Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let there be LIGHT! DIY Lightbox Tutorial 1.0

I finally bought all of the items I needed for the lighting tutorial I promised eons ago. But I got sidetracked and built this lightbox first. I pieced together advice from my brother and several tutorials, and tested suggestions to find what worked best for my minis.

Why a lightbox? Well, I've been working on swaps with countless failed attempts to match the quality of the lovely items I've received, that I gave up and stuck to what I do best — sprawl on my couch with my laptop. I started designing 3D models and have 3D printed some bookcases, side tables and vases. After I finish polishing up the details on the prototypes, I plan to open a shop in late January or early February. More details on that later.

DIY Lightbox Tutorial and Cheap Lighting Rig

For the lightbox you will need: Box (at least 12"x12"x12"), ruler, pen/pencil, tape, utility knife/razor blade, poster board/bristol board 22"x28", glue/spray mount, scissors, and (not pictured) linen or cotton fabric or tracing paper/parchement paper. For the lighting set up: 120 watt daylight R40 flood light, assorted PVC pipe and plumbing fixings, and (not pictured) 8 1/2" clamp light.

I started with a 12"x12"x12" box, you can go bigger but I wouldn't go any smaller. (If you are going to build the lighting rig too, don't go much higher than 12" or you'll need to get taller poles to fit the light over the box.) Cut off two of the flaps. Some people cut them all off, but you can use them for light control to block your camera from any side lighting sources, so for now I'm keeping them, but if they get annoying I'll slice them off later. Next cut out three of the walls. To maintain the integrity of the box, I marked the holes 2" from the sides and 2.5" from the base. Some people cut them smaller to allow more light in, but structurally, I think this will hold up better when I inevitably trip over it.

Your box should look like this. You can leave the interior unfinished, but if you line the inside of the box with white poster board it will help to bounce the light around the interior of the box and remove shadows*. It does make a difference, so do it, it's worth the time, trust me, (famous last words).

Before cutting up the poster board to cover the interior, cut one long piece for the infinity curve. 11 3/4" (or lightly less than the width of your box) x 28" (not pictured, sorry). It should be the width of your box, and the length should be extra long so when you put it in your box you can adjust the curve with the extra paper that will be sticking out. I also cut out different colors for backgrounds as seen in the photos below.

Back to the interior. Measure twice, cut, then label the back of the piece you are gluing to a corresponding number on the box interior. I used T L R for Top, Left, Right and N S E W for North South East West, to help get all of the right strips in the correct place and to glue the correct side. You could use numbers, whatever works for you. I used a repositionable Spray Mount adhesive (aka Artist's Adhesive), you could use a glue gun. Don't use glue sticks, they make the edges curl up, and Elmers type white glue can soak in and warp the poster board. (I forgot to line the inside of the flaps, but I'll add that later.) Note: if your white poster board is glossy on one side, use the glossy side on the interior to bounce more light to the center, use the matte side for the infinity curve.

Some people suggest using tracing paper or parchement paper to cover the holes to filter the light, it's cheap and works but I think fabric works better. I tried an old white cotton t-shirt, and cotton diper cloth with a woven linen look to it (this one worked the best for me). Other suggestions are white muslin, linen, fleece, any white fabric with some texture to diffuse the light. Cut your fabric and tape over the holes. I used blue painters tape, so I can easily remove the fabric to test different filter options.

Lightbox Supplies used:
Box (at least 12"x12"x12") ~ already had
ruler ~ already had
pen and pencil ~ already had
painters tape ~ already had
utility knife/razor blade - already had
scissors ~ already had
glue/spray mount ~ already had (spray mount repositionable adhesive costs $9-15 depending on where you buy)
2 sheets white poster board ~ $0.69 each (local art store, I heard Target might have some too)
2 sheets of blue and gold poster board ~ $0.99 each
linen or cotton fabric (old white t-shirt) or tracing paper/parchement paper ~ already had

Build time: 2.25 hours
Total lightbox cost: $3.26 + tax

For the lighting rig, look for 1/2" PVC pipe in the plumbing department of your local hardward store. I built this in the aisle, testing which pieces made it the most stable. Below are the pieces I used.

Lighting Rig Supplies used:
120 watt Daylight R40 flood light ~ $8.77 at HomeDepot
8 1/2" clamp light ~ $7.99 at OSH (on sale for $5.90 at Pepboys)
Plumbing fixings
  • Two 1/2" side outlet elbow, 45 ~ $1.29 each
  • Two 1/2" triple slip tee ~ $0.35 each
Assorted PVC pipe (cheaper to buy one long pipe and cut to the size you need, but I bought pre-cut)
  • Four 1/2" x 18" PVC pipe (plain-end, white for the legs/base) ~ $0.32 each
  • One 1/2" x 24" PVC pipe (plain-end, white for the cross bar) ~ $0.42 each
  • Two 1/2" x 24" PVC riser (screw ends, dark grey for the sides) ~ $3.49 each

Buying time: 20 minutes
Build time: 15 minutes
Total lighting rig cost with one light: $28.72 + tax

All of the photos taken below are with the one single overhead light source, but with this lighting rig you can also add side lights. I'll post pictures taken that way another time.

