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Photo hack: make a lightbox for shooting backlit photographs of food

Photo hack: make a lightbox for shooting backlit photographs of food
(Image credit: PhotoPlus Magazine)
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(Image credit: Digital Camera Magazine)

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There are lots of great home photography ideas (opens in new tab), to keep you and your camera busy during the ongoing coronavirus crisis... but photographing food is always a great wayt of keeping your camera clicking when confined indoors. In this hack, we are going to show you how to make your own lightbox, so that you can take backlit shots of translucent shots of fruit...

You have an old slide lightbox at home, which you could use for this trick. If you don’t own one, just do what we’ve done here and backlight a piece of glass – we simply used a shelf from the refrigerator!

The best subjects for this simple project are ones that you can cut very thinly and which are translucent – onions, citrus fruit and cucumbers are good examples. You’ll need to position the camera at a fairly low level to get frame-filling shots of these small subjects with a close-focusing macro lens. If your tripod (opens in new tab) has a center column, reverse it and attach your camera so that it’s hanging between the legs, pointing downwards, then position this directly over your lightbox. Use a remote camera release (opens in new tab) to fire the camera or activate the self-timer instead.

For precise focusing, switch to Live View and manual focus. You 
can always switch back to viewfinder shooting to extend the battery life, but activate the Mirror Lockup function if you do, as this will give sharper results. Alternatively, use your camera tethered to a computer.

1. Makeshift lightbox

(Image credit: PhotoPlus Magazine)
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For a bright, even backlight, we supported the glass refrigerator shelf on stacks of books and DVD cases. We taped white paper to the back of the glass to diffuse the light from a flashgun (opens in new tab) placed underneath it, which was in turn attached to the camera using a coiled remote cord. We held our strobe in place with a beanbag (learn how to make your own beanbag (opens in new tab)).

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2. Camera settings

(Image credit: PhotoPlus Magazine)
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We used a macro lens (opens in new tab) and shot in Manual mode, with a narrow aperture (f/18), low ISO (100), and slow shutter speed (0.3 sec) so the ambient light added a little front illumination. We used flash exposure compensation to increase the flash exposure by 2-3 stops. This meant that the background became bleached-out white, but this ensured that no texture in the paper was visible.  

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3. Final touches

(Image credit: PhotoPlus Magazine)
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To give an artier finish to this picture of a bog-standard red onion, we processed it in Photoshop (opens in new tab), reducing the saturation, brightening the whites and increasing the clarity option, which subtly increases the contrast. We also viewed the image at 100% and cloned out any small fibers and dust spots. A square crop suited the circular subject, before adding a thin black border, ready for printing out.

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End result: Backlit slices of lemon and lime (Image credit: PhotoPlus Magazine)
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Marcus Hawkins
Marcus Hawkins

Marcus has been passionate about photography for more than 25 years. A former editor of our sister publication Digital Camera magazine, he has written about photography and cameras for a wide range of clients, including Canon and Jessops. Last time we checked, Marcus was using a Canon EOD 5D Mark IV.