Small PCV Backdrop

Originally uploaded by Paweł Spychalski

Hands down, most of the traffic coming to this site is because of my DIY projects. Clearly a lot of people are trying to save money and use PVC for their equipment needs. If this includes you, there is another Flickr group you should check out (and contribute to) – Tinker Tubes. More specialized than the DIYPhotographyNet group, this one is dedicated to things people make with PVC. Check it out, I think it is worthwhile.

To that end, I owe all my Flickr friends an apology. I have been out of the loop in a bunch of those groups for a long time. Heck, I was neglecting the entries to this blog as well. I pledge that I will become re-engaged. I won’t be as prolific as I have been in the past, but I am dedicating time each week to shooting new pics, trying out new techniques, building new gear, testing new gear and software, and all the things you like about my site and my posts. But this time there will be balance between that and my life. Enjoy, I know I will.

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Shooting Highly Reflective Surfaces

WMD - Super Fatman Product Photo
I have scored a few product shoots because of my demonstrated ability to take good pictures of glass objects. Truth be told however, there really isn’t a whole lot to it.

First step is to have the proper environment to shoot in. For me that means using my oversized DIY PVC Light Tent. It is big enough that the light is distributed really well within. For added measure, when I was building it and then making the second revision, I made sure that the fabric would cover any of the PVC so it would not show up as a reflection in the objects I was shooting.

Second step is, obviously, lighting it. When shooting in the big tent, I tend to go between two different placements for my lights. I use a pair of 27W, 5500K compact fluorescents in standard 10″ clamp light fixtures I got at Home Depot. Sometimes I will place them slightly ahead of center on either side of the tent. Other times I will put them overhead, either facing directly into the tent or bouncing the light off the rafters overhead (sounds goofy, but it works). I take a couple of shots, see how they look, and then readjust as necessary. Most of the time I can get a good idea of how the lights are working from peeking through the viewfinder and then adjusting.

I generally do one or two shots in auto mode to get some idea of the f-stop and exposure ratio, then start working from there. As you can see from the EXIF for the shot above, it can be fairly fast. But again, that depends on how you light it.

One key I have been working on is how to keep the camera reflection from appearing in the object. I account for this in a couple of ways:
1) The opening in my front curtain is only large enough to let the lens through.
2) I do not use any sort of lens hood.
3) When practical, I elevate above the object and shoot downward at an angle. Straight on shots are the worst for showing the camera lens, and I try to avoid this at all costs.
4) When 4 isn’t practical, I try to get any opaque objects on the surface of the object to be in the forefront.
5) When 3 and 4 don’t work, I just deal with the fact that the reflection is part of the image.

These things must be working, as I continue to get product shot engagements, and several specifically indicate it is because of my work with highly reflective surfaces.

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Corona Drinking Glass from recycled bottle - After slight retouching (by Chester Bullock)
I had an occasion where I needed to light an object from underneath (the glass of beer in the pic above). I wrestled with it for some time, and then came up with what turned out to be a pretty easy solution.

Using a flat fluorescent light fixture I picked up at Home Depot, and a piece of black craft foam, and my large DIY light tent with glass riser, I was able to get the photo above. I cut a hole in the black craft foam that was roughly the same size as the base of the glass. I then put my black backdrop into the light tent, set the fluorescent light on my workbench inside the light tent, and then placed the craft foam on top of that so no light escaped except through the hole I had created. From there I inserted my glass sheet to have a riser (which was conveniently about an inch higher than the surface of the fluorescent light), filled the drinking glass with beer, and turned on the light. This photo did not require any additional lighting other than the fluorescent underneath the product. And by using the pane of glass as a riser, a nice reflection appeared as well.

That’s all there is to it, hope it works for you if you need some illumination from underneath on an object.

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Self Portrait
This self portrait was taken using a homemade PVC/ Lightstand backdrop holder. I took the original idea from Martin Kimeldorf and, as usual, did a little of my own thing with it. The smaller images in this article can be clicked on to see larger versions.

PVC/ Lightstand Backdrop PartsThe parts list for this is pretty easy. Two 2′ sections of 1/2″ PVC pipe (Schedule 40, Home Depot has pre-cut 2′ lengths for about $0.79ea), one 6″ section of 1/2″ PVC pipe (if you don’t have any laying around, get another 2′ section), one 1/2″ Sch40 T, one 36″x1/2″ wooden dowel, one lightstand, one backdrop, and two or three clips or clamps (simple binder clips would even work). I found that, with my particular lightstand, the 1/2″ PVC slipped right over the top and fit quite nicely. I then put the T on, put the 2′ sections of PVC into the T, and then inserted the wooden dowel to keep the PVC from sagging. Once all that was on, I draped the backdrop over the pipe, clipped it with the clamps, and was all done.

