Light Tent Comparison – DIY Versus Kit Tents

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A light tent is an invaluable photography tool for shooting smaller objects and items and for achieving even, near-shadowless lighting. In our earlier post, we looked at How to Use a Light Tent for Product-Style Photography, which covered the basics for using and shooting with a light tent. In this post, we will take a look at a head-to-head comparison between buying a light tent kit versus making your own DIY version.

The light tent contenders

In this corner, we have the Square Perfect SP500 Platinum Photo Studio In A Box. This kit contains: two pop-up light tents (one 30 inch cube and one 12 inch cube – 12 inch shown below); two lights with adjustable stands; two 30W, 5400K daylight fluorescent bulbs; a tripod; a carrying case; and two sets of four colored fabric backdrops (white, black, red, and blue) sized for each light tent.

light tent kit, Square Perfect, photography, setup

And in this corner, we have the DIY Light Tent, built using these specifications: Foldable DIY Photography Light Tent. This light tent will be lit by means of two adjustable desk lamps and 60W, 2900K halogen bulbs. The backdrops are made from standard poster board and cut to size. You can purchase daylight-rated light bulbs for your DIY kit as well, but you may need to order them online from a photography or home improvement site.

light tent, DIY, how to, photography

To make this an even test, we will be comparing the 12 inch kit cube against the 12 x 16 x 18 DIY tent. The first set of comparisons will feature each set as described above (the lights that come with each kit), while the second set will put the two up against each other using the same lighting set up for both kits.

Light tent comparison: using their own lights

light tent, product photography, knit bag, photography, how to, light tent

For this first photo-face-off, each light tent will be evaluated using its own lights (daylight fluorescents for the light tent kit and halogen bulbs for the DIY light tent). A major consideration when shooting with a light tent is controlling or choosing the correct white balance to match the lights being used. You want your white backdrop to look white and not have any color tint from the lights used. Read more about that issue in: How to Use a Light Tent for Product-Style Photography.

These shots show SOOC (Straight out of Camera) JPG files for the kit and DIY light tents using auto white balance.The kit’s light gives a cooler (more neutral) look to the background, and the colors of the knit bag are much truer to life, while the DIY lights impart a yellowish hue to the bag and the background. Setting your camera on “Tungsten” white balance for the DIY table lamps may give you a more neutral color, or you can also do a custom white balance using a gray card or even the white backdrop as a test shot. Consult your camera manual for how to perform a custom white balance with your camera.

compare-bag-autoWB-darker

This image is a little dark on purpose so you can see the color tint of the background more easily

If you want perfectly clean whites and neutral blacks, then I would recommend shooting in RAW, which will give you greater flexibility regarding the white balance in post-processing. These images (left) show a comparison of the same image of the bag with a Tungsten white balance setting as compared to the Auto. The Tungsten white balance was selected in post-processing from the RAW image file, or it can also be selected as a white balance preset on the camera when shooting, especially if using JPG format.

Light intensity

As you can see by the image below the DIY lights are considerable less intense (not as bright), which will mean you will either need to use a much longer exposure (shutter speed) to get a correct exposure, or increase your ISO. If working on a tripod (recommended for this type of set up) exposure time shouldn’t be an issue though so just stay at ISO 100 and adjust accordingly.

light tent, product photography, camera, Canon, point and shoot, Canon A4000IS

Light tent comparison: using the same lights

A final test was done to see whether this difference in light was due to the different light bulbs being used or to a difference in the light tents themselves.

light tent, product photography, nail polish

Left image shot at 1/25th – right image at 1/13th

These two shots were taken using the daylight lights from the light tent kit with both the kit tent and the DIY tent (again, in aperture priority, ISO 100, f/8). The kit light tent shot was taken at 1/25th of a second, and the DIY light tent shot was taken at 1/13th of a second, which is a full full stop difference. This means that even with the same lights, the DIY light tent blocked more light than the kit light tent and required longer shutter speeds to shoot the same exposure. The background also came out a little more gray than the kit light tent.

Light tent comparisons: practicalities

There are many other considerations to keep in mind when deciding which kind of light tent would be best for you. Think about how much room you have to devote to gear use and storage, as well as how much the benefits of a pricier kit outweigh the cost investment.

