Light boxes can be a great way to improve your Gunpla kit photography. But if you’re going to put the money into buying one, how do you know you’re getting a good one? Join Garlock as he outlines the features to consider when choosing a commercial light box.
So, you’ve built your latest Gunpla. You’ve nipped like a pro and avoided whitening at the nubs. You’ve panel-lined everything, and maybe even scribed some new lines yourself! You painted what you wanted to, and your top coat is on. There’s only one thing left to do: take photos to show off what you made.
In order to best display your hard work, you’ll want to take clear, sharp photos that show off all the details. You might be surprised to learn that you don’t need a fancy camera to make that happen. More than anything else, it’s proper lighting that will help you take high-quality pictures of your kit. With the right lighting, a smartphone is the only camera you’ll need.
One of the best tools to get good, clean lighting for Gunpla photography is a tool called a light box. Light boxes provide a distraction-free backdrop to pose your model against. More importantly, they cause light to diffuse and bounce onto your model in just the right ways, highlighting details without casting shadows where you don’t want them.
Previously, you may have read Gunpla 101’s guide on how to put together a light box of your own. It’s a great guide on how to put together a cheap but effective lighting setup, using tools and materials that you might already own! But like all photography tools, there’s a whole market out there for professional light boxes to choose from, too.
Here are some things to consider before you buy a light box for Gunpla photography.
Pros and cons
Pro: Convenience. Assuming you’ve bought from a reputable brand, your light box will take out all the guesswork. It will come with built in white lights, diffusers, and a variety of colored backdrops to suit the model you want to shoot. Especially if you’re still learning to how to light things properly, it can save a lot of time to just buy a box and have it work, rather than having to experiment with lighting to get the same effect.
Pro: Build quality. Again, assuming you’ve purchased a tent from a reputable brand, your tent will typically be more robust than what you might be able to build out of a cardboard box. Additionally, many options on the market are designed to collapse so you can transport them. This can be important if you choose to travel with the tent.
Con: Pricier. The smallest light boxes will run you around $50 USD. Needless to say, this is much more than the cost of building a light box of your own, which you may even be able to do for free if you have the right materials on hand already.
Con: Lack of flexibility. Depending on your home setup, it can be difficult to fit a commercial light box into your workspace. Their typical cube shape may be too tall or wide for your photography space, or too short or too narrow for your Gunpla. For example, if you ever chose to build a model much larger than what your tent could handle, say, the monstrous HGUC 1/144 II Neo Zeong, you’re going to have to invest in another tent just to fit the larger kit—whether buying one, or building one.
Before you buy, think about the following:
- How much space you have available. For me, I had a 24” gap between my work desk surface and the nearest shelf, so I had a maximum box height of 24” inches. I’ve been sticking with standard HG kits, so this works fine for me.
- Whether you can repurpose lights you already own. If you already have a source of good, white light, like a flexible desk light or a swing-arm architect lamp, you can select a model that just has a tent with ports to let light in or translucent walls to diffuse your lights (placed outside the tent). Otherwise, make sure the tent you buy has lights built-in, or remember to buy separate lights to go with the tent.
Features of a Commerical Light Box
I recently purchased a FotodioX LED Studio-in-a-Box. While this isn’t currently available on Amazon, it’s comparable to available light boxes with built-in lighting, including the ESDDI Photo Studio Light Box and the Amazon Basics Light Box With LED.
I chose a 20” x 20” model, which works for me because I have only been building High Grade models. (For reference, the High Grade RX-78-2 is 12.5 cm or 5 inches.) I could probably photograph Master Grade models in a box of this size as well, as long as I took my photos from up close or used photo editing software to avoid including part of the box itself in my shots.
When shopping for a good commercial light box, look for the following features:
- Collapsible storage. Mine has built-in pockets to store the cables for powering the lights. The box is unfolded and held together at the edges using Velcro. It folds into a 20” x 20” x 2-inch-thick shape for storage. The structure is quite rigid, and there’s enough Velcro that the box can easily be lifted and moved without coming undone.
- An LED ring light. This one is built into the top of the box, providing even lighting at 5600K (something close to bright daylight). The light ring is connected to a cable running out of the box, into a little electronics box with a power switch and built-in dimmer, letting you control the brightness of the light.
- A reflective interior. The inner walls should consist of silver reflector material, to help bounce and diffuse the light inside the tent and reduce unwanted shadows.
- An optional diffuser sheet. You can place it over LED ring, to help spread the light out even more—though it’ll be in exchange for a slight reduction in brightness.
- Front and top opening flaps, to let you take front or top-down shots with your camera.
- Backdrop options. While this isn’t a necessary feature, it can be fun. Mine has four different colors of background paper (white, black, grey, and blue). The backgrounds are vinyl and have Velcro on the back, allowing you to easily attach and detach between shots.
How I Use My Commercial Light Box
When I’m ready to photograph a model, all I have to do is place it in the light box, turn it on, and start snapping pics. It doesn’t matter if the lighting in my workspace is bright because the photos get all the light they need from the built-in LED. You can see that even with the room lights dimmed, the interior of the light box is still bright enough for me to take photos.
And now for some results! The following pictures were taken with a Pixel 4 and its native camera app, with the diffuser sheet installed in the light box. The photos were not edited whatsoever. Shown is the HGUC 1/144 Jagd Doga (Quess version) that I built recently—you can see this was my first attempt at scribing custom panel lines, and as it was only my third kit ever, I want to work on my panel lining skills too. I think they came out pretty good!
Light boxes are a great tool to up your Gunpla photography game. Whether you choose to buy or build one, it can absolutely help show off all the best qualities of the model you’ve poured all your hard work into!
Garlock can be found on Twitter at @cptngarlock, tweeting about his Gunpla builds and complaining about his day job.