Best way to Photograph LEGO models (with a Lightbox)

In the last year, I’ve done a lot of LEGO projects and posted photos of many of these projects here at tomalphin.com. Along the way, I’ve taken a lot of terrible photos and a few good ones. I hope that you can learn from this article how to create great LEGO photos with an inexpensive Light Box. (You can use this approach to take photos of anything. I also use my lightbox to take great photos of the items I’m selling on Ebay or Craigslist.)

Why a Lightbox?

Almost every great photo starts with great lighting. Most excellent photos include a range of brightness, from highlights that approach solid white to shadows which are nearly black. When photographing objects such as LEGO, you want to achieve a similar gentle range from brightly lit to shadowed.

The “easiest” way to accomplish this is to take your LEGO model outside on an overcast day, or take advantage of morning or evening light which is less harsh. The clouds randomize the direction of sunlight, so it appears to come from all directions. Naturally, it will be a little brighter in the direction of the sun, and you can exploit this by turning the model in the direction that achieves a nice balance of highlights and partial shadow. You want to avoid the crisp shadows of a sunny summer day.

Unfortunately, it is not always practical to take your models outside, and you may want a way to get predictably good results every day. This is why you need to buy or build a Lightbox. A lightbox helps you soften the light which you use to illuminate your LEGO model. Without a Lightbox, you will end up with visible shadows even if you are using more than one light. You will also get bright spots where the light reflects right off a shiny material (like Plastic) and into your Camera.

How a Lightbox works…

What a lightbox does is randomize the direction of the light, just like clouds on an overcast day. This prevents your subject from having harsh shadows or reflections. You can buy a lightbox online, but it’s just as easy to make one at home using common materials you own or can buy inexpensively.

In the simplest terms, a lightbox is made of three parts: A couple lights, Some fabric (diffuser), and a backdrop.

Lighting allows you to control how much light shines on your model and from what direction. A common configuration for photographing LEGO uses three lights, one on each side and one on the top.

White Fabric will diffuse (randomize) the light coming from each side so that it is less harsh. You can use a flat white bedroom sheet, or buy some inexpensive white fabric. 2 to 3 yards should be enough for a small lightbox. (I can advise from personal experience that a fitted sheet will cause you headaches.)

Posterboard makes a great low-cost backdrop, but velvet fabric is even better. White is good for photographing dark objects, Grey can be useful for lighter objects. You can even use a bright color like green if you want to remove the background later, but you need a non-reflective fabric and careful lighting, otherwise the edges of your cropped photo will take on a green tinge.

You will also need a tripod and shutter release to take the best possible photo. Your camera can probably take the photo without a tripod, but it will be noisier (due to higher ISO) and have a shallower focus region (due to wider aperture) than taking it on a tripod with manual settings.

Build your lightbox

Tuning your lightbox

It’s not as easy as just building your lihtbox, putting models in the middle and taking the

Camera settings

Every camera is different, but the following quick tips may help you get better photos. If you usually shoot photos on “Auto” mode, you may need to consult your camera manual to take advantage of these tips.

1) Use a Tripod and remote shutter. Without a tripod, your camera is forced to make trade-offs to keep the picture from being blurry. A remote shutter is important too – just the small wiggle from pressing the shutter button will prevent a perfectly sharp photo from being possible.

2) Use the lowest ISO. Modern cameras can take a bright photo in a dark room. It does this by rounding up a small amount of data coming from the camera sensor, and this results in a lot of “noise” in the image which is especially visible if you zoom in. You want to use the lowest ISO setting, usually “100” to eliminate this noise.

3) Use a high Aperture. A low aperture value (ex: f2.8) will have a narrow range of distances from the camera lens “in focus” at the same time. (This is called the focal plane.) A higher aperture (ex: f10) will have a “deeper” section of the photo sharp and “in focus”. You will need to find the right value to put as much of your model in crisp focus as you need. You may be tempted to crank the aperture to the highest number (ex: f25), but most camera lenses lose quality at both extremes of their capability so you should find the lowest value where everything is in crisp focus.

4) Use Manual focus. I use it to make sure that the most important detail of my photo is in crisp focus. This is still relevant with a very hihg Aperture if you want to get the best possible photo.

5) Use a Macro Lens or a telephoto. If your camera is an SLR, you can swap the lenses. A Macro lens is best for most small LEGO projects, although a telephoto lens used from partway across the room can be effective too. A longer lens (100mm or higher) will reduce the foreshortening effect which causes far away objects to appear smaller than nearby ones. You want some perspective in your photo, but too much can be distracting.

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