The Cheapest and Easiest Lightbox Macro Photography

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Have you ever done macro photography? If you have, there is little doubt that your first experiences with it were magnificent. What a cool aspect of photography! If you haven’t, give it a go and experience the world up close and super personal. Some photographers go crazy about it and although I have taken my fair share of macro photos, and have even purchased a dedicated lens for macro photography, I don’t want to spend wads of cash on a photographic style that is not my main niche. That doesn’t mean I don’t strive for the best photos I can get, it just means I need to be a little more creative.

Lightbox macro photography 001 toad

A toad I stumbled upon on a mountain trail.

There are so many gadgets and gizmos that you can buy to help modify light such as flashes, soft boxes, reflectors, etc. Attachments like slide rails can also help you image stack in post-processing. However, I use macro photography simply as a change of pace and to help me keep honing my skills. So, I would like to share a very simple trick that I use that you can to without having to spend a penny. So what is it? Well, let’s first look at an important concept about macro photography so you will get the best results when you are experimenting based on this tutorial.

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Depth of field

The first tip and technique that we need to think about before I reveal my simple method, is depth of field (DoF). Generally, in macro photography, you will be really close to your subject, especially if you use a designated macro lens. If you use a telephoto lens with an extension tube, you may not be as close but due to the focal length you will still have a very narrow depth of field.

So to keep in true macro fashion your best option to increase your depth of field is to increase the f-stop. Thus you will need plenty of light. For my trick, the sun is all you will need. No need to spend any money. If you want to brush up on all the parameters that go into depth of field then please check out this articles: Depth of Field and the Importance Distance to Subject Plays.

The trick is – a white paper bag

So what is the trick? Well, it is a large white paper bag. The best ones I’ve found are the shopping bags that you get from mid-range clothing stores which are made of fairly thin white paper. Yep, that is it, a white paper bag and you have your own lightbox or white box.

Jeffrey Beall

By Jeffrey Beall

Note from the editor: please make sure you ensure the health and safety of the creature you are photographing and release it back into its natural environment after you have taken your photos.

A smaller sack would work too, but obviously, that limits the size of what can be placed inside. Fold your bag up and out the door you go to find, critters, animals, flowers and fauna, or beach treasures.

The white paper is translucent so light will permeate the bag and create a white-box, also known as a lightbox. If you shoot when there is strong sunlight, there will be enough light to give you shadows. And because the light source (the paper bag) is so close to the subject the shadows are extra soft and very pleasing. Thus, you can create fantastic results with something you may already have in your cupboard or closet.

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Working with small critters

The second tip is about the bugs, butterflies or animals that you choose to place in your bag. The anxiety of a living creature is most likely going to be high after you capture them and stick them into a foreign environment. For the sake of the creature, let it calm down. Place it in your paper bag, close it and let the creature calm down for a minute or two.

This will also give you time to get your camera in the proper shooting mode and adjust the settings. From a photography standpoint, giving your subject time to become calm will allow it to slow down or even become still. Thus you will have a good opportunity to get crisp, clear and clean shots. Remember to kindly capture and release any living thing back into their habitat.

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Use exposure compensation

The third tip is another technical one and is about exposure compensation. The bag is white so you need to increase your exposure compensation by a minimum of a plus half a stop to get the best results so that the white bag will appear white.

Remember your camera does not have a brain and will automatically adjust your exposure to 18% grey. The goal is to achieve a nice clean white background, so you need to increase your exposure compensation. If you’re in manual mode make sure that you have adjusted your settings to overexpose your photo (plus side). Even if you completely overexpose parts of the white bag, as long as your subject is properly exposed you will be okay.

The goal is a white background with subtle shadows from the subject. If you need to refresh your understanding of exposure compensation you can check out the following: How to Use Exposure Compensation to Take Control of Your Exposure.

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Other uses for the bag

This cheap and easy lightbox can be used for all kinds of subjects. Even for product photography if you are in a pinch. It works best in strong, full sun, so the light can penetrate the paper and let you keep your ISO settings low.

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The only subjects that this method really doesn’t work for are white subjects (e.g. sun bleached seashells).

Your turn

Now you have few excuses but to get out into the field and get some cool new photos. Please share your white bag photos below along with your comments or question.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Branson Quenzer

has chased bygone eras in a vastly changing Chinese landscape for over a decade. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics, whereby he uses a paradigm of seeing the world through a system of interlinking processes and changes, to explore photography and the world. Please visit his website to see more or contact him through Facebook.