Things I Learned

* Pictured on the left is the lightbox with the plain brown cardboard interior not covered, and second, is after I lined the interior with white poster board. Click on the pictures and toggle back and forth. If you look at the sides of the images, you'll notice the difference in lighting. The plain brown cardboard interior is darker around the edges, so I definitely think it's worth the time to line the whole interior. The black bookcase is one of the pieces I made based on a bookcase I saw on Orlando's blog, HommeMaker. This prototype turned out too thin, but I'll be making a thicker version that will be for sale in my store next year.

The slant bookcase I miniaturized for Meagan from a design by David Ngo. If you click on the image, you can see the differences between filters. Subtle, but check out the shadows on the middle shelf. After testing a variety of filters, I'm sticking with the cotton fabric with more of a woven linen texture.

The tree was a gift from minimodernistas, I'm not sure where Doris got it, but it's aweseome. Here I swapped in a different color 12" x 28" sheet of poster board for the background. Having one black and one white background should suffice, but I got the blue, silver and gold to have more options to work with. If you compare the shadow under the tree you can see the difference between the filters. I prefer the more diffused light with the cotton linen. Hit me up with any questions, otherwise good luck and good light. :)

(On a separate note; my brother is an uber talented professional photographer, cinematographer and artist; he set up the lighting and took the photos that won third place in the FDQ contest. He had suggested the PVC pipe lighting rig, but I forgot exactly how he said to build it, so I made do with the above set up. I'm going to have a 2.0 version with advice from him. Stay tuned. :)

Hope this gives you more light for the new year! Peace out.

(Make sure you read this post with more details on the infinity curve and turning the lightbox into a storage box for your lights.)


  1. Great tutorial! I'm so going to give it a whirl. I also love the slant shelf you made for Meagan-awesome!

    1. Thanks Cyd! Totally easy, and you probably have all of the supplies already. Glad you like the slant bookcase, it's one of my favorites. :D

  2. Thanks for this! Lighting and photography are some of my least developed, yet most necessary skills. I have almost all the supplies for this, so I guess I should make it soon! And I love love love the slant bookcase!

    1. I'm totally going to hit up my brother for my info on lighting, that is definitely not in my skill set. Glad you like the bookcase. I'm waiting for some dry weather to finish painting the last piece and then I can pack and ship. Coming to you soon...

  3. Wow! Cool tut and I have most of the materials already on hand. Would you mind going in a bit more detail about the "infinity curve?"

    1. Yes, sorry. I had to pack everything up before xmas, so I forgot to photograph that. I'll try to update in the next day or two. I have to dig everything out and set up when the kids are asleep or else they want to play with it too.

  4. Okay---this is awesome. I was going to buy one, but now... AND I'm quite excited to hear that you will have a store soon. Whoo hoo! You are very talented so you've got this in the bag, man. Also, I definitely need some photo pointers. And I love that slant bookcase. I'm already camping out for your store...

    1. Thanks man! So easy to make, OSH has all of the PVC pipes and joints, they just tend to be a little dirty, but luckily I had wet wipes to clean off my hands while assembling in the aisle. The slant bookcase is amazing. I'm trying to contact the original designer to see if he minds if I reproduce it in mini form. Knock on wood!

  5. How calmly you state that you have "started designing 3D models and have 3D printed some bookcases, side tables and vases." That's awesome! Can we learn more? With your incredible skills and talent, there's no limit to what you can come up with.

    The light box is great, thank you for the tutorial! Now I just have to get a better camera.

    Cheers, Neen

    1. :D Thanks Neen. I promise more to come on the 3D printing. I have to finish these swaps first.

      I too need a better camera now, and a tripod for that matter. Cheers back atcha. :P

  6. Very cool, and very impressed. I know this takes a lot of time and energy to document all the steps, especially when you have little ones who would like to "help" Mommy, so kudos for posting! Happy holidays, and I CANNOT wait to see more designs from you!! :)

    1. Thanks Chris! Tell me about it, documenting everything takes way longer than I expected. I spent 8 hours last Saturday (my dear Mr. gave me a kid duty free day) working on everything, but it took another 6 hours to blog about it. Ay yi yi. I don't know how all you bloggers out there who do tutorials all the time manage. Hats off to tutorialists! :D Happy Holidays to you too!

  7. Thank you so much for this tutorial - I certainly will use it!Look forward to your store!
    Happy New 2013

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