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Build a DIY Home Studio

Lesson 11 of 20

Build a DIY Light Tent

Mike Hagen

Build a DIY Home Studio

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

11. Build a DIY Light Tent

Lesson Info

Build a DIY Light Tent

What we're gonna be talking about in this segment is tabletop photography. So, all of us in this day and age, I should say, a lot of us photograph things that we put online. We put it on Etsy, we put it on Instagram, we put it on Pinterest, Facebook. And so we have a lot of these things that we like to show off. And the DIY movement is actually fairly prominent around the world. There's all kinds of websites just dedicated to do-it-yourself crafts. You guys have all seen the social media stuff where they show how to cook, how to bake something. It's this overhead shot of showing the person putting together a product, like a muffin or a roast or something like that. So anyways, tabletop photography is quite popular. I wanna show you a bunch of different ways to create really nice-looking tabletop photos without having to spend a lot of money. Behind me on the table you can see I've got all kinds of stuff set up. I've prefabricated some parts and some soft boxes and light tents. I wanna ...

show you how it all works together so that you can create really professional-looking small product photography. I'm thinking through things, as we're thinking through things about what do we wanna photograph, I've got some jewelry here, some craft-type jewelry that we'll be photographing today. I actually have a real photo job that I'm gonna show you. I've got a buddy who owns the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, it's in my hometown, and he has a bunch of products that he needs to put up on his new website. He's got a store, he needs to show off the stuff, and he actually needs to sell it. He needs to make it look good for his web sales. So I have some products that he is actually having me photograph for his store. I'm gonna show you how I photograph them using my do-it-yourself tent. And then I'll show you, this other tent that I have here is one that I actually purchased, and you'll see that the quality of light between the two is almost the same. And I'll talk about how I built this, and the pros and the cons. Also, I'm gonna be talking about, if you have bigger products, sometimes we have to have more surface area, more space, so I'm gonna show you how we photograph larger products. And then, really small stuff, I've got this light tub that I'm gonna show later on. This is a lot of fun, and very easy, extremely inexpensive. It's a great way to do very small product photography. So let me start out here with the DIY light tent. I'll talk about what it is, why it looks like this, and then, of course, how to make it. And just a reminder that we do have schematics for this, and those will all be provided later on. So, first thing, this is a light tent. Well, why is it called a light tent? Well, if you look at the one you buy from the store, it actually looks like a tent, right? It even has zippers like, you go into the tent, you go out of the tent, that's cool. So a traditional light tent has translucent material on all sides of it. And you can photograph by zipping up little sections of it. You can put your lens in there. And it helps prevent reflections from the camera system. It allows a lot of control, you can put a light here, you can put a light there, you can put a light here on top, here on the background. And then you could even put in backdrop material, and I'll explain how you use this backdrop material. So this is a light tent from a company called Photoflex, they've been in the photo industry for a long time. And this typically, oh, I don't know. It's been a long time since I bought it, I can't remember, I'm just gonna say $100, maybe $150 for this. It's a high quality product, it breaks down. We can take it anywhere we want in the world and put it all back together, and it goes back together just in a minute or two. It's a durable product. Well, not all of us wanna spend a lot of money on a light tent, so here's how we make one out of a cardboard box. So this is a just simple cardboard box, and I don't even remember the size. Okay, so it's 18 inches, so it's 18 by 18 by 24 inches deep. So I went to hardware store, I bought a cardboard box. I then sliced off the top corrugated panels that normally close the box, I just took those away, and I've actually using them throughout the class today for different things, flags. And in just a few minutes I'm gonna show you how I used another one of those for a background. Then the next thing that I did, I'm gonna pull this thing outta here so you can see it. Next thing I did is I cut away the sides. So you can kinda see that, I don't know if the main cameras can see that. You can see how I cut away the inside segments from the top and the two sides of the cardboard box. Why did I do that? I did that so I can now shine light into the edges here. So, the specifics, I leave a two-inch rim around the edge, so that gives me strength, structural support. I leave a two-inch thing there. And then, I used tissue paper to cover the top, the sides, and maybe, some people even like to have light coming in from the back. It's tissue paper, and let me grab a piece of tissue paper over here just to show you what I'm using. It's just the tissue paper that you would normally put into your Christmas gifts or your birthday gifts. That's it, so it's very fragile. In fact, it's really fragile, you have to be careful. I was practicing with this before the class, and I had another piece of paper, just like a notebook piece of paper, and I moved it through the box and I touched the edge, and I punctured a hole right in the tissue paper. In fact, later on, maybe you can see this. I've taped it with some Scotch Tape. So gotta be really careful with this stuff. You don't necessarily have to use tissue paper. Anything that's basically translucent and matted. You don't want it to be shiny, necessarily, you just want it to be kind of a matte surface. So I'm thinking of things, maybe wax paper, although that's kinda shiny. I think tissue paper, overall, is the easiest solution. I have seen other people use sheets, like really thin bed sheets, white bed sheets. And that can work. The problem though, is that