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Studio Photography 101: Lightbox setup "on the go"

Finished image – perfume bottle image created with the “Easy Lightbox” setup

Perfume bottle, finished image

Setting things up

Every now and then, I get to shoot a translucent (or somewhat translucent) object that looks a lot better with the light shining through it – be it a fragrance bottle, slice of food or just some autumn leaves. Here I would like to share a quick and easy setup for this kind of shoots – I  learned it from David Turner and did some minor tweaking to it to make it more “portable”. I like this setup because it is very simple and forgiving, does not require a lot of precise measuring and is literally “foolproof”. 

Our objective is to get the light to shine through the shooting surface (and the object placed on it) into the lens and to make sure it does not cause lens glare and is as even across the field as possible. The trick is to use bounced light (portrait people often call this technique “skipping” or “skip”) – instead of turning the lights towards the camera, we turn them towards some reflective surface and use the bounce as the main light source.

These are the steps to set it up:

  • Find a large enough reflective surface – it could be a piece of white fabric, white cardboard or foamcore (this is what I like to use) or anything that is large enough and bright enough to reflect the light. Avoid shiny surfaces – we are looking for soft, diffused light
  • Set up two lights – one on each side of the surface at about the same distance from it and at about the same height on the stand. Point the lights “criss-cross” (as pictured) so that each light points roughly to the opposite edge of the shooting area. This will allow us to avoid the “hot spot” in the center and make the illumination more even across the field. Put the lights at the same power level setting
  • Take a light reading in the center and closer to one of the corners – if the difference is more than 1/2 stop then it is likely that the lights are too close – pull the lights back a bit, readjust and take another reading.
  • And that’s really all there is to it – enjoy your shoot!

Below is a quick illustration of the complete setup. The whole setup could be easily done in about ten minutes flat and broken down in about the same period of time.

Lightbox setup

As to the shooting surface (the whitish bulky thing clamped to the horses), in this particular instance I used my old trusty scrim, which is basically a sheet of mylar taped to a 24×36 canvas stretcher (that’s why it looks so square). A scrim is a very versatile and handy tool all around the studio and using it as a shooting surface has the added benefit of further softening the light (please keep in mind that it will cut the light by about 1/2 stop at least). If you don’t have a scrim or prefer to have a completely hard and stable surface (for heavier bottles), then a sheet of plexiglass will work as well (1/8″ works fine for the smaller objects, 1/4″ is usually enough for the larger ones).

So lay the object on top of the surface and let the light shine through it! Happy shooting and remember – never stop experimenting!

Technical information

Camera: Canon 5D Mk II
Lens: Canon 50mm 1:2.5 Compact Macro


Cheers,

Alex Stepanov, Photographer.
www.astepanov.com

28 Responses on Studio Photography 101: Lightbox setup "on the go""

  1. Hey Alex thank you for some important notes on light-box here. I was struggling with this for a couple weeks.

  2. bill button says:

    Hey Alex Stepanov, I checked ot your site, very kool images.. I was thinking, would you upload the lighting setup for your digital scale shot or a drawing maybe?

  3. Niraj C says:

    Hi ALex,

    It would be really helpful if you could click one more picture to show from a different angle as to where is the bottle actually
    Thanks

  4. Mark Potter says:

    That is a very cool simple technique! (once I figured out you shoot down to subject).
    Coloring the background is a simple as gelling the strobes.

  5. charles sweigart says:

    For those wondering about the Ridgid stands shown in this post.
    RIDGID Flip Top Portable Work Support #AC9934
    currently available at Home Depot for $29.97 with free shipping over $45, so two will ship free.
    All stores in my area had some in stock at this time.

  6. Cheryl says:

    Alex S.,

    I’m here for the first time, and appreciate the wonderful luminous quality of the bottle.

    My question, unrelated: Can you share the brand of the adjustable saw horse in the photo? I’ve been looking for something like this, without success.

    Many thanks.

    • Hello Cheryl,

      Thank you for the comment! Unfortunately, I don’t remember right off top of my head – I picked them up at my local Home Depot for about $40 apiece but when I looked up online, they don’t have this item on their website for some reason. On the top of the working surface it says “RIDGID” but I’m not sure what company makes it… If you’d like to have a better view of the sawhorse alone, you may find it on my blog here: http://astfoto.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/still-life-studio-on-a-shoestring-part-1/ – maybe if you printed the picture and took it to your local home improvement store they would be able to help?

      Cheers
      Alex

  7. Lee Israel says:

    Looks great but how did you get the reflection, and how did you light the lid?

  8. Mark L says:

    Hi :) Great tutorial BUT the language is too confusing. Реально запутанно написано! I would suggest that the next time you include the product and the camera in your “setup” shot.

    You have a sandwich setup. The top is, as far as I understood, a “24×36 sheet of mylar taped to a canvas stretcher”. The sloping bottom piece is some sort of a white cardboard/foamcore. The product lays flat on the bottom piece, right? Where do you squeeze the camera in? Between the top and bottom pieces but closer to the top, right? What holds the bottle slightly titled?

