the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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My DIY Photo Lightbox


It all started with the Legos.

I love building Lego kits, and have for many, many years. And I've found that for the bigger kits, like the Star Destroyer, it's a lot of fun to shoot photos as I go, so that I can look back at the building process in time-lapse fashion. So when my daughter and I started assembling the Death Star together, it was only natural that I'd take pictures every few steps so that we could have a record of our achievement.

That, of course, led to silly pictures of Stormtroopers busily assembling the dreaded space station under the stern supervision of Duplo Jessie.

And that led to the inspiration to use silly photos of minifigs in a Keynote deck for work. What better way to highlight the dangers of SQL injection attacks than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker infiltrating a group of Stormtroopers and wreaking havoc?


And that was the kick in the pants I needed to build my own little lightbox for macro photography. It's basically the same as the recipe from Strobist, WikiHow, and others--a cardboard box, some tissue paper, and a sheet of white posterboard. I spent about seven dollars in all, and most of that was on the box. Assembly pretty much goes like this:

Try not to cut yourself on the box cutters or X-Acto knife you use for slicing out sections of the box (luckily my experience in life-size cardboard ninja preparation had prepared me for this, but that's another story).

When you're all set up to shoot, it might look something like this:

I can't tell you how exciting that moment is, as an amateur photographer, when you do something that looks like that. You really feel empowered, and there's a wonderful feeling that you know what the hell you're doing. It's great!

Here's how my first test shot (the cyborg-versus-alien scene shown in the photo above) turned out:

Gun Fight
Gun Fight
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

Lessons Learned

I learned several key lessons that are worth passing on:

  1. Brighter, Whiter Lights

    I grabbed whatever was handy (the reading lights from my bedroom, in this case) to provide lighting. Great idea in terms of directionality and ability to get lights close to the box, but a seriously bad move overall because they were loaded up with low-wattage "soft white" CFL bulbs. You really have to up the exposure to compensate for the lack of brightness, but with a tripod and a remote shutter release, that's no big deal. What really sucks is the sheer, awful yellowness of the "soft white" bulbs, which guarantees that you'll be spending a lot of time doing color correction in post. I had to do quite a lot with temperature, exposure, color balance, lightening of shadows, etc. in order to get acceptable colors. Halogen work lights ought to do it, as long as I keep them far enough back from the box to keep from lighting the tissue paper on fire.

  2. Start Small on Tissue Paper

    Like a good engineer, I decided to evenly allocate all of my tissue paper so that I was able to use the maximum amount out of the eight sheets in the package I bought. (Waste not, want not, right?) Well, it turns out to be a dumb maneuver because it's easier to add more layers of tissue paper than it is to remove them once they're taped into place. I had three layers on mine; I think two would have done the job (or mabye just one?).

  3. Clean Your Lens, Clean Your Sensor

    Given the tripod and remote shutter release, I figured I could narrow down my aperture to F22 and beyond and thereby maximize my depth of field, thereby ensuring that i didn't have characters (or parts of characters) that were inappropriately out of focus. Turns out that when you do this, every piece of dust on your lens or sensor (I suspect the latter may be the worst of my problems at this point) comes into sharp relief, and once again you're spending a ton of time in post. Retouching the dust spots out late isn't too bad... until you're doing it to a full batch of 150 or so images. At that point, you've entered a whole new world of pain.

  4. Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

    This kind of work is impossible (or next to impossible) without a stable platform and a way to shoot without jiggling the camera, because you will be taking shots that may need a half second or a second (or more!) to capture. It would be a shame to set all this up and not have the camera equipment you need.

  5. Low ISO

    I went with ISO 400, which is okay when I'm shooting hand-held indoors, but if you've already got the luxury of the tripod and remote release, you might as well go with longer exposures that yield less noise. I was frustrated by the amount of noise I picked up at 400, though it may be due in some degree to shooting in JPEG (where the all-white background leads to poor-looking compression artifacts).

The most important lesson, of course, is that this is fun and that you can do it too. It's cheap, doesn't require much skill, and leads to highly satisfying results.

I'll post some of my Star Wars minifig shots next time. Promise.

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