I didn’t think I’d ever have to think about studio style lighting before and I didn’t think I’d be doing much in the way of portraits when I got into photography. I thought I’d be mostly taking outdoor photos and ambient light photos inside, but now that I have someone who is willing to model for me, I need something. The problem is, lighting is expensive. Even decent external flashes with nothing else are more than I should be spending right now considering that I’m saving for a wedding. After spending hours online trying to find some cheap stuff to buy and reading about DIY set-ups, I decided to make my own. If this nude/erotic photography thing sticks, I’ll buy some real lighting, but since I’m short on time and money and with this first “shoot” just being for experimentation, it doesn’t make sense to buy anything right now.
Since any type of strobe/flash set-up was going to be a lot more money, I decided to build a couple continuous light soft boxes. They’re ugly, but I think they’ll get the job done, at least for a couple shoots to get my feet wet. The total cost for the two boxes was $50.
I took a trip to Home Depot and picked up two power strips, four plug-in sockets, four light socket Y adapters, and eight 27 watt daylight balanced CFLs. I would have liked to have picked up higher wattage CFLs (like double that), but Home Depot didn’t have anything brighter in stock. I supplemented this with two cardboard boxes, some aluminum foil, an old plain white t-shirt, two mic stands (left over from my ZEN House days), and a few zip ties. This stuff I had at home.
My first step was to tape around the edges of the box to make it a little sturdier. The boxes were just a couple I had sitting in the basement from some electric heaters that my landlord gave me when the heat stopped working for a week a couple of years ago. I cut out one of the big sides right along the edges to open them up. The tape was necessary for the box to keep it’s shape.
The second step was to line the inside of the box with aluminum foil to help reflect the light outward. I just stapled it down, but that turned out to be a bit sloppier than I would have liked. It still worked, but in a few places, there are some staples sticking out. I bent down as many as I could with pliers, but I’m sure I missed one or two.
Next, I placed the power strip inside the box and used a few zip ties to hold it in place. I punched two holes through at either end and just threaded the zip ties through and back in again. I cut a small hole in the back of the box to feed the cord through.
Once the power strip was mounted inside, all I had to do was plug in two of the sockets, screw in the Y adapters, and put the bulbs in. At this point, I figured it would be a good idea to plug it in and make sure all the bulbs worked because I knew that my quick and simple design wouldn’t be too friendly to changing the bulbs. That shouldn’t be a problem though, CFLs last a long time and if I’m still using these in a few months, I’ll be surprised.
Everything lit up just fine so it was time to take care of the makeshift diffuser. I took a plain white t-shirt and cut a piece a little bigger than the open side of the box. A quick little staple job while pulling it taut did the trick. It was important at this step to make sure that the power switch for the power strip was set to on, since the only way to get a hand back inside at this point would be to undo my staple job.
Lastly, it was time to do the same thing with the second box and then give it a try. I set them up on my dining room table and turned off all the lights and they seemed to produce a nice even light at about 4500k. I took a few test shots and found that there was plenty of light to take a sharp, handheld shot.
They’re not super powerful and don’t look very impressive in the photo above, but they produce enough light to work with. Like I said, I’m just getting my feet wet here, I’m not looking to produce any photos that will be sold or used anywhere, so I don’t mind shooting at ISO 400–which is pretty decent on my Canon T1i anyway. It’s not ISO 100 at 1/200, but it’s enough to just try it out and see if it’s worth purchasing some real lighting.
I used some more zip ties to mount them to the mic stands I had in the basement. I looped the zip ties between the box and the zip ties being used to hold the power strips in place. Since one of the mic stands I have is a boom stand, I have a little bit of control over how I can position the one box. The other is just a cheap straight stand, so there’s not much I can do with that.
To give the final setup a test, I had my fiancée lay on our bed with all of the lights off and no extra light coming into the room.
The picture above is almost entirely untouched in post, I didn’t touch any white balance, exposure, or light levels at all. If I had bigger boxes around, I would have used them and that probably would have created a softer light, but as you can see, this is a dramatic improvement of any room lighting and probably just about as good as the really cheap continuous lighting kits.
The one real concern I have with them is that, because of the size of the boxes, there isn’t that much space between the bulbs and the shirt. I left them on for about a half hour and they were warm, but didn’t feel dangerously hot. I will definitely need to keep an eye on these, but they seem like they’ll be okay and probably won’t catch fire…I hope.