Use of ease

light tent, product photography, knit bag, how to

Notice edges of tent showing in places

The lighting stands that come with the light tent kit have greater range and reach than a typical desk lamp, but they cannot get down as low. This makes it difficult to use the kit lights for shooting with the 12-inch cube sitting on a table top, as the lights are too tall to sit beside it on the table and too short to reach up from the floor. A coffee table seems to be the ideal height. For the desk lamps, they work well when sitting on a table next to the light tent, but they will need to be placed on a stack of boxes or books if shooting from something like a coffee table (as shown earlier).

The 12-inch cube also has a lip around the edge, making the functional shooting space a bit smaller, as you want to avoid the edge appearing in your frame. This is far less of a problem with the 30-inch cube. One workaround is putting a book underneath the backdrop to raise the bottom up. The benefit here of the DIY box is that you can make it the size you want for the subject you have, and there is no lip to shoot around, so you can shoot straight-on at your subject.

Backdrops

Backdrops require careful handling and attention, and the poster board DIY versions are much easier to replace than the fabric ones from the kit. If you are going to be shooting something potentially messy or greasy, consider using a poster board backdrop regardless of which light tent you use.

light tent, how to, photography, fabric, backdrops

Care for your fabric backdrops by ironing out the wrinkles before hanging. If you roll them up on a cardboard tube when you are finished shooting, you should be able to reuse them again without having to iron every time. Keep a lint roller or clear tape on hand to deal with any dust or lint, and save yourself the time of editing it all out in post-processing.

Portability

The light tent kit has the edge in portability, as it comes with its own carrying case. The case is not particularly sturdy or padded, however, so you would not want to travel with it other than carefully placing it in your car (without stacking anything on top of it).

Storage

The DIY light tent folds down flat for easy storage, and you can simply put your two desks lamps back where you borrowed them from, until the next time you are shooting. The light tent kit takes up significantly more space, and the process of folding the light tents back down into themselves is a little complicated and requires some practice, though there are plenty of “how to” videos online. There is also the risk of deformation if you leave the tents stored too long in their folded down state.

Cost

The DIY light tent is the clear winner in the cost department, particularly if you already own a desk lamp or two, which are the priciest elements. The cardboard box and tissue paper should not set you back more than about five dollars. The light tent kit is currently listed at $143, a very discounted price on Amazon, which makes it reasonable to consider as an investment.

Final verdict: which light tent to choose?

There are a lot of different variables to consider when making the final choice about whether a DIY light tent will serve your needs or whether you should invest in a light tent kit. If you are looking at exploring what a light tent can do and whether it would be useful, then definitely build your own to experiment with. Keep the white balance in mind and shoot in RAW. But if you are shooting JPG, remember to adjust the white balance setting when shooting by using a preset or doing a custom white balance.

If you know that you will be consistently shooting a lot of this style of shots, perhaps for selling jewelry or crafts online or for displaying directions for your own DIY projects on a blog, then you should consider investing in a light tent kit. The time savings of having bulbs that match your white balance is considerable if you are doing a lot of light tent photography. You will also have significant flexibility with a kit that offers different sizes of light tents and a better range of motion and height for the lights and light stands.

Do you shoot with a light tent? Do you prefer a light tent kit or a DIY version? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment 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.

  • Deborah

    I have a DIY version of a Light Tent. I use foam core boards, for the sides, poster board for the backdrop, and artist vellum paper for the top if I need diffusion on the top. I use one clamp light with a Daylight bulb to light the background, and my Speedlight(s) to light my subject.
    Many times I’ve thought of making a cardboard box like you’ve shown, or purchase a Light Tent, but I never have. I’m making do with the set-up I have and am content.

  • ELLIOT STERN

    Thanks for the article on Light Tents. I will pass it on to my students. I have pretty much every conceivable tent, table, light box, etc for our indoor / outdoor macro classes and field trips. I have been trying to locate a tent that is lit from the sides but with the exception for where the light would shine through i want the tent to be black as opposed to white all around. There was one advertised somewhere but it is always on back order and I could not find anything else like it. I guess I could try to make one but I am not good at that.

    All of our Light Tents are manufactured by different companies. I don’t have the time or ability to make any of these DYI projects. We use stuff from the same manufacturer usually to maintain white balance settings.

