If you’re not a blogger you probably won’t give a fig about this little project, but then again maybe you will. Maybe you sell things you make on Etsy or you want to start a Youtube Channel or just take pictures of small-ish things. If you fall under any of these categories you’re totally going to want to make your very own DIY PVC light tent.
Now for a while I’ve been STRUGGLING with my photographs and I couldn’t really tell you why. Editing my photos became this dreaded thing because I knew that they were always going to have some crazy color problem that I would spend forever trying to correct. I don’t know how many times I would have Rob standing behind me saying “up the saturation” or “look into the exposure”. And even with two brains on it we couldn’t seem to figure out what in the world was up.
One day I had freaking HAD IT. I decided to start over with everything. EVERYTHING. I re-calibrated my monitor and double checked the number of backlight hours logged so I could see if this business was all in vain because my screen was just on it’s way out. I reset my camera to factory settings and started to reconfigure the photo type and all of that fun business. And the biggest change I made was to pitch my old light tent and light setup for something completely new.
I had long wanted to make a lightbox out of PVC but I just never made the time to do it but the reasons to hop to it kept piling up. The colors were stupid wonky in photos AND videos and I spent tons of time in front of the computer trying to color correct them in vain. I needed but really did not want to buy a new tripod for overhead video tutorials and I knew I could work something out with whatever I would make. The current light tent I was using was fab but the size was all wrong for my desk from the beginning. I just made the darn thing work but now I was finally sick of that nonsense. After working out all of the pros for starting over from scratch I drew up my plans and asked Mr. Rob to accompany me to the hardware store to buy some PVC pipes and fittings.
Over about a week of use my lightbox changed and evolved to the setup and method I’m currently using now and am very happy with. So I’m going to show you how to build a PVC light tent from scratch with some tips and ideas that you might want to adopt when building your own.
For this project I used:
- 3/4″ PVC pipe
- PVC pipe fittings (see below)
- White rip stop nylon
- White Duck Tape
- Adhesive Velcro
- Wood scrap + 1.5″ screws
- 32.8 feet of LED strip lights + connectors + power supply
- 4 clamp lights – (mine are 8.5″)
To build your tent you’re going to need 3 different kinds of fittings. There is the 90 degree side elbow, 90 degree elbow and 90 degree tee. For my exact design you will need:
- 6 – 3/4″ side outlet elbow fittings
- 4 – 3/4″ tee fittings
- 2 – 3/4″ elbow fittings
When buying these fittings you want ones where every single opening is a slip on fit which means it will be nice and smooth inside and you can just pop the piece over the end of a piece of PVC pipe. The other option is called FPT and it is threaded inside but they won’t work for the way this project has been worked out.
You will also need 3 – 10 foot lengths of 3/4″ PVC pipe. There will be a thinner and thicker option and there is a price difference. To keep your box sturdy purchase the heavier and more expensive PVC because it will save you in the long run.
This is the cut list for a box the same size as mine with finished dimensions of 37.5″ wide x 23.5″ tall x 23.5″ deep:
- 1 – 36″ piece
- 10 – 22″ pieces
- 4 – 12.5″ pieces
- 2 – 7.5″ pieces
The sketch (done in my microwavable notebook, y’all!) matches up to the cut list and fittings needed for the same size as my box (37.5″ wide x 23.5″ tall x 23.5″ deep).
If you’re taking on your own custom size, know that PVC fittings used to build the box are going to add to your dimensions. For example, The depth of my box could be no more than 24″. If I cut my pipe to be 24″ exactly it would wind up being too large when you add in .75″ on either side of the PVC pipe for the connectors (I know because I did this at first and had to trim up a bunch of PVC).
Let’s say you want a specific dimension of 24″. If you cut your pipe to 24″ the length of the connected piece with fittings adding 1.5″ will be 25.5″ which is too large. Instead decrease the length of the pipe by 1.5″ and cut 22.5″ pieces so that when you add the fittings onto each end you’ll achieve that correct 24″ measurement.
In the sketch I’ve marked the corners with the kind of fitting needed. The corners marked with circles are the side outlet elbow fittings, stars are elbows and hearts are tees.
This sucker is SO EASY to put together. Cut your pipe lengths (I used a finetooth hand saw I got for, like, $7 at Walmart) and then pop the pipe pieces on and piece it together like in the diagram. A hammer can come in handy to tap the ends securely onto the pipe. FYI – this is my “first draft” without my camera perch in the middle of the top.
