Let There Be Light: DIY PVC Lightbox

At our wedding, our amazing photographer (Christine Farah) told us that she “chases light” on her shoots. She was always finding these amazing shots where the sun would light up our faces and the scenery around us, producing a phenomenal photograph. Light is a photographer’s best friend. Better light means better pictures. Light reveals things to us. It speaks to our eyes… communicating in colors, shapes, and textures.

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While I am by no means a professional photographer, I like my pictures to look great… no matter if I use them for a graphic I’m working on, or just posting to Instagram. As I filter through the plethora of amazing design blogs online, I used to wonder how these designers got such amazing shots of the items they were posting. Why were their pictures coming out so good? How was it possible that it was always an overcast day when they took a picture? Did all bloggers live in the Pacific Northwest?

Enter the lightbox. I soon realized that this little tool could make all the difference in your pictures. Controlling your light source(s) in a miniature studio can give the picture that added touch… eliminating harsh shadows, lighting an object from all sides, and giving the picture an overall “clean” look that was pleasing to the eye.

If you're feeling lazy and want a smaller box, you can pick a set like this up for only about $35 from Amazon. Not a bad deal, but you miss the fun of creating something yourself and being able to customize it!

If you’re feeling lazy and want a smaller box, you can pick a set like this up for only about $35 from Amazon. Not a bad deal, but you miss the fun of creating something yourself and being able to customize it!

Fellow blogger (and my good friend) Tina at Tinamadeit suggested we create our own lightboxes based off a few designs she’d found online. Tina had been working with a previous lightbox she whipped together using a cardboard box, but wanted something of higher quality that would be durable and easy to disassemble/store. We chose this one from Amanda at diyphotography that used PVC pipes, came up with a shopping list, then headed to Joanne’s Fabric Store and Home Depot for our project.

We purchased all of our materials based off of Amanda’s plans for a box using 22″ pipes. We ran into our first snag at Home Depot: the 3-way elbow fittings they had were different – only two of the fittings were slip fitting, and the third was a taped side outlet (see here). We were forced to adjust our measurements on the spot, and add slip fitting adapters (~$1/each) to the shopping list. We returned home and began fabrication of the lightbox. Tina handled the fabric, I handled the pipes. I began by measuring and cutting using a hacksaw, then sanding down the pipes to remove the frayed edges. I had to cut off an extra 2″ off the legs of the box in order to account for the slip adapters. I cut 8 pieces for each box: (4) 22″ pipes  – for top of box frame; (4) 20″ pipes – for box frame legs. The frame was really easy to assemble.

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Cutting was relatively easy with a hack saw.

Top of the lightbox frame. Once the pieces are cut to size, everything slides together easily!

Top of the lightbox frame. Once the pieces are cut to size, everything slides together easily!

Our corner pieces: 3-way elbow joints. Home Depot only had this version with 2 slip joints and 1 screw-in. We had to adjust our measurements on the spot at Home Depot

Our corner pieces: 3-way elbow joints. Home Depot only had this version with 2 slip joints and 1 screw-in. We had to adjust our measurements on the spot at Home Depot

We had to purchase these adapters ($1/each) that converted the threaded joint to one where we could slip un-threaded pvc in.

We had to purchase these adapters ($1/each) that converted the threaded joint to one where we could slip un-threaded pvc in.

Our twin lightbox frames!

Our twin lightbox frames!

One special tweak we made: our two boxes can join together and make a wider lightbox twice the size. Tina foresaw the need for a bigger box from time to time, so we picked up a few of these T-adapters while at Home Depot. If needed, we can rearrange the pipes of the two lightboxes and form this:

Our "double box" made with a few extra pieces.

Our “double box” made with a few extra pieces.

A few of the PVC fittings. The white T-elbows are what we used to combine the lightboxes

A few of the PVC fittings. The white T-elbows are what we used to combine the lightboxes

Tina measured and cut our muslin, then attached the square piece for the top to the rectangular side piece with the heat n’ bond tape. Working with the tape made this a great no-sew project. Just cut the tape to size, place it between the muslin, and iron for about 10 seconds. The tape package says 3 seconds, but we soon realized that a more thorough “melting” of the tape was needed to produce a strong enough bond for the muslin. It was a little difficult to hold the tape in place while ironing so it took all 4 of our hands to do this step.

