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Building a Portable Photography Booth

By Anthony Karl Erdelji

During one of my endless tours of miniature and kits forums I came across someone's build blog of an armor kit. One on the questions in the thread was about his photography set up, which is quite a common in such circles. He showed a wonderful pre-fabricated portable photography and lighting booth. It was a metal briefcase with two thin, professional photography lights that folded down into the briefcase for easy storage. This little wonder greatly interested me. There was only one problem; it cost $600. Of course a majority of that cost are the pricy photography lights, but other than that it was a basic case you can buy in any store. Heck! I can build that!

My interest in a portable and collapsible photography booth is due to me never been happy with my photography. Setting aside that fact that I suck at taking photos, I never liked the mess. There is the table space dedicated for the task, the two or three burning lights with cords crisscrossing along the floor, the stack of books I use as a stand, and finally the backdrop, a large piece of paper which needs to be kept clean. All of this for the rare few minutes I need to photograph any new models. I could tear it down after each use, but the lamps do not store well and that paper must be well protected to avoid dirt or creases. I am far from lazy, but I do find it all a nuisance. Having something that could combine all this mess into a compact case would be great. 


The main body of my portable photography studio will be a double layer Doskocil case. I have quite a few of these lying about, as they are my preferred miniature-porting device. You can pick one up at a sporting goods or Wal-Mart-type store for about $15-$20. "I'm Huge!" sticker not included.
I would need a flat surface to mount a stand for the miniatures to be photographed, but the Doskocil case has ribbing on the bottom. I cut some scrap balsa wood and glued it to the bottom in order to give me a base to glue on a flat platform. First I tried superglue, but the case is slightly flexible and superglue is not, so the balsa popped right off. For the second try I used a hot glue gun. It is thicker and has some flexibility and held the strips firm. I also first roughed up the surface of the case with sandpaper to give the glue more grip.
 Onto the strips I hot glued a 7"x9" section of balsa plywood. I now have a large surface to mount a stand for nearly any size stand for the miniature(s) being photographed.
Next I cut two, 3-inch sections of 3/4 inch PVC plumbing pipe. These would hold my lamps. The pipes were hot glued into the corners on the bottom of the case, again first roughing up the area with coarse sandpaper to get a good bond. I left enough space on the bottom of the pipe to run the lamp power cords.
To hold my background paper in place I glued 6-inches of 1/2 inch square balsa wood to the top and bottom of the case near the handle. The paper would be held in place using magnets, so onto the balsa I glue Paper Steel, paper impregnated with a thin layer of steel.
With the case itself just about done I cleaned it up and gave the innards a good coat of black primer. This step is purely cosmetic.
Onto the lamps. My victims are two flexible-neck, clip-on lamps which cost me $10 each several years ago. I've checked and you can get similar lamps from nearly any office supply store for the same price. Each lamp is broken down into its component parts. The shade easily unscrews. The clip on the bottom was a bit more difficult. There is a nut that holds the stem of the lamp to the clip that can be unscrewed. The clip holding the power cord in place was a bit more difficult, but after a lot of pulling and prying it finally case loose. I then remove the two screws holding the neck onto the main light housing and cut the plug off the end of the cord so I could pull it thru the neck.
The flexible necks of the lamps would give me a lot of maneuverability when it came to positioning the lamps, but as-is they sat too high. I wanted them to be somewhat level with the miniature being photographed, so I cut down the necks. This proved to be the most difficult challenge of this project. These supposedly "cheap" lamps are made out of very strong steel. One hacksaw blade gave its life to cut thru a single lamp. For the other I turned to my Dremel armed with a Cut-off wheel. Still it still took a great deal of effort to cut. At least the shower of sparks was pretty.



The inside of the shades of the lamp were painted with silver paint, specifically Testors Metalizer Aluminum Plate. The paint will reflect the light from the bulb and intensify the light... at least that is my theory. Reflectors in professional photography set-ups work under the same principle, but considering the small size of the shades it may not work that well. However I already had the spray paint from a previous project I wanted to give it a shot.
The lamps are now done and reassembled. The cords are threaded thru the necks and the necks screwed back onto the main light housing. The lamps are then sat into the PVC pipe in the case, feeding the cord out thru the bottom.
The power cords are cut down to length. I wanted just enough cord to run to a 6-foot power strip inside the case yet have enough slack to fold the lamps down for storage. Once cut I added aftermarket replacement plugs to the cords.

My backdrop is a large sheet of paper from an arts and craft store. The paper is cut down to 11 by 19 inches. I bought two different colors, white and beige, so I can switch them out depending on what colors works best for the miniature being photographed.

I will be using magnets to hold the paper in place, but the Paper Steel I glued to the mounting bar earlier did not contain enough metal to get good contact with the magnets. I went back and glued small squares of sheet metal, ( sold as miniature bases) to the mounting bar.

The final item I needed was a stand for the miniature. Originally I was thinking of using a block of Styrofoam or building a tiny table out of the spare PVC tube and some sheet styrene. However in the end I went with a small clear plastic box I found at the arts and craft store while shopping for parts for the project. The box is 3-inches square and 4-inches high, so it will give me a slight adjustment in high if needed. If I was planning to photograph several miniatures at a time I may need a larger stand, but I will be sticking with this for now.
With all of this work I was putting into this project I decided to get some new lighting as well. I ditched my standard incandescent light blubs for 23w compact florescent daylight blubs. These give a fantastically pure white light that is perfect for photography. They also burn cooler which makes for a more comfortable photography session.
The last step was to hot glue a Velcro strap on the top lid of the case. This holds a small desktop camera tripod.
Originally I planned to use Velcro straps to hold the lamps in place, but due to the tension from the cords the fit is solid as-is. They shouldn't be going anywhere provided I don't throw the case down the stairs. The clear-cube miniature table may be stored secure with magnets and sheet metal, but until I make up my mind if it's the proper size, it fits snugly next to the lamps.
By removing the lower magnets I can store the paper in the upper portion of the case. There is enough open room for the paper to bend without getting creased or mangled.
We're all done! Set up takes just a few seconds and I have to deal with just a single power cord. The flexible necks on the lamps allow me a wide variety of lighting angles. During the build I realized with this case I can add a third clip-on lamp to the handle if needed, so I have even more lighting options. The entire thing can be stored away in the closet with the rest of my Doskocil cases. Best of all I got back a good chunk of real estate on my desk.