DIY Portable Photo Lighting Box – At A Fraction of Store Bought Brands

January 11, 2013

Fairly late in 2012 I came to find a wonderfully talented cookie decorator by the name of Mike.  He shares his creations on his site Semi-Sweet Designs.  If you don’t already follow him, I’m sure that after you check out the cookies he has made you will want to!  Mike is not only an amazing cookie decorator, he has some pretty good skills in the DIY department, in particular that of building your own lighting box.

When I saw this DIY post on Mike’s sight and the difference that his lighting kit made on his photographs, I knew that I would be making my own lighting box.  The idea of saving money by not having to purchase a more expensive lighting kit was too good to pass up.  However, as much as I like Mike’s, and the post by Mawoca that inspired Mike to make his, I knew that I wanted something that would be a bit easier to take down and put up again whenever I was decorating cookies and taking pictures of the process.

I gave it quite a bit of thought and adding some of my own ideas to those of Mike and Mawoca, I built myself this portable light photography box.  My favourite thing about this type of lighting box is that I don’t need to set up a bunch of stuff before I can start taking pictures.  I just lift it up, plug it in and I’m good to go.  When I’m finished taking pictures, I simply unplug the cords, tuck them into the handles and store the box away.  It’s sturdy, not too heavy and easily carried.

Bulb Placement Two

This lighting box is made from white finished particleboard shelving and is screwed together.  It is lined with white foam board (stapled to the sides), has a hinged lid (easy access for overhead shots) and can easily be lifted by the handles on either side to place on the table or to remove for storage.  The interior of the light box is 16” inches high, 18 1/2″ wide and 16″ deep.   Plenty of room for photographing cookies, pies, layered cakes and perhaps another tall 3-D Gingerbread Christmas Tree!   The bottom has four self-adhesive gliders attached near each corner.  This allows the box to move easily over the table (or floor) without damaging any finishes.

I’m purchasing Architect Vellum to use as a light diffuser.  I asked Mike exactly what he used (Aida cross-stitch sheeting – 18 count) and after doing some research, I decided to try out the Architect Vellum.  I haven’t been able to get into town yet to purchase it but I will be sure to update you on how it works as a light diffuser.  Architect Vellum is thin 100% cotton paper that can be purchased in various size sheets or rolls and it has been used successfully as a light diffuser.  It can be ordered on-line or purchased at some art supply stores and office supply stores.

Until I purchase the Architect Vellum, here is a picture of a cookie I had made last year and stored in the deep freezer, taken without benefit of the light box at approximately 9:00 p.m. last evening.

Shot without Lighting Box

Same cookie, photographed this afternoon about 1:20 p.m. in front of our garden door windows.

Shot After 1 PM Daylight

And here is a picture of the same cookie taken last evening, using the light box without any diffusers.  Which would you rather see here on the blog?

Using Lighting Box

Here are the steps of how I made this light box and how much it cost me to do so.  Note that all photos taken during the construction were taken in our basement workroom and without benefit of a working light box.

Materials I Used:

Particle Board Shelving – Finished in White 8’ x 16” (1 Each) (Purchase at any building supply store, have them cut it down for you)

Large White Foam Board (3 Each) (Purchase at local Dollar Store)

Hemma Lighting Cord (2 Each) (Purchase at Ikea)

Blue Planet Energy Star Daylight Lightbulbs 13 Watts (Pkg of 2) (Purchase at local Hardware Store)

1 ½” Particle Board Screws (Pkg of 100)

Drawer Pulls (2 each)

White Cupboard Hinges (Pkg of 2)

What I Paid for Them:

$21.98 for Blue Planet Energy Efficient 30 Watt Light Bulbs – (4 required at a cost of $10.99 per pkg. of two each)

$11.98 for Hemma Lighting Cords – (2 required at a cost of $5.99 each)

$7.99 for White Finish Particle Board – (8’x16” length for $9.99, cut into 5 pieces-only 4 pieces used @1.98 per piece – I had three pieces cut to 20” lengths and two pieces cut to 16” lengths, only used two of the 20” lengths)

