DIY Diffuser Boxes

A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was freaking out during her finals. She needed to take product shots and the lights she was using were just too harsh for her liking. So, while she’s running around at a hundred miles an hour, freaking out, I decided to be helpful and use my knowledge of lighting tools to make it easier for her.

The simple answer to harsh light is to diffuse it, to even it out and make it a little softer. I don’t keep any diffusion in the apartment, so I had to think of something else that worked. Then I remembered that we went to art school; so there’s got to be some sort of super light vellum, or Bristol, or what I ended up using: tracing paper. It’s semi-translucent so light goes through it, and the type we had was a heavy weighted paper, which meant it was strong enough to go through the rigors of photography.

At this point, I was thinking just clamp the paper right on the light. It’s got a can, why not, right? Wrong. She’s using bulbs that are taller than the cans are deep. And of course we don’t have barn doors handy. So the question now is: “how am I going to get the paper to actually go in front of the lights?”

Now I’m on a mission. This is beyond my girlfriend’s photos. Now it’s about me finding a way to get this to work. I’m rummaging around our apartment looking for something to use when I come to the stack of boxes we have from when we moved. My mind starts going back to other DIY tutorials that I’ve seen, many of which built a wood frame and covered the sides with cardboard. So I figure, “why can’t I just use a box and somehow brace it to make it stable?”

I pull a couple boxes out and sit down with them, trying to figure out the best way to attack the challenge. Then it hits me. If I use the open end from the box, it will be really flimsy and hard to stabilize. But why not use the closed off end, and cut a hole out of it? It’ll be more secure, and it would give me a frame to attach the tracing paper.

What comes next are the step by step instructions on what I did:
First thing’s first: the materials. I used a medium sized corrugated box. Basically you just want to use a box that’s close in size to your tracing paper size. For the tracing paper I used 14″ x 17″ size standard tracing paper rated at 25 lbs.

To put it all together you’ll need:
a)    a cutting board
b)   a metal ruler
c)    2” thick duct tape (or other heavy duty tape)
d)   2” thick painters’ tape (or other paper tape)
e)    ½” thick painters tape (or other paper tape)
f)     a marker or sharpie
g)    a box cutter, knife, or large Xacto blade
h)   white paint (tempura or acrylic works best)
i)     paint brushes.

Start by laying the box down flat and marking off 4” from the bottom. I like making hash marks on both sides then connecting them to give me a straight line to cut on. The reason I chose 4” was because it gives enough lip that you can still weight down the finished piece, plus it also leaves enough if you need to make adjustments to the box. You can do more or less, depending on your needs.

Next using your blade, cut along the line; be sure you cut all the way through the box. Once you have it separated, take the bottom portion of the box and build it up.

Now you’ll want to take the duct tape or heavy duty tape and tape down any seams on the inside of the box. Usually there wont be more than four. Doing this gives some stability to the box and acts as guides when cutting.

Lay the tracing paper on the inside of the box, and trim to fit. I found that if I lay it on the inside and draw a line on edge of the box you get a nice, straight line to cut along. If you need to trim the paper, do so.

After you get the paper prepped you need to cut out the frame. This gets cut out from the inside of the box. I left a 2” boarder. If you need to, measure it out and draw lines. Your cuts don’t have to be perfectly straight, so I used the duct tape as a guide. By cutting along the edge, from one piece to another, it got me right where I wanted to be.

Next, lay the tracing paper over the frame, and tape down the sides. I used ½” tape because it’s easier to work with. You want to tape down the centers of each side to keep the paper in place. If you’ve made the paper the exact size of the frame, you’ll have to fold the tape in half so that part of it touches the wall of the frame.  After the paper’s in place, take the 2” painters’ tape and tape along the edge. Make sure to cut the tape an extra couple inches long so you can adhere it to the wall of the box.

After you’ve secured the tracing paper to the inside of the frame, flip the box over. Take the 2” painter’s tape and cut strips to go around the frame. You’ll want to have the tape bleed over the edge by about 1/8”. Doing this will ensure that the edge of the diffuser will be straight. It also allows you to further secure the paper and the box itself. Turn the box back over, and press the edge of the paper down onto the tape on the other side.

Painting the box is optional, but it does serve multiple purposes. One, it makes the diffuser look more professional. Also, light reflects. The other purpose allows the box to bounce a little bit more light onto the scene.

So, long story short, they worked great. She finished her finals, and passed her class. What I like most about these diffuser boxes is that they were free to make, with items I already had, and they’re relatively durable. They’re great for studio shooting, and I enjoyed making them. It was a great project, with some fantastic results.

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