I take a lot of photos as part of my job. All the photos in our store were taken by me, as well as most of the photos in our support guides. It’s important for customers to be able to see the things they’re considering buying — clearly and without distractions — so high-quality photos are a necessity.
Until recently, taking good photos was slow and cumbersome. We had a flimsy portable photo studio that took a long time to set up. To get entire objects in focus, I had to reduce my aperture as much as possible. This decreased the amount of light reaching the sensor, so I had to take very long exposures, sometimes as long as two seconds. My pictures would often come out slightly blurry because our office building is old and vibrates from the machine shop downstairs. So I had to take several pictures and closely inspect them to make sure I got ones that were nice and sharp. I was able to do all this, but I yearned for a simpler, faster, brighter setup.
After doing a lot of research, I found that my options for upgrading our photo setup were either a “light tent,” which is a collapsible, translucent cube with lights that shine through the walls from the outside (here’s an example), or a self-contained photography box with built-in lighting (here’s an example). The light tent options were very affordable, and some of them even included lights, but they would take up a lot of space, and the lights would be slow to set up and take down. Sunlight coming through the windows would also cast unwanted shadows because the entire apparatus is translucent. I also wasn’t confident that the included lights would be bright enough. The self-contained photo boxes looked great, but they were all significantly out of our price range, so I decided to build my own photo box.
I had several requirements:
- It had to be very sturdy.
- It had to be big — around 2x2x2 feet.
- It had to have opaque walls so sunlight couldn’t get in.
- It had to have a very bright light that was also very evenly diffused.
- It had to be permanently set up and ready to use but also moveable.
- It had to be under $200.
For the lighting, I settled on this 1x2-foot 36-watt LED panel. These types of panels are normally used to replace fluorescent lights in ceilings, and they’re wonderfully even and diffused. This particular panel is equivalent to 240 watts of incandescent light, which is nice and bright. I decided to make the box out of ¾-inch premium birch plywood, which I knew would be pretty heavy, but it would also be very sturdy. One 4x8-foot sheet was $48 at MacBeath in San Francisco. The plywood also had to be hardwood because I wanted to cut it with our laser cutter. Cheap plywood has so much glue in it that even our 400-watt laser can’t cut through it.
I designed the panels of the box (right-click to download) in Illustrator, cut them out on the laser cutter, and assembled them with a nailgun. Then I mounted the LED panel in the top using zip ties, which allowed me to angle the front side down. I took the seamless white styrene backdrop from our previous photo studio, which happened to be the same width as the photo box, and permanently mounted it in the box with Nitto tape. For the side panels, I used some foam poster board.
When I switched on the light, I was delighted with the bright, even illumination. I immediately wanted to take some pictures, but the Canon 5D I usually use wasn’t available. Because I was impatient, I used the little Canon S110 point-and-shoot camera that’s rarely used because its photo quality is average.
I was happily surprised to find that the photos looked great. Because there was so much light, I was able to turn the ISO all the way down, which resulted in almost no noise (graininess). Professional cameras like the 5D are able to take much better (lower noise) photos than point-and-shoot cameras in nearly all circumstances. But since the LED panel in the new photo box was so bright, I was able to produce excellent images with a much cheaper camera. Can you tell which of these photos was taken with the 5D and which was taken with the S110?
The first image is from the S110 and the second image is from the 5D. I concede that the 5D image looks slightly better — and it should! After all, the camera and the lens together cost almost 10 times as much. But for my purposes, they look basically the same, which is awesome.
For less than $200, I solved the problems of long exposure times, vibration, flimsiness, and long setup times! I now have a sturdy, bright setup that does exactly what I need. Feel free to use any of my plans if you have similar needs, and send us photos! We love seeing what other people make.