How to Use a Light Tent for Small Product Photography

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Many crafters, cooks, and artists want to take high quality photographs of their own creations, whether to feature them in a blog post, offer them for sale online, or just share them with friends. The trick to getting these kinds of product shots easily and reliably is to use a light tent. This article will cover the fundamentals of shooting with a light tent to help you capture bright, high quality product photographs every time.

McEnaney-light-tent-roses-new-vase

What is a Light Tent?

A light tent or light box is a contraption with translucent sides that diffuses light coming from multiple sources. This allows for even, nearly shadow-less lighting against a simple, solid background.

light tent, photography, DIY, product photography

You can purchase a light tent as part of a kit or you can build your own DIY light tent. If you choose to purchase a light tent kit, it will usually come with one or more light tents, two light bulbs, two light stands, a tripod, and fabric backdrops in various colors. If you build your own light tent, you will also need to purchase two posable light sources, light bulbs, and poster board or fabric for the backdrops. Unsure of which to choose? In a future article I will offer a head-to-head comparison of a popular light tent kit and a DIY tent.

Shooting with a Light Tent

The standard set-up for light tent photography is to place the tent on some kind of table or end table, with the light sources directly opposite each other on each side and the tripod centered in front. Placing the tent up on a table makes it easier to see and maneuver, as well as easier to use your tripod for shooting.

The backdrop is attached at the top inside the tent and should fall freely down into a gentle curve at the back and then across the bottom of the tent. You want to be sure that you backdrop is clean and free of debris and wrinkles. If using a fabric backdrop, be sure to iron it for a completely smooth look. (If you roll your backdrops up on a cardboard tube after shooting, you should be able to keep them wrinkle-free for next time.) Consider keeping a lint roller or small blower handy for dealing with the inevitable dust and debris.

light tent, photography, how to, product photography

Now you are ready to start photographing! Place your subject carefully inside the tent, and start with it in the exact center. Moving your subject forward or backwards relative to the light can change the lighting and shadows. Experiment to get the look you want. You can also experiment with pointing the lights slightly at an angle, rather than straight on at the tent. Be sure to leave space between your subject and the walls, so that you can zoom in or position your camera to see only the backdrop and not any edges.

Consider the ambient lighting and adjust as needed. I have found very little difference between shooting midday in diffused indoor light and shooting at night with only the lights themselves for light. You do want to avoid direct sunlight shining in or at your tent, as it will be difficult to balance such a powerful light source.

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Camera Set-up

Set your camera securely on the tripod and use either the 2-second timer or a remote shutter release to ensure that you tripod remains steady. (If you are using a lens with image stabilization, vibration reduction, or vibration control, turn the switch to off.) The tripod will allow you to use longer shutter speeds with crisp results.

Begin by shooting in aperture priority mode with an ISO of 100 (or the lowest value for your camera). Choose your aperture based on the look that you want to achieve in the image (a wide aperture like f/1.8 for a narrow depth of field and a lot of blur or a narrow aperture like f/22 for a wide depth of field and crisp focus across the entire subject). Food photographs often utilize wide apertures and selective blur to make food look more appealing, while product shots of crafts and handmade goods look best with a narrow aperture to keep the entire item into focus. IF you want to avoid blur in the foreground (the bit directly in front of your object) – set your focus using the part of your subject that is closest to the camera.

Consider also using exposure compensation to shoot a series of three shots, bracketed at -1, 0, and +1 exposure, so you can see which gives you the best results. (For white backgrounds, you may get better results around +1; while for black backgrounds, you will get better results around -1. If a full stop is too dark or too light, try a half or a third of a stop.)

light tent photography, exposure compensation, camera lens, Tamron, Tamron 18-270mm, light tent, product photography

Post-Processing Considerations

It can be difficult to get the background of your shots perfectly white or perfectly black while also keeping your subject properly exposed. In those situations, you may want to do some additional post-processing to ensure that your whites stay white and your blacks stay black. The following description relies on tools available in Adobe Photoshop, but you should be able to do many of these same procedures using other software products.

If you are shooting in RAW, adjust the white balance of your image first so that your whites look white and not yellow. Most light bulbs will list the color temperature of the light they produce, which you can use as a guide for setting the white balance. You can also set the white balance manually by shooting a white card and calibrating from that image (or if you know your background is pure white or black use the color picker in the RAW processor to neutalize any tint).

