Learn How to Make Your Own Light Table for Close-Up Photos

Learn How to Make Your Own Light Table for Close-Up Photos

Using items you probably already have at home, you can make your own light table that’s perfect for close-up photographs, because, let's face it, not all of us have the room or budget for full-size professional light tables.

Light tables are so niche that they’re usually reserved for commercial studios with plenty of products to shoot. However, if you want to dabble in this area at home and without shelling out the cash, why not grab an empty cereal box, a torch, and a knife to make your own back-lit light table. Smaller subjects, such as petals, leaves, and lace fabric make perfect close-up subjects. You don’t even need a macro lens for this; a standard 50mm or similar will be fine, as we’ll be using the minimum focusing distance on the lens to capture detail in the shot.

Gather Your Materials

I used an old cereal box as the frame for the light table, some tracing paper as the translucent surface for my subject, a ruler, pen, and knife to cut the holes, and a torch to shine light inside.

Image shows materials required for making the light table. This includes a cereal box, torch, tracing paper, a pen, a knife and a ruler

Everything you need to make your own light table

Mark Your Holes

Using a marker pen, I drew around the torch on the side of the box and used my ruler to mark out a rectangle on the wider side. I made sure I left gaps around the edge to hide the torch when it was placed inside and give something for the paper to rest on.

A cereal box is being marked with a permanent marker, prior to cutting

Mark your holes on the cereal box with a permanent marker pen to show up easily against distracting designs

Cut Your Sections

With a sharp knife, I cut around the marked-out sections. Be careful to not cut yourself here; a sharp knife is always better than a dull knife, as you don’t have to apply as much pressure. Never place your fingers in line with the blade, and remember not to cut on a surface you don’t want marked in case you slip.

A sharp knife is used to cut the holes out of the cardboard cereal box

A sharp knife is used to cut the holes out of the cardboard cereal box

Place the Paper Down

Lay your box down with the big hole facing up, and put your torch in the hole. Cut your tracing paper to size and lay it down over the box. Now, turn on your torch and reposition until you’re happy with the spread of light. Take this into a darkened room for the full backlit effect.

Place tracing paper over the cut hole in the box and put the torch through the side

Place the torch just inside the cereal box for maximum light spreading. Then put the tracing paper, cut to size, over the top

Manually Focus

Manually adjust the focus ring on the lens until it’s at its minimum focusing distance. On my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, this is 0.45m or 1.5ft. If you have a selection of lenses, choose the one with the highest maximum magnification to fill the frame with your subject.

Adjusting the lens' focus ring until it's at the minimum focusing distance

Adjust the lens' focus ring until it's at the minimum focusing distance (MFD). Different lenses will have different MFDs.

Dial in the Settings

If using a tripod, you can use a narrower aperture and slow your shutter speed down with a low ISO. In manual mode, I used f/8 to produce a long depth of field, retaining sharpness front to back on my leafy subject. Because my Nikon D750 was on a tripod, I didn’t have to worry about camera shake, so I set the shutter speed to 0.5 sec and set ISO 100 to minimize noise. If you’re shooting handheld, use a wider aperture of around f/3.5 and ISO 800 to keep the shutter speed fast enough to get a sharp shot.

An uncropped image of the subject on the light table with settings dialled in

A narrow aperture was used to keep the leaf sharp front to back as some sections curled up towards the camera

Bonus Tip: Crop In

Crop in to your subject to fill the frame

Crop in on your subject in editing software if your lens won't focus close enough. You'll lose some detail but should still look great

If your lens doesn’t focus closely enough to fill the frame with your close-up subject, simply crop in on the image in editing software, but be aware that this will lower the resolution of the final image.
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Fred Teifeld's picture

On a larger scale, I built my own shooting table using PVC pipe, the necessary joints and various colored acrylic depending on what I would be shooting. 48"x48" (About 122cm X 122cm) and 48" X 84" (122cm X 213cm) if I needed a sweep.

I built my own because I didn't really like what was available for the cost and had limited space at the time so having it set up like that made it very much like working with the old Tinker Toys of my childhood.

Very easy to modify as well.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

That's a great idea, Fred. I'm sure there could be some way to make it easy to dismantle and store away, too.

Tony P's picture

I followed the following https://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Lightbox-build-with-Ikea-Lack-table/ to create a light table from a $5 ikea table. It works pretty well, although there is a cost in terms of PVC panels, but when not in use makes pretty good furniture too

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Awesome! Do you have any pictures of your build?