For the camera perch like mine cut a piece of scrap wood to fit in between the middle 2 bars at the top. Attach with screws going through the sides of those PVC pieces. Pre-drilling the holes through the PVC can prove quite helpful. I tried to use mending plates to attach but getting the piece of wood flush so that your bird’s eye videos aren’t crooked is frustrating and difficult.
My office gets very, very little natural light despite having 4 windows. I think that they are coated with something, like car tinting, that keeps too much sunlight from coming in which would make sense as flippin’ hot as it gets around here. Case in point, I put this together in January and it was warm enough outside that I had on a short sleeved top and knit capris. Back at my old abode outside on the same day, and around much of the country, outside would have been covered in snow from Helena!
Because of the poor natural light I covered the frame in cool white LED strip lights that have a sticky back. Now these do NOT come with a power supply, you have to purchase that separately. I had hoped that one power supply would power 2 strands of the LED strip lights and it almost did but I wound up buying a second power supply to get everything going. Also, in order to make the lights easily fit in corners and along the sides without having to double-up on lights here and there I used T and L shaped connectors.
Now LED strip lights were totally not my own idea. When I was scrolling through Facebook one day and I saw where Angie from The Country Chic Cottage suggested these lights while she was talking in an FB live video. Over there she has a post about getting set up with video equipment and she also uses a PVC frame. Angie shares a wealth of information over there including stuff about microphones and diva lights and all of that good business so be sure to check it out.
Okay so my frame is built and I’ve got it going with only cool white LED strip lights at this point and none of that light is diffused. I tried to work this way for a bit because anytime I can limit the amount of effort I put into anything I take it. In the end the lights were too cool and cast a crazy blue color on photos taken within it the box. The light was also way too bright and my camera kept blurring out the edges of everything in the photos. This set up DID work for awesome overhead video, though.
To diffuse the LED lights I purchased 2 yards of white rip stop nylon from Amazon that was fulfilled by the always awesome fabric.com. Because rip stop nylon is a slippery fabric and I’m not talented enough with a sewing machine to keep slippy stuff with straight seams I had to come up with a different plan. Instead of dealing with that kind of a headache I chose to finish the edges of each piece with white Duck Brand duct tape instead of sewing.
I created panels for both sides and then taped the panels to the PVC frame making sure they were nice and taut. Since my nylon is a cool white and so is the lighting, this didn’t help a thing and the blue cast to photos actually got a bit stronger. And with diffused light coming from the sides the light from above seemed to be absolutely glaring and needed to be dealt with.
Since the straight overhead light was doing great things for my videos I didn’t want to have it diffused all of the time. I created a top panel that I finished the edges off with duct tape, again, but I attached it to the frame with sticky back Velcro rather than tape so I can remove it when necessary.
When I need the top light straight on and not diffused I just let loose the Velcro on the front side of the frame and allow that top piece of fabric to hang in the back.
When making video I place my phone on top of the wooden panel with the camera eye looking through a hole I drilled in the wood. I also have a camera mounting bracket to secure my DSLR camera on the underside of the wood. This mount is actually meant for security cameras giving it a decent amount of play in the angle you can set your camera to and it and works with my Nikon D3300. With this mount I can have the camera at an angle or looking straight down. BUT since I get much better quality video with my phone than my camera (whodathunkit, eh?) I do not have the mount on the underside of the wood.
With cooler white fabric and lighting I had to warm up things to get a better, cleaner white without a strong blue tint in my photographs. To do that I’ve got warm household type bulbs housed in clamp lights. There are two at the top and one on each side of the frame. I keep these on all of the time for both photos and overhead videos which my kitties LOVE to star in :)
Because I’ve gotten tired of wasting rolls of white paper I purchased a 2’x4′ piece of white formica to place beneath my frame. I also purchased one similar to the color of the granite in our kitchen for when I want to make recipe videos. I just slide one out and on top of the other depending on which I need. Because it’s counter-top material I can clean it with all purpose cleaner and take care of my messes without wasting paper or poster board (which I still use as my background for photos since it rarely gets messed up).
In order to get good white balance in my photos I give the lights a good 20 minutes to fully warm up (this took me at least a week to figure out :). If I don’t do this the lighting gradually changes and my images suffer for it. I use a white balance card set to get the proper setting for my camera and I do a few test images that I check on a computer monitor before I really get after any project. I have found that if I can get my skin tone to be reasonable in photographs the others will look good also. Now I always snap a pic of my hand for testing my settings out.
And that 2047 words is how I made my own DIY light tent out of PVC pipe and you can, too! :)