Use your histogram as a guide when processing. While standard photography advice recommends against having your histogram touch the edges of the scale (clipping), this is what you want to achieve in product shots. Clipping your background (whether on the left for black, or on the right for white) will create an entirely homogenous look to your background and focus all attention on your subject.

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In Photoshop you can use the Levels tool to adjust either end of the histogram. Holding down the Alt (Option for Mac) key while adjusting the sliders allows you to see which areas of the photograph are being clipped, as shown in the image above. Move the slider in towards the center until the background is uniformly clipped but the subject is not. If your subject is too affected by this action, then you may need to scale back your adjustment.

If you are having trouble achieving a uniformly white background on your product shots, consider adding a thin border to your final image. While a not-quite-white background, on a shot displayed against a pure white background on a web page runs the risk of looking dingy. However, a slightly grey background with a black border can make the background shade appear intentional.

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Cheers! Do you use a light tent in your photography? Have a helpful tip for shooting with one? Share your thoughts and photographs in the comments below.

McEnaney-roses-closeup

Here’s a final image from the vase of flowers in the first image at the top of the article.

For more on product photography check these out:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Katie McEnaney

is an educator and photographer from Madison, Wisconsin. Read more tips on her blog, Boost Your Photography. Her first eBook, Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR, is now available for Kindle on Amazon.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much for this post. Greatly appreciated.

  • Kangaroo Be Stoned

    No need for a light tent. All you need are three pieces of white foam core to construct a light box (create hinges), wrapping paper with a white backside, a 60″ umbrella with a flash, and a reflector. Example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jltucker/12808701603/

    Or, a sheet of black fabric on the back of the light box, a sheet of black glass, and a umbrella with flash combined with a reflector. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jltucker/12616328574/

  • Kangaroo Be Stoned

    lol. You can’t even delete comments entirely with Disqus. I wanted to get rid of the thumbnails. Oh, well. You get my drift.

  • Katie McEnaney

    There are definitely a variety of options available, and you’ll notice I mention both DIY and purchased options. (In fact, the next post in this series this week will do a head-to-head comparison of the two; stay tuned.)

  • Steve

    Thats great news. Im very much newby and Id like to take some close-ups
    with a light tent of cycling gear (I guess black and white abstract).
    Looking forward to your next posts. and Thank you!

  • marius2die4

    I believe that is not ok to use the lens at f22, mostly kit lens, because of the diffraction effect. In this case, the damaging effects of diffraction can not be repaired or, in another words, ruin more than help.
    Also, if mirror lock up exist, you should to use. About 3 second should be enough.

  • Kangaroo Be Stoned

    Looking forward to the comparison!

  • Jared Lawson

    Light tents are an excellent accessory for anyone who shoots a large amount of product photography. Probably not worth the investment if you don’t consistently have a purpose – you could make your DIY light tent if you only need to take 1-2 images California Photographer

  • Alan

    Great article and I just ordered a light tent kit ($30) from eBay, small investment but can practice a lot. Thanks

  • Vinay Bavdekar

    What is the wattage of the light bulbs (equivalent to an incandescent light bulb), that you would recommend for light tent photography?

  • Junie

    Thanks for that – any tips please on how to photograph reflective surfaces eg silver spoons without getting the camera/phtographer reflected in the bowl?

  • Katie McEnaney

    The key thing with light tents is to pay attention to the color temperature of the lights used (in K). The next post in this series, which comes out in a few days, will discuss the specifics of the lights used for both DIY and kit tents.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Great! Look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Great question and always tricky. Many light tents come with a front cover that you can use that has only a small slit in it for the camera, but you may still end up with a camera reflection. The key is really angles and perspective to find one that works best for your subject and situation.

  • Vinay Bavdekar

    I think you misunderstood my question. What I intended to ask was are 2 100W equivalent lamps (23W CFL lamps) sufficient or should we go for higher power lamps, e.q. 30 W CFLs?

  • ColininOz

    I use an older tripod with a long arm attached and black thread to suspend objects against a black background in a light tent. Makes clearing off the threads easier in post. Absolute calm air required unless some random rotation can be tolerated or effective, as in this shot.

  • Katie McEnaney

    Really do look like they are just floating, cool!

  • Katie McEnaney

    Understood. If you read the second post in this series (now out https://digital-photography-school.com/light-tent-comparison-diy-versus-kit-tents ) it details which lights I did use. A higher wattage would help you get more light in the scene, but if you are using a tripod then totally amount of light is less of an issue. As I mentioned before, the more important thing to worry about is the color temperature and how to adjust your white balance to match.

