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Table Top Magic: The Fotodiox LED Studio-in-a-Box

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday July 14, 2016

Table Top Joe

They gave me top billing
In the Dreamland show
I had my own orchestra
Starring Tabletop Joe
And the man without a body
Proved everyone wrong
I was rich and I was famous
I was where I belonged, yeah

Tabletop Joe, Tabletop Joe
Now everyone knows, yeah
Tabletop Joe

--Tom Waits 


I've been a shell collector most of my life and one of my favorite things to do when I have a spare hours is to try to create interesting photos of them. I photographed these two chambered nautilus shells using the black backdrop that came with the Studio-in-a-Box (one of four included backdrops). The black backdrop is a tad shiny, though I was able to tame it in editing. In future I think I'll probably cut some pieces of  seamless paper to fit. One of the few (and very minor) issues that I had with the studio was that the velcro tabs on the backdrops that keep them in place kept peeling off. Fotodiox suggests flattening out the backdrops before you use them and I think that's good advice. Both photos were shot at ISO 250 and were exposed at 1/60 second at f/16 and 1/30 second at f/14--the lights are plenty bright.

Snapshot:

Product name: Fotodiox LED Studio-in-a-Box

Description: Pop-up table top studio with built-in LED lights

Available sizes: 16x16, 20x20, 24x24 and 28x28-inches

Lighting: Fixed LED array in lid, reflective interior walls

Ships with: Diffusion panel and four seamless backgrounds (white, black, gray and blue), power cords

Warranty: 24 months

Company site: www.fotodioxpro.com


The lighting from the top and the silvered reflective sides creates a very professional-looking light for simple still lifes. Shot at 1/50 second at f/11, ISO 250. 

Soft Light Secrets

That strange little ditty from Tom Waits quoted above is about a pianist who was born with no body, just hands ("I had trouble with the pedals"), and it has nothing to do with photography whatsoever, except that every time someone mentions table-top photography to me, that songs pops into my head. It's kind of hard to say anything to me, it seems, without a song popping into my head--the product of a youth spent with a camera in one hand and stack of vinyl albums in the other. And speaking of the vinyl era...

When I first started hanging out and working in studios long ago and far away, the concept of soft box lighting was just being born. The idea spread through studios like some kind of underground cult secret and since there were few commercially-made softboxes on the market, product photographers learned how to make their own. I can clearly remember sitting on the studio floor with big thick sheets of Foamcore and cutting trapezoidal shapes and then gaffer-taping them into a box that we rigged to fit over a flash head. Eventually, of course, everyone and their grandmother was manufacturing softboxes and the secret was out. Ultra soft lighting from giant boxes went mainstream. 

Fast forward a few decades and a new lighting idea emerged: the pop-up translucent tabletop studio. Basically these are just simple light tents, usually in a spring-mounted frame, made of translucent lighting material. They are cheap, come shipped in a box and they are easy to use—and they work pretty well. Most studio pros, of course, would never settle for such a simple lighting solution, but for the occasional product or still-life shot, they are a good affordable solution. 

Over the years I have owned several of the spring-loaded pop-up studios (as well as a few of the fold-up box variety), and while the basic concept is great and the diffusion really does create a nice look for small products and still life photos, they still have a few issues. For one, you still have to BYOL (bring your own lights) which means more cost and lots of wires and stands to deal with (and trip over). Another problem that has cursed the spring-loaded variety is that once you unfurl the box, there’s no getting them back down to a size you can store them in, it’s like trying to shove a defiant genie back into a lamp against his will.

This is why when I first saw a press release for the Fotodiox LED Studio-in-a-Boxthat was touting a built-in LED lighting array, my ears (and eyes) perked up. This I had to try. So before I even took a shot at getting a manufacturer to loan me one, I went to Amazon and bought it (I got the 24x24-inch square model, $99). And I’ve been having a blast with it since the day it arrived.


One of the obvious audiences for this box is the Ebay and Etsy crowd. By simplifying table-top photography and lighting down to an affordable plug-and-play set up, almost anyone can make nice-quality product photos with minimal effort or experience. People selling collectibles, like my Mickey Mouse cookie jar, really don't need to invest in anything else, other than a camera. 

Who Dat?

Who is this studio aimed at? Again, no doubt the largest market for this will be photographers who have the occasional need to do small product and still-life work but who don’t want the hassle of lights. Another big audience will be Ebay and Etsy vendors who need to photograph a lot of products quickly with minimal hassle (or lighting knowledge). And I think a third group will pros who occasionally shoot on location in situations where setting up a studio just won’t work. I had to photograph a dozen or so meals for menu shots for a local deli/restaurant and the only practical way to get the meals fresh on the client’s budget was to shoot them in the restaurant as they were made. Dragging lights and stands and setting up a studio on a table in a closed restaurant wasn’t hard, but this box from Fotodiox would have been a dream come true had it existed. Finally, if you've ever thought of doing a home inventory for insurance purposes, this pop-up studio is a perfect way to shoot your valuables.