again, all this do-it-yourself lighting stuff, these lights aren't all that bright. And so if you use bed sheets, it actually cuts out a significant amount of light that gets to the product. That may or may not be an issue, because you can use a longer shutter speed. We're doing studio work now, and we're on tripods, so if your shutter is a half a second, big deal. Your product is probably not moving there in the light box. The main point I'm making here is that tissue paper allows the most light through, and it's also very inexpensive. Just a few pennies apiece. Okay, so what else about this box do you need to know? Well, again, we've talked a lot in the first two segments about color temperatures, right? So we talked about white balance and making sure that the walls are white or neutral in color. Same thing with your soft box. You don't want cardboard on the interior. Really, what you wanna do, is you want the interior to be neutral color. I like white, I like just making the background white. So again, here I just put paper, just typical note paper, copy paper, whatever, and just glued it there into place. I glued the sides, the top, all of the rim areas, fantastic. Now I'm not gonna photograph actually on the paper itself. What I'm typically going to do is I'm gonna build a little background in there. And if the camera, we can see in the little GoPro, maybe the GoPro, you guys can fire that up real quick for me. You can see here in the background, this here is a simple backdrop. And I've just got that taped in there. Another possibility for the background is we can get a longer piece and we can go from the top and just curve it down in the background to move all the way forward. And that works like a seamless background, kind of an infinity background. And I'll do a couple shots with that as well. And that background paper doesn't necessarily need to be white, it can be any color you want. Yellow, green, whatever complements the product you're photographing, go ahead and throw that in for the backdrop. Let's talk now about lighting the DIY light tent. Everyone loves IKEA, right? In fact, there's this whole cool website for do-it-yourselfers, I think it's called or something like that. I know that's not the exact URL. But everyone loves IKEA. Well, one of the neat things you can get from IKEA is this little FlexiLight. I think I paid $10 for this, it's an LED light. I just turned it on there. Shine it on me, you can see the light comes on. So it's low-cost, but it's also low-intensity. There isn't a lot of light that this thing emits. So you really need, if you're gonna use this type of thing, you really need to have, I'd say, three or four of them. And you're basically, I'll turn the light tent here so the cameras can see. You're basically gonna shine this at the side like that. And you can see that this now can impact and influence your overall light. So you'll basically have one here on the side, and then you basically have one here on top, and then another on the other side. Well, I'll tell you this, if you're trying to light your studio lighting with a little IKEA bulb like this, your shutter speeds are gonna be pretty long. You're gonna be into the half a second or maybe even a full second long exposure. So it's an inexpensive way to get lights, but hey, you're all here for the do-it-yourself studio, you wanna know what's gonna really work. Use the bigger lights like we were using in segment one and two. The downside of these big ones is they can kind of blow out the overall exposure. You have less control, let me explain. So I turn on this big light and I shine that right into the side, just like this. So let's say that I throw in here this fly, just like that. The downside with these really bright lights is sometimes there's so much light that we don't have a lot of ability to control the bounce, the bounce around inside the box. So we may need to actually bring in flags, like black foam core, or something like that to reduce the amount of lights maybe on the top, or on the side, or even on the bottom. But you'll see kinda how this all works in just a minute. What I've got here, I've got the same basically work lights or job-site lights that I used in the first segment. These are LEDs. And just to remind everyone, they're 2000 Lumen, and just an on off switch. So if you wanna control basically how bright the light is inside the interior, you're going to have to either A, move this backward or forward. So the closer I get, the brighter it's gonna be along the edge. The farther away, the less light gets thrown. So that's something, when you think of where you're doing your tabletop photography, you just need a little bit of space on either side so you can move your lights forward and backward. Another option to reduce the amount of light coming in there, is to use that tissue paper. LEDs are cool, they don't put out a lot of heat, so you can just drape some tissue paper over the front here to reduce the amount of light coming into the box. So tissue paper works as a reducer, and then distance works. Okay, let's talk about this, what I've got going on here on the top. I'll move around to the back. So this is a light stand, and this is a fairly heavy-duty light stand. It's called a C-Stand. Most people, when you're doing the do-it-yourself work at home, don't have an actual C-Stand. But I needed something that was strong enough, and had a boom arm, to hold this weight. This is not really light, I'm gonna say it's probably five, six pounds. And it's held out there at quite a long distance, so the moment, arm's fairly heavy. So I needed a C-Stand, and we're at CreativeLive, so they had a C-Stand. So what would I do if I'm at home and I didn't have that? Well, I would actually get my favorite product, PVC, and I would actually just build a little PVC frame that goes over the top of this. Maybe two PVC posts here, two PVC posts up front, bring something together so that I could then mount this light there on the top. Great, and then when I turn this on, there we go. And if we show the GoPro to everyone watching, you can see that that actually has quite a significant effect on the overall light of the box there. I'll move around back to the front. Oh, one more point, any time that you're moving a light, kind of out from the stand, make sure you put a weight at the base. You don't want all this stuff falling over