Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Building a Mini-Friendly Light Box

Okay, one of the first orders or business: finding a way to get relatively good pictures up on this site.

I found this tutorial on Thom Schadle's site; he mentions plans for a light box on Mayne Thiele's site (which has since moved here). Both sites offer some basic instructions - but since I'm the kind of guy who will screw something up unless you hold my hand and walk me through it step-by-step, I'd thought I'd write up a tutorial that goes a little more in-depth. The goal here is to make something that won't cost you an arm and a leg, and, if you're an avid modeler, you might have half the materials laying around your desk anyway.

What you'll need:

-six 1/4" square balsa wood dowel rods
-one sheet 1/8" foamcore board
-hot glue gun
-duct tape / electrical tape
-vellum paper (available at most art supply / craft stores)

Here is the basic diagram from Mayne Thiele's site:

The first step is to cut all your dowel rods - I was lazy and just used a utility knife, but this will tend to mangle the end of the rod a bit - you'd be better off to use a small hacksaw. (Do as I say, not as I do). I used balsa wood rods since they're what was available at my local craft store and they're easy to work with, but if you want something sturdier you can get hardwood rods from a hardware store (then you'll DEFINITELY need to use a saw). You'll need to cut:

-six 12" lengths
-six 7" lengths
-one 3" length
-eight 1.5" - 2" lengths

Now cut a 12" x 12" and a 12" x 8" section of foamcore:

Use a hot glue gun to glue one of the 12" dowels to the back edge of the 12" x 8" piece of foamcore. Run a bead of hot glue along the gap and set the 12" x 12" piece of foamcore on the gap and hold it until it dries.

I cut a scrap piece of foamcore and glued it to the back of the upright for support, setting it on the "ledge" of the dowel rod:

Next, I built the side "frames" using 12" lengths on the vertical and 7" lengths on the horizontal:

Next, I used a carpenter's square to make sure the frames were as square as possible, and glued down the short lengths diagonally on the corners to add strength:

Completed frame:

The last step for the wood is to make the overhead frame - use a 12" length along the back, two 7" lengths for the sides, and the 3" length for the front. Glue these together in a triangle:

Next I attached the vellum paper to the frames. You may be able to find large sheets of vellum paper at a better art supply store - I found it in the scrapbooking section of my local craft store (with the assistance of my lovely wife). It was labeled "transparent white" and was $1 for each 8-1/2" x 11" sheet. You could get by with four sheets if you're REAL careful, but I bought a couple extra so I wouldn't have to make a trip back to the store if I screwed up. (Plus, my cats LOVE to shred paper, so I'm sure I'll need the extras for repairs someday). You could just scotch tape the paper to the frames (and that would give you the advantage of being able to change to a different color of paper if you wanted to), but when you put a hot glue gun in my hand, I just can't stop. (Don't try to run a bead of glue all the way around half of the frame at once - the end you started at will cool too much by the time you're ready to stick the paper down).

I glued the paper down, then trimmed the excess off the edges with my xacto knife.

You might wonder about the paper being too short for the frame, but it's not a big deal - we'll just overlap the paper at the top, and this area will be WAY above anywhere the actual picture taking will be happening.

Same deal at the top of the frame - glue it down & trim off the excess:

Next I glue the "triangle frame" to the backing piece, 7" up from the base.

I cut some 1" x 7" strips of foamcore and glued them to the backing board under the triangle for support:

(The above picture show the triangle with some tissue paper attached, which I experimented with before I decided to pony up the six bucks for the vellum paper).

To attach the vellum paper to the triangle frame, I glued the long edge of the paper to the long side of the triangle first, then ran a bead of glue along the front edge of the 3" length and "folded" the vellum paper over, and held it until it dried:

I trimmed off the excess paper from the front, and cut a few triangles of scrap vellum to cover the corners of the triangle where the paper wasn't long enough.

Now to stand the whole mess up, and attach the side frames. To do this, I turned to nature's miracle, duct tape!

(I'm sure if you were motivated, you could add hinges or something more permanent. I'm not that guy). But, this also provides the advantage of the sides being easily removable if you wanted to take the sides off to photograph something larger.

So here's the whole mess:

One of the advantages of using the foamcore board is that you can pin different images to the backdrop. (Both Thom & Mayne have links to the backdrop in the above picture on their sites).

I bought a couple of cheap clamp-on desk lamps from my local office supply store:

...and here's everything all set up:

I added a couple of thumbtacks at the top of the side frames, which I can stretch a rubberband across to keep the whole rig closed.

As far as photography, follow the tips at the sites I linked above. Short version: Macro mode, no flash, self-timer, use a tripod. I was fortunate enough that the seven-year-old digital camera I keep in my office sits perfectly on the desk in front of the photo booth without a tripod, but if you use a compact digital camera even one of those cheapie pocket tripods they sell at computer stores for a few bucks would work:

I believe I got this desktop tripod for 99 cents from a bin at the local electronics superstore.

If you want a nicer one but still don't want to spent the money on a full-size tripod, I'm a big fan of Joby's GorillaPods:

(SLR & Compact GorillaPods)

As far as lighting, the cheapest & easiest-to-find option is probably 100W GE Reveal bulbs. (You'll get fantastic results with "daylight spectrum" lights like the OttLite, but that's much, much more expensive).

Here's a test image:

The image still seems to have a bit of a yellowish cast to me - I think that's because the bulb in my overhead lamp is a regular incandescent. It's one of those weird non-standard small sizes, I'll have to see if I can get a full-spectrum bulb for it somewhere. But it's still far more detail than I could ever get with a flash and the model just sitting on my desk...

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