$4.90 for Plastic Drawer Pulls – (2 required at a cost of $2.45 each)

$4.38 for 1 Pkg. of 2 Cupboard Hinges

$3.75 for White Foam Board – ( 3 pieces used at a cost of $1.25 each)

$0.84 for  1 ½” Particleboard Screws (10 required at a cost of $8.39 per box of 100)

$55.82 Total Expenses

What I Did with Them:

First of all the holes were drilled on each side panel for the Hemma Lighting Cords to be attached to.  A 1 1/2″ bi-metal hole saw bit was used but next time I’ll use a 1 5/8″ bit as the hole had to be manually widened just a little bit.

Holes Drilled for Light Socket

Before attaching the bottom panel to the side panels, I pre-drilled the screw holes with 9/64″ drill bit.  I held the panel in place with clamps, being sure to put cloth padding between the clamp and the panel so no damage from the pressure of the clamp would occur on the panel.

Pre-drilled Screw Holes

Using 1 1/2″ particle board screws, attach the bottom to one side panel, placing the side panel on the inside edge of the bottom panel and when secure, attach the second side panel.

Two Sides Attached to Bottom

Next step is to attach the carrying handles (which also double as storage for the lighting cords.  In reality, I did not attach the handles until after the light box was built which meant I had to remove the white foam board and the light bulbs in order to pre-drill the screw holes and attach the screws.  So, trust me…attach the handles once you have the sides attached.  Measure  3″ down from the top on each side panel, mark where the screws have to go, pre-drill the holes and then attach the handles (which are technically called drawer pulls)

Handles Attached

I measured the white foam board to fit on each side panel, allowing for the fact that a hole had to be cut in the center where the light fixture is.  Originally I had *flaps* extending on each side that I was going to use to attach the diffuser material to.  In the end, I decided not to use this method and cut the side panels off.

Foam Board Cut to Fit

With the white foam boards in place on either side of the box, I began attaching the hinges to the lid.

Hinges Attached to Top

In order to lift the box without the hinged lid coming open, I screwed on two hook fasteners on the side of the box where the lid opens from.

Fastners Attached to Top

The lid can now be opened all the way for overhead shots and closed safely for transporting.

Top Opened

That’s pretty much it.  Not too hard and not too costly to build your own lighting photography box that is easily transported and ready to use whenever you are.

Setting Up

Ready to Photograph

When you have finished taking all your food photographs, simply unplug the cord, tuck them into the carrying handles and…

Carrying Handle and Cord Storage

store your portable photography lighting box away until you are ready to use again.

Tucked Away

You may have noticed a backing on the box which is a sheet of white foam board cut to fit and stapled to the ends of the side panels and to the end of the bottom of the box.  You may also notice that in this photo the lights are in a different position than the first photo.  Simply rotate the light fixture to adjust the lighting placement.

Bulb Placement 1

Some Questions You May Have:

Q.  Why did I attach white foam board to a box that was already finished in white?

A.  When I start using the Architect Vellum, I will place a sheet over the lights and attach to the lighting box by using stick pins pushed into the foam board.

Q.  Could I have used another type of wood to build this lighting box?

A.  Yes, of course, especially since I lined it in white foam board.  However, the 8′ x 16″ white finished shelving was on sale for only $9.99.  It was long enough to allow me all the pieces that I thought I needed and the width was perfect.  Turned out to be less expensive for me to purchase than another type of lumber.  You could also use a wood thinner than this shelving if you like.

