Building Light Boxes and Specialty Setups

The fun thing about lighting for video and photography is that you get to be creative in how you approach your projects and you’re only limited by your imagination. Think about it, you are exposing the pixels on your camera sensor to light, which is plentiful and easy to access, and you get instant feedback when you replay and view your footage. So with that in mind we are going to delve into the unlimited ways you can light a tabletop set. Don’t forget these strategies are also applicable to larger sets like interviews, retail store displays and even room sets like you might find in a documentary setting.

In previous articles we have discussed soft lighting, harsh lighting, edge defined lighting and how to mix all these together to achieve perfect lighting for just about every subject one can imagine. In this article we are going to learn how to build our own tabletop setup and how to integrate many lighting patterns into a tabletop set each of which will help to define, reveal and enhance the subject you are lighting.

Seasoned professionals can spot tent lighting at a glance, so don’t over do it. Subtle shadowing adds to a natural look.

You can easily go out and buy all you need to light just about any subject imaginable, but why not harness your creativity and build your own? Other than saving time, the only other reason you might choose to buy all of your equipment is to insure consistent results and possibly to have professional-looking equipment. These are all valid reasons, but if you spend time planning your DIYs and shop for the right materials, you can easily achieve professional results.

Product shots of ladies handbags [Figures 1& 2] and a kitchen knife set [Figure 3]

Rags to Riches

A good place to start building a tabletop kit is with softboxes and scrims because these light modifiers are essentially the foundation of tabletop lighting. They provide soft lighting, which gives you gentle edge detail on a subject such as a person’s face, but also allow you to control reflections, which is imperative when lighting shiny objects such as reflective metals, glass or other surfaces like textured plastics Figure 1.

As you probably know softboxes are “bare” bulbs contained within a fabric box which usually have four black fabric sides and one translucent front. The black sides prevent light from spilling out the sides and contaminating the set with unwanted light but they also provide control so you can create a soft graduated lighting pattern on your background while leaving the subject unchanged.

Figure 2. Here, as in Figure 1, the product lighting was tightly contained while the background was lit separately with a strong round beauty light. Basically, the only thing a softbox does is separate your light bulb from the translucent fabric. The sides are just there to keep things from spilling all over the set. You can almost use a simple piece of fabric or even a thin rag to achieve the same results, but why make things difficult when good light scrims are so easy to make for your studio lighting kit?

You might want to find a fabric called taffeta which is a very nice, smooth, crisp, material and affordable. This material is very dense and yields both extremely soft shadows and well-diffused reflections, which is perfect for metal subjects such as stainless steel machinery or cookware made from polished silver or polished aluminum.

Figure 3. Here, one large softbox behind the camera provided the reflection on the blade while a small softbox above and to the right of the set created the highlights on the handles. The rest of the set was lit through a china silk from above. You might also want to get some china silk because you’ll love to duplicate the quality of light that radiates from this fabric. Unlike taffeta, china silk is quite sheer and allows for well-controlled reflections. China silk yields strong, defined shadow edges as well as color penetration on dark surfaces. China silk is perfect for lighting food, textiles, clothing, jewelry and items with texture like leather and high tech plastics.

Set of colorful bath towels, [Fig. 1], red and black handbags, [Fig. 2] and topaz and gold jewelry [Fig. 6]
Set of colorful bath towels, [Fig. 1], red and black handbags, [Fig. 2] and topaz and gold jewelry [Fig. 6]
Figure 4. Here, the set is lit from one scrim with china silk from the left and one large reflector from the right. Another scrim material, architects’ vellum, isn’t a fabric, but has become the standard of the industry for small tabletop sets Figure 5. Vellum is drafting paper that is especially useful in small sets because the light is perfectly diffused so it allows enough raw light in to create excellent texture while maintaining very soft, controlled reflections.

Figure 6. This set was lit with one wood frame wrapped with vellum while one small spotlight from behind the set provided the highlights. There is no material quite like it. Since it’s paper, tungsten lights are not advised, but it’s easy to work with and pretty cheap by the roll. Any translucent material can be use to construct a light tent and you can mix and match these scrims to create a highly customizable light tent for lighting a variety of items. You can mount it on special wood frames for a clean, tight, surface or clamp it to a simple wood dowel or aluminum pole and let it hang loosely.

Example of a simple PVC and scrim setup [Figs. 7-9], and the final example of shoes [Fig. 10] with nice shadows.
Example of a simple PVC and scrim setup [Figs. 7-9], and the final example of shoes [Fig. 10] with nice shadows.
Figure 7. Or you can choose to construct a complete frame from PVC Figure 8. Try making a tent frame from the same material and using a light stand, clamp or tape any material you want to it Figure 9.

Over tented? or “Look Ma, no tent!”

Whichever way you choose to approach your tabletop studio is up to you as long as the results work for the items you are shooting; which brings us to a common problem we see in many studio shoots. There is a way to over “tent” your lighting and make everything look flat without details. Since the invention of soft-boxes, studio lighting has become within the reach of even occasional videographers. Seasoned professionals can spot tent lighting at a glance because everyone uses it. To prevent that over-tented look, don’t over do it. Subtle shadowing adds to a natural look.

Mix raw lights with soft lights and don’t be concerned with shadows as long as they contribute to the overall look of the scene Figure 10. Here, the leather shoes were lit with a small softbox while a focusing spot provided the highlights, the texture, the shadows and the spot on the background.


Traffic Ahead

When shooting tabletop sets, you may find that there is a lot of traffic around the set especially if you have stylists, art directors and designers involved. Add to that mix the client and perhaps talent — such as someone holding a glass of wine or pouring coffee, and things can get a bit complicated.

With this in mind it’s important that your light stands be very stable, your booms should be sandbagged and your lights are safe. Even if you’re working alone, safety should always be paramount around the set. It is for this reason we might recommend using LEDs, fluorescent or HMI lighting, because fire is always a possibility, especially if you are shooting on seamless paper and moving scrims around the set. Factory-made softboxes are designed to contain the lighting as well as the heat even from tungsten lights. They are somewhat fire retardant, but the materials you find at the fabric store might not be, so it’s best to use caution and maybe even stay away from tungsten lighting.


As with any do-it-yourself project, unfamiliarity with the tools and process can be dangerous. This story should be construed as theoretical advice. Videomaker, its editors and authors will not be held responsible for any injury due to the misuse or misunderstanding of any DIY project Videomaker publishes. This story cannot be construed as formal advice, Videomaker will not be held liable in any instance of an action resulting from this story, and Videomaker assumes all our readers will exercise good common sense. This disclaimer assigns the readers all responsibility for their own decisions.

Terry O'Rourke
Terry O'Rourke
Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

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