PVC/ Light Stand Backdrop Holder Overall I was pleased with how well it worked, and even more impressed by it’s portability and the ease with which it broke down. One con is that it takes up one of the two lightstands I have, but I have been meaning to get more anyway. Just in case I need a wider backdrop, I purchased two 1/2″ couplers and two extra 2′ sticks of PVC, along with an extra dowel. That will give me a lot of coverage should I need it, say for a group or something. Now I need to try making my own backdrops. If you have any nifty DIY things I should try, leave a comment or send me an email.

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Self Portrait

Self Portrait
Yesterday I built a PVC backdrop holder that also uses a light stand. The full writeup will come next Monday. But after I built it, I needed to test it. Since I was all alone at my home in Lakewood, I became the guinea pig. I am not sure if it is true for all photographers, but I personally don’t like being in photos. That’s why I am always behind the camera. Well, after taking the indoor shots with the backdrop stand (which worked like a charm), I decided to go outside and shoot one that might be good for my Facebook, Zenfolio, and whatever other places I have a photo online. As I was going through them in Lightroom, one caught my eye. When I brought it up on the second monitor, in “Fill” mode, I really liked the crop. I tweaked it a little, and voila, a self portrait I actually like. I won’t tell you how many shots I took (north of 30), it all felt pretty vain actually. But the result is one I like, and I think it will be suitable for other things in the future.

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PVC Backdrop Holder by Martin Kimeldorf
I decided last week that it is time for me to make a backdrop holder. I had a shoot recently where I wasn’t terribly happy with the results, so I knew I needed a proper backdrop holder. As luck would have it, I found some good tutorials on how to make quality light and backdrop stands. Also found a nifty tutorial on making your own muslin backdrops. I have some headshots to do tomorrow, so I will definitely be building some of this today. Check back next week to see which one(s) I build, and how well I think they work.

  • Kimeldorf system which uses PVC and a light stand. I like it, but may not build it since I will need both of my light stands tomorrow. There is also a followup article that has some improvements to the original design. Very portable.
  • Jeff Geerling design, which would be good at home, but not sure about portability.
  • Brian Zimmerman’s design which seems designed for portability (longest length of pipe is 5′), but also has modifications for lighting. Also shows how he made a backdrop. Certainly the most complete system of the ones I am linking to. Might also take the longest to build, depending on the mods you use. VERY cool though, and I plan to build this one at some point, just not in time for tomorrow.
  • Plunger head version that uses telescoping paint poles, plunger heads, and misc clamps. Not quite suitable for my needs, but possibly workable for you. Worth looking at anyway.
  • David Thurman’s design is for people who already have poles and just need to build a base to put the poles in (kind of like the base for an umbrella on a patio table or something). Not at all applicable to my situation, but still useful for some people.
  • Create your own muslin backdrop – I really like this tutorial and will use it at some point. Already have something I plan to use tomorrow though.

I also want to mention that I attended a Colorado Strobist meetup last night, and the guest speaker was none other than David Tejada. I have been following his work for quite some time now, and was very pleased to be able to meet him in person. His work is definitely an inspiration to me, and it was great to hear how he setup certain shots. He also agreed to speak at my daughters high school photography class. I am sure the kids will be excited about this. If you haven’t heard of him, check out his work – it will help you think creatively on your next shoot.

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DIY Monday – Portable PVC Light Tent

DIY Light Tent
Once I completed my very large PVC Light Tent, I was pretty certain I would need a portable one. The large one could be portable, but would likely be a pain to cart around. And I was right – just last week someone asked me to come to their location and do some product photos. That shoot should be sometime this week, so I took some time this past weekend and made a portable light tent out of PVC pipe.

Portable Light Tent I could have gone with the same plans I used for the larger one, but instead opted to try Bill Huber’s design. It is much simpler than the large one, with fewer pieces, increasing the portability. I didn’t really vary mine much from his, except that I used regular 90° elbows, and I didn’t glue any joints together. Not gluing allows me to break the pieces down for maximum portability.

DIY Portable Light Tent When I went to the craft store to locate suitable heavy paper, I came across a higher quality posterboard that is double sided. Each piece measures 22″ in width, which is perfect for the width of this box. By using this posterboard, I have 8 different colors of backdrop – 2 shades of blue, purple, red, green, yellow, gold and silver. Following Bill’s trick of using a sheet metal or wood screw on the crossbar (drill pilot holes first before putting the screws in) and punching holes in the top of the posterboard, you get a VERY convenient method to hang the backdrops with. This also gives you added versatility. You can put the backdrop inside the frame and cover the tent with a sheet, or you can hang the backdrop so it is outside the frame. You might ask when you would need to do this, and an immediate example I can think of is a spherical object that reflects everything.

P1254546 As the photos on Bill’s site attest, you can get some great results from this. I haven’t fully tested it yet, but will be experimenting a lot with light positioning, etc. when I do my product shoot in Highlands Ranch later this week. This is a very inexpensive piece of equipment though, and I anticipate using it quite a bit. I’ll be sure to post pics after the shoot.

Also, I’d love to see some other designs for light tents, as well as any other DIY projects you might think of. And you can click on any of the thumbnails in this article to see a larger version.

