DIY: Building a Light Tent

A light tent is a great way to photograph small objects easily and inexpensively.  It diffuses the light from continuous lights or strobes to create soft and even lighting on a subject.

Click on “more” to read our step by step instructions :)

After successfully making a simple light box (design found on Strobist) for a food photography shoot , Charlie and I wanted to make a more permanent light tent.  We wanted something affordable, portable, durable and collapsible and something we could set-up and dismantle fast and easy. That way if we cook a nice meal that inspires some food photography we can set up and shoot fast while still having time to eat :)  It’s never fun to have a huge mess to clean up after a long photo shoot; a fast cleanup at the end of the day makes for a more enjoyable experience!   The more we simplify the process, the more often we’ll pull out the light tent. (The same goes for food cleanup but I can’t see that happening when Charlie is doing the cooking…) :)

It was important to us to make the light tent using affordable material. We didn’t want to end up in a situation where the final product wasn’t worth the time and money we put in to the project. We did some research (and by we, I mean Charlie) and designed and built a light tent to meet our needs. We used Bill Huber’s light tent design as a starting point and made a few  modifications. We decided to add extra piping around the base of our frame to increase stability, and we sewed a fitted cover for our frame rather than just draping fabric over it.

Materials List:

  • 2 –  1/2 inch – 10 foot S407 PVC plumbing pipes
  • 6 – 1/2 inch – PVC Tees
  • 8 – 1/2 inch –  90 degree PVC Elbows
  • Pipe cutter
  • Glue (not used* explained in step 9)
  • White bed sheet

Part 1: Building The Frame Step-By-Step

1.  First step is to measure and mark the PVC pipe.  You will need to measure for the following:

    • Two 2’6″ pieces
    • Two 2’5″ pieces
    • Seven 1’6” pieces

2.  Once the pipe is measured and marked, it’s time to cut.  Remember to double check your measurements or you might make cutting mistakes (like Charlie! :)) and create more work for yourself!  Align the blade of the pipe cutter to the marking on the pipe and turn the wheel of the cutter to tighten it to the pipe.

3. Twist the pipe cutter around the pipe. After every few turns you’ll need to tighten the wheel and keep turning.  After several turns the pipe will be cut cut nice and smooth :) 

Note: You could use a hacksaw instead of a pipe cutter, it would be faster but the cut won’t be as clean. You would need to sand or file down the burrs. We built our light tent in the living room, so we decided a pipe cutter would be the best option to minimize the mess.

You should end up with a supply of PVC pipes and fittings look something like this:   :)  But the pipe cutting is not done  :(  The four longer pieces need to be cut so the tee connections can be inserted.

4.  Now its time to cut the pipe for the top “Tee Sections”.  Measure, mark, and cut 2 inches off  each end of the 2’5″ pieces. After cutting, insert the tees at the cuts.

Note:  It is important to keep the tees pointing in the same direction when assembling.

5.  To cut for the bottom “tee sections” measure, mark, and cut 2 inches off one end of the  2’6″ pipe.  Insert a tee at the cut.


6.  Attach the elbow pieces to the bottom and top “Tee Sections”. You should end up with four pieces that look like this:

Note:  Make sure, on each piece, that the elbows are pointed in the same direction and are pointing 90 degrees from the direction that the tees are pointing.

7.  Connect the top “tee sections” with two 1’6″ pieces at the tees.  Make sure all the elbows point in the same direction.  You should end up with a piece that looks like this:

8.  Connect the bottom “tee sections” with a 1’6″ piece at the tees. Make sure all the elbows point in the same direction.  You should end up with a piece that looks like this:

9.  Finish the frame by connecting the remaining 1’6″ pieces at the elbows.  You should now have a structure that looks like this:

Note: Originally we were planning to glue most of the the PVC pipes and fittings together (except for the crossbars, as we still wanted to have the ability to pull apart the frame for storage). After assembling our frame for the first time we realized that the pipes fit tightly without glue. In fact, some of the smaller 2 inch pieces are almost impossible to pull apart.  This was a welcome surprise as the glue is so smelly, and in a small apartment we would have had to leave the windows open (which isn’t fun in winter! It was freezing out there!)

Part 2: The Light Tent Cover

To keep things simple, you can just drape white fabric over your light tent frame and start shooting right away. If you can sew, you might want to make a fitted cover for your light tent frame. We used an inexpensive white bed sheet to make our cover.  This made measuring a little difficult because the sewn edges of the sheet were not perfectly straight.  If I were to make another cover I’d prefer to use inexpensive and thin white fabric from a fabric store. Whether you use a bed sheet or new fabric it’s important to use thin fabric, the lower the thread count the better.  Heavier fabric would absorb more light and in turn would require more power to light your subject.

