Light Box for Staging Food Photography: Step-by-Step
Photography runs in my family, and until recently I was lagging behind in a big way. My mother was an accomplished amateur photographer when I was younger. She got her first good camera as a hand-off from my Grandad. My two brothers are both skilled snappers--Micah is a symmetry-loving point & shoot man, while Paul is a professional in the film and photography business. He owns the fanciest camera I have had the pleasure of seeing. (When he first got it I told everyone about how it is calibrated to the shape of his eye, and anywhere he looks it automatically focuses!) He has had a big impact on me lately, and really encouraged me to learn to take pictures properly. So I asked for a proper (DSLR) camera for Christmas from Ant and my Mum and Dad, and I have been lucky enough to also receive a second lens for our anniversary.
Lighting has been my main problem. My kitchen and dining area are not the best for natural light, especially at night, when I am doing most of my cooking. (In fact, there is not any time during Monday to Friday when I am at home during daylight hours. Sad but true.) So Paul was telling me about how to rig up a desk lamp to give good light. Just a lamp on its own is too harsh, so he gave me some diffusion paper to soften it. And he sent me instructions to make a staging box. You can make one too; it's easy! All you need is some diffusion paper, an old cardboard box, some white paper (I used the back of plain wrapping paper), a ruler, some masking tape, scissors (or a craft knife), a ruler, and a set square or angle measure.
I used an old archive box, but any cardboard box could be used. Start by setting the box down with the front open. Then draw a straight line across the top of the box between 5cm and 10cm from the front. From here, draw a line at 45 degrees on each side, sloping away from the front, and then across the back of the box.
Cut along this line and remove the back corner of the box.
Cover the inside of the box with white paper.
Use an extra pice of white paper to create a rounded backdrop inside the box. This will avoid having a corner in the background of your photos. This paper is called a cove.
Cut a piece of diffusion paper to fit over the opening in the back of the box. Diffusion paper can be bought from photography shops, but it can be substituted with parchment paper or tissue paper. Since you are using masking tape, the diffusion paper can be changed for another material whenever you want a different look. You could even use a light, gauzy, fabric.
Tape the diffusion paper to the top of the opening. Leave the bottom unattached, so that you can drape a napkin or tablecloth from the front to the back over the cove if you choose.
Place the desk lamp behind the light box. Place it quite high and on a 45 degree angle so that the light is parallel with the diffusion paper. Use a tungsten or halogen light bulb. Don't use a compact fluorescent bulb (energy saving) since the colour cast is quite green (unless you want to correct all the pictures afterwards).
The photographs taken inside the box are well lit but not too harsh. The diffusion gives a soft look to the plate of food.
Making my own light box was easy and inexpensive--and it has made a huge difference to the lighting of my photos. Photography is just playing with light, as they say. So play on!
Update: July 2010
Since I first wrote this post, we have moved to Hong Kong. When we packed up, I recycled the old cardboard box and just brought the diffusion paper with me. I made a second light box after we arrived using one of our packing boxes. This time I cut out the bottom of the box; now I can place the light box down on an interesting surface, such as a nice wood-grained table, a slate tile, or even outside.
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