Tuesday, January 3, 2012

DIY LIGHT TENT: IS IT WORTH IT?

We read the blogs, the posts, the articles online about DIY projects, but are they really worth it?  When my personal photography project this year turned to the alphabet, all I could think about for the letter 'A' was food photographs.  You know - apples, artichokes, asparagus, etc... 

Well, the point of a photography challenge is to get out of your comfort zone - right?!  After reading up on food photography, I continually saw light tents being used.  So I did some research and behold - there are DIY light tent articles all over the blogosphere!  So I took some of the higher rated how-to's and created a hybrid of what I thought would work best.  Here's how it went...

Materials:
Medium cardboard moving box (18"X18"X16")
Bristol Paper - Large Sheets to fit your box (found at most craft stores like Micheal's)
Velcro - optional
Glue or Tape
Classic White Bleached Muslin (yard should work unless you choose larger box)
CFL 'Daylight' Bulbs, 3 Pack of 60 Watt Equivalent (Optional Use of 100W Equivalent)
2 or 3 Desk / Clip On Office Desk Lamps - Clip On or Larger Desk for top of box
Scissors
Exacto Knife or Utility Knife
Pencil
Measuring Ruler and/or Straight Edge/Yardstick

Approximate Time Needed to Complete:
2 hours


Step by Step Procedure:
  1. Place the box in front of you with the top open facing towards the ceiling.  With the pencil mark the front with 'F', the two sides with 'R' and 'L' with the fourth side receiving the word 'Back' on it.  On the right and left sides of the box use the ruler and mark 2 inches from the side of the box all the way around to form a frame.  Repeat for the left side.  These will form the two framed openings that will let light in on the side of the box.  In the front, mark the two inches around the right, left, and top of the opening.  I chose to take the opening all the way to the bottom of the box in the front window.  This will allow me to move the fabric or Bristol paper around when we complete the light tent.
  2. Use an Exacto knife or utility knife to cut the framed openings.  Cut the box top off.  Please make sure to leave the bottom intact!  (I taped mine to ensure a good fit.)
    DIY Light Tent Is It Worth It by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Photography DIY Projects
  3. Measure out 2" strips on the Bristol paper to be used to glue inside the box.  11 strips will be needed.  Measure them to fit your box dimensions for length.
  4. Glue the paper strips into the inside of the box.  Make sure the side that has any pencil markings goes against the cardboard so it will not be seen.  (Note, the color of the outside of the box does not matter.) 
  5. Measure two pieces of Bristol paper to cover the inside bottom of the box, and the rear face of the box.  This is optional, but we choose to do this so if we switch out paper or muslin backgrounds - the box is uniform in color. 
  6. Glue the paper pieces into the inside of the box on the back and bottom.
  7. Measure the muslin to be 4" wider then the top of the box measured from top of the front opening to top of the solid back.  This will be the width of the muslin and allow the muslin to cover the front of your cardboard box with room for overhang in the back of the box.  (My muslin width measured: 22".)
  8. Measure from the base of the right side up to the top of the box, across the top of the box, and down the left side of the box to the bottom.  (My muslin length measured: 16"+18"+16"=50".)
  9. Cut the muslin to the measured dimensions (actually tearing from a small cut works just fine).
  10. Glue or tape the muslin stretched over the top of your box.  Glue or tape the front three 2" framed sides to the opening first.  You will need to fold the muslin at the top two corners in front of the light tent.  Glue or tape half of the length of the box from front to back, starting in the front.  (This will allow you to open the muslin from the back half of the box if you want to replace the background.)
    DIY Light Tent Is It Worth It by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Photography DIY Projects
  11. Cut two small strips of the male type of Velcro and attach to the bottom corners of the muslin in the back of the box.  Line up and mark on the box where the two female strips of Velcro should be placed.  Place the female strips of Velcro on the box.  (This will allow you to pull the muslin tight on the box to keep wrinkles on the side or top from creating shadows in your light tent.)
  12. Cut another piece of muslin or Bristol paper so the width is the same as the inside of the box and the length is at least 2 times the height of the box.  This will create your background, and this is where your creativity can come into play.  Either tape the Bristol paper to the top back of the box, or hang your muslin from the top back of your box.  (You may need to tape the muslin backdrop to the back of the box to keep ripples from happening.  Use different colors, fabrics, or materials for different looks.  White muslin or white Bristol paper creates that standard "product for sale" image seen on many websites.  Black velvet gives a nice warm feeling.)
  13. Place lights on the two sides of the box to get that crisp, double shadow look.  Light from the top of the box creates nice soft shadows.  From all three sides, creates that 'floating in space' look.
    DIY Light Tent Is It Worth It by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Photography DIY Projects
  14. Drink that drink you've been cursing about for 2 hours now...your done!  (If you choose to do this step early, please make sure that you have band aids close while using the utility knife!)

There are many variations to this technique, but I found this hybrid approach to be the most useful.  If you are having shadow problems, light the sides of the box or move the lights to fix the shadows.  If you are getting vignetting, you may need to use a lens hood or get closer inside the box.  I suggest shooting in RAW so you can set the white balance in post-processing. 

Well, here is an example of the end product that you can create in a DIY Light Tent.  I had the apple in the light tent but after getting a macro shot - wow!  Need to go to the grocery store and buy some new apples!  So the next thing I could find was this...  (One note: I post-processed the back wheel rim to heal the reflection, but not the front wheel for demonstration purposes.  If you have a shiny object, watch for the reflections of your camera or yourself.)

DIY Light Tent Is It Worth It by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Photography DIY Projects The Texas Company Toy Truck

Now, let's see if it was worth all the swearing and two hours of work...

The top standalone light tent on Amazon (sorted by avg. customer review) lists for $26.99 and comes with 4 different backdrops - white, red, blue, and black.  Our total for the light tent is $20.47 which is inclusive of the Bristol paper, muslin, and Velcro.  Winner - the DIY project in cost. 

The top light tent with lights on Amazon (sorted by avg. customer review) lists for $29.99 and comes with a cheap tripod.  I'm going to pass on that one due to the poor quality/lumen's of the lights (tungsten) and go to the $72.95 version for our comparison.   If we were to add three of the cheapest desk lamps we could find with three 'daylight' CFL light bulbs, our cost would rise to $76.43.  More importantly add in two hours of our life that we will never get back - and even the shipping from Amazon becomes REALLY cheap!  Winner - buy it off the internet or local photography store.

Depending upon what parts of the project you already have on hand - the DIY saves you money and allows you a creativity you don't get with buying something off the shelf.  But if you are looking to buy the lamps for your setup, go with the off the shelf purchase.  We were surprised ourselves after reading how cheap everything is for other people when they go the DIY route.  We just couldn't find those savings and I always tend to add in my own time expense to a DIY project, because it truly is worth something.


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