Anyone who starts an online store knows how much their sales depend on great product photos. If you’re a newer business, you probably don’t have funds to hire a professional photographer — yet. Maybe you’ve tried taking some photos of your products on your own but are disappointed with how they turned out. They’re dim, unfocused, and unappealing. If this is you, don’t worry, I have a solution: learn how to use a lightbox.
Start learning how to use a lightbox
You only need a few things on hand to be able to take beautiful product photos. Most people think this will cost you thousands — but it’s actually pretty affordable. Once you have the camera taken care of (which could just be your phone), then you need a way to hold it still and a surface to place your lightbox and your lighting setup on top of.
Cameras are built to capture light — so you want plenty of it, and you want to control where and how it hits your product. And for stability, you need a sturdy surface to place your product on and a way to hold your camera still.
If your products are large or you have people in your shots, you’ll need giant lights and reflectors and a big backdrop cloth. But if you have small products, then you’re in luck! You only need a small lightbox setup.
You can snag this one from Amazon (same one I use!) for less than $50. It comes with the box, lights, several colors of backdrop, and a desktop tripod. You can also make your own lightbox with a cardboard box, clip lights, poster board, transparent paper or fabric and some tape.
Equipment for your lightbox setup
Before you dig into how to use a lightbox, you need to get all your gear together and a spot to put it in. Here’s what you need to get started.
- Camera or phone with camera
- Tripod for your camera or phone (holding steady is essential for a crisp image)
- Light source(s)
- Reflector (lightbox itself acts as a bit of a reflector for light to bounce off of)
- Filter (lightbox itself acts as a filter for the light to pass through)
- Backdrop (white is typical, but other colors are handy too)
Light source options
There are many options for lighting your products. You can use sunlight, special bulbs with particular color temperatures, whatever lamps are handy in your house, or even studio lights.
Ideally you’ll shoot in a dark room with no outside light source so you can completely control the light by using your own lamps.
This helps you get the right color. But it might also work to have a window with natural light nearby and supplement with the light kit that comes with your light box.
Purpose of a filter in product photography
If you’re wondering what a filter is, it’s basically anything that your light passes through before it hits the item you’re photographing. It could be a sheet or see-through curtain, or anything sheer and white. The lightbox walls act as a filter so it’s built right in.
In the example below, I’m shining the light directly on the glass with no filter in between. See how it makes a harsh dark shadow in back? Without a filter to soften things, the light is super intense — and that’s what causes this. If I move the light so it’s shining through the lightbox wall, then it acts as a filter and helps with this issue.
Then with a little editing work to brighten up the background, you can really have product listing images that shine and make people want to buy from you. You can even get super fancy and doctor it up in Photoshop with all sorts of bells and whistles. You can give this a try with a free tankard mockup here.
Related: 5 affordable Photoshop alternatives
Setting up your new lightbox studio
As you start learning how to use a lightbox, find a spot in your home where you can put everything and preferably keep it there, long term. If you’re using the phone tripod that is desktop height, then you’ll need a second table or a really large surface that can accommodate the box and lights, plus the camera tripod. If you just have a camera and regular floor tripod, no second table is needed.
- Set out a sturdy table for your lightbox and lights to sit on.
- Unfold the box and assemble it.
- Add cloth/backdrop if available (mine comes with several colors but I just use white).
- Curve the cloth behind so there’s no seam in your shot.
- Set up your lights on left and right side.
- Have an outlet nearby and possibly an extension cord with an on/off switch to make things easier.
- Get your product, and clean it up. Remove dust, fingerprints, etc. You want it looking perfect and new.
- Place in center of box on the curved backdrop cloth.
- Put your camera on a tripod.
Now you’re in business!
Placement and test shots
Once you have everything in place, it’s time to take some test shots to figure out how to use a lightbox. Place your camera or phone in a tripod in front of the table. Take some pics, then try moving your tripod closer or further away, and take more pics. You’ll soon see what works best.
You’ll also want to play with the placement of the product inside the lightbox — move it closer, further away, try it at an angle, show the inside, the outside, etc. Use every possible angle.
You might also want to photograph your product with props to help explain what it is, or the scale of it. Or some holiday props for seasonal promotions. You can also insert props into your product “scene” afterwards with Photoshop graphics.
Play with where the lights are shining on your item. Bring them close to the edge of the box, and further away and see what happens.
If you’re still getting harsh shadows, you probably need to move your light further away, and be extra sure to use something in between the light and the product to act as a filter. The side of the box actually is the filter in this case.
Lighting distance makes a difference
As we started learning how to use a lightbox, I showed you an example of shining the light on your product with no filter at all. Having a filter helps, but you can still have problems if the light is too close to the filter itself. In the example below, see how the light is pressed right up against the box wall in this shot? It’s not quite as harsh as no filter/wall at all, but still harsh enough to cause a bit of a shadow inside the lightbox.
If you move the light further away from the box (but still filtering through the box wall), the shadow looks significantly lighter.
And then when you add a light on the other side, also placed a little further away from the box wall, it looks even better!
Here’s a close-up shot:
See how the glass just glows, and there aren’t any harsh shadows? This is what you’re going for, and it just can’t be done without the right set up. (Having your own lightbox makes life so much easier.)
Pro tip: When you’re learning how to use a lightbox, remember you don’t have to shoot everything on a white background. This particular lightbox comes with different colored backdrop cloths. It has blue, black, and red, in addition to white. So try out some other colors.
Who knows? Maybe your items look incredible and dramatic when they’re on a dark background instead of a light one. Have fun and experiment. You can also purchase backdrops online, as well as fashion your own out of cloth or other materials you find around the house. They don’t have to be expensive either. You can do a lot with a tiny investment, like a $3 placemat!
Taking your own product photos is really a work in progress. Test things, play around and have fun! If you have consistent kinds of products you photograph regularly and notice that placement of the tripod and lights is always the same, see if you can leave your “studio” assembled permanently.
If not, get some painter’s tape or masking tape and mark out the placements of the tripod on the floor and on the table so you know where to put them next time. You can even take a photo of your setup with your phone (meta!)
Lightboxes sound intimidating at first but once you get the hang of using one, you’ll feel like a total pro in no time! So don’t delay … snag your lightbox, or DIY one asap and bring your photography game to the next level.