How to Build a DIY Light Box for Product Photography

Heather Clouse
Written by
Last update:

Cutting Out The Cardboard Box

You could use any box you have at home, but I thought it would be convenient to build the light box panel out of smooth cardboard. That way I could paint and decorate it any way I wanted.

I found a box of cereal that I don’t eat, it’s perfect!

First, cut out the main bottom flat section of the box with a pair of scissors or a box cutter.

I made the cut about half way into the box so I could fold the top half and use it for part of the inside.

The next step is to cut out the top flap. Just fold the box in half and cut out the flap. You could also use foam board for that part and cover it with cardstock.

Cut off the flaps

A light box is just a box with windows on it, so the first thing to do is to cut out three windows on one side of the box. You want to cut windows that are the same size and shape.

For this project, I’m making a light box with a lid. I will be taking off the flaps on the remaining three sides using a box cutter. Just be sure to use gloves and work slowly to prevent injury.

The more accurate you are with your window cut-outs the better.

Outline the ‘windows’

Of your box.

If you understood my mini-rant above, you know that you don’t have to buy a light box. But if DIY isn’t your thing, or if you want a smaller size for travel, here’s how you can make one at home using everyday items.

Plan your box accordingly.

The first thing is to figure out the size of the box you want to build. You should be able to fit your hand through the ‘windows’ of the box.

If you don’t have a spare box on hand, wrap your hand with tracing paper and trace around it when it’s inside a box. Then you’ll have a template.

The outer face of my light box was about 15” high and 11.5” wide. I chose this size based on what I needed. If you’re making a one for travel, you can always make it smaller. If you’re going to make one that’s taller than wide, you’ll need a taller, 18-foot piece of foam core.

Align the sides.

Cut out the windows

In the back of the box to allow light into your light box.

Whiten the interior

I almost always start my product photography sessions not with the shooting on the spot, but with the lighting and setting up of the white background.

Most light modifiers actually just soften the light instead of completely replacing the background.

As the light gets diffused, also less control over the diffusion is possible.

This means that you might end up with more contrast between background and subject than desired and in some cases even with a colored background.

To make sure that the light truly replaces the background, I suggest to replace it totally with one that is as close as possible to pure white and one that is of the correct size.

Make the bottom smooth

Take the plywood sheets and place them with the contour edges facing up. Now, cut the edges with an electric jigsaw.

Put the board into the vise and use a file to smooth it.

You can use another file to remove any nail gun points on the surface of the board.

Remove dust and debris from the surface of the board and then wipe it with a clean cloth. Now, the board is ready for finishing.

Attach diffusers

After setting up the lights as described above, attach the diffusers to the front of each light. The diffusers are basically translucent plastic, but they should still be light-proof.

They will spread the light out and soften it, creating a more natural-looking light. I had to play around a bit with the positioning of the diffusers to find out how to best illuminate the glass bulb.

It turns out that the plastic diffusers do not have to be directly in front of the lights.

You can also use less diffusers, if you wish. But remember that whenever you have an un-diffused light source, you will get dark shadows in your picture.

The closer you place the diffusers to the light, the softer the light will be in the end. At the same time, less diffused light is more flattering, because it avoids the so-called ugly shadow effect.

The light bulbs I’ve listed above are daylight balanced. This means that they’ll produce a white and blue light that’s perfect for product photography.

If you want to be able to work during the day, you can buy ones that are daylight balanced. I’ve bought this type and I can confirm that it works perfectly.

Test it out

Once you have your box assembled, choose a light that you’d like to try out and rewire it.

When wiring it to the light, try to use a dimmer switch if you have it or multiple switches for the individual bulbs. You may also try to use florescent lighting to reduce the heat output.

You want to use the box to find out how you want your light output to be. It may take some trial and error to find which bulb color temperature is best and how close you can get it to natural sunlight. Light temperature is measured in K (kelvin). Lower number means warmer light and higher number means cooler light.

You could also experiment with different angles of the light until you see the one that is best for you.

Always Create a Curved Backdrop (Known as a Sweep)

The best way to create a professional looking sweep is to layer together sheets of white poster board. Every 3 sheets, cut a notch in the middle so you can slip a piece of rope or pipe cleaner in just to hold the sheets together. You want it to look like billboard sign, or a very long pillbox hat.

After, staple or tape the edges of the sheets together. You’ll want the poster board to be as tall as your standing reach and as wide as you want it to be, possibly in multiples of 3…. or larger.

Your next step is to add your background paper. This will show up in your photos as white. So print out a white sheet for now.

Then trace your poster board sweep onto the back paper. To do this, tape the poster board to the wall, or lay it flat somewhere you can reach it and steady yourself. Trace the column of poster board with a sharpie.

Once you have your sweep traced, cut this out and tape it over your poster board. (Any white board will do. Just make sure it’s an opaque surface that can hold tape.)

Your sweep is complete and probably wobbly, so now you need to attach some sort of hardware on the back of it to make it stand still.

Diffuser Alternatives

As you may have noticed, DIY light boxes can be pricey, especially if you want the standard 4×6 or even the 4×8 sheets. However, you can get some great diffuser alternatives at your local office supply store.

One option is to buy a pack of clear (opaque) document protector sheets. They should be in the same section as the hanging file folders. These are essentially plastic sheets that have tabs on the side that you can use to organize your documents. They have a clear plastic coating on both sides of the material and even come in different sizes and thicknesses.

Another idea is to purchase a thermal printer paper roll for your home printer. It’s basically the same thing as the document protector sheet except that it’s not clear. Thermal paper does not have an ink that soaks into the paper and just melts onto it as the paper passes under the heating element. That’s why it’s usually used to print receipts in fast food restaurants and hotels.

It can be hard to see through because the ink from the roll is visible on both sides of the paper roll, which is normally used in the dispenser.

You can get the paper in a roll so that it’s easier to cut to size. Just cut into 1-foot sections and use the left over scraps for the edges.

Are DIY Boxes Better than Professional Photography Boxes?

Professional photography light boxes may light your subjects sympathetically, but they can be expensive and are unworkable if you don’t have the space.

DIY boxes, on the other hand, provides better lighting control and can be made at home. If your budget is tight and you have a bit of time on your hands, consider making your own photography light box.

Gear:

6-foot LED light box:

A DIY light box is the perfect way to set the perfect amount of light on your subject and add a nice catch light in their eyes. LED lights are one of the best kinds of lights for getting consistent color and quality images. With a little tweaking, we will make a super versatile light box that you can use for a number of different photography light purposes.

Lightproof backboard:

This is the large white backboard for your Lightbox. This will provide the reflection that will bounce and fill the interior of your box with beautiful soft light. In order to be 100% light proof, you will need to line the inside of this board with a layer of black foam core.

LED light strip:

These LED light strips are diffused, low energy, and powerful. These are perfect for creating a beautiful soft light in your light box.

Photographic color gels: