I am working on a small stop-motion video project, although I am sure this kind of lighting will work for individual still shots as well. I need some kind of broad, bright, continuous lighting that will create nice, soft shadows for a small still life scene that will be used as the setting of a small stop-motion video.

I am sure I could buy some fancy lighting, however I am interested in knowing if and how it is possible to build my own lighting rigs. As I understand it, I'll need some kind of soft box light that is bright enough to illuminate my scene, without being too bright or harsh that it creates hard, dark shadows.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, while not applicable to "DIY", I'd strongly consider a shoot-through umbrella for your project needs, as it's the go-to for soft shadows on a budget/not getting fancy. A lot of these DIY projects will cost nearly as much in materials as an umbrella. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 5:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Umbrellas are CHEAP. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 6:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're going the continuous lighting route then it's worth seeing what you're abient light looks like. If you have a single bulb and white walls that will probably give you "broad bright lighting" and soft shadows. Colour accuracy may suffer if you have energy saving bulbs installed so you might want to swap to tungsten for the duration of the project. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 10:56
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ There is one teeny little problem with tungsten, and that's the whole "it makes plasteline runny" thing. And any modifiers need to be able to stand the heat as well. And while ambient can work, I've found that I need to overload my senses somewhat to really see the effects of light (habituation hides a multitude of sins). Maybe that's a personal deficiency, but it's one I've learned to live with :) \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ "it makes plasteline runny"?? \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 22:00

6 Answers 6


[This answer is a work in progress at the moment -- illustrations will take some time. The illustrations that I have managed to include so far should be good enough to get going with -- the rest are just for clarity. But we're getting closer to a complete answer.]

Umbrellas and scrims (suggested in other answers here) will work, but they leak light all over the place -- you need to add gobos to the mix to control the source. A shoot-through umbrella, in particular, is just a bounce umbrella that leaks -- you still need to control the bounced light.

To make a cheap but effective overhead 40" square cool-light softbox you will need:

  • one (1) swag lamp socket-hook-and-chain kit (très passé for décor, so très cheap as well -- at least in my neck of the woods)

  • four (4) or five (5) 32x40 inch sheets of 3/16- or 1/4-inch white fomecore -- thinner's better for weight, but one sheet should probably be thicker. You actually don't need a full sheet of the thicker stuff -- if you have enough lying around spare from another project for a 15-inch square or can buy a smaller board, you're golden, though two of those squares will make it sturdier. See the narrative for another alternative.

  • three (3) Y-shaped two-to-one Edison socket adapters.

  • enough cheap diffuser material (tissue paper or similar) to cover the front of the box with some overlap to fasten.

  • tape of some sort to hold it together (it's light, you don't need anything very special). A wee bit of PVA glue (Elmer's) wouldn't hurt either.

  • some thread/wire/dental floss/fishing line and a couple of pushpins/thumbtacks (that'd be your high-tech adjustment mechanism)

You can make this as elaborate and professional-looking as you want (black vinyl exterior, reinforced seams, name blazoned boldly on the sides), but the basic McGuyver variant is operationally sound, and should weigh in at about $25 plus the cost of the bulbs. I made a variant of this that had a plywood box at the back and a tilt yoke with a socket for a light spigot, but that's an extra-cost refinement you don't need for a get 'er done application. If it works well enough, it's easy enough and cheap enough to make a better version.

The swag lamp kit is for overhead use with minimum mechanics. The chain will support the socket and lightbox safely without putting undue stress on the cord. You can hang it from the ceiling (if you have spousal or other necessary permission to poke holes in things) or you can hang it from the crossbar of a background stand, a boom, or some jury-rigged frame made of anything sturdier than Tinkertoy rods.

Put the three Y-adapters together -- the design usually allows good electrical contact with the four available sockets spread out evenly. There's no need to be too fussy, you just want to make the source as big as possible in this box design. If you have a "filler" type epoxy available to set the angle permanently, so much the better, but it's not really necessary. Once the bulbs are installed (not yet) you'll have a light spider that's about 16" on the diagonal. Four 40W CFL bulbs will run comfortably (even though the lamp socket is probably only rated for 150W -- keep in mind that rating is not an electrical rating so much as a heat rating, and it's based on a single incandescent bulb). If you're uncomfortable with the 10W electrical overage, you can scale the bulbs back a bit, but don't go too low or you'll lose your ability to "see" the light.

You'll need to make four of these (the whole sheet is a standard 32" by 40" fomecore board): Basic fomecore cutout diagram

Cut completely though on the solid lines. On the dotted lines, cut through one side of the paper and the foam, leaving the other side paper intact. If you cut through, it's no huge disaster -- just tape one side back together. Both of these scoring cuts are on the same side of the board. You may want to run a dull blade (like a butter knife) across the other side to make the bend cleaner. Once the boards are bent, the way they go together is pretty obvious.

Tape the middle sections (the parts that form the 45° reflector) together on the inside. If you want the box to be collapsible for storage you can use velcro and tabs to hold the other bits together and the box, taped at only the middle sections, will store flat. For rough-and-ready, this-is-a-prototype, you can tape the other sections together as well. You should now have a box that looks like this:

Basic box assembled

(This is actually the 32-inch version from the cutting diagram below. It's only 64% of the area of the 40-inch version, and the "mixing box" at the front is much shallower, so the light will be "hotter". It's what I needed, and with minimal control over my arms and hands, making things I don't need using a box cutter is taking an unnecessary risk.)

You can add considerable strength and durability to the basic box by taping the outside of the seams after assembly. To keep the box collapsible, tape them with the parts folded flat against each other, so that the tape goes into the seams.

The square of thicker material (two squares laminated together is better) forms the back of the enclosure. It'll need a hole dead center for the socket, which should be a tight friction fit. That way, when you tilt the box you will also be tilting the bulbs. In a more permanent version, you'd probably want to use something a bit sturdier and more heat-resistant than fomecore, but since this is something you're getting from some nut on the net, it's probably a good idea to test the concept first. There is, in practice, more than enough room between the fomecore and the ballast of the bulbs (the only part that generates any real heat) to prevent melting or a fire hazard, especially if you turn the lights off from time to time. An alternative is to use a couple of squares of 3/16 or 1/4-inch plywood separated by a frame of 5/8 or 3/4 molding around the perimeter:

(Woodworking diagram to come)

It's almost as light, but it's sturdier, more heat-resistant and a whole lot less likely to deform in use. It's also something that takes real tools to make rather than just a box cutter and enthusiasm. If you have the wood and a hole saw, go for it.

The back can be glued or velcroed in place. If you are so inclined, you can line the interior of the box with something shiny and textured (you can do wonders with aluminum foil, a rolling pin and a heavy fabric) but white will do the job just fine. Now it's just a matter of installing the Y-adapter assembly so that the sockets point off to the corners, installing the bulbs in the sockets, and putting the diffuser on the front. The 45° reflector isn't optimal, but there's a sort of "mixing chamber" ahead of the angled part that evens out the lighting well when the diffuser is in place.

Now it's just a matter of hanging the light, turning it on, and steering. Keeping it pointed in the right direction is what the cord and tacks (or tape, if holes are going to be a problem) are all about. You'll probably want to formalize this arrangement for something better than a throw-away. If you do decide on a wooden (or sheet metal with a more industrial-type socket) back, building a tilt yoke is easy -- you just want to include enough of a counterweight at the rear that it balances well on a stand. Again, prove the concept with pocket change before moving on -- I'm just this guy on the web, and even I wouldn't take my advice blindly.

Note that if you adjust the measurements slightly, you can make a 32"-square softbox with a 12"-square back, a 10" reflector section and a 4-1/2" deep "mixing chamber" using only two sheets of fomecore for the four sides, as below:

Cutting diagram for 16 inch box

You can make it any size you want -- as long as the cutout for the reflector section (the triangle that is 12.5" by 17.5" in the 40" design) is in a 5:7 (5 units wide and 7 units long) ratio, that part of the assembled box will be close enough to 45° to satisfy anybody but the most pedantic geometrician.

Either design, by the way, works well with a speedlight poked in through a rectangular hole at the back and a "bare bulb" style diffuser attached if you want to go all Strobist with it. Two diffuser panels separated by a few inches work better in that case, one at the front of the 45° secion and one at the front of the box. And the "waste" triangles (the 5:7 ratio bits that were cut out to make the reflector section) fit perfectly to make the box a table-top lighting solution -- no stands required if you have furniture of the right height.

This picture was taken at f/4 and 1/60s at ISO 200 using the 32-inch version of the softbox: narcisistic self-portrait

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I just have to give a +1 to something this involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 23:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the detailed writeup. I am not entirely certain I fully understand what the final construction is supposed to be/look like, I guess, so I'm looking forward to some additional diagrams and photos. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 2:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Coming, but I am very much restricted in what I can do (and when I can do it) by a nasty neuromotor condition I didn't ask for. (Bitter? Nah, not me...) Sorry for the delay. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 9:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the render! I understand what it is now. Should be a synch to build, thanks much for the very detailed response! Sorry about the hand condition, thats a bummer. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 19:10
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Render? I'll have you know that it's a genuine, craptacular P&S photo with a quick bit of "nobody needs to know how messy my worktable is" magic wand masking applied. (I did notice after taking it that it looked remarkably like a bad 3D render. I do need the box, though, so it wasn't time wasted. And it took me just under an hour in my state -- a regular person ought to be able to get that much done in under half an hour with less than five bucks in the swear jar.) \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 19:26

At its simplest... stick this thing from Ikea on your light and fire away.

I have no idea how well it actually works. However, it's probably quick and cheap enough that you could try it on a lark.

If you want to take a step up, DIYPhotography has a bunch of articles on exactly this topic.

I myself have made a PVC-and-cotton light tent along these lines. It may be suitable for you. The nice thing is you can make it big enough and shaped to your liking. With PVC elbows it's super easy too: just cut your pipe, no drilling or gluing required.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The PVC and cotton light tent is a great idea. I too have built one and find it to be absolutely invaluable. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 19:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've updated my question, as I didn't make it clear before...but I am looking for continuous lighting, rather than flash. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 22:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yup, I got that (though I did mention flash in my answer; that's fixed now). As far as I know, everything here could work with continuous lighting (I use regular incandescent with my light tent). The only gotcha is that you have to worry about heat more. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 22:21

Hang a piece of white cloth in front of your light.

The suggestion of an umbrella is spot-on, and I would recommend that as the first thing to consider. In UK money, it would probably cost about 20 quid. But an even cheaper solution would be to simply hang a handkerchief (or something similar) a few inches in front of your light.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I've updated my question, as I didn't make it clear before...but I am looking for continuous lighting, rather than flash. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 22:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. Good clarification. I imagine the same light modifiers would work? I suggest that cheap LED lamps would be the ideal light sources as they don't get too hot (have to watch the colour, though). \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 10:23

Think outside the (soft) box. :)

When I was in school we had a really simple table top rig that was just 6 to 8 under cabinet kitchen lights from the local home store. Looks like homedespot has something very similar for about $20: http://www.homedepot.com/Kitchen-Kitchen-Lighting-Under-Cabinet-Lighting/h_d1/N-5yc1vZbn5uZ1z1159xZ1z13pe8/R-202024445/h_d2/ProductDisplay?langId=-1&storeId=10051&catalogId=10053

Really simple to assemble them into whatever configuration you want around the perimeter of the table, most common was standing upright on a simple 1x4 brace that was c-clamped to the table edge. Some folks got fancy and hung a longer piece of 2x4 above the table with them on the under side.

