Self-Illuminating Photography Lightbox




I was getting sick of not being able to take good photos of my projects, having to light them with a desk lamp and always getting my messy desk in the background.  Then I saw the photos for the Scrub robot instructable and decided I needed a lightbox to get that diffuse white lighting and "infinite" background.

I currently have the Cambridge Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronic Junk, from which I salvaged a 12V white CCFL that I think was the light in a scanner, so decided to make this lightbox self-illuminating to remove the need to point lights at the outside or mess around with slave flashes.  The whole thing is self-contained and only needs a 12V power source to light itself.


Step 1: Materials Needed

  • A large cardboard box- mine held a duvet and measures roughly 18" x 15" x 12"
  • A cardboard box long enough to hold your CCFL. I used a shoebox
  • Enough white paper to cover four sides of your large box
  • Permanent marker
  • Something for a diffuser material, eg. paper or a white plastic bag.
  • A white CCFL and inverter
Tools: scissors or a craft knife, tape, glue gun, soldering iron.

The large box will be our lighting stage, open at the front.  The shoebox will house the CCFL above a window in the top of the "stage" box, with a diffuser separating the two to provide soft light into the stage.

Step 2: Prepare the Lighting Box

I chose to situate the inverter outside the lighting box to simplify the wiring and leave the inside free for refectors.  Cut a hole in the bottom of the shoebox just large enough to let you wire the CCFL up on the inside, and stick the CCFL to the bottom of the shoebox.

You could leave it as this, however I was worried about not having enough light output so lined the shoebox with slightly curved kitchen foil to help reflect the light into the lightbox.  Remember that CCFLs work on high voltage so be sure to keep the foil well away from the light's wires.

The inverter only had short power wires so I soldered an extra 2 metres of wire to it, and terminated it with a connector that could plug into my computer's power supply.

Step 3: Make the Window

Sit the shoebox on top of the large cardboard box with the opening facing downwards.  The CCFL will illuminate the inside of the large cardboard box through a diffused "window" on the top.  Trace around the shoebox to mark the size of your window, and cut out the window, making sure to leave a decent margin all around to actually attach the shoebox to.

Cover the window with your chosen diffuser material- I used a rectangle cut out of a dry cleaning bag that blocks less light than using paper would.  I stuck the diffuser to the inside of the stage box so it wouldn't interfere with attaching the lighting box on top, and I could change the diffuser later if I needed to without removing the lighting box.

At this point, due to a critical failure to plan (plan to fail, indeed) I attached the shoebox before I papered the inside of the large box.  It would make more sense to attach paper to the inside of the stage box before you attach the lighting box

Step 4: Wallpaper and Finish Construction

Use your preferred adhesive to attach your paper (or white cloth if you prefer) to the inside of the large box.  I did it one corner at a time so the hot glue didn't cool, working from the back of the box outwards towards the front.  I chose to stick the paper flat to the walls (because it fit that way), leaving the option to add a curved piece of paper for the "infinite backdrop" effect.

Now you can attach the shoebox, open side down, over the window in the "top" of the large box. I used plenty of hot glue, especially at the corners, so that I could pick up the entire construction by lifting the shoebox.

Step 5: Fire It Up!

Plug your CCFL into an appropriate power source, wait for it to warm up and check out the glow.

If you are going to take photos in your lightbox, make sure you do a manual white balance first.  I first switches this on in daylight and closed the blinds, and it was evident the light had a slight green tinge to it that will probably mess up photos on daylight or fluorescent white balance settings.  There's plenty of white to do a spot white balance with!

When taking photos in a lightbox, use a tripod so you can use the lowest ISO and a slow shutter speed for maximum light input.  Most of these photos were taken on ISO 200, f3.2, 1/40 shutter by hand.

Step 6: Examples

These images are a few of the ones I took with my previous lightbox to hopefully give some inspiration as to what you could photograph.  If you build one of these (or a lightbox by any other design) I'd love to see the photos you get out of it.



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    10 Discussions


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I have been using my Light Kennels ( indoors quite a lot. I have tried all sorts of light sources with varying success. I really like the idea of using a CCFL for a photo light and I have been collecting broken LCD's for a about a year. Unfortunately it has always been the inverter that has burned out. Do you have any tips on how to get a working CCFL set up. ------------I had a go in PSP balancing your test image to make it a bit lighter see attached. I like the soft shadows, the window like highlights and the halo glow...I gotta get me a CCFL!

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I don't have any tips for fixing inverters, as I've never done it, but I hear they often suffer from failed capacitors (probably a combination of being cheaply made and high voltage AC stressing the caps). Look for capacitors that bulge or appear to be leaking brownish goo, desolder them and replace them with ones of the same type and capacity is the only advice I have.

    For post-processing photos, I tend to use a "curves" effect on my photos to lighten it just enough that the entire background becomes white but the shadow under the object remains- that's what I did for the cable and padlock images above.  This is my teapot lid with the levels adjusted and a slight (~10%) oversaturation:


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks a lot that little tip about the caps was an eye opener. Originally I put the failures down to burned out windings on the custom transformers so I didn't even contemplate fixing them. I just checked out a faulty inverter and noticed 5 of the electro caps are convex on the top. Unfortunately following the burn on the board also makes 4 IC's, a choke, a resistor and a power transistor suspect as well (I guess secondary damage). Still all these parts are fairly low cost I might have a go at replacing them. ........................BTW Curves are good but you can also drop the background out by tweaking the highlight setting in a dynamic HMS filter followed by a touch of smart masking. That way you don't desat the subject. Personally I like a bit of background but those who control my paycheck often ask for these ethereal effects too.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! Looking at the pictures on step 5 they do actually look a bit dark/washed out, might have to level them a bit. That's what I get for writing a photography Instructable in the dark.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Nice Instructable! I made a light box a few months ago out of PVC and it works pretty well. I'll have to try this one. Here is one of the better photos that I got with the PVC light box....(lighting isn't perfect)