The Fotodiox LED Studio-in-a-Box offers the ultimate in simple table-top shooting. It took me under five minutes to fold it into position and the velcro edges create a very secure box. The studio folds up flat just as you see it in the top photo and there's a nice carrying handle. Four backdrops and the power cords are included. You'll be shooting in minutes. 

The Five-Minute Studio

Seting up this clever pop-up studio takes about five minutes and really consists of just two steps: unfolding and assembling the box using a very good velcro attachment system and then plugging in the power supply. The box folds back to flat in seconds and has a good strong carrying handle as well as a nice little pouch for the power supply and cord. Oddly, there were no instructions included with the studio, but if you watch the excellent Fotodiox unboxing video or this assembly video, you really won’t need instructions. Seriously, you won’t—it’s that simple.

There are two ports for shooting: one is an oval-shaped opening in the front (it has top and bottom flaps, so you can use it partially closed) and the other is a small roof port so you can shoot straight down. You can also drop the whole front wall if you need more access to shoot larger products, etc. One minor complaint: I wish both a/c power cord and the cord that comes out of the LED light array were each a foot or two longer so that I didn’t have to scramble for an extension cord. 

The studio comes with four rolled backdrops that have velcro in the corners for attaching to top/back of box and a completely useless sleeve at the bottom front of the box for tucking in background. I couldn’t get the bottom of the backdrop into the sleeve, but I solved it with a bit of shipping tape and just taped the front edge down and that works fine. Of course you don’t have to use the supplied backdrops and you can use any backdrop you want. 


The quality of the LED lights is very clean and surprisingly even across the entire interior of the box. Exposure here was 1/80 second at f/11.


Where are you going to find a product that offers lighting as pretty as this with absolutely no lighting knowledge required? There's a shooting port in the front wall of the box (and another in the roof for shooting straight down) and that front wall is also reflective, so it casts a nice clean glow into the front of your subjects. I was really surprised by what a nice job the combination of top-mounted LEDs and the reflective sides did with a clear-glass vase, a notoriously difficult subject to light. Gray backdrop. Exposed at 1/125 second at f/13, IS0 250. 

Light Me Up

The LED lighting array that is built into the top of the unit is square in shape and is surprisingly bright. I was all prepared to crank up the ISO to deal with what I expected to be minimally bright lights, but I was wrong. This is one powerful array and most of my photos (all shot at ISO 250) were shot at exposures of around 1/60 second at f/11 or f/13. I shot everything on a tripod, but you really could shoot handheld if you didn’t need a small aperture for depth of field. 

The lights are balanced for 5600K, but I kind of had to play around with the white balance to get the white backdrop exactly where I wanted it. Even though I shoot in RAW and can adjust the WB after the fact, it’s simpler to do it at the outset and save yourself time in editing. Surprisingly, I found that the electronic flash setting on my Nikon body produced the best color. The colors were astoundingly accurate and I am now a total convert to LED lighting for this type of work. 


One of the issues that you encounter when photographing reflective subjects with top lighting is that they reflect the lighting. It's an issue that all table-top shooters have to deal with almost daily (and it's why most of them have gray hair). You can clearly see the LED array reflected in the lid, spout and handle of the teapot, as well as some harsh highlights elsewhere. The included diffusion sheet helps tame reflections a bit, but it really doesn't eliminate them (and I don't think anyone would expect it to be a cure all). Rather than wrestle with the problem while shooting, I just accepted the reflections and got rid of them with the healing brush in Photoshop--takes a few seconds. Where was Photoshop when I was spending endless hours fighting reflections in the 1970s? Shot at 1/50 second at f/11, ISO 250. 

Reflections

The interior walls of the studio are silvered and work extremely well at creating a shadowless environment. However, as any product still-life shooter knows, highly reflective subjects (like glass and ceramics) always bring with them their own box of demons—namely reflections from any light source that isn’t heavily diffused. The way that most studio shooters conquer this is by making the light source big enough and placing it close enough so that the light virtually engulfs the subject. In effect what you are doing is shooting it in a cloud of light—thus the big old foam core soft boxes we used to make back in the day. 

Non-reflective subjects like these pine cones are a piece of cake to shoot, it really becomes point-and-shoot product shooting. Exposed at 1/60 second at f/13, ISO 250.

