the Adhered Strip
and by "lightly" it means just barely holding on.
Step 7: Close the Outer Flap and Push Hard Against the Inner Flap to Firmly Adhere the Second Velcro Strip
- If you leave the other two flaps open, you can put your hand inside to push against the inner flap for support while you press from the outside.
Step 8: Open the Flap Carefully Ensuring That the Strip Adhered to the Inner Flap
You should hear the satisfying peeling velcro sound as you open the flap. If not, ensure that the strip is still positioned correctly, close the flap and apply pressure again.
- Note: if you tear a layer off the box, cover the injury with permanent tape and adhere the velcro on top of the tape. It happened to me later on in this build, so I used a piece of white tape to make the repair.
Step 9: Repeat for All Four Corners As Shown and Close the Rear Side of the Box
That should do. Now you can securely close this end of the box.
For the next steps you will focus on creating a hatch on the top side of the box. The hatch serves several purposes:
- The hatch gives you easy access to the subject (object) from above to reposition it without disturbing your camera setup.
- It also gives you better reach of the interior rear of the box for mounting your background material.
- The upper opening gives you an optional 'skylight' window for bringing in additional illumination to your subject from above.
- It gives your camera a bird's-eye-view perspective if you want to shoot downward.
Step 10: Ensure the Box Is Rotated So That the Gap Between the Inner Flaps Is Vertical
The gap between the outer flaps should be horizontal.
- Why? The interior flap orientation provides a lip for installing your background.
Step 11: Measure and Mark Cutting Guides for All Four Sides of the Hatch
On the top surface of the box, measure 3 inches (76 mm) margin from the edges and make some guiding marks for your straightedge. I just put four crosses with my indelible marker representing the four corners of the cutout.
- Note: if your box is smallish, you can adjust the measurement to 2 inches (51 mm). The idea is to not cut too close to the edge because doing so might compromise the box's structural integrity. You're going to make more cutouts so you'll see why. Use your judgement.
Step 12: Cut Out the Hatch
Using the marks you made from the previous step, cut along the straightedge and repeat for the four sides to cut out a rectangular piece. Ensure that your cuts are straight and clean and keep track of the orientation of the cutout piece because you will be putting it back in place.
- Use blue tape to hold your straight edge in place so that you can focus on making a clean cut.
- When cutting, especially on a double-thick walled box, cut in multiple strokes so that your edges don't become jagged. You can see above that my first cuts were far from perfect until I started to use the multiple-stroke-cutting technique.
- To keep track of the orientation of the hatch piece, draw an arrow on it pointing to the front of the box. I also wrote "Top" on the hatch piece, which, along with the arrow, was quite redundant since I already had the big FedEx logo on it, but I marked them for illustrative purposes.
Step 13: Reinstall the Cutout, Hinge It, and Install a Pull Handle
Maintaining the correct orientation of the cutout piece, put it back in the rectangular opening then tape the rear gap to the box surface to make a hinge. Tape almost exactly the full length of the gap. I used blue masking tape in case at a later date I decide to remove the hatch entirely without damaging the surface of the box.
To make the pull handle, on the edge opposite to the hinge, loop a piece of tape perpendicular to the edge and create a loop to make a pull handle*. Now the hatch should be easily opened with the pull handle.
- * To make the pull handle, cut an 8-inch piece of tape, then at the 4-inch point put a mark on the tape. Do the same for the 3-inch point and for the 5-inch point. Fold the tape at the 4-inch mark and let it adhere to itself for about 1 inch (the 3- and 5-inch marks meet). Stick one end the tape on top of the hatch and the other end to the bottom.
This concludes the hatch-making section. Next, you're going to make the side windows.
Step 14: Measure and Mark the Side of the Box
As you did with the top hatch, on the side of the box measure 3 inches (76 mm) from the edge and mark the four corners.
Step 15: Cut Out the Rectangular Piece
With the aid of a straight edge, cut a rectangular window. Repeat for the opposite side. Save the pieces you cut out because you will be using them as templates.
- In the following steps you will be installing the fabric for the side windows and lining the interior of the box with white paper. If instead of covering the interior with paper you choose to paint the interior with flat-white (matt white) spray paint, now is a great opportunity to do so, because you would not need to protect the fabric from overspray. Ensure that you also paint the interior side of all 4 flaps located at the front the box.
Step 16: Cut a Piece of Muslin Fabric Larger Than Your Template
Place that piece you saved on top of a single layer of the muslin fabric.
Leaving between 1- to 2-inch (25 to 51 mm) margin around the template, cut the fabric around the template.
- You can use your marker to create a guide for cutting. The marks you make will be covered up by the white tape.
- If the fabric is waaay too wrinkled that no amount of stretching will help it, iron it. It's not that difficult.
- Use sharp scissors (shears are better). It is just too easy to make a jagged cut with dull scissors, like I did.
Step 17: Attach Muslin Fabric to Inside of Window
Using your white tape, attach the fabric you just cut to the inside 'frame' of the rectangular window. The fabric should to be somewhat drum tight so that it stays flat. Repeat for the opposite side.
Next, you're going to whiten the interior of the box.
