Create shadowless macro backgrounds

In the world of studio photography, it is relatively easy to photograph a subject on white seamless paper and create a bright white background, virtually free from distracting shadows. In the world of close-up and macro photography that task is a little bit more difficult.

Unidentified June beetle (Phyllophaga sp.) photographed 1/2 life-size in the White Box setup.

The difficulty in the high magnification scenario is that we are usually very close to the subject with our lens and don’t have much room for a lot of lights. And too, we really need a lot of light for ample aperture and depth of field. To satisfy that requirement, we often select electronic flash as our light source.

That’s good and bad. The benefit is that it is bright, matches daylight in White Balance and is fast, so that it stops most subject motion. The downside is that it it is highly concentrated as a very small, contrasty light source. Most flash heads are only about 2.5 square inches. We know that soft light requires diffusion and large light sources.

The perfect solution for macro is to build a “White Box”. Building on the idea of a lighting tent, the white box is straightforward, economical cheap and quite portable. It also works well and is easy to make.

To make the White Box you need a sheet of white foam-core board, sometimes called foam project board at the craft stores. You also need a sharp knife, like an X-acto, a ruler straight edge and masking tape. That’s it!

To make the White Box cut two pieces of the foam-core 10 x 20 inches and two pieces 8 x 10 inches. Tape the two longer pieces and a single smaller piece together in an “H” arrangement for stability, as shown below. Then place the second small foam-core piece inside as the floor. A piece of tape across the top will keep the sides from spreading.

For a lighting source an electronic flash in a small softbox like a Lastolight EXYBox Speedlight is perfect. Place the softbox on top of the foam-core construction as shown below.  All done!

There are several softboxes available for electronic flash and they should work just fine. Perhaps however, you may need to adjust the dimensions of your construction accordingly.

Exposures are rather straight forward. I prefer Aperture Priority (or Aperture Value) shooting mode because I am concerned about producing enough depth of field for my subject. At high magnifications, close focusing distances and longer focal length lenses, depth of field drops to ridiculously small dimensions. Usually only a few millimeters.

I prefer to use a longer macro lens for this type of work, usually a 105 mm F2.8 Micro Nikkor, or 200 mm F 4.0 Micro Nikkor because of the longer working distances.

In addition, I need to be certain that my exposure renders white as white, rather than mid-tone. Modern cameras help here, but remember, the electronic meter always attempts to make the world mid-tone or 18 percent gray. So in some cases, exposure compensation in the plus direction may be required to expose correctly.

Fifty caliber civil war bullets found in our family garden in Vicksburg, MS.

In some cases, the all-white background may not be suitable for your subject. An easy solution is to have pre-cut pieces of paper ready to slip into the box as a darker background.

Eggs of Lacewing insect (family Chrysopidae) on cactus spine. Life size.

© 2012 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.


7 responses to “Create shadowless macro backgrounds

  1. I am struggling with the shadowless white background as I write! Thanks for such a relevant blog. I’m going to get to work right away on your suggestions.

  2. Brian,
    Another great idea and simply constructed. As you Know I also built your clamp for macro backgrounds. Perhaps that would be worth another short post. I can se that the clamp might be useful with your white box.

  3. Once you have a lightbox and properly setup lighting, Photoshopping out the remaining few shadows is quite easy for anyone familiar with Photoshop. You can get nearly shadow free images with the lightbox, but fine tuning the rest can be done.

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