A Beginner’s Guide to The Lightbox

Photography –

Etymology: From the Greek words phos (“light”), and graphis (“stylus”, “paintbrush”) or graphí, together meaning “drawing with light”

There are many things I don’t know and am not good at in the world of miniatures.  Photography is one.  The photos of my minis never look as good as the painted pieces of pewter I hold in my hand.  I’d like to get better, so I read, I try different things, I experiment, and if I think I’ve figured something out I’ve got another fun tutorial to write for handcannon.  In today’s article, I’m just going to look at the simplest part of the photographic setup – our paint set – in this case – light.

The raw science goes something along the lines of …

  • Light of one or more wavelengths – or possibly of varying energy photons – come from one or more sources
  • When it reaches the amazing paint job on our little piece of pewter, something bizarre and quantum happens
  • Some is reflected off in one or more directions – Dependent on the colour of the paint, and the amount and variety of incoming wavelengths (colours)
  • Some is absorbed and heats up the mini – Dependent on the colour of the paint, and the amount and variety of incoming wavelengths (colours)
  • Some undergoes some weird lensing effect within the acrylic medium of the paint or varnish and really strange stuff happens
  • Heisenberg’s cat has an untimely demise and small quantum universes are created – Some guy in a wheelchair who sounds like a darlek gets rich by selling Pop-Sci books
  • But eventually some light of new wavelengths (colours) comes back in the right direction to be received by a light sensitive device – be it your eye, or a camera

For we mere mortals, what matters is

  • The colour of the light will change the colour our camera sees – daylight bulbs and warm light bulbs will produce very different photos
  • The direction the light comes from, then reflects at, and enters our sensor will have a significant effect – a small source will produce a small, bright reflection.  A diffuse light source will distribute the light evenly across a surface and decrease this localised bright reflection
  • When light comes from one direction there will be a shadow.  This shadow may be filled by another light source.  This may or may not be a good thing, but will change the photo.
  • When you change the direction the light is coming from or the direction the camera is pointing you will change the photograph even though the miniature you are photographing remains unchanged.
  • The camera is not as good a sensor as the eye for all sorts of reasons, so your picture will never look quite like the mini you hold in your hand

Let me demonstrate:

When we light a mini from directly above with a single localised light source, we get localised bright reflections and shadows

When we use a diffuse multi-directional light source we loose the bright reflections and shadows

Both methods have their merits – depending on the effect you want.  The first has greater dramatic impact, the second demonstrates the nuances of the painting (shades, highlights, contrasts of colour and hue etc) better.

Using a local, warm light source

Produces a different effect on colour, tone and feel of the image than a diffuse daylight light source

Again – the first has greater dramatic impact, the second better demonstrates the nuances of the paint job.

(in fact, the second is done with two daylight light sources and a single weaker warm light source to better fill the yellows and greens on this troll)


Which brings us neatly to the topic of how you will project light onto your mini

A Light box has three main functions

  • To produce enough light – of the right colour
  • To diffuse the light as required
  • To provide light from as many directions as required to fill in shadows

It may also give you such conveniences as back drop, and a decent range of angles to take photos from.

I’m going to talk about three types of light boxes.  There are many variations on these themes, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to change them to suit space, budget and personal taste.  I’m going to try and standardize the process by using

  • The same mini
  • The same camera settings.  (ISO 100, smallest aperture for maximum depth of field, shutter time determined by onboard chip, same whiteset, tripod stabilized, and taken on a 2 second timer to remove shake from the trigger)
  • Where I vary the background it will be because the variation is important to the demonstration


It’s really hard to research lightboxes online because of some piece of photo software that keeps on googling up.  You get some of the best info from articles on food photography.  They tend to use a reflector and natural daylight.

The principal is that light will be coming from one direction.  This will lead to your target casting shadows, creating increased contrast and colour variance on the shadowed side.  To get around this you can place a piece of white or mirrored board on the opposite side to reflect this light and fill in this shadow.

For our light box this means…

And it will take a photo like this

There is still a little shadow on the right, and there are some very bright localised reflections on the left – most noticeable on the armour plates, his cheekbone and his axe, as well as the base.

If we place a filter or light diffuser (described below) in the way

We lose half the light, meaning a much longer open time for the camera, but

Those localised reflections are largely gone, and the blends on the skin and armour appear much smoother.  The shadow is still present

If we exchange the reflector for two light sources from opposite sides

We will fill in the shadow (which can also remove some of the good effects created by the shadows – see the earthborn dire troll above)

But of course without a diffuser the reflections are back, and the new distribution of light may create new shadows (like the darkness of his tartan loin cloth)

So ideally we’d like to surround our mini in a diffuser, then bathe that diffuser in light from two directions

You will need

  • An empty, washed out milkjug
  • Scissors
  • Paper

Their construction is exceedingly simple

I found that adding the cardboard lip with a slight bend in it to the front of the milkjug lifted it a bit and got the paper and jug out of the way of the base when I took my photos.

The colour of the background makes a big difference to the photo in the milk jug – more so than in the other lightboxes I show here.  I think this is due to the need for a closer light source, which is diffused so much and decreased in intensity so much, that the added fill from underneath by reflection from white paper has a much greater impact.

You can however make far greater use of the directionality of light, and the impact of deeper shadows with the milk jug lightbox

I feel the milkjug lightbox has best utility for photos where you will be using shadow and reflection to create an impact, rather than when you want to show off the subtle nuances of your painting.

To best show off your painting, I think you will want multiple sources of light, and a good diffuser, a great background, and good access for your camera.

You will need

  • Space (I’ve now dedicated a shelf on my bookshelf)
  • Two wire coathangers
  • Baking paper
  • Pliers
  • Two light sources (I use two $6 lamps from bunnings with 18 watt CF daylight bulbs)
  • Sticky tape

Unbend your coathangers and straighten all but the bend going to the non-hook end.  Leave this at 90 degrees

Twist the coathangers into one another and tape in place

You’ll now have a rectangular frame that is the perfect side to be covered in baking paper

But before we do, bend it into a smooth dome shaped frame over a rounded object – like a small bin

Make a fold 1cm in from the long edge of your baking paper and fit it to the frame

And glue that one edge down with superglue (baking paper is made to not stick to anything.  The only thing I could make stick was superglue.)

You’ll note I’ve also bent the other edge inwards.  This better supports the paper, and raises the front edge of the dome for better access to the camera

Set up your backdrop (see below for links to some nice backdrops) – I have the dome backwards here – oops

And you’re good to go

Now all I have to do is work out how to set up my camera right… sort out the best depth of focus… and how whiteset works… find some nice backdrops … and paint better …

You can find some nice backdrops here

Ted Evans Photography

Corvus’ Miniatures

That’s all for today, happy snapping…


Autumn Stone




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  1. redmanphill said:

    Nice article. It is something I have wondered about for a while. I keep washing out the miniatures when I photograph them. This might help!

  2. Autumn StoneAutumn Stone said:

    The things I’ve found that wash out photos the most are:
    Darker backgrounds especially on darker models (see the axer in the milk jug on a black background)
    And too much light from one direction.

    You can also wash out a lot of the shading if you add a lot of light from underneath. Reflected light seems OK, but a further bulb pointing at the model or aimed upwards will actually undo much of the shading painted onto the mini

    Glad you liked the article


  3. Tadgo said:

    Yet again more ideas from A.S. to steal… er… use. And the line about Heisenberg’s cat made me chuckle.

  4. MadJack said:

    I just made the wire coathanger thing based on these instructions. I was having real trouble getting the superglue to work, so I used a whole bunch of staples instead. Worked like a charm.

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