DIY photo studio

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Whether you are photographing the latest tech gadget for your blog or shooting an antique to sell on eBay, getting great photos of small objects requires some photographic finesse. The trick is to remove all distractions from the background while modifying the harsh, direct light so that it softly defines the shape of the object you’re shooting. While many professionals rely on expensive soft boxes and studio backdrops for this type of work, you can get impressive results with nothing more extravagant than a cardboard box.

What you need

To make your miniature photo studio, you’ll need a box that’s large enough, when placed on its side, to hold your subject comfortably with some room to spare. You’ll also need a couple of sheets of translucent paper. Tracing paper works well for this, but feel free to improvise. Waxed paper, parchment paper, tissue paper, or even plain white paper should all work fine. The paper just needs to be a neutral color and thin enough to let light shine through. A piece of poster board will serve as your backdrop. White is the usual choice, but colors work well, too. And because it costs less than a dollar per sheet, you can afford to experiment.

The best thing about this project is that you don’t need a fancy camera or special lighting equipment. Any digital camera manufactured within the last few years should do the trick. I took these photos with my Canon G7 point-and-shoot.

One or two small lamps are all you need in the way of lighting. (If the lamp has a shade, remove it.) However, you’ll get brighter and more consistent results from a small flash unit set to a low-power manual setting. You can use any number of wireless or corded options to synchronize an external flash with the camera’s shutter button. For example, I’ve used a pair of 20-year-old hot-shoe flashes (Nikon SB-26s) and a $30 remote flash trigger from Gadget Infinity. Whatever you do, don’t use your camera’s built-in flash. The harsh, direct light will defeat the purpose of the box. If the weather is nice, you may not need artificial lighting at all; simply use the sun as your light source.

Creating the box

To get started, place the cardboard box on its side. You’ll be shooting into what used to be the top. Using a craft knife or a pair of scissors, cut large windows in the left and right side panels and then cut off the top flap to prevent it from dropping down into the box (see “Studio Setup”).

Although it’s not required, I also recommend cutting a window into the third side panel—which serves as the bottom of the photo studio once you’ve turned the box on its side. You can then use this opening to photograph small flowers and other natural objects without uprooting them.

Completely cover the openings on the left and right sides of the box with a single layer of translucent paper. Then cut the poster board to the width of the box’s interior. It should be long enough to drape down the back and across the bottom in one continuous piece. This smooth curve will help hide your horizon line, creating a seamless backdrop. Securely fasten the top and bottom edges of the poster board with tape.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of your photo studio, feel free to experiment with the floor of the box. For a dramatically different look, try placing your subject on a polished black tile (which you can purchase for around $5). Combine the tile with a piece of colored poster board that complements the subject’s main color, and then position your camera so you’re shooting from a low angle. The black tile will reflect both the object and your background color in the foreground of the image.

Setting up the lighting

Next, place your object in the center of the box and position a bright lamp or flash so its light points directly at one side. To ensure that you get even coverage, place your light source about as far away as the box is tall. You can move it later to make the light more or less intense.

If your lamp uses a 60-watt bulb, you may want to replace it with a 100-watt flood lamp to yield more light. But be sure to use an incandescent bulb, not a fluorescent one, as the latter may cause problems when you try to set your camera’s white balance. If you’re using an external flash but you don’t have a stand, place the flash inside the heel of a sneaker to prop it up.

Study the scene from the front, carefully rotating the object or the box until you’re pleased with the light and reflections. Some objects look best with soft light coming from just one side. In this scenario, the piece of translucent paper on the other side serves as a light reflector, subtly filling in the shadows of your subject. (You can amplify this effect by lining the inside of the opposite wall with aluminum foil.) If you’re still seeing harsh shadows, however, you can solve the problem by placing a second light on the opposite side of the box. This dual-light setup also illuminates the background more evenly. You can position the lights symmetrically to create even light on both sides, or move one light farther away to make the light from one side more dominant.

Setting up your camera

If you’re using a continuous light source such as a lamp or the sun, I recommend placing your camera on a tripod for increased sharpness. A stack of books can substitute as a camera support in a pinch.

Turn off your camera’s built-in flash, and then match your camera’s white balance with the light source you’re using. For example, set your white balance to daylight if you’re using the sun or an electronic flash, or to incandescent if you’re using a lamp.

If your camera offers a macro mode—usually represented by a flower icon—try turning this on. This mode lets you shoot from mere inches away. Alternatively, try moving the camera farther away and using the zoom to get close to your subject; telephoto settings tend to produce a more flattering perspective for close-ups. Experiment to find the best compromise.

And if you’re using a white background, you’ll want to overexpose your shot a little to keep the white from appearing gray (and your object from looking too dark). If your camera offers an exposure-compensation setting, set it to +1 and then adjust as needed.

Floating your object

Want to really show off? Try floating the object in your photo. This is especially easy with small items, such as coins.

To create this effect, you’ll need a stiff wire, such as clothes-hanger wire. Bend it into the shape of an L. Cut a very small hole through the back of your box and background material, and then feed one end of the wire through the hole until you get to the bend. Securely tape the remaining wire, pointing downward, to the outside back of the box. This will create a sturdy support for your object.

With a little putty or tape, attach the object to the interior end of the wire. When photographed from the front, the object will hide the wire from view and appear to float in midair.

Kill troublesome reflections

If you’re shooting a highly reflective object and the lights cause unwanted reflections, try this tip that not even all pro photographers know: you can eliminate the errant reflections by taping pieces of cardboard in strategic places on the outside of your mini photo studio’s paper windows. If you’re photographing a small clock, for example, you might use a circular piece of cardboard to block just the light reflected in the glass face. When setting up these light blockers (referred to as gobos), make sure the camera remains stationary. It does no good to hunt down and kill a reflection, only to have it reappear when you change the camera’s viewing angle.

[ David Hobby is a photojournalist at the Baltimore Sun . He blogs about flash lighting techniques at Strobist. ]

Studio Setup: You don’t need anything fancy to create a photo studio for shooting a small object. This setup’s seamless background and soft, diffused lighting produced the image below.
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