  • frankingram

    You shoot INTO the bag or THRU the bag?

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  • Branson Quenzer

    Hello, good question. You shoot into the bag through the opening. If you need a little more angle on the photo you can cut a slit on each side of the bag and fold back the lip to give you more working room to shoot down on the object more. Share a photo below after your experiment!

  • frankingram

    Thank you, I was confused when I looked at ornate tea pot side shot. thanks again.

  • It is not clear to me how you are using the bag.

    Did you put the insects into the bag and then light the exterior of the bag? Did you put the camera into the bag? I don’t even know what this bag is. No store in New Jersey puts – mid-range or luxury or low-end — puts shopping items in a white paper bag. How thick is the white paper bag?

    Perhaps fewer “here are the result” images and more “here’s what I did” images would help.

    Details, details!!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Hey Khürt,
    “The second tip is about the bugs, butterflies or animals that you choose to place in your bag. “– Yes in the bag.
    “The white paper is translu
    cent so light will permeate the bag and create a white-box, also known as a lightbox. If you shoot when there is strong sunlight, there will be enough light to give you shadows.” — You do not need any extra lighting.

    Generally the camera will not go in the bag– if you did the camera/lens would most likely not be able to focus because you are too close to the subject (unless you had a huge bag).

    The bag is simply a white paper bag– if a Macy’s, etc. doesn’t use paper anymore, check out a doughnut shop, bakery, or you could buy a white paper bag from a craft store.

    The thinner the paper the better thus giving your more light, but even a thicker paper will work. Use what you can find. Re purpose any materials you can!

    Does that help?

    Thanks,

    bQ

  • Aparna

    Very nice tip. I am going to try it. Never thought about it

  • Tim Lowe

    That’s very cool. 🙂

  • Michael_in_TO

    Branson. Thank you for taking time to create this post. Almost not worth it when know-it-all goofs like me chime in! But I do and I know others appreciate you sharing ideas. Kudos.

    Me thinks this is a fun experiment maybe for kids and bugs….but the total lack of control and a flat surface and distance to the background etc make this VERY precarious and rife with the inability to duplicate and or adjust between shots. Great for fun experimentation. Not so great for repeatability.

    If you shoot anything other than creepy-crawlies, you’ll need to review your shot and adjust the lighting; depth of field; angle; focal point; et al. In a paper bag, your whole scene moves with every adjustment and you start from scratch with focus; exposure etc.

    Check this out (which I originally gleaned from following David Hobby at strobist.com) …https://crafts.tutsplus.com/tutorials/make-and-use-a-light-tent-to-take-great-photos-of-your-craft–cms-21256

    This is how I shoot jewelry, hardware -like nuts and bolts (I do a lot of work for an aerospace hardware company), and anything small. I light it with a couple of strobes, but window light would work for many shots. (I work around the clock and I can not depend on sunlight!!)

    Hope you find this a good adder to Branson’s Paper Bag.

  • gopal shro ti

    very nice tip of white bag…I am using surroundings,as they stand getting more DOF getting attn from the subject.

  • Srormin’ Norman

    People forget that f stops are fractions, you don’t actually increase the f stop to increase depth of field. f16 is actually smaller than f8.

  • Srormin’ Norman

    This is my set up, I made the lightbox from canvas on frames acquired from craft shop, cheapest, in Oz, can be gor from K Mart. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ad0c71b4b5f888c5b4ec0ddc2889aedb340d53165379661973584e82bc70df04.jpg

  • Srormin’ Norman

    If anyone is interested this is my set up, I made the lightbox from canvas on frames acquired from craft shop, cheapest, in Oz, can be got from K Mart.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c5d2689cbf670fee1c6bc8b9efd108b1b1d8b2e887943da2cfe7a25a2effc68a.jpg

  • Srormin’ Norman
  • Branson Quenzer

    What a set up, good on ya!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Michael, we are all a little bit goof balls, thats why we geek out about our cameras, haha! All comments are welcome. If you are really needing to control light then more than a wet paper bag on a rainy day is something you definitely invest it.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Sounds like you have some good stuff going on. Care to elaborate with a photo?

  • Branson Quenzer

    Give it a go… put a white paper bag next to your gear and take it out every once in a blue moon. cheap and easy, that’s it.

  • Charlene

    HOW FABULOUS IS THAT!!! Thanks for this amazing tip. There are so many ideas I have now that I know this! You’re the best!

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