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DIY Monday – PVC Light Tent, Part II

Light tent with cotton/ polyurethane laminate screens
For my PVC Light Tent, I was originally using posterboard for a backdrop and some old white sheets for the “curtains”. Last week I went to a local fabric shop (Denver Fabrics, not the same as the Denver Fabrics online – long story) looking for some white ripstop nylon or sport nylon, along with black and white muslin. All they had was the white muslin. So I looked around the store a bit, and found some black poly poplin suitable for a backdrop. And then I found some cotton with a polyurethane laminate that is intended for people making their own baby diapers. It seemed suitable to me, so I got enough of it to make side and top curtains for the tent. I also got some velcro to use as attachment points.

Once home, I placed velcro squares along the top left and right PVC pipes to hold the side curtains up. I allowed for a little bit of crossover to the lateral pipes, in order to make sure the vertical PVC was not visible in any reflections. I had already had the cotton laminate cut to the rough dimensions I needed, so I hung one corner up, attached velcro in the remaining appropriate places, and trimmed the excess off the bottom. Did the same on the other side, then the top and was all done with the curtains. Had enough excess that I should be able to use the material in a larger softbox I am planning to build.

After this I mounted additional velcro to hold the backdrops up, and applied velcro to the backdrop material (the black poplin and white muslin). After a few test shots, I decided to add the front curtain, and cut a large + in the front curtain to put my lens through. All in all, things have worked pretty well in there. Here is a sample photo.

Hooray Beer

I still need to work out lighting and white balance, but with a little bit of time, those should work out pretty easily. More difficult is going to be perfecting the underlighting of objects to really give them some pop. I will be experimenting with that this week.

Oh, some people have been asking about these beer bottle glasses I am taking photos of. They will be on sale soon, and I’ll be sure to post a link when they are. Cheers.

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Besides being a photographer, I am also a website developer and consultant here in Colorado. It is a lot of fun for me when I get a project where I can use my skills from both areas. Such is the case this week, where I am working on a couple of websites for a Boulder glassblower. My existing light tent was not adequate for this project (no underlighting), so I set out to build a new one out of PVC. This isn’t rocket science, and a lot of people have done it, but I needed mine to be just a little bit different. I decided I was going to shoot the glass items on top of a glass riser, with a fluorescent light fixture underneath. To that end, I set of for Home Depot.

Fluorescent Light Fixture Shopping list:
– 8 1/2″ PVC Side Outlet 90’s
– 4 1/2″ PVC T’s
– 8 1/2″ PVC Male Threaded – Slip adapters
– 4 10′ x 1/2″ PVC Pipe
– 1 Low profile fluorescent light fixture
– 6′ 14/3, rubber coated extension cord (just cord, no ends)
– 15A Outlet Plug
– 1 18″x36″x3/16″ plate glass

Riser brackets Why I bought some of this stuff:
– The threaded male / slip adapters were because the side outlet 90’s have one outlet that is threaded. Instead of spending the time with a Dremel removing the threads, I just spent a few cents on the adapter and called it done.
– Fluorescent fixture and associated cord, plug was purchased because the selection of plugin light fixtures was not adequate for my needs. Total cost for the fixture, cord and plug was around $35, IIRC. If you are not comfortable with wiring together electrical devices, you should look for a pre-wired fixture suitable for your needs.

Construction was pretty simple.
1. Measure 14 sections of 30″ each (or whatever length you want to use) on the PVC pipe. After cutting, I used a file to clean up the edges.

2. From the remaining length of pipe, cut 4 pieces 3″ long. These are the risers to go higher than the light fixture (depending on your fixture, you may need to go higher than 3″).

3. Put together the 90° outs and the slip/ threaded adapters.

4. Using a rubber mallet, put one piece of pipe into one end of a 90° out. Continue doing this, making a square base such that the threaded/ slip adapters are facing upward.

5. Insert the 3″ lengths of pipe into the threaded/ slip adapters.

6. Attach 2 PVC T’s to a piece of pipe, and then set the completed piece on top of the 3″ lengths on the base. Do this twice.

7. To the top of each T, insert a 30″ piece of pipe.

8. Same as step 4, construct a square frame from the remaining 4 pieces of 30″ pipe and the 90° outs (with the threaded/ slip adapters facing up).

9. Invert the completed square frame from step 8 and attach to the top of the frame from step 7.

10. Completed item should look similar to the photo above.

11. For good measure, I took a wet paper towel and wiped down all of the pipe.

That is all there is to it. You will of course need sheets or fabric to make the shell of the tent, and some kind of material for the backdrop. So far I used 3 single-size sheets to cover my tent, a piece of posterboard for the backdrop, and my clamp lights for lighting (I have 3 of those).

My immediate plan is to hit a fabric shop and get white and black muslin for the backdrop, and also get enough white fabric to make a proper slip cover for the tent. But for now this setup is working well. Here is a photo from the tent.

Red Stripe glassware

This tent is pretty big and portable. If it is too big for your needs, you could try this alternative design. I just might have to build one of these and try it out too.

[1/19/08 – I updated the fabric for the curtains and backdrops]

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