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Last week, I had the opportunity to do some product shots for my friend, Jen, who needed pictures of her adorable, wrapped wire, fish mobiles for a class she’ll be teaching. (You can check out all of Jen’s handmade awesomeness at  http://www.mamasmagicstudio.com/ ) Her request was just the push I needed to cross “build a photo light box” off my “to-do-someday” list. (Thanks, Jen!)

Admittedly, the process was trial and error (and error and error and error and trial) – but in the end, it was fun and I learned so much! Now I want to share all that learning with you – in case I can save time for anyone else out there.

The Product Shots:

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Making the Light Box

At first, I thought the challenge would be making the light box. Surprisingly, that turned out to be the easiest part. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I found this very helpful tutorial. http://www.wikihow.com/Create-an-Inexpensive-Photography-Lightbox

Of course, the one time I needed a large cardboard box, they had all disappeared from my universe. So, I improvised by using a clear plastic box. That actually worked out great, because the plastic created it’s own diffuser – eliminating the need for tissue paper and significantly reducing the odds of me setting the house on fire. I also experimented with different lighting options, since the specifics of that weren’t listed in the tutorial. I ended up using three reflector lights, with a 300 watt (Seriously! 300 watt!) clear bulb in each one.

 The light box supplies:

  • 1 plastic bin (or cardboard box and tissue paper)
  • 1 piece of white poster board for background
  • oodles of clear tape (This holds up the poster board background. It also keeps small objects, like fish mobiles, in position.)
  • 3 reflector lamps ($14/ea)
  • 3 300-watt clear light bulbs ($3/ea)
  • 1 power strip (Optional. It’s handy to plug all the lights into this so you can turn them all off with one click.)

I had everything at home, except two of the reflector lamps and the bulbs – so my total cost was under $40. (Can’t complain about that!)

And the added bonus of using a clear plastic bin? When I’m done with my light box, I can store all my lighting inside and it’s ready to use for next time. Neato! Here it is all set up:

DSC_1646With my light box built and lit, I was ready to click away and have instantly beautiful product shots. Yeah, not quite… the pictures just didn’t have that bright white background that I wanted – despite having a white background in the actual light box and being surrounded by 900 watts of blinding light. I could correct that in Photoshop – but that required many additional steps because the mobile wires so small, that selecting them properly was time consuming. Besides… I really wanted to be able to capture the shot correctly – that was the point of building a light box.

So it was back to research – reading conflicting information in online tutorials, reading my photo book and even (*gasp!*) the actual camera manual, experimenting with Photoshop and Lightroom. All of which finally led to the pictures above and the following “aha’s!” that I happily share with you:

 The Aha’s!

  •  Know your light source: Every light source has a different color (warm, cool, etc.) Our brains compensate for this – so we don’t notice it in our daily lives. But your camera doesn’t do that as well on it’s own. This is the time to make sure you understand the white balance option on your camera. I chose tungsten initially, which works for most non-florescent light bulbs. Then I found a “custom light source” setting on my camera – which was perfect! It allowed me to take a picture of the background with the lights on and set that as the white balance. Very accurate and handy feature.
  • Control your light source: Shutting off all the rest of the lights in the room and minimizing any window light helps ensure that the camera sees only the light from your studio lights.
  • Remember the medium gray rule: The camera sensor wants to convert the picture to an average value (meaning medium gray). That means, when I take a picture of my white background under my bright white lights – it turns out medium gray. To compensate for that – you need to overexpose. Most cameras, especially the point and shoot kind, have a +/- EV setting which you can easily use to add exposure to your picture. Or you can increase the aperture (meaning make the aperture bigger by making the f-stop number smaller. Remember – the bigger the number the smaller the hole”. Sing it with me!) or decrease the shutter speed, in order to increase the exposure. Keep overexposing until that background is a lovely, bright white, but don’t overexpose so much that your subject is washed out.
  • Use a tripod: This helps keep your camera in the same position between shots and keeps the camera steady.
  • Try manual focus: Cameras have a hard time focusing on something small or light colored against a white background. Your photo may be sharper if you focus manually.
  • Turn off VR: If you have vibration reduction (or image stabilization) on your lens, turn it off whenever you’re using a tripod. It’s great when you’re hand holding the camera, but can actually introduce a little shake when it’s on the tripod.
  • Use editing software: Yep, even after all that, I learned from my research that most photographers still use some type of editing software. However, the better your picture is, the less editing you’ll need to do. Using the process above, I did use Lightroom to brighten up the background just a little bit more without overexposing the subject. But because the shot was exposed properly, it only took a couple of clicks in Lightroom and TA-DA! Drastically different from my first (hundred) failed attempts, that required multiple steps in Photoshop (select the product, replace the background, sharpen the product, etc, etc) and after much pain and suffering, still didn’t have good results.

Additional resources:

Here are a few other resources that are helpful for product shots, especially if you’re using a point-and-shoot type camera. I’m looking forward to trying the milk jug light box for photographing small items. (Right after I find someone to drink a gallon of milk for me!)

So, now you know everything I know about making a light box and taking product shots. Let me know how it works out for you!