Saturday, March 20, 2010

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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48 comments:

Tangled Noodle said...

I made a simple lightbox from cardboard as well but it's getting a bit ratty. It's high time I replaced it and yours looks like an excellent model. And seeing how well your 'About' page turned out is just the kickstart I need to make one for my site!

WizzyTheStick said...

Cool light box. Job well done. I have been too lazy to make one and just use a strotex ice cooler.

The Cooking Ninja said...

Nice box. I saw how to make this on one of these online a few months back but never got around to make one. You inspires me to do it. I have lots of boxes lying around in my attic. :) Thanks for the push.

David Hall said...

Loving the fork Sarah!

Cheers
David

Hilary said...

This is impressive! I am far too lazy to do something like this, but food photography does get awfully difficult in the darker months without one. I tend to do all my baking and photo-taking on the weekends.

Chele said...

Great post - I'm going to have to make myself one of these!

sarah said...

WizzytheStick: Thanks for visiting. What is a strotex ice cooler? Maybe link us a picture?

Hilary: Oh, you are more organised than I. By the weekend all the week's food has disappeared. And strangely I feel more eager to cook on the weekdays. (Although baking is more common for me at weekends.) You?

Chele & Tangled Noodle: It's really quite easy. Let me know if you try it out.

David: I got the fork bracelet from a stall in Covent Garden. it's my favourite!

Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

Absolutely brilliant post, I have always been a bit confused how the set up for something like this worked but you've explained it beautifully. Thank you! I look forward to seeing lots of pictures taken in there from you now!

Shannon J Skafte said...

Huh, I didn't think to make a mini Light box... nice...

mangocheeks said...

Sarah,
This is such a brilliant post. Many of my readers were discussing this a few months ago. I am going to point them to you blog. Thank you so much for sharing.

I too love the fork bracelet, so am off to check the link. Your blog is quite new to me, so I am off to have a good nosy round.

Have a lovely weekend.

Food For Think said...

That's a bit exciting. I need to make one of these for the dark winter months - summer time is great because it is light when i have arrived home and cooked at 8pm!

Renata said...

I started a food blog recently and was not exactly proud of most of my pictures. Love your tutorial.. so detailed... Thanks a lot for sharing! That will be my project for this weekend!

sarah said...

Renata, I love your blog! The pictures do a really good job of illustrating the posts. I hope you do try the light box and let me know what you think.

Audax said...

Wow thank you for sharing this information I only have one window with reasonable lightning but I really need to make one of these boxes so I can get better photographs for my food blog. And thanks for the correct light bulb to use. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

I saw your posting on the Daring Kitchen forums!

sarah said...

Hi Audax, I have seen your post in the Daring Kitchen forums too. :) Since I first made the light box I have moved to Hong Kong. I threw away the old cardboard box and just kept the diffusion paper. Now I will be making a new one--This time I think I'll put openings covered with diffusion paper on the left and right side panels as well, so I can use side lighting. And I plan to cut away the bottom of the box, so I can set the box down on an interesting surface.

I am having problems finding a full spectrum light bulb to use. I might have to order a Lowell Ego one online.

Let me know if you make a light box and how it goes!

Merlotti said...

oops - was meant to be looking at your ffto Pide post but got distracted! Am going to make one of these, if only to delay the giving of food to the OH even more than usual!

sarah said...

Merlotti--Haha! My husband has learned to eat his food cold, since I have to photograph it. But I have learned now to make a bit more so that I can set a portion aside for photographing after dinner. (And then one of us can take it as leftovers for lunch the next day!) Let me know how your light box turns out.

Sanjeeta kk said...

Lovely piece of information sarah. Thanks for sharing.

Heather said...

I ran that rice photo through Picnik just for shits and gigs, and got your shot dialed in even a little better. Here it is: http://img833.imageshack.us/img833/9932/foodbutternutsquashandc.jpg

I think I'm going to return to this simple light box setup and ditch my harsh halogen light. This is great.

Hoover Boo said...

Very helpful! Thank you!

Brownieville Girl said...

Thank you so much for this - making a light box is now at the top of my "to do" list.

Minh said...

Wow, this is amazing! My kitchen is exactly the same way and I hate all of my evening-cooking pictures. You're my saviour, Sarah!

sarah said...

Well, Minh, then we can learn from each other, since I am now following your Vietnamese cooking adventures.

Cooking Rookie said...