Using an array of bright individual LED lights in such a close environment is just asking for trouble with things like glassware, silverware, etc. The folks at Fotodiox are well aware of this potential lighting issue and so they cleverly included a sheet of diffusion material with the studio. It’s just a thin sheet of diffusion fabric and, to a degree, it does soften the light (and it cleverly attaches to the velcro around the rim of the box lid). But does it solve the problem? No, not all of the time (though it’s better with it than without it) and I didn’t really expect that it would.  There are a few ways to conquer this and the best might be using a thicker opaque material to soften the lights more. You can also slightly change the angle of your subject (and/or camera) to alter the angle of your subject slightly. The third (and the method that’s probably the most efficient) is to retouch them in Photoshop. I had pretty good luck with a quick session with the healing brush. Life becomes a boatload simpler when you are not photographing reflective objects, at that point lighting from the top turns from demon to blessing. Reflections aside, the lighting quality of the LEDs is really quite charming.


A colorful plate of peppers shot against the included black backdrop. To me this has the same look as a huge soft box placed a few feet over the set--but with none of the hassles of setting up lights. Shot at 1/40 second at f/14, ISO 250.


I used a piece of old barn wood as a backdrop for this photo of a butternut squash. You can, of course, use anything you can fit in the box as a backdrop--fabric, wood, etc. I set up the Fotodiox studio in my living room on a buffet. I'm going to spend a lot of winter hours shooting still life photos--it's very addictive. I shot this with a Nikkor lens at 1/50 second at f/18 on a Manfrotto tripod. 

Conclusion:

It’s really hard to find fault with such an inexpensive and elegant solution to basic still-life shooting. The assembly is simple, the box folds down into a great carrying case, the LEDs are bright, the box sides are very reflective and this is a very adaptable system. While you are obviously limited to shooting only things that fit in the box and  don’t require more complicated sets or a room background, there is actually quite a bit of room inside the 24-inch square box that I’m using and at no time did I feel that I needed more room. I think that this Studio-in-a-Box would be an ideal solution for Ebay and Etsy sellers, but I also think it is practical and clever enough to earn a place in most pro’s gear collection. I think that for the price this is one of the best accessories that I own and I’m thrilled that I bought it instead of borrowing it! This is a five-star product, no question about it. 

New Product News:

Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA lens. Sony is introducing a fast new prime lens, the full-frame Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA lens that is said to provide excellent contrast and resolution across the entire frame. The ZEISS-made lens features high-precision AA (Advanced Aspherical) and ED (Extra-low Dispersion) lens elements to reduce both spherical and chromatic aberration. The dust and moisture resistant lens also lens features an 11-bladed circular aperture that helps create an attractive bokeh quality. (Interesting what a big factor bokeh has become in lens design, isn’t it? A good thing, as Martha would say.) The lens is driven by a fast SSM (Super Sonic wave Motor) system that operates in near silence, making it a great choice for video shooting. Available in July.

Chimera Triolet to Profoto Adapter. If you are a Triolet continuous-source light user, Chimera’s new Triolet to Profoto adapter should be of interest. The adapter allows you to use Profoto’s wide array of light-shaping tools, from reflectors to beauty dishes, with the very popular Triolet fixture. The Triolet light can handle bulbs up to 1000 watts and the new adapter eliminates the necessity of a speed ring, allowing users to continue using their legacy gear to create their own inventive lighting setups. It’s made from solid machined 6061-T6 Aluminum Alloy and has an anodized blue finish.

DJI/Hasselblad integrated aerial camera-platform bundle. Oh, boy, a Hasselblad and a great flying platform bundled together—do daydreams get any sweeter? DJI and Hasselblad have announced a fully integrated high-end aerial camera-platform bundle that includes Hasselblad’s aerial medium format camera A5D and DJI’s professional flying platform M600. The combination of the M600 and the A5D, says Hasselblad, “…provides users with today’s most advanced aerial optics and sensors integrated with one of the world’s most reliable aerial platforms.” You won’t get any argument from me, between Hassie’s great aerial optics and a super steady and powerful platform from DJI, it sounds like a perfect pairing. The platform comes equipped with six intelligent batteries, an A3 flight controller, a Lightbridge 2 Professional HD transmission system, a dust-proof propulsion system and powerful app control. Sign me up, Scotty.

4 Comments

  1. Gavin Zau commented on: July 14, 2016 at 5:11 p.m.
    Nice review of a good product. I like your photos to show the capabilities of the light box.
  1. Donna Caporaso commented on: July 14, 2016 at 5:36 p.m.
    I live this. Great tool for my eBay items. Great review Jeff. Thank you.
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: July 14, 2016 at 9:14 p.m.
    Thanks, Gavin!
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: July 14, 2016 at 9:14 p.m.
    Thanks Donna, yes, for Ebay this studio box is amazing. It's probably going to motivate me to get selling again.

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