Easy-to-make Lightbox

Simple, compact and inexpensive, this easy-to-make lightbox is the answer for photographers needing a portable mini ‘studio’…

Words: Stephen Smith

Pictures: Redman Media

You will need
  • 4 x 2m x 40mm lengths of white PVC piping
  • 8 x 40mm white PVC 90° elbow joints
  • 8 x 40mm white PVC T-joints
  • 1 clean white sheet or a piece of white fabric about 1.2m x 2m
  • 1 x A1 piece of white cardboard or thick paper
Tools
  • Hacksaw, sewing machine, tape measure, pencil, two lamps, scissors

Cost: About R500
Difficulty: 1 out of 5
Time: An evening
Assistant: Not necessary, but definitely helps

Step 1

Cut the PVC piping into 12 lengths of 500mm and 8 pieces of 40mm, with a hacksaw.

Step 2

Join a 90° elbow to a 40mm piece of PVC. Join the other end of the 40mm PVC pipe to one end of a T-joint. Join a 500mm length of PVC to the other end of the T-joint. On the other end of the 500mm length, join one end of another T-joint. To the other end of the T-joint join a 40mm piece of pipe, then a 90° elbow. Repeat this entire step three more times so that you have four complete sections.

TIP: Don’t glue the PVC pieces and joints together. You need to be able to take them apart to slip on the fabric, and it also makes storage and transport that much easier.

Step 3

The next step is to make two squares out of the four complete sections, by joining the 90° elbows together using another four 500mm lengths. These squares are the top and bottom of the lightbox.

Step 4

Lay one square flat on a table. Twist the T-joints so that the empty joint is facing up. Insert a 500mm PVC length into each T-joint. Place the other square on top of these 500mm lengths, fitting the open joint of the four T-joints onto them. Your cubic frame is now complete.

Step 5

The next trick is to measure the fabric. You want a piece about 600mm wide and 185mm long, but you want it to be fairly tight. Sew one of the 600mm ends to create a tube that will just fit around the 40mm pipe. To do this we wrapped the fabric over the pipe and pinned it in place. We then sewed this to form a tube. To make a big enough tube, the overlap of the fabric was 75mm, but double-check your dimensions before you sew. Slip the tube over one of the front uprights of your cube, then stretch the fabric around the back and again to the other front upright. Loop it around the upright and mark this point. Sew another tube here, so that when the two tubes are slipped over the uprights you have a cube with three walls.

You want the fabric to be quite tight to reduce the wrinkles.

Step 6

Make a roof for your cube by making two fabric tubes, as in the previous step, this time to fit over the front top pipe and the back top pipe. Ours measured 600mm by 980mm, including the 150mm needed for each tube (so a total of 300mm). Undo the front pipe from one T-joint and slip on the ‘roof’, then put it back into place. Repeat with the rear pipe.

Step 7

Trim the piece of white cardboard or paper so that it fits snugly into the lightbox, width wise, but is long enough to form a gentle curve from the front bottom of the cube to the middle or top back of the cube. This is your ‘infinity curve’, so that there are no creases or corners in your photographs. Your lightbox is now complete and ready for use.

NOTE: We made our lightbox this size because it is efficient in terms of minimal wastage of the PVC, and because it was big enough to take photographs of many items, but still easily portable and stored. The great thing about this design is that it is easily scaled to a bigger size if there is some larger item that you want to photograph. Adjust the size by making the 500mm lengths longer, and the fabric a corresponding size.

Using your Lightbox

To get the most out of your lightbox you need two or three external light sources, which can be just about any lamp or flash unit, if you have them. Choose the light bulbs carefully, and match the white balance on your camera to the bulb. If you use a daylight bulb, use the daylight setting on your camera’s white balance menu. If you use a cold white globe, use a cooler setting. Experiment until you get the look you want.

We recommend bright, high-wattage globes. Place one lamp on the left of the lightbox and another on the right of the lightbox. Point the lamps so that the light is shining onto the fabric walls of the lightbox, and not onto the PVC frame.

Select a subject for your first photograph. We picked a beautiful pincushion flower from the garden, but anything that will fit in the box and won’t run away will do.

Grab your camera. If you’re a beginner, you could use your camera on its Auto setting, but that’s no fun. Rather use the Aperture Priority setting and use the largest aperture (smallest AV number, such as f1.8 or f3.5) the lens is capable of. This will keep the focus area small, and the background blurred.

If you want a larger area of the subject in focus, use a smaller aperture (bigger AV number, such as f8 or f11). Be aware that the smaller the aperture, the slower the shutter speed. If the pics are blurry, adjust the ISO on your camera to a higher number, such as 800. This makes the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light, which means you can use a higher shutter speed for the same aperture. Another option is to use a tripod for your camera, so that you can use a small aperture and slow shutter speed without any blur.

Snap away, and experiment with different apertures and ISOs. Also move the light sources (the lamps) closer and further away from the lightbox, to see the difference it makes, or try different bulbs. You can also change the card infinity curve for a green, red, blue or even black, depending on what you’re taking a picture of.

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