Love this post! You're so creative with the shape of the box. I actually ended up buying a square light box and 2 huge projectors (because it's so dark in our place). But still I feel it does not compensate for the lack of my photographic skills :-)

sarah said...

Cooking Rookie, I'm curious: how do you use the projectors?

Trisha said...

This is a brilliant idea, I have some trouble with the lack of natural lighting too. I'm going to give this a shot soon!

SLR said...

You are brilliant! This is next weekend's project. I do have great light through my kitchen window with loads of afternoon sunshine (when I am most likely in the kitchen cooking) but I also have burglar bars which cast terrible shadows on the food. I think a large piece of parchment in the window will help for the cooking step photos but your lightbox would be ideal for the finished dish. Thank you so much for posting such clear instructions!

P.S. I live in Kuala Lumpur but am headed to Hong Kong for a long weekend soon. Anything I should NOT miss seeing or doing?

sarah said...

Hi SLR, thanks for visiting and commenting. When you visit HK, be sure you make it to the Peak, that you take the Star Ferry (top deck) from Central to TST and that you have dim sum in a nice restaurant. Our favourite restaurant to take visitors is Maxim's Palace in City Hall, complete with crystal chandeliers, and trollies pushed around the dining area with the dumplings named on the front. Maybe you should say hi to me when you are here? :)

Jen said...

Fantastic! I was catching up on some old Kitchen Reader posts and found this in your sidebar. I went to a bloggers' roundtable on food styling last month and it was really helpful, but I realized I've been a lot more timid about grabbing my camera in the kitchen ever since. Maybe this will be the push I need... I'll try it. Thanks :)

Please Do Not Feed The Animals. said...

Thanks for this!!!! I need to do this - just need some time - please. Lou.

azriona said...

What a fantastic idea - I've always had trouble lighting my foodie porn photos, but I think this might do the trick. Thanks for posting!

Please Do Not Feed The Animals. said...

What wattage of bulb do you use in your lamp? Does it matter much? Thanks.

sarah said...

Hi PDNFTA - I use the biggest wattage that the lamp allows. It's 60 W (equivalent). A brighter bulb will mean the shutter can be open for less time, which is good if you don't have a tripod. (Set the camera on a big stack of cookbooks to keep it steady.)

The Food Fairy said...

You, my dear, are BRILLANT! I always complain how I always cook in the dark hours, especially now that winter has come and the pictures are ill lit ad shaky and so on..and you just solved my problem!!! I'm i the middle of organizing an office/storage/dressing room in my apartment, and I will definitely organize a light box in there. Thank you!

A Trifle Rushed said...

I've been struggling with light, as you say at this time of the year most photos of food seem to be taken at nighttime! I am going to make one of these. Thank you so much.

TastefullyJulie said...

Great idea. Thanks for this!

Judee @ Gluten Free A-Z said...

I saw this on your site a while ago and forgot about it. My photos need help. I have a box and I'm making it this weekend. Great tutorial..

christine said...

cool light box, lovely clear instructions, thank you:)

Shaun Marsh said...

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bars Singapore said...

Hey, that was really very helpful. Please share more such updates.

Hatton Gravely said...

I'm going to try this!!! Thanks for the tutorial!

goatsandgreens said...

Thanks, this idea is awesome! I'd recently been looking to buy a lightbox online but serrendipitiously I come across this idea! Cost-effective and flexible depending on the size of box one settles on. Nice -- looking forward to doing this!

Melissa said...

I need to make one of these! My pictures usually look terrible. Someday soon, I WILL do this!

Hazel said...

What an amazing idea! My photos always look far too dark. I will give it a go!

Pat Burton said...

Try using a WHITE Banker's Box next time, I strengthen it using white shipping paper tape or clear cellophane. Try using plush velvet or velveteen for floor drape, adds contrast especially when propping items to be staged like my jewelry design creations. ~Pat

Martyn Rowe said...

Brilliant article!
We recently started our blog, and need to get to work on the recipe shots. This looks so easy, and will help to make all the difference with our site.
Thanks!

Cakelaw said...

This is great! I really need to make one of these.

Woojoo said...

You can use a CFL. Just get the highest lumins (equiv to wattage) you can and make sure it's 5,000 Kelvin. 5,000 Kelvin is same color temp as daylight. The bulbs you most often see labeled "daylight" bulbs are usually 2700 kelvin and will be yellow. I ordered my 5000 kelvin bulbs online.

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