Monthly Archives: January 2008

My DIY Light Tent

My DIY Light Tent

Warning: Photo-Heavy Post.

As I continue the journey of putting my portfolio together, I realized more and more things that I need to do to have at least a decent, presentable portfolio. When school started again last Fall, Core77 posted a “Hack-2-School” Guide for design students. I read through it and found some pretty useful things, one of which is a light tent. We didn’t make light tents to photograph our class projects in Davis, and I really think the kids there should start doing that. I believe it improves the quality of your portfolio presentation, because how that design exists in its environment, in a three-dimensional world, matters as much as, if not more than, the design of the piece.

So ever since I read that post, I really wanted to make a light tent for myself, even if I only have two thin book things that I would photograph for the portfolio. I wanted to have it for future projects so I have less of an excuse to take pictures of whatever I will design for my portfolio and archive. So here’s an annotated photographic journey into the construction and testing of my DIY light tent. I pretty much followed the instructions from Instructable’s tutorial, with a few modifications.

The Construction

Box with two square holes.
Box with four square holes and bottom cut out

Cut squares from all four sides of the box as well as the bottom.

Exterior bottom taped

Tape the exterior bottom.

Interior bottom taped
Foam core to level the bottom

Tape the interior bottom. Put foam core or something with the same thickness of the cardboard to make the bottom even.

Black matte board as base
White matte board as base

Line the bottom with a black and/or white matte board to 1) level the bottom, and 2) serve as the base backdrop color in case the main backdrop is not large enough. I had a leftover matte board that’s black on one side and white on the other that I could use for both backdrop colors.

Tracing paper

Get three large pieces of tracing paper. The tutorial said to use something semi-transparent like Tyvek or whatever. Yeah, I’m not that fancy. I used tracing paper leftover from Art class. Cut each piece of the paper to the size of each of the frames.

Velcro dots at corners of tracing paper
Double Velcro dots

The tutorial said to just glue-stick the semi-transparent paper over three of the holes, leaving open the frame you’re going to photograph through. I’m adding an extra step here in case I want to use colored tissue paper or something in the future. Left: Put Velcro dots (they call them “coins”) at the corners of the tracing paper, but make sure those corners would go over the cardboard part of the frames and not where the holes are. Right: Get the opposite side of the Velcro dots and stick them to the first dots.

Velcro dots on the cardboard

With all corners “double-dotted,” hold the paper over one of the frames, stretching it flat, and stick the dots to the cardboard one by one. It’s better to start at the top corners first and stretch the paper downward.

Velcro dots at centers of the edge

Since my box was larger than the one in the tutorial, and that I didn’t just glue-stick the sides like in the tutorial, I noticed after the fact that the paper was still a little loose. So I added another dot in the centers of the top, left, and right sides of the frame. Gravity automatically pulls the bottom side down, so no Velcro dots there.

Tent in progress

Your tent should look something like this at this point.

Black and white paper for backdrop
Overlap paper to create one large sheet

Get large sheets of black and white paper for the main backdrop. Try to find paper that is long enough to cover a length that is the sum of the height of the tent and the length of the tent running from the front to the back. If not, use two pieces like I did; you just have to deal with the seams later on in Photoshop. You could also try using fabric. I might switch to fabric later on, but at this time, I couldn’t find any good, cheap ones that are not reflective. Left: Two black posterboards and two Bristol boards. These posterboards were not super black; they were as black as I could find, which means it’s another thing I have to deal with later on in Photoshop. Also, Bristol is good to use because it has a solid, low-to-no-texture, bright white color. Right: If you’re using two sheets, line them up and overlap one on top of the other.

Taping on the seam on the back side of the papers
Applying glue on the overlap

Left: Tape the back side to temporarily secure their overlap. Right: Fold one sheet over at the tape seam, and glue-stick the overlapping area.

Applying double dots on the paper and the back of the frame
A second Velcro dot on the paper

Left: Once you glued the two sheets together, do the double-dot thing at the center of the shorter edge of the sheet and stick a Velcro dot to the center of the top of the back frame. Right: This is an optional step: take another Velcro dot that’s the same side as the one on your backdrop sheet, and stick it a few inches from that spot. This will allow you to pull the sheet higher and make the curve at the bottom smoother.

Completed DIY Light Tent

And that’s how you make a low-budget DIY light tent!


First test of light tent with Velcro box

First test of the tent with the Velcro box as the subject.

Original photo with yellowed lighting

One thing I’ve discovered is that not everything is black and white even when you made it so. Here’s the photo from my camera.

Photoshopped photo made the lighting more neutral

Here’s the exact same photo, but I did an Auto Levels in Photoshop. This is not at all a surprise, but it’s just really interesting to see how different it can be and how yellow my light source is.

Close up of the Velcro box in the black-backdrop tent. Auto Levels'd.

A close up of the Velcro box without the frame. Also Auto Levels’d.

Close up of the Velcro box in the white-backdrop tent. Auto Levels'd.

Here’s the white backdrop. Auto Levels’d.

The following three pairs of photos show the difference between using one light source and using two.

Light tent with one light source
Light tent with two light sources

Book lit on black backdrop, one light source
Book lit on black backdrop, two light sources

Book lit on white backdrop, one light source
Book lit on white backdrop, two light sources

The differences aren’t too noticeable here, but that’s because I haven’t really experimented with the light source, yet. Side note: that book is my “Why Don’t We Care?” book that I made for class almost a year ago, refined and “professionally” printed and bound.

Light source at the bottom
Light source near the top

One of the problems with my black backdrop is that it’s not black enough. Whenever a light source gets too close, it starts turning brown in the photo. Here, the two photos compare the differences between placing the light source near the bottom and placing it near the top. Placing it at the top also illuminated the subject a lot better.

Close up of the book, Photoshopped

Here’s a close up of the book, Photoshopped.

Opened book

There’s me holding the book while the tripodded-camera took the photo with the ten-second timer. You should see my stance as I tried to position the book so that the pages didn’t glare and that I wouldn’t bump the camera with my chest, all the while holding still before the timer goes off. But I think that was worth it, because this is pretty much why I wanted to build the tent: to show book pages the way they’re meant to look, curved like real pages, with a gutter, maybe with hands to show the scale and the way it’s handled.

Black backdrop easily scratched by finger nails.

An extra advice for those building the tent: make sure your black/dark paper doesn’t scratch that easily (or just try to not scratch your paper). Mine’s already shown signs of wear created by my recently-cut fingernails when I was holding the book open.

Photo of flourescent tube light on the white backdrop

And an extra photographic treat: a portable fluorescent tube light on the white backdrop. It’s going to be fun experimenting with this tent.

Here’s the link to the tutorial if you’re too lazy to scroll up. Instructables—Super Simple Light Tent.

And I found this link yesterday on Core77. Just when I make something new, other people make it a lot better.

If any of you are going to make a light tent of your own, please show me photos (completed and/or in-progress) so I can see what other people are doing/using to make this tent!