Q.  Why did you not factor in the cost of the self-adhesive gliders you placed on the bottom of the lighting box?

A.  We already had them in the house and I didn’t pay for them.  Same goes for the staples and the staple gun.  You don’t have to use gliders, the foam pads that you may have around the house that you attach underneath your furniture to protect your hardwood floors will also work great.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

cakewhiz January 11, 2013 at 4:49 pm

excellent tutorial! the picture of your cookie with the lightbox is the best of them all. it’s so bright and crisp :D


Mike @ Semi Sweet January 11, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Thanks for the nice mention, Paula! The shortfalls on the light boxes I built are their bulky sizes and the difficulty of storing them. I like your take. Down the road, I’d like another try at building new lighting and will definitely take your great ideas into consideration. Your end result cookie photo looks fantastic!


Sue {munchkin munchies} January 11, 2013 at 6:28 pm

I love the light comparison with the cookie; what a difference! Your light box looks so sturdy and professional! I actually purchased a Lowel EGO light, which I have only used once (recently) even though I bought it over a year ago. I probably need one more for balance.
Way to go, Paula!


Renee - Kudos Kitchen January 11, 2013 at 6:35 pm

What a difference the light box makes!!! You did a fabulous job of making this yourself Paula. Sorry that on facebook I asked if Ron made it for you. My bad. I should have known that you’re a woman of many skills! Nicely done and nice tutorial! KUDOS :)


Melissa January 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm

That is so nifty!


Ron January 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Hi Renee,
My wife is incredible and much better at this stuff than I am. She is the artist. I am just the support!


Jennifer @ Not Your Momma's Cookie January 11, 2013 at 7:07 pm

I love your nifty, little lightbox! I might have to pass this along to my handy husband so I can have one of my own ;) Thanks to both you and Mike for being awesome!


Melissa@EyesBigger January 12, 2013 at 12:29 am

This is great Paula! People have to stop thinking they have to spend a fortune to improve their photography so I just love it when I see posts like this. My light box was a Christmas gift so it had diffusers already built in but, I find for some things they’re not opaque enough. So you know what I do? Tape plain old white printer paper over the diffusers where I need them! Sometimes up to 3 or 4 sheets! Works like a charm :) also, a tip: turn off the other light in the room before using it – it will improve your white balance!


Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.) January 12, 2013 at 7:02 am

Nice Paula! Can you make me one of those? Actually perhaps you can go into business and sell these to all of us who need them ;)


Rachel @ Baked by Rachel January 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

The lightbox photo turned out really nice! I’m impressed :)


Jacquee January 12, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Great job, Paula! I admire your creativity. I made one in the early days of my blog and then received a lightbox set as a gift. DIY or store-bought, they make such a noticeable difference.


Lora January 15, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I am so impressed you made this! I have no place to store this in my New York apartment but this might have to go on the list of project at the country house. Wow!


Kirsten/Comfortably Domestic January 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Fantastic tutorial, Paula! What a difference in your photo taken in the light box. I’d definitely like to see that cookie up here on your blog. On another note, I can’t believe the cookie looks so great after being frozen. I had no idea you could freeze an iced cookie. Thanks for teaching me all sorts of interesting and useful things today. :)


Warning Sugary Goodness January 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I might make one of these. I have a portable lightbox and I hate it. Good one!


Leigh Anne @Yourhomebasedmom January 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I live in the Northwest so in the winter, even in the daylight hours, there isn’t enough light for photos. Great idea!
I just started a new Finding the Pretty & Delicious Linky Party on my blog this week – would love to have you stop by and share!


Leigh [email protected] January 25, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Thanks so much for linking up over at Finding the Pretty & Delicious. Hope you will stop by again tomorrow!


Cheryl (Grandma Coco) January 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm

You know, of course, that this would be perfect for anyone who makes small things. It would be just the ticket for photographing jewelry, for instance, or for my SIL who makes pottery. What a great system! Thank you so much for sharing your experience making this.


anton March 1, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Dear Sir / Madam,

Is there a exists material that give the same effect as the foam board?
because I want to build one of a kind plastic because it is hard, i want use it for animals photography, anyone have an idea?
I’m really tired to be, I’m already a month doing many kinds of artificial substances tried, no effect only foam board works well, but is not hard enough as plastic for my project, if someone know you make me really stay!

See an example here:

this is too small for my project



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