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Monday, March 4, 2013

An Alternative To The Light Tent

You don’t need a light tent to create great tabletop lighting.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
As a studio photographer I have a bit of a confession to make: I don't love light tents. You know what light tents are, right? They're those boxes of translucent diffusion designed for photographing tabletop items. Don't get me wrong: I know tents have their place. It's just that some photographers can't imagine lighting products without them. For my money, tent lighting tends to be a little too flat and unrefined. (This is generally because of the way light bounces around in that confined little space. It takes all the beauty out of great tabletop lighting.) So, what's a better alternative to a light tent? Simple: use the same principles, just on a larger scale. And you don't need to buy another accessory to do it.

Starting in a studio (or, a large open space in your home that can double as a studio) I recommend positioning the subject as far from the background as is reasonably comfortable. This allows you to do something next to impossible in a light tent: illuminate the subject and background independently.

If you want a dark background, this increased distance between subject and background is an easy way to accomplish it. (No easy feat in a light tent, though black velvet does help.) To craft lighter backgrounds, illuminating a wall or hanging seamless paper works well outside of a tent, and for a true seamless tabletop shot you can simply sweep the background paper forward and under the subject—then you can light it as needed or let it fall of to black as you see fit. Either way, these are things that are fairly easy to accomplish outside the confines of a light tent.

But, what about lighting the subject itself? Part of what makes light tents so appealing is that they have a built-in fill for the shadow side of the subject. A main light from the right, for instance, will bounce off the left side of the tent and fill in the left side shadows on the subject. Outside of a tent you can not only accomplish the same thing, but you can be more precise with the amount of fill you create. By moving a white fill card closer or farther away you can control the intensity, and different colors and types of fill cards (like shiny gold or matte silver) can change the look of that fill light dramatically.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
The light tent also provides nice, soft illumination for the main light—for any kind of main light, in fact—which is probably the average photographer's favorite thing about working in a tent. But, that soft light can be a problem, because if you don't want a soft light source… well, good luck getting it in a tent. Working on an open tabletop, however, you can position a softbox (of almost any size, in fact) close to the subject or much farther away, and you can also use a hard light source, a snoot, a bare bulb or any number of other modifiers and light placements to enhance texture. Things like raking a hard light precisely across the surface of a subject are fairly straightforward on a tabletop, but a much bigger challenge inside of a tent.

Ultimately, I think light tents are so popular simply because they seem easier to use for someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of studio lighting. But, once you understand how lighting works, and how subtle changes to light modifiers and source positions can have a huge impact on the overall look of a scene, you're likely to find a light tent a bit too restrictive. Then, there's no reason not to take a more do-it-yourself approach to tabletop lighting outside of the tent.


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