Friday, May 20, 2016

Chasing The Light

This is going to be one of those Before-After stories.

If you've followed my blog for a while, you might have deduced that I am not very good with lighting in my photos. By that, I mean that I am happy as a lark on overcast days and I can be outdoors on the deck with the camera, but whenever I have to be indoors (like half the year when it's blizzard season), I mope and whine and use words like "dungeon" and "black hole" am generally very hard to live with.

Like all organisms under duress, I developed very complex coping strategies.

Here's one: Chasing Sunlight Method 1:
LiEr runs from window to window, trying to find the best spot in the living room where there is sunlight but no shadows. The running is necessary because of the wind - as the wind blows, the backyard trees move, and the leaves make shifting, dappled patterns of light and shadow.
Unfortunate side effect: frantic shoving of furniture and other items aside, including people, just to get the perfect spot for all of two seconds.

Here's another: Chasing Sunlight Method 2
LiEr only takes photos before breakfast and just before suppertime. This is the time when the sun is cooperating in a photoshoot-worthy manner by being just dim enough that there are no harsh shadows and still sufficiently bright that you don't need giant apertures that make everything look grainy.
Unfortunate side effect: the family starves because prime photo time sadly coincides with cooking times, and obviously stomachs can wait while the sun can't.

Here's one more: Chasing Sunlight Method 3
LiEr takes photos only in the spring and summer, because that's when the wind also behaves in a photoshoot-worthy manner. Autumn has beautiful warm light most of the day but also dreadful gales that make taking photos of anything lighter than an anvil a joke. And winter . . . well. Winter is just bad for photographing anything but evergreens, glaciers and wolves. 
Unfortunate side effect: For about 5 months of the year, craft production can happen. The other 7 months, not so much.

Finally: Chasing Sunlight Method 4
LiEr gives up and sits in the dark basement with small photo lamps, weeping.
Unfortunate side effect: everything.

It would be tragic if it weren't so stupid, is what I kept telling myself. I mean, it's hard to indulge in self-pity and blame the cosmos (or just the sun, really) when you already are aware of how pathetic you are. The people who love me and live with me and who were deprived of meals at the appropriate times, decided that enough was enough, and set about helping me fix my sad life.

First, we researched light boxes. Everyone knows that light boxes are a boon to photographers, even those among us who don't fancy themselves as real photographers. But for some reason, we don't use them. Myself included.

Some of us (again, myself included) decide to make their own. Because it's cardboard (reason enough) and because it's cheap, and because there are tutorials all over the internet.

Now, the kind of photography that craft people do is size-specific. We shoot close-ups of things like seams and topstitching, so a small light box is perfect, especially if we already have small photo lamps and not a whole lot of space in our homes for anything larger. And, if our finished projects are also tiny, like miniature clay cupcakes, we're all set.

However, some of us make larger items, like cardboard castles and entire dresses and enormous stuffed animals and bags that need to be suspended from a hook. For those, a large light box is more versatile. Sadly, to sufficiently illuminate a large light box, one also needs large lamps, otherwise it's just another dungeon, only in cardboard.

It can get complicated, as you might have guessed. Which is why so many of us just give up and say, "The sun is the best. It's huge and perfect and shines everywhere (if you're lucky enough not to have backyard trees) and works for tiny things and big things. I'll just wait for a sunny day to take photos! Meanwhile, I won't sew! I'll just procrastinate and read books and eat chocolate!"

This faulty logic is at the heart of many an underachieving seamstress-blogger, friends. I speak from personal experience.

So, light boxes.

I made one last year (and forgot to blog about it).

I went out and bought the largest cardboard box I could find that I could reasonably fit in our store room.

Then I cut big windows out of three sides, sat it on its fourth side for a base,

and cut away the top flaps to make a front opening.

Then I bought two cheap poster boards and taped them end-to-end (overlapping) so they were together long enough to drape across the back wall and floor of the box.

Finally, I bought cheap white muslin and glued it over the cut-out windows. This is to make incoming light diffuse and even, without shadows or bright spots.

It's also to reflect light within the box to make your subject as bright as possible.

Here is the light box illuminated from the inside to show how diffuse the light will be over the entire window square, even though it's coming from a point source bulb. Obviously, when you use this light box, you'd place the lamp outside it, and preferably have one lamp shining through each of the three windows.

Here is what the lamp arrangement might look like, minus the box. There are lots of shadows around the subject. Ideally, in the light box, the fabric will diffuse and reflect the light and reduce these shadows.

Here's a shot I took indoors without the light box, in regular sunlight coming in through the windows. Not good, but better than with just the bare lamps. Daylight, even if fickle, is still better than dungeon-lighting, was my philosophy.

Here is that same shot, cropped.

