In my studio product photography class, students invariably inquire about whether they could use a pop-up lightbox (also called a light tent) for their tabletop photography endeavors. While there are certainly good reasons to consider using a light tent, more often than not the inquiring mind is looking for a shortcut to great results. And that’s not quite what pop-up lightboxes are best for. To that end, here are a few good reasons to use a lightbox, what you can expect from such a device and when to graduate from it to a more traditional tabletop setup.
Pop-up lightboxes are ideal for photographers who don’t have a traditional studio space or loads of lighting equipment. They’re made of lightweight plastic or sometimes a collapsible metal frame that stretches translucent white fabric to form the box. Inside is a white sweep of paper or plastic on which the product sits, designed to eliminate any hint of a horizon line for a truly seamless background. Some lightboxes—such as the Flashery box shown here—have LED lights built in so there’s literally nothing else needed (aside from the camera, of course). They’re compact so they can be set up on a table or desk in the tiniest of spaces.
For boxes that don’t have LED lights built in, their translucent sides and top mean you have to add your own illumination. A typical speedlight-style flash works perfectly for this, and in a pinch, even the incandescent light from a living room lamp can be positioned to provide the source for the lightbox. In either case, lightboxes excel at creating soft, even illumination—the kind of thing that is perfect for showing the detail in a product or to illuminate small objects in a simple, straightforward manner. Because they’re small and portable enough to conveniently travel with, a photographer can easily take their studio on location to anywhere they need.
Anyone who has ever photographed a highly reflective subject (such as metal jewelry, shiny flatware or other polished surfaces) knows how essential it is to have seamless reflections in the surface of the subject. Light tents are tremendously helpful in this regard. Because shiny objects “see” whatever is around them, the seamless, all-encompassing nature of a lightbox makes those reflections consistent and visually appealing.
While pop-up light tents certainly make product photography simple and convenient, they’re not a replacement for an understanding of how cameras and lighting work. Aiming your camera into the light tent and shooting at the indicated meter reading, or using an automatic exposure mode, tends to produce gray, underexposed images. Why? Because the camera’s TTL meter is going to see all of that white in the box and assume it should be rendered more like middle gray. As the four-shot example here illustrates, in automatic exposure modes using exposure compensation of +2 or even more may be necessary to create the bright white background and proper exposure for the subject. If you’re a manual shooter, you’ll want to open up a couple of stops from the exposure indicated by the camera’s TTL meter or use a handheld incident light meter to precisely measure the amount of light falling on the subject.
Another problem with lightboxes is that they’re fairly small. That’s no problem if you’re photographing a shoe, hand tool or piece of jewelry. But if your subject is bigger than a breadbox, you’re going to run into trouble.
The ultimate limitation of the lightbox is the nuance that’s eliminated from the process. The devil is in the details, after all, and the problem with most light tents is that they don’t allow for the fine control that can be achieved when lighting with a larger, more open tabletop setup. Because each side of the box and its top are just inches from the subject, it’s particularly difficult to add and subtract light from different sides of the subject. This is particularly true of boxes with LED lights built in as they’re always providing flat light that’s somewhat omnidirectional. A black card can be used to introduce negative fill to one side of the subject, but overall, the setup inside a box makes the fine-tuning that comes from changing size, position and distance of lights and modifiers difficult if not impossible. For that, the traditional approach to tabletop lighting may be preferable.
The Traditional Approach
Before you get scared off by the thought of needing lots of specialized lighting equipment and light modifiers, bear in mind that the traditional approach to tabletop photography doesn’t really require much gear. There’s the table surface, of course, which can be improved by a simple paper sweep. In the example here, that sweep is actually smaller than a typical white poster board.
A couple of clamps hold the sweep in place, and then the light is provided by a strobe inside a softbox or bounced off of a white wall or reflector. The fill light on the shadow side is provided by a white piece of foamcore as a reflector, and that’s it! Hardly a huge strain on the wallet by photography equipment standards and certainly not the kind of thing that requires leasing a new studio space. And with this setup, it’s much easier to position the light relative to the subject in its optimal position and fine-tune that position—as well as the shape and intensity of the fill light—to provide the nuanced lighting control that takes a tabletop photograph from plain to pizazz.
While the appeal of a do-it-all lightbox is understandable, a growing photographer is sure to run up against the limitations of a light tent setup sooner or later. The look of a simple “one light in a softbox and fill card” technique is hard to beat, and my advice is generally to skip the lightbox and start there. That said, these devices definitely do have their place—particularly for early endeavors with tabletop product photography and for lighting shiny subjects—and I have no problem recommending them so long as the photographer knows the limitations. It’s not a replacement for understanding how light works, how it interacts with a subject and what the camera makes of it.