Saturday, February 4, 2012

New Lighting Setup

So, I finally decided to make a new lighting setup for taking my basket photos. The old system I had built worked great, but it was really big and cumbersome. When it was setup it was great to use, but when it had to be taken down and stored I never wanted to get it back out again just to shoot a quick photo. So, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention so I scoured the internet and found a couple different tabletop setups that I liked. I would have loved to have bought a set of  Lowel Ego lights, but at about $300 for a set of two, that was more than I wanted to spend. So, off I went to Home Depot with a shopping list and a rough plan in my head.

Home Depot list:
  1. (two) 2'x2' replacement covers for florescent ceiling lights (actual measurements 21.5"x21.5")
  2. (four) 100W CFL full spectrum bulbs
  3. (two) clamp shop lights
  4. (two) Y-connector sockets
 Stuff I had around the house:
  1. scrap foamboard (14"x21.5" x 2)
  2. (eight) short drywall screws
  3. (eight) short sheet metal screws (gutter screws)
  4. (eight) washers
  5. vellum (heavy weight tracing paper)
  6. packing tape and scotch tape
  7. scrap wood
  8. silver bubble wrap
  1. drill
  2. x-acto knife
I started out by cutting two scrap pieces of wood 14" long. I pre-drilled holes, large than my sheet metal screws, in the corners of my florescent light covers and drilled matching smaller holes in the ends of my wood stretchers. I attached the stretchers to the plastic covers (prism side down) using screws and washers (to help the plastic not crack). The plastic was fairly flexible so the gentle curve was not hard to achieve.

I removed the reflectors and clamps off the lights as all I wanted was the socket, switch and cord. I measured a backing piece of foamboard (14"x21.5"), found the center and traced the outline of the light socket. I then carefully cut out a hole for the socked to slip into (cut right on the line or a bit inside so that the end of the socket fits snugly).

Being the pack rat that I am I had some shiny bubble wrap/insulation cubbied away from a delivery of frozen food. I cut this to match the foamboard backing and cut a hole in it as well for the light socket. I added this to help reflect forward as much light as possible. The plain white foamboard probably would have been fine, but since I had the silver stuff I figured I might as well put it to use.

Grayson inspects my work.
I used short dry wall screws to attach the layer of bubble wrap and foamboard to the back of my diffuser. The light socket fit in snuggly without the need to secure it. With the Y-connector and light bulbs installed it can't come out anyway. There was a bow in the plastic along the sides that I was afraid would put pressure on the four corner screws.

To relieve the pressure on the corners I eliminated the bow by using clear packing tape to squeeze the sides in against the foamboard backing.

I then taped a layer of vellum to the outside of the plastic diffuser to soften the light. I didn't have a sheet large enough to cover the entire surface so I butted up four pieces and taped them together with scotch tape. Fortunately there was plenty of static electricity in the plastic cover so the vellum stuck down smoothly making it easy to tape.

To finish the light I installed the socket, Y-connector and two compact florescent bulbs. I then repeated the whole process to make my second light.

I use a large piece of white paper as a backdrop, but color would work. Since this is setup in my basement I have two clips suspended from the ceiling so that I can clip the top edge of the backdrop. The key is to have a smooth continuous background without any angles or seams and to have enough backdrop that it is away from your work. Fabric can work, but I prefer all the wrinkles and drapes be smoothed away as to not distract from the basket or object you are photographing. I also balanced a large piece of white foamboard across the top to reflect some of the light down. Since I am using compact florescent lights there really isn't an issue with heat like there in with standard incandescent bulbs.

While I had the room lights on to take this photo of the whole setup, I normally photography my work in a darkened room to eliminate any stray light or shadows.

Here is the resulting photo from my new setup. The lighting is nice and balance and the shadows are soft. Of course you can play around with positioning the lights and/or objects to change the lighting, and you can even try just turning on one of the lights, but you might need a piece of white board or some kind of reflector to bounce some light back onto the object.

So for about $30 I was able to make two lights that would have cost $300.


  1. Genius! I have always relied on natural light to take photos but after 2 months of grey weather this winter I've been trying to figure out a lighting solution. Thank for sharing the DIY. It's fantastic.

  2. Shari,

    It is so much nicer not to have to rely on the weather to take your photos. The perfect natural lighting is the best, but finding it is so hard.

  3. I did something similar, but like this much much better! Much cleaner white background...Much more effective. Going to give this a try this weekend! Thanks for the tut.


  4. Jim,
    Your photos always look great. These are nice since they are more portable than my old floor models.

  5. Love your light set-up Tony, mine is nothing as good as this. And my baskets are large and/or wall hangings, would have to make some serious adjustments, but beats the alternative which makes for terrible shots! The Wicker Woman-Cathryn Peters

  6. I have been frustrated with my pics using a 3 sided white project board. Too many shadows....this is a perfect low cost alternative! What size, type, and weight of white paper did you use in your photo and where can I find it? Thanks so much for sharing your idea....Beverly

    1. Beverly,
      I have used a number of different papers over the years. Something that is a bright white, but not glossy is the best. The paper I am currently using is a scrap of poster paper from a large format inkjet printer. It is probably about 40" x 40". You should probably be able to find something from an art supply store that would work. You just want something that is large enough for the object you are photographing that will curve gently and the back far enough that shadows aren't cast on it.


  7. Thanks....I will give it a try.

  8. I have just started out making 1:12th scale miniature baskets as was looking for ways to finish the rim edge of the basket, when I came across your blog....I am sure going to link your page showing how you have set up your "Photographic Studio"
    I'm going to make me one of those for sure. Thank you so very much.

    Now to find a book for beginners that will show me exactly what to do.

    Sharon Chrystal