Here is a peacock shot in the cardboard lightbox.
Indoors, with homemade light box and small photo lamps

compared to:
Outdoors, natural light

And here is another shot taken in the lightbox.
Indoors, with homemade light box and small photo lamps

Here is that same shot, taken indoors with daylight.
Indoors, with natural light through the window

Verdict: I thought the homemade light box did well. Three cheers for homemade light boxes! 

So, do still I use my homemade light box?

Sadly, no. It is now a storage box for the Menagerie animals. 

It is huge. It's hard to store and lug upstairs and downstairs and outdoors and wherever photoshoots need to happen. I had grand plans to make it collapsible and everything, but it's just not sturdy enough to continually hinge and fold and unfold. Also, it's not fun to keep setting up lamps whenever I want to take a picture of something. Finally, in spite of it being the largest box I could buy, it's still not large enough for many of my finished projects, and especially not large enough for me to take bird's-eye angles of things. 

Instead, this is what I now use -

- an actual, fold-up light tent. That black bag is how small it folds up for storage, including the various backdrops that come with it. 

I use it both with and without the front panel - there's a slit for inserting my camera (and arm) if I want even the front wall to be closed, white and reflective. This morning, I popped it open on our deck and took photos with just the sunlight that filtered through the foliage of our trees. 

Indoors or outdoors, the sunlight - with or without harsh shadows, dappled shade or not - gives happy pictures. 
Natural light, no light tent

Natural light, in light tent

Here is one with a dark backdrop:
Indoors, natural light, light tent.

And here are some against with a white backdrop - both from the front and top:
Natural light, in light tent

Natural light, in light tent

Natural light, in light tent

We also worked out a way to actually get more light indoors where I work, and to make it easy to take photos while working. We installed daylight lamps with reflectors as work lamps over my sewing table. This way, I can also use the light tent indoors with artificial daylight after sunset, or just do tutorial shots under the daylamps on my table itself.

I hope this has been helpful for those of you who share my lighting woes. If I can take photos in natural light, I will, simply because it's an excuse to be outdoors and sunlight is truly beautiful, especially just before sunset. But if I can't, the light tent/light box option is a wonderful alternative, even allowing me to do midnight photo-shoots in my PJs if I need to. Make one yourself (there are many other tutorials on the internet) if you don't want to buy a fold-up one, and if storage isn't an issue. 

At the very least, I recommend two amazing photo tools to everyone: a 50 cent white poster board (I got mine at the dollar store, and replace it whenever it gets ratty),

Here's how I use it:

Cropped, and with its exposure upped slightly with a photo-editor.

For larger subjects than will fit on that poster board, I use this $3.99 IKEA fleece blanket.


  1. I love your huge tent! Mine is much smaller, but it does help. I haven't taken it outside for fear of getting it dirty... or filled with cats eager to "help" me.

    Your photos have always been fantastic, even if you've had to go through contortions to take them. :)

    1. Thank you, GG! Yes, contortions. Definitely do a lot of them. And I remember your light tent! My kids have sat in mine, and we've done photoshoots of them in it. Quite silly! I can just imagine your kitties doing the same.

  2. Excellent information. I've been meaning to get a light tent for ages. They are so small, and can be bought very reasonably.

    1. Yes, Katie - small tents are actually better - you don't need quite as strong a light source to make them work!

  3. I just want to know how you manage to keep your workspace so tidy. sigh...

    1. Oh, Liz - my workspace isn't tidy when I'm actually using it. This photo was taken just after I'd cleaned everything up after a huge project. Most days, it looks nothing like this.

  4. Now I want a pop-up light box.
    I use my kitchen table with two pieces of foam core board. They are a soft, matte, white color. One is laid flat on the table and the second is placed perpendicular to the flat one reflecting the window light back on the item to be photographed. After the photo shoot, the foam core boards get propped against the wall behind the chair and we eat dinner.
    It's been the easiest and cheapest solution to my pacific northwest dreary grey skies. The boards also accommodate small, medium, large items.

    1. Hurrah for natural storage places for our photographic equipment!

  5. I have been on the hunt (on and off) for a good, reasonably priced light tent and lights to go with it. Thank you for writing this post-- although your self-made light box is lovely, your "confession" helps me to realize that I really just need to bite the bullet and buy a pop-up one myself. Would you recommend the brand you got? I would love some more specifics, if you are willing to share (and if you have an affiliate link, I would be more than happy to use it)

    1. Natalie: The one I have is the 47" Square Perfect professional photo cube.

  6. I have that same light tent. I need to use it more.

  7. This is something so many of us struggle with! Thanks for all of the examples and spelling out the frustration. I'll share with my art groups. :)

  8. Thank You for this post and ALL of your posts. I love your work!

  9. I have a cream colored polyester tablecloth as my omnipresent Ebay and crafting photo backdrop.. I put a square of white paper in a cropable corner to color-correct from, and my kitchen counter gets draped (best light in a very dark house). But I have a dream where that photo of your workspace with the draped overhead lights becomes my reality.


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