The advantage of these lamps are:

  1. low temperature (so they don't spoil food, melt wax models, etc.)
  2. fairly bright (you're using them in the 2-3' range, just like they were designed to be used in the kitchen... not 8' away like a normal ceiling light)
  3. very soft (even without the plastic housing that they come with, a 15" long light source at that range wraps around objects like a point source just can't) add the plastic difusion hoods and it's like an instant cloudy day.
  4. low power (we ran them all off a single power strip under the table, though ours had more like 12' cords than the 5' ones listed there.
  5. cool temps (long hours working on getting just the right shot did not end with you sweating all over your product!)

The "disadvantages" were:

  1. color temperature... fluorescent; as long as you take it into account you'll be ok, but if you mix in any flash you have to filter it.
  2. low power (these are only 15W bulbs here.... even with 8 of them you're only talking 120 watts of light... you're not going to be shooting iso 20 at 1/3000th with this rig.)
  3. it's NOT a single point of light. If you HAVE to have that look... get a strobe... this setup is not for you.
  4. if you have a reflective surface... well... it looks weird to see a bunch of light tubes standing around in the reflection. The best solution for that I saw was a tent (as discussed on several other answers)
  5. warm up time. (the lamps took 2 or 3 minutes to warm up and settle into their final color temperature, if you started shooting too soon, you would end up mis-correcting stuff.)

To get something like a "single softbox" we would simply put all of them (or as many as we needed) side by side by side, and if needed, throw a thin piece of white fabric over them. (I think a few folks got fancy and set a small board on top of the boards holding the lights to hold the fabric out a few inches from the lights.)

Now that was a single rig that was intended to provide lots of flexibility for different folks to shoot all kinds of different things over the years... doesn't sound like you need that, but you could likely adapt some of those tricks to do what you need. Another option would be to look at larger kitchen fluorescent fixtures, though that would require a bit more framing and electrical work. They have a nice (cheap) round unit I'd honestly consider: http://www.homedepot.com/Lighting-Fans-Indoor-Lighting-Industrial-Shop-Lighting-Round-Fluorescents/h_d1/N-5yc1vZbvli/R-202373280/h_d2/ProductDisplay?langId=-1&storeId=10051&catalogId=10053

  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that these lights are fluorescent, doesn't that mean the color will oscillate? I've seen photos that were properly white balanced in the first half, and yellow-green in the second half, as the light color oscillated over the duration of the exposure. Since, as you state, this is only 120 watts of light, I might need to use longer exposures at ISO 100 to keep noise down. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 21:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The amount of light is more likely to oscillate than the color temperature, but yes it can happen with older magnetic ballasts, especially if they're not in good shape. Modern electronic ballasts operate at a 5kHz, so IF there is any fluctuation, you'd have to have a shutter speed of 1/10,000th or faster to see it. :) Which is pretty unlikely as that frequency is faster than the phosphor decay. That said, I forgot a disadvantage... adding it now. \$\endgroup\$
    – cabbey
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 22:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ details on the flicker problem with older balasts on wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluorescent_lamp#Flicker_problems \$\endgroup\$
    – cabbey
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 22:12

The cheapest solution is to use a piece of foam core to bounce the light off of. "Diffused" light just means that your light source is large in comparison to your subject. A large soft box light becomes a point light source when it is moved far from your subject, making the shadows become hard. Imagine looking at the light from your subject's POV. How large does the light source appear to be?

Point your continuous light away from your subject. Then place a piece of white foam core in front of your light source. Allow some distance between the two to allow the light to spread. The foam core will now be your light source. You can control the size of this improvised soft box by changing the size of your foam core. You will need to have this rig very close to your subject.


lots of nice ideas in this topic :D
i have personally used regular desk lamps with A3 white paper sheets as reflectors and diffusers. works allright for small, stationary stuff.

But i have been thinking lately of something like a bedsheet hung on broomsticks and a 500W construction site lamp.
The bedsheet and the broomsticks are free, and the light goes for 5-10€ on a hardware/construction store. 500W is A LOT of light, and the lamp gets really hot, watch out :)

Alternatively, 2 or 3 60'ish watt desk lamps can do the trick, and they are usually free (around the house).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.