    Cheers.

    • Mark,

      I would not call it a “sandwich”. This is a lightbox and (as with any other lightbox I have ever seen in my life), the object is placed on the top and the light comes from the bottom – in fact, the tutorial spells it out in the very first section before we dive into all those gory details. I probably would not try to squeeze my model into the softbox while taking her portrait :) In other words, the product is placed on that “mylar sheet taped to the stretcher”, which is *the* shooting surface. If you consider that the “sloping bottom piece” is in fact your light source, the rest should fall in place quite easily.

      Now, the camera angle is entirely up to the photographer and that’s why I did not include it into the tutorial – you may choose to shoot from 30 degree angle down, for instance; there are plenty a situation when it would be the right thing to do. For this one, I chose to work with perfume bottles and yes, those are usually shot from top down. As to tilting – you can tilt the shooting surface or use a small cut of wood or whatever else you may have around the studio. In my case, I tilted the surface because it was the easiest option.

      Hope that helps!

      Cheers,
      Alex

  9. Tanner James says:

    This might be obvious to others but what is that above the sloping mylar on the bottom? How did you get those bubbles, and where is the camera angle?

    Thanks,

    Tanner

    • @Tanner James, Well, you are not the only one who was curious what that white stuff is and where the bubbles come from :) Let’s go over those things in the order of appearance:

      *) The white “stuff” on the bottom (I assume you meant the white sheet that acts as reflector to bounce the light up) is a piece of an “artboard” but actually, anything that white and shiny will work. In my case, it’s “sloping” because it didn’t feet between the legs but it doesn’t have to – it just needs to be big enough or you may not get enough light. I use adjustable horses, which allows me to can bring the shooting surface down (closer to the light) if I need to

      *) The shooting surface (that “thing above”) is a scrim (piece of mylar taped to a stretcher). A piece of clear plexiglass will work just as well

      *) The bottle lies on the surface, the camera looks down. The bottle is slightly tilted – now much tilt do you need depends on the bottle, every one is different. You will need to find the right angle when the air in the laying bottle bubbles in the right spot

      *) Once you set everything up, you just keep on shaking the bottle (to create more bubbles) and shooting, then again and again. After a couple of dozen shakes you will get a few good looking bubbles

      Overall – just be creative and don’t be afraid to add your own interpretation. Just because I do it in a certain way does not mean that you have to follow exactly.

      Hope that helps.
      Happy shooting,
      Alex

    • Tanner James says:

      @Tanner James, Thanks!!

      Tanner

  10. Tanner James says:

    When building my portfolio can I use any product – and show labels (only in my website) without crossing any copyright laws?

    • As far as I know – yes. You can photograph any product with brand on it and use it for your own personal purposes (like portfolio, even portfolio of a commercial photographer). You won’t be able to sell such image though.

    • @Tanner James, Let me chime in :) Your question has (mostly) to do with the trademark law rather than copyright. In most cases, you can use branded images in your portfolio but what you cannot do is to make substantial alterations to the product in post-production or put a brand label onto something that is clearly not the original product.

      For example, suppose you took a great sexy picture of a car, say Ford Focus. You can absolutely use it for self-promotion. You can alter the color of the car in Photoshop (it is considered a “simple derivative” as it does not alter the structure of the product), say from green to blue and it’s fine. You are within your right. But let’s say, you took the same image and added fifth wheel in Photoshop. Now Ford has every right to go after you, because you used their label for something they don’t make.

      To sum it up – yes, you can have branded images in your portfolio, provided you don’t alter the product in the post-production. As far as using it for something other than your portfolio – it’s a really gray area and it’s better not to go there…

      Hope it helps :)

  11. charles sweigart says:

    obvious to me but maybe not to other readers, bottle lays flat on scrim and camera is positioned directly above, shooting downward.
    Thanks Alex, for another easy, low cost way to get great images.

    • @charles sweigart, Thank you for the clarification! You are absolutely correct and it just occurred to me that I could have done much better job explaining that part :) I will try to do better next time and again, thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Cheers,
      Alex

  12. noahjkatz says:

    Thanks for the reply Alex. So the mylar doesn’t sag when you had your subject on top of it?

  13. noahjkatz says:

    Alex S,

    so the lights are aiming at the piece of white on the bottom. Looks like white poster board? What is that 2 feet above it? I assume something translucent. And then is the perfume bottle just laid upon that?

    Thanks,
    Noah

    • @noahjkatz,

      The white reflective stuff is probably a piece of poster board or some other straypiece of cardboard I found in the studio. The top is my old trusty scrim I use for pretty much anything – it’s just a 24×36 sheet of mylar taped to a canvas stretcher. In case you don’t have mylar (typically found in many art supply stores), a piece of plexi works just fine as well. I prefer mylar because it softens the light a bit but also cuts off about one full stop.

      Hope that helps :)

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