We measured and cut 4 panels of fabric for our light tent (top, back, and 2 sides). You could make a 5 panel cover where the 5th panel would cover the bottom of the frame (this way you could use your light tent to shoot from above by flipping the light tent on its back). To get your fabric measurements, measure the dimensions of  the top and the back of your of your completed frame. Use the back panel measurements to cut one 1 panel and the top panel measurements to cut 3 or 4 panels (because the top, sides, and bottom have the same dimensions. If you use different dimensions for your light tent frame, don’t forget to measure accordingly) . Before cutting the fabric add about a 1/2 inch to each edge that will sewn. This will be your seam allowance. When you’ve measured and cut all your panels, sew them together and hem any unfinished edges.

Tip (if using a bed sheet): When measuring and cutting think about using the sewn edges of the bed sheet for the opening of the finished light tent cover, this way you won’t have to hem unfinished edges.

Completed Light Tent (with a bristol board backdrop):

Once your light tent is set up you’re ready to shoot! For our first photo shoot we used Charlie’s old and affordable SB-28 Nikon Speedlights. The photo below is an example of the type of images we were able to create using a single flash. We are looking forward to improving our close-up photography, so keep checking the blog for updates on how we are doing.

At the end of a long day of shooting, our light tent is easy to disassemble and store :)  We find it easiest to keep each side of the light tent assembled and remove the three  1’6″ crossbars for storage.

The exact dimensions and materials used in making your light tent aren’t important. You can adjust the size or design elements to meet your needs. Our light tent isn’t as fancy as a foldable light tent from a camera store, but the cost savings is huge, and it gets the job done.  :) If you have any light tent design suggestions, we’d love to hear about them.

*Update November 12, 2012:   We found our light tent to be a very useful tool, but sometimes we need larger setup.  Luckily, the light test also doubles as a great background stand.  This is great for us since in our tiny apartment space is limited.  Check out our newest blog post on tabletop photography.


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This entry was posted by Kimberly McDonald.

26 thoughts on “DIY: Building a Light Tent

  1. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing it!
    I have a light box that my husband built for me out of “Safeway” Apple card box, but yours is MUCH nicer as you can take it apart… I may have to try to build one, if you don’t mind! :)

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  2. Very cool. I miss the days when I had the patience but I admire your effort and the results are outstanding. Thanks for sharing the detailed instructions. Recently, I spent some time in a natural, fog-created environment. I thought of you, Charlie and I believe you would have shared my enthusiasm for the brief opportunity. The only thing missing was the very brief sunny period when all the elements combined. Another day.

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    • Thanks Barry :) Your welcome :) I would have loved to be able to photograph some foggy places. As you know Edmonton can be really dry most of the time. Sun or no sun I hoped you grabbed a couple of shots anyway. I will have to check out you site to see where you’ve been lately :) Things have been busy here and its forcing me to step out of my own personal fog and get some work done ;)

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  3. Pingback: Tabletop Reflection Project « CW McDonald Photography

  4. Great tutorial, but your material list is incorrect! Also please correct step 4!

    I am sitting here with two 10′ long pvc pipes, and it is not enough to complete the project. No matter what configuration I try, I come up 4 inches short! I need another pvc pipe to complete the instructions. Please update the tutorial for the benefit of the next crafty individual who may be saved from a second trip to the hardware store.

    In step 4, I believe you meant to say “cut 2 inches off each end of the 2’6″ pieces” not the 2’5″ pieces.

    Thanks!

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    • Ah thanks for pointing that out and we will change step four. We see where the confusion would be and I hope you did not cut your two 2’5″ pieces three times. Yes that would cost you an extra trip to the store or you would have needed to shorten you light tent. I’m surprised that no one has brought that up yet. Sorry for the pain the typo has created.

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      • Oops! That is incorrect. It’s been so long since we made this tent. Its step five that is 2’6″. Each tee adds approximately one inch of length when pushed together completely. So that would bring the length of the 2’5″ to ~2’7″ after the tees where added. Since you only add one tee to the bottom you need a 2’6″ pipe to start with so the top and bottom will equal in length. At any rate its step five that is the 2’6″ pipes and I have fixed the typo. Thanks again for pointing out the mistake Parker :)

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