    ELLIOT STERN
    Photography Educators At Work
    5712895538
    http://www.elliotpaulstern.me
    elliotpaulstern@me.com

  • I’ve done the DIY one before. Cardbox board with tracing paper on the side and top.Then used some white card stock for the background. Worked well, but couldnt really store it well. Then went to a light tent that pops up and can be folded up relatively small. nicer for smaller things but I find that because of the material I have to use heavier material for the base/background and then I usually have to secure it to table

  • Andrew

    My only problem with your comparison is that you used tissue paper, instead of getting rip-stop nylon or similar lighting silk material. Tissue paper does not transmit as much light as a fabric or polyethylene “gel” filter. If you make your DIY box with those materials, you’ll see much less of a difference between. The two systems.

  • Did you really mean to put your phone number and personal email in the comment? FYI web trolls go over the entire web looking for just that information and then you get added to every spam and call list possible. So unless you want a lot of junk email and unsolicited phone calls I’d really recommend being careful where you put those. I don’t even have them on my own website for this reason I have a contact form.

  • Lauchlan Toal

    Great comparison, thanks for taking the time to do this Katie. Also, excellent storage tips for the cloth backdrops – I’ve never thought to iron them but that will definitely save a lot of post-processing time.

    Cheers!

  • Jared Lawson

    Thanks for sharing…I am always up for helping other photographers out with tips like these. If you are looking to get started with product or portrait photography – definitely invest in the right lighting equipment from the start and save yourself time and a lot of money. California Portrait Photographer

  • There is good argument for both the diy and commercial solutions and I have used both in my work. For the DIY approach it can be adapted so easily to fit your needs I have used a very large gazebo and tents and I recently used a white play parchute to photograph a car. and what about using your flash gun bouncing the light off reflectors made from emergency foil blankets or white polystyrene. Also using which ever light tent you use outside using natural diffused sun light. I do have a commercial version as well. which I have used on many occasions, but I do not fold it up when I am just storing it, I just flatten it and stand it behind the wardrobe. That way it does not distort. I could go on forever, but I think the main point here is to think out out of the box (pardon the pun) and experiment.

  • poen

    I agree with everything you’ve said, but I can’t keep forking out
    hundreds of dollars for programs like this. It’s just not the economy to
    be doing so these days. Wish I could, but I can’t.

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  • fari

    Thank you very much., You are a good writer.

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  • darvin

    “I’m sure it’s happened to you at some point or other, a drive dies *click bzzt click bzzt click*”

    I’m guessing this doesn’t help if there are mechanical problems with the hard drive?

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  • MikeW

    Would a 40″ tent be as good for shooting, say, a 12″ object as a 20″ would? If not, why not? Thanks.

  • Katie McEnaney

    The biggest concern with light tents and size is making sure that you have room to maneuver and to avoid catching the edges of the tent in your image. A larger tent makes it easier to shoot larger objects (like your 12″ example), which is what I would recommend in this case.

  • PIXELFLUX

    I just bought a 800mm light tent the other day for ~40 bucks. I already own two 600EX-RT flashes with a transmitter, so it really was a no-brainer for me to get the cheap-o tent with backdrops instead of faffing about with DIY solutions. They really are dirt-cheap these days if you look around and especially if you own your own lights.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    Gee, this wasn’t biased. It would be obvious that a homemade
    light tent would use a different material than a mass produced light tent.
    Therefore is it fair to use the same exact settings for comparison. NO! But
    they went ahead and did it anyway. That takes away any possible creditability
    of this article in my opinion.

    If you want to be creditable show the same results with the varying settings.
    Tell the viewer what materials were used and what lighting was used in each. I
    have seen better results from homemade equipment then from mass produced.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    Really? It has a carring case. Well if you make a light box your incapable of making a carring case? Maybe Katie doesn’t have skills or common sense required for home projects. That doesn’t mean no one else does.

  • Lorri A

    I made a lightbox for a friend who wants to photograph all her collectables for inheritance purposes. Cardboard box, white card for the background and base. Baking paper for the sides. I used a small LED torch on the left side for lighting, this is the result I got with doing a test shoot before giving it to her. I guess it all depends on what you’re needing to shoot. This was sufficient for her needs.

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