Step 18: Cover the Interior Surfaces of the Box With Sheets of White Copier Paper
You can skip this step if you already painted the interior of the box.
Using sheets of copier paper and white tape, cover every bit of the interior surface of the box, except the fabric, of course. If there are any glossy surfaces, you need to cover those too; that is to avoid any uneven lighting reflections.
On the front side of the box, cover the interior side of the inner and outer flaps as well. You'll see why later on.
- To cover the frame around the hatch, just use the white tape.
- Bring the edge of the tape as close as you can to the box's folds. If you cover the folds with tape or paper, it might hinder folding and your covering work might be ruined when the box is folded.
Step 19: Cut the Background Sheet to Size
Cut the sheet width a tiny bit smaller than the interior width of your box. The length should be the height + the length of the interior of the box. Since my box is a cube and the interior is about 24 inches (61 cm) in the three dimensions, then the size of my background sheet should 24 inches wide by 48 inches (122 cm) long. It's my luck that the roll is already 24 inches wide
Step 20: Prepare Background Sheet for Mounting
As shown in the picture fold about 1 inch (25 mm) along the width of the sheet. I wrapped mine around a ruler and made a U-shape channel.
Step 21: Mount the Background Sheet Inside the Box
The folded end fits over the top edge of the inner flaps of the rear of the box. You'll need to open the outer flaps and the hatch so that you can use both hands for this operation. Take care not to wrinkle or fold the background sheet. The idea is that the background sheet should hang from the top and gently curve forward towards the front of the box. Once you install the sheet, close the outer rear flaps so that they hold the background sheet in place.
Step 22: Test Shoot
Arrange your two light sources as shown and place your test subject inside your hand-made soft light box and place the object right in the center of your stage. Aim the lights closer or further from the side windows for different effects and lighting intensities. Shoot pictures with your camera at different settings to see what kind of results you get. Experiment, experiment, experiment and take lots of photos. Out of those you may find this one gem that looks great.
When you are shooting an object that has a reflective surface, one technique you can do is close the outer flaps in front of the box until you get a slit just wide enough for your camera. That way the object will reflect the slit but not the photographer. That is a technique that some professional photographers use when they are shooting products such as new silverware or pots and pans. Next time you open a catalog or an ad, take a close look at the product pictures and notice what is reflected on the product image.
Step 23: Collapse and Reassemble Test
You already know how to fold up the box, but it is important that you first pull out the background sheet carefully to avoid putting any visible wrinkles or folds on the sheet. Roll from the folded edge first and go with the natural curve when it was installed in the box. Use a low-tack tape like the blue tape to secure the roll.
When you reinstall the background sheet, unroll as shown and attach the folded edge back on the top edge of the inner flap. The two free corners of the sheet might curl up; just tack it down with blue tape so that the outer front flaps can swing freely.
You are good to go. Enjoy the rewarding activity of object photography.
Step 24: Lessons Learned and Ideas for Improvement
- Get sharp scissors or shears. Dull ones create unnecessary work and you end up with poor results.
- To cut cardboard neatly, especially a double thickness one, using a straight edge anchored to cardboard surface with blue tape, then cut the cardboard in multiple strokes.
- Before installing the white fabric, paint the interior of the box with neutral white spray paint. It is worth it. Lining the interior of the box with paper is very tedious and time-consuming and you might have better results with paint.
- Iron the fabric before installing it.
- When installing the velcros to the rear flaps, cut one piece about 3 inches long and the mating piece, 1 inch long. Align the small piece in the center of the larger piece. That should avoid tearing a layer off the box.
- Instead of velcro, use small powerful disc magnets. Dig a shallow hole on the surface of the cardboard flap using the magnet as a template, and glue (or hot glue) the magnet into the hole. Then, to ensure that they align correctly when the flaps are closed, stack another disc magnet on top of the glued one. Then take a pencil and rub the lead over the one on top so that when you close the flap, the mark from the pencil transfers to the other flap. You can then use that marking as guide for gluing the second magnet.
- On the subject of magnets, secure with white tape two small disc magnets on the back and top edge of the background sheet. The inner flaps would have another pair of magnets already glued or taped in place. Then it would be a matter of maneuvering the background sheet into the box and clicking it to the magnets. Easy peasy.
- When shooting a photo, anchor the camera down on a tripod. If you have a DSLR or a camera that provides manual control; use the lowest ISO setting; disable the flash; focus manually; set the lens opening to the smallest opening possible to increase the depth of field (depth of focus); and since the camera might be using a slow shutter speed to compensate for the smaller lens opening and low ISO, it is best to trigger the camera either remotely or using the built-in 10 second timer to avoid jiggling the camera when pressing the trigger. I noticed that when I was photographing a glass tumbler, my camera did a horrible job at automatically focussing because it could not see the glass surface on which to focus. Once I chose manual focus, I was able to lock down the focus and take good pictures.
- To light from the top, make a cardboard frame larger than the hatch. Install muslin fabric on the frame. Open the hatch and lay the frame over the hatch opening. Now you can light it from above and diffuse that light as well.
- When the box is disassembled and folded up, the rolled up background sheet needs to go into some kind of protective container such as a mailing tube.
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