  • Katie McEnaney

    The comparison post is now live, if you haven’t seen it yet: https://digital-photography-school.com/light-tent-comparison-diy-versus-kit-tents

  • Indian

    Can we use acrylic sheet or Back light vinyl sheet Back light flex insted of Tissue Paper. If no, why not?

  • Katie McEnaney

    There are many options available. Tissue paper works well and is inexpensive and easy to obtain, which is why it was the material chosen for this example.

  • Kangaroo Be Stoned

    Thanks. I wasn’t referring to a light tent in my original post per se, but instead a light “box.” This allows use of an external flash and a modifier. Using those would eliminate every problem outlined in the comparison, including the issue with ambient light and white balance. By using a flash, you can over power the ambient light. WB issues still occur, mind you, but less so.

  • Handy tips, thanks for the post. Any chance you do any light tent work with bigger products? Using 4-6 foot tents can be a real challenge, and it’d be fantastic to hear how more experienced photographers light larger items.

  • Dap

    Hi, I want to click the sunglasses photograph so pls send me the procedure because when i click the photograph its showing lights on glasses which I dont want and I dont want blur on sunglasses from any angle I’m using nikon SLR D3200. Please send my solution on my email id dap.paul@gmail.com

  • Leopatrick

    Nice review on the usage of the light tents and lighting on the effect of the product images. Nice illustrations too. I bought product photography kit from backdropsource, the results are very nice as discussed here. Thanks

    http://www.backdropsource.com/product-photography-kits

  • Shayne

    I was thinking about making one of these without a bottom. This way I could use it outside in my garden by setting it on top of flowers. It would cut down on the wind and defuse the light at the same time. Still in the planning stages though.

  • Product Photography

    Using a light tent will only get you so far in terms of quality. For the best results leave it up to the professionals like http://affordableproductphoto.com/ because companies like this is all they do. That is why you have a certain health problem you go to a specialist that studies and treats that certain problem so they are the best.

  • Alii

    PIXELIO will help you to create professional product photography, pack shot, 360 degree movie & much more! What you need is: PIXELIO + your smartphone + free app.
    Check the results: https://youtu.be/3MmgGDk_Zd0

  • K.G

    You didn’t speak about the lighting source, that’s how I found your page as I just bought a shooting tent.

  • Chris Mollo

    Much easier just to buy a real one on eBay for $10.

  • Chris Mollo

    That’s fine if you have the money to pay someone else to do it. Many of us don’t want to pay someone else.

  • Nice review on the usage of the light tents and perfect lighting on the effect of the product photos.

  • Jessica Parker

    nice blog….i like it….

  • If a image loose light then its loose everything if anyone follow your process then it will never loose light the every images should be beautiful.

  • Glorious Article For every Product Photographer.Nowadays Product photography is the great Discussing topic in the world.So Remember It- We don’t care how awesome your products are if the pictures are not good Edit, People are not buying it ! Product White Background create a big Traffic sell on E-Commerce .We believe that good lighting and correct exposure alleviates the need for heavy Photoshop editing. Proper illumination will soften skin naturally and make the subject look good.

    As a graphic designer producing product photographs, my responsibilities exceed that of a mere photographer. Indeed, lighting and imaging are very important, but so is preparing the image in a manner that my customer can use. @Katie McEnaney Thanks a lot for submitting your important Article

  • Great article! I just bought a very inexpensive light tent kit from eBay and find this very useful.

  • Thanks for share the beautiful lighting Tips & Tutorials for Small Product Photography……i also follow the tutorial…..

  • In the photo to your right our graphic design uses tools to create an effect to enhance the subject. Imagine this is a photo you took while on holiday in the UK and you would like to use it as your profile picture on social media – you work as a travel agent and seasoned traveler.

  • Dona Gilbert

    Actually, this is a wonderful way of explaining how to use a light tent for small product photography. I have seen many other methods which explain the same thing, but this time I felt so impressed on using a light tent for small product. When I need any support, I seek from one of the best photo editing websites – Photo Editing India (http://www.photoeditingindia.com).

  • Thank you for sharing the excellent post about how to Use a Light Tent for Small Product Photography . you helped me to gain more information on the recent updates.
    http://www.99techpost.com/write-for-us-on-seo-tech-web-apps-to-submit-guest-post/

  • Lucinda Twining

    just got a small light box but it only has a light strip across the top front lip how can i do this

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