How to make a DIY lightbox for product photos


Mafia members Michelle (myself) and Maia just got together to make a DIY lightbox for product photos.  Maia had recently gotten some good press for her products and wanted a way to take better photos of her items.  Normally she uses natural light in a window and snaps some shots of her stuff in front of a white piece of paper with a point-and-shoot camera, but was finding it more and more difficult to get time to take photos while the sun was still out.

As crafty makers, we’re all doing our best to DIY what we can for our online shops, which usually means DIY photography.  Professional product photography can be expensive, and most of us want the freedom to be able to snap quick photos of our new stuff often and easily so we can keep creating new stuff for our online shops and get them listed faster.  But we also want the photos to look good.

My full time gig is my photo studio, so I worked with Maia to make something she could use to photograph her products quickly and easily, and taught her some tricks to get the most out of her point-and-shoot camera.

First, we stabbed a box.  Because this is the Chicago Craft Mafia, and nothing’s more mob-like than a good old fashioned stabbing.

DIY lightboxThen we cut out panels in a cardboard box.

DIY lightboxThen we took some slightly sheer, lightweight white scrap fabric and taped them over the holes.

DIY lightboxThen we put some pieces of duct tape on the back wall of our new little diorama, so we can attach little fabric backdrops to it with tape, without ruining the cardboard with constant tape removing and reattaching.

DIY lightbox Then we taped a small, smoothly ironed piece of fabric to the back, laid another one on the bottom, and placed a bamboo placemat over that for some interesting texture.  We put two desk lamps on the sides and shone the light through the white panels, which diffused it into a soft light that filled the whole box.

DIY lightboxWe took a test photo, and found that not enough light was getting on the front of the bottle.

DIY lightboxSo we added a third light to the top panel, and moved all 3 lights as far to the front of the box as possible, and the bottle a little further back.  For the lights, we used 2 desk lamps and one clamp light from a hardware store.  All of the lights had 60 watt CFL bulbs.

DIY lightbox

Moving the lights around and adding a top light helped to get more light on the front of the bottle.

DIY lightboxThis is Maia’s point-and-shoot camera: a Canon Powershot 115.

DIY lightboxTo prep her camera to take photos in the lightbox, we started by setting the custom white balance on her camera to match the color temperature of the lights.  This will tell her camera what color the light is and when it takes photos of the product, the color will be consistent for all photos, which will most closely match the actual colors of the product.  To do this for your own camera, put something plain white like a sheet of paper into the box where the product will go.  Hold the camera so the only thing in the frame is the white of the paper, and then depending on the camera’s particular settings, set the custom white balance.  (Look up how to do it in your camera’s manual.  Your camera’s manual is your friend.)

DIY lightboxDIY lightboxWe did this same process for 3 different cameras: Maia’s Canon Powershot 115 ($80), my point-and-shoot- a Canon S95 ($450), and my professional camera- the Canon 5D Mark III ($3,000).  Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the photos taken by each camera:

DIY lightboxIf the photos are going to be posted on Etsy or any other website where they’ll stay small and in web resolution, the results between the cameras are actually pretty comparable.  Obviously, the $3,000 camera takes photos that are sharper, clearer, and the zoom lens can better change the shape of the bottle depending on the length of the lens.  But the DIY lightbox really made for a setup in which the point-and-shoots can take great-looking photos.

The biggest hurdle with using a small point-and-shoot was tweaking the settings to get the kind of versatility of the big, expensive SLR.  This photo is a perfect example of the limitations of the Powershot:

DIY lightboxWith a black background, the camera’s auto settings tried to average the metering between the light colors and dark colors, and the high amount of contrast threw it off a bit.  The blacks aren’t deep black, there’s lots of digital noise/pixelation in the blacks, and the white label loses contrast and kind of… glows or something.

But our experiment with making a DIY lightbox was an overall success- especially since it can fold up nicely and slip behind the couch when we’re not using it.

DIY lightboxIf you’re going to attempt your own lightbox or otherwise take your product photos with a small, point-and-shoot camera, here are some quick tips to get the most out of it:

  • Your camera’s manual is your friend- play around with some of its presets to find something that works for your setup.
  • Lower the camera’s ISO to as low as it can comfortably go- this will get clearer images with less digital noise.
  • The “macro” preset in some point-and-shoots can get that fuzzy-background-depth-of-field look people like.
  • Another way to get a shallower depth of field is to switch your camera to Aperture Priority mode (usually “AV” in the settings).  Set the aperture to the lowest number it will go to.
  • For larger products where you want all parts to be in focus- set the aperture to a higher number so the whole product will be in focus.
  • If you can’t set a custom white balance, try playing with different white balance presets like daylight, cloudy, indoor, fluorescent, tungsten, etc. Choose the preset that best matches the colors of your actual product.
  • Experiment with different colors and textures in the background and underneath the product.  Choose background colors and textures that compliment your product and look best on camera.
  • Move the lights around the box and take test shots- see where the light falls, the shadows fall, and if you get any highlights on the products, and change the position of the lights or the product to move these around and tweak it into something you like.

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