Photographing our scale models can feel like a black art at times, and it can be a frustrating process for those of us who post images of our work for public consumption, whether that be online, or in books and magazines. Often, our photos simply don’t do justice to our lovingly-crafted creations.
I experience this very struggle myself, and am constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my results. One of the secrets to quality miniature photography (or any photography, really) is lighting, and I recently stumbled across a portable lightbox that seemed ideally suited to photographing small assemblies and parts:
Being a mere AU$12 on eBay, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying one out—especially after seeing Matt McDougall’s post about a similar unit he had purchased. The thing that really appealed to me about this bit of kit, however, was that it comes with built-in USB-powered LED strip lighting! A USB cable with integral switch is supplied:
It has a standard USB plug (USB-A) at one end, while the end that plugs into the lighting strip features a micro-USB plug (micro-B). Here’s what the LED strip lighting looks like:
Now, I already have a large photo table with studio lights on each side, but I wanted something that would allow me to take quick in-progress photos of small sub-assemblies, such as engines and cockpits, where the light source is closer to the object.
The unit comes as a folded flat-pack, tucked inside a carry sleeve of sorts. I found it awkward to release the unit from its folded state (confession: I had to get my wife to do it!), but once extended, the sides come together in three layers, and are clipped together with a press-stud arrangement.
The unit appears to be made from some kind of PVC plastic, and while durable enough, it’s a little flimsy once assembled, and the sides on mine curve inwards, rather than being stiffly upright. I may try to affix something stiff to the external sides to keep them perpendicular.
The lightbox itself has a small footprint, being 23.5cm high and 22cm front-to-back. Width is also 22cm. So, it’s not really suitable for taking photos of completed aircraft models, or particularly large assemblies. It would comfortably handle figures and small-scale armour, however.
You also get five coloured inserts to use as backdrops for your photos—red, blue, green, black, and white:
These inserts only cover the floor and rear of the lightbox, so whichever colour you use, the sides will still be white. I like to photograph against as light a background colour as possible, generally, so I put the white insert into my unit for these test photos. The other colours are too strident for my liking.
As I’ve already noted, the LED strip lighting is USB-powered, so something like a phone charger is an ideal power source—provided you can set up near a power outlet! Luckily, I had something better: a portable USB power brick:
It’s basically just an external battery that is charged, and provides charge, via USB. Very handy!
Here’s what the unit looks like powered on:
Unfortunately the combined weight of the USB cable and switch has conspired to pull the right corner down a little bit, but this did not interfere with testing. You can see in the photo above just how severe the sidewalls curve in, and this is definitely blocking a small amount of light from reaching the work surface.
For testing, I used Quickboost’s 1/32 F4U-1D resin engine (QB 32 036). Here’s the initial photo, uncropped and unedited in any way, other than to reduce its dimensions:
It’s relatively dark, and has a mild blue/green cast. This is as much a function of the deficiencies of my camera than anything else. There’s also an odd pattern of overlapping lines in the foreground, which I suspect are caused by shadows from the curved sides. You can also see that the the lower rear corners have gaps through to the outside world, which limits the width of any object you can capture cleanly, without having to resort to editing out the background.
As I always shoot in RAW these days, it becomes a simple task to correct the while balance and exposure levels on images like the one above, so the image below shows the result of this editing, along with cropping out the unwanted corners:
Much better, and more than acceptable! I think there’s still a slight green cast in the part itself (along with some JPEG artefacts), but I don’t see this as an issue.
Sadly, I don’t think it’ll replace my larger set up for small parts any time soon:
So, what do I think? Well, it’s a very cheap solution, and it shows in places. Even while preparing this review, the double-sided tape holding the LED strip lighting in place started to let go (thanks to me leaving the USB cable dangling from it). The bending in of the sides is also annoying, but I will seek to address that somehow, and will re-test the unit if I do. A couple of my backdrops arrived with dents in them, too.
But for AU$12, I really can’t complain. While no substitute for my full photo rig, this unit will certainly allow me to take in-progress photos away from it, such as at the workbench itself, or even at a fellow modeller’s house.
The real value of a unit like this, however, lies in the utility it offers modellers who wish to improve their in-progress photography without having to invest in a large and potentially expensive studio set up. Sure, you’ll outgrow it quite quickly during the progress of any large build, but it’s a handy little unit all the same. If I’m able to fix the issue with the collapsing sides, I’ll test it again a publish the results.