and punching a hole through your hard work. So I have a sandbag on the bottom of that C-Stand. Okay, and then the last one that I have here is just another one of those job-site lights. Put it over on this side, and if I turn that on, cool. So now we've got a three-light setup, that's great. You may or may not use all three lights. I think that makes good sense for those of you doing do-it-yourself small product photography. You need at least three lights, and some people bring in even more. Sometimes we want light to actually come in from the back to backlight the product, and that's why a light tent gives us that flexibility. A light tent, I'm gonna pull this out so we can see it a little bit better. A light tent allows us to photograph from the front, but we can light from all sides. We can even light from the back. The other cool thing about a light tent is there's no base, there's no bottom part here. So you can put this over flowers in your backyard. You can, if you have a table decoration for Easter or whatever, you can actually put this thing over the table flowers, and you've now got this fantastic studio that can basically move anywhere and lay down on top of whatever it is you're photographing. And the other cool thing about this commercial product is see, you can just hold onto it and move it around. It's a little bit harder to do sometimes with the do-it-yourself boxes. But that said, you still do really beautiful, fantastic work here with this. So I wanna do a couple things. I want to actually start taking some photographs here in this light tent, and I'm gonna have you guys just follow along. I'm gonna piece this together. We're gonna start with a very rudimentary look, and then I'll make it look better. I'm gonna throw in this really neat backdrop that I think will give you guys at home a lot of creative ideas. But before I start taking a picture, I just wanna make sure that we're on track with the people at home. Any questions? No questions precisely yet about these, I know somebody was asking about what you might be able to use for highly reflective surfaces. So I don't know if, with regard to these, if you would ever consider putting something as a surface in there, like you said the tent could do. And if that causes problems, or how you deal with shiny things like that jewelry you have. Yeah, both, so let's talk about reflective surfaces. There are some photographers who specialize only in photographing shiny things. Aluminum, metal, stainless steel, rings. And they're really good at it, and they've spent a lot of time practicing. Photographing shiny things is very hard. It's very difficult, so how do we do it? Through deft use of black flags and reflectors you can kinda form and mold the shape of the reflection. Reflections aren't necessarily bad. For example, if any of you like to drink wine, go look at the latest wine magazine and you'll notice that the bottles of wine are actually photographed very skillfully. They typically have a very long reflection along the whole length of the bottle. Well, how did they do that? Well, they didn't do it with a point source of light, and they didn't do it with a soft box, either, or with a light tent. Really, what they did, is they had strip lights. So we can do all that here, we just have to be careful and skillful about how we set up the light so that we have, on the sides, black, and then in the middle, just a long strip where the light actually comes through. And we can do that, we can even try it. So that's photographing shiny things. Basically, the cool thing here is you take a shot and you take a look. You look at it on your camera and you're like, "Ooh, I don't like that reflection there." Or, "It's all washed out, I can't see the gold." Now, the other part of the question was what about the base, right, the bottom of the photograph. So, in a little bit here I'm actually gonna photograph a fly fishing reel. This is a really nice reel, it's a high-end product, it's like $1,000. So we wanna make this thing look really nice. And maybe one of the ways that we make it look really nice is to use a mirror on the bottom, or maybe we use a polished granite slate, or maybe just a polished black, I'm thinking obsidian, I know that's probably not something you can buy. But you get the idea, the idea is that that surface is a reflecting surface. And a lot of people who photograph shiny things like having a shiny surface. I didn't bring any of that here in the studio today, maybe if we have time we can track something down and do a mirror. But that's all good stuff to practice with. And that's the fun thing with this. There's no time constraints, we can just sit here. You can sit here at home when you guys are doing this and just try stuff. What does it look like with this, or with that? Cool. Great. Maybe one more question before we keep going. And somebody's asking about those LED lights, the $30 LED lights, and you had said earlier that one drawback was the stepped shadow effect. Does this go away if you use diffusion or bounce the light off of a white foam? So, in this case, are you not worried about that because you have your tissue diffusion? Yeah, that's a good point. That stepped shadow effect is only an issue when you're shooting hard light or direct light. 'Cause you basically have all these little LED elements that are spaced maybe over a six-inch length, and so the shadow, only when it's direct light, you get da-da-da-da-da off the background. When you diffuse, that all goes away. It's just soft and creamy. In fact, we saw when we shot our model in the first and second segment, any time we diffuse with a diffusion panel, the light was just glorious and smooth and creamy. Back to those famous three words. You guys are all gonna get sick of it, but diffuse, diffuse, diffuse. And I think this is from Kev Teether, who says, "Is it possible to add dimmer switch "to the light to control the brightness?" Great, yeah, some LEDs allow you to do that, and some of them don't. I have never tried it with these, but I have a dimmer switch, actually, in my garage. I should try it, I never even thought of that with these lights. But I have other LEDs at home that I use in my kitchen, just your regular kitchen lights. And those are LEDs and they are dimmable. So I think it really depends on the manufacturer. I wouldn't say that all LEDs are dimmable, but some are.

