If you have, let’s just say, a trunk-full of strange and wondrous objects fresh off the barge and out of the splintered shipping crate from lands afar, chances are good you’re either the kingpin of an international smuggling ring or you’re going into business for yourself. If you’re my friend Eli, you’re the owner and operator of Old Man Hodapp’s Worldly Treasures, peddling only the finest of… Completely weird stuff from all over the globe.

After you’ve come to terms with the concept of selling parts of animals you can’t readily identify, you will surely need to take some pretty pictures to entice the prospective customers who crawl through your website, and that means you’re going to want to build a low-cost lightbox (or cloudbox or cloud dome or… diffuse light chamber) to get that snappy catalog look.

I got together with Eli and got him to explain how he constructed a very serviceable lightbox for less than $20. We also talked a bit about post-processing and how to streamline the task of readying hundreds of product shots for the web without going insane.

A couple of weeks ago, Eli called me up and told me that he wanted to make his product photos look more like what Apple does on their website, meaning high-key, pure white backgrounds, no corners or distractions, just very fresh. My advice was to either use a cloud dome (which can get a little pricey), or to build some sort of inventive DIY lightbox

It seems like the Internet is simply crawling with DIY lightbox articles but in my opinion, the more the merrier! Eli decided to go the DIY lightbox route and immediately purchased some of the most common supplies used:

  • 2-3 sheets of 30x40" foamcore (or foam board or foamboard) from the crafts store, $2 per sheet.
  • 1 painter’s lamp (the kind you can clip to things), about $3.
  • 1 utility lamp (the kind with a handle a cage over the bulb), $2.50 or so.
  • A few sheets of thick, white paper… $1 million. Er, no, $1.
  • Baking parchment (that’s right). $2.

Construction of the box is as simple as cutting and taping the foamcore to create a five-sided chamber of the size you require for the objects you’re photographing. I don’t think I need to draw up any schematics here, but I will provide pictures.


And now a couple of close-ups.


Notice that Eli has used a thick sheet of white paper to create the seamless backdrop by taping it part-way up the back wall of the box and allowing it to drape down, leaving no hard edges to cast distracting shadows.


Both light sources are diffused using a couple sheets of baking parchment. Using baking parchment gives you some assurance that it won’t burst into flames during your shoot, quickly turning an entertaining photo session into a run for dear life. The utility lamp on top of the box shines through a hole cut in the foamcore and is concentrated by a piece of aluminum foil above it.


As you can see here, the light is very well distributed and diffused, creating a smooth and uniform backdrop for the object. You can probably also tell that the tungsten bulbs, even with the camera set on tungsten white balance, create a very creamy red–almost purple–shade. This is easy to correct in Photoshop.


Here is a raw, uncorrected image straight from the camera.


Eli recorded a Photoshop action to apply a couple curves adjustments. Because the light color and exposure are very consistent, it’s possible to use the same curves settings for every shot and stay pretty well on the mark. The first step is to correct the white balance issue by selecting the curves function and using the white eye dropper tool to select a part of the image that ought to be white.

The second adjustment Eli applies basically overexposes the image a bit to bring the background paper up to pure white, blowing out any little bits of dust or marks that are on the paper and creating more of an ethereal look, a la Apple.

It’s not perfect, but for under $20 in supplies, it’s pretty impressive!

Once you have constructed your DIY lightbox, you have a source of soft, consistent light that you can use in many applications. Eli purchased a length of black velvet material at the craft store and was able to convert his high-key lightbox into a low-key lightbox in just a couple of minutes. Check it out:


Yeah, it’s a fox skull. I told you he had some weird stuff! I mean, if you ever wanted a big, shiny beetle (yes, it’s real) sealed inside an acrylic block that you could wave around in your friends' faces and make them uncomfortable… You may want to visit Old Man Hodapp’s Worldly Treasures


Cool, right? If you have any questions for me or for Eli, we’d be glad to answer them; just leave a comment!