We used Heat & Bond tape instead of sewing the muslin together. It was so simple to use, even I could do it!

We used Heat & Bond tape instead of sewing the muslin together. It was so simple to use, even I could do it!

We soon realized that the measurements we were using did not fit the box we created. The instructions called for a 26.5″ square piece, and a 75 x 26.5″ rectangle. We should have checked the math, because we soon realized that 26.5 x 3 = 79.5! The sides of the muslin were about 2″ short on each side. In the end it did not change the functionality of the lightbox, but if these little imperfections bug you (as they do for both Tina and myself), then you’ll want to make sure you make that 79.5″ cut.

After the frame was constructed and fabric was attached, we tried placing the poster board in the box and realized that it did not stay in place. The instructions called for some support to be placed in back of the box, but in order to make our boxes a little more self-sufficient, we got some string and screw hooks and rigged a support/poster-holder on the back two legs. How far down you place this will depend on the posterboard you get, so measure accordingly. Attach a small clip to the string, and you can hang the board so that it drapes down nicely for the backdrop. We also used a large office clip to hold the front of the muslin to the pvc pipe.

Repurposed hook screws from my jewelry box project came in handy. I attached two on the back pipes and connected them with some thick string to hold the posterboard backdrop in place. A small clip easily holds the posterboard in place.

Re-purposed hook screws from my jewelry box project came in handy. I attached two on the back pipes and connected them with some thick string to hold the poster board backdrop in place. A small clip easily holds the poster board in place.

The office clip at the front of the box held the muslin to the frame nicely.

The office clip at the front of the box held the muslin to the frame nicely. You can also see from this angle that the muslin does not fit the frame well. The original measurements we used were just a few inches short on the sides.

Lastly, you need 3 light sources. We used these Bayco clamp lights from Walmart for about $7/each and these daylight cfl bulbs from home depot. The clamps make it easy to attach to the pipes and/or other items nearby. After that, find some objects to photograph and go crazy! You don’t have to be a professional photographer (you can even use your iphone camera). It makes taking pictures a lot more fun, and you can instantly tell the difference!

Tina was so excited about the lightbox she grabbed these star wars advent calendar toys that were sitting nearby to start testing our box. Earlier in the week she had teased me about how nerdy they were, but now they were the perfect objects for her to photograph!

Tina was so excited about finishing the lightbox she grabbed these star wars advent calendar toys that were sitting nearby to start testing our box. Earlier in the week she had teased me about how nerdy they were, but now they became the perfect objects for her to photograph!

The lightbox really changes the way your photographs turn out. Light envelops the subject in a way that washes away harsh shadows, giving the picture a studio-like appearance.

The lightbox really changes the way your photographs turn out. Light envelops the subject in a way that washes away harsh shadows, giving the picture a studio-like appearance.

Here is our updated materials list (taken from Tinamadeit.com):

  • 4 x 22″ sections of 1/2″ PVC pipe
  • 4 x 20″ sections of 1/2″ PVC pipe
  • 4 x ½” PVC 3-way side outlet elbows
  • 4 x 1/2″ PVC male adapters
  • thin white fabric cut to 79.5″ x 26″ and 26.5″ x 26.5″ (e.g. muslin or a 200-count white bed sheet)
  • heat bond tape (“no-sew” hemming adhesive)
  • 2 small C-shaped hook screws
  • white poster board
  • kitchen twine (or anything similar)
  • 3 binder clips (one large, 2 small)
  • power drill
  • iron
  • scissors
  • tape measure/yardstick
  • hack saw (or PVC cutters, if you have)
  • 3 Baylor clamp lights with bulbs

You should all check out Tina’s post on this project! She took nicer photos and documented the process a lot better than I did. Her blog is full of great diy projects, local LA hotspots, and fashion tips that I’m sure you’ll all love.

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5 responses to “Let There Be Light: DIY PVC Lightbox

  1. Pingback: Tina Made a PVC Light Box | Tina Made It·

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