Class Description

Getting started in photography and looking to go beyond natural light? Not every piece of equipment needs to hurt your wallet. Join Mike Hagen as he shows you how to create your own do it yourself home studio. He’ll show you to create a $10,000 DIY photography studio on a budget and how to utilize and still create quality looking images. 

 You’ll learn:

  • How to find and create grip equipment by shopping at your local hardware store 
  • How to create a tabletop studio in your home 
  • How to put together and light a portrait studio on a budget.
You don’t have to have your own studio space or purchase thousands of dollars worth of equipment to build your portfolio of images. Join Mike as he gets you expanding your portfolio so you can gain the clients to eventually purchase the gear you want to own!

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

DIY Schematics

Lighting Diagrams

Product List for DIY Home Studio

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes



I was so glad to see Mike! He taught my first DSLR class (Nikon D70 - then Nikon D300). I love his presentation style. It is so clear and he takes care of showing details that get in the way of actually 'doing it'. And I like the way he emphasizes good manners when dealing with a model. Well done Mike!


I've watched this class a few times when it's been on-air and I realized I really need to just buy it. I find Mike so likable and engaging, and I love how he talks you through the shoot while experimenting. Sometimes the experts show you the perfect way to do it the first time but it leaves you not really able to troubleshoot when you are doing it yourself. I already own a lot of gear that his DIY equipment is emulating, but it's really artistically inspiring to see his creative approaches.


This course is fantastic! You don't need a lot of money to start a studio or go on location. Mike shows some great easy hacks anyone can use to create a studio and create professional photographs that will earn you the money to then purchase more pro equipment. I got some great ideas I'll be using on my next shoot!