I’ve noticed in the past while that it has become quite trendy (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) for entomologists to photograph insect specimens using a white box. A white box is exactly that—a box that has white inner walls, into which you put your specimen which is then illuminated by bouncing light off the walls. The result is very soft lighting—and if done correctly—a seamless white background. The technique isn’t new—I first read about it in an issue of the Journal of Biological Photography way back in the 1970s. Last year I actually published a book in which most of the photographs were taken using white box techniques. [A low-res copy of the book can be downloaded for free here: Guide to the Identification of Precious and Semi-precious Corals]. But before today I hadn’t tried using a white box to photograph a live animal.
To be honest, I am usually trying to photograph critters with a natural looking setting. So the idea of producing images with an unnaturally white background seemed a bit odd to me at first. But as I saw more photographs of insects shot using a white box I begrudgingly came to appreciate how attractive they can be. This morning I decided to give it a try.
The first thing I had to do was to make a white box. If you search the internet there a great many sites that provide detailed plans for building a white box, some of which are quite involved. As you might already know, I am a big believer in the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid! I didn’t want to make a permanent box that I would have to find someplace to store, and I certainly didn’t want to spend a lot of time (or money) on the project. My white box took me a whole five minutes to build and cost less than $12.00. Best of all, when I was done all the materials went right back in the drawer they came out of.
(3) 24”x30” sheets of white foam core (foam board)
(1) 15” x 30” sheet of smooth white paper
(1) Razor blade
Using the razor blade I sliced two of the foam core sheets into two 24”x15” sections being careful NOT to slice all the way through the boards—I just wanted to cut the top layer of paper and score the polystyrene centre. Folding the boards along the cut snapped the polystyrene but left one layer of paper intact. The paper acted as a hinge between the two sections with the result being sort of like a really big greeting card. By standing each of the folded boards on edge with one section of each board overlapped, I created a three-walled enclosure with the overlapped portion forming the back of the white box (see Figure A). I then taped one edge of the white paper about 4/5 of the way up the back of the white box such that it curved down and formed the floor of the white box (see Figure B). I used painters tape so that I could easily remove it without damaging the surface of the foam core. The remaining (uncut) piece of foam core was just placed on top of the sides to form the ceiling. Voila…a white box with a floor that blended seamlessly into the back. The longest step in the process was probably measuring the foam core before I cut it.
I used a single Vivitar 283 flash and VP-1 Vari-power adapter. The flash was attached to a stand and the head was tilted up and pointed at the inner ceiling of the white box. I situated the flash at the entrance of the box, but to the side out of the way of the way of the camera. Then it was just a matter of a couple of test shots to establish the exposure. I found that setting the flash to 1/8 power gave perfect exposure at a lens aperture of F16.
Once the white box was built and the lighting and exposure figured out, it was time to test it. My subjects today were a couple of mature adult female Macleay’s spectre stick insects (Extatosoma tiaratum). I felt that the colour and spiny texture of these insects would lend themselves nicely to the soft lighting provided by the white box. And the nice thing is that these critters tend to stay in one place and not move much.
As you can see from the photos I have posted here, the white box really did provide beautiful lighting. And I have to admit, a well lit stick insect on a pure white background really does make a nice picture. Of course, there is no reason that I couldn’t use this same technique with a more natural background… I’ll definitely be playing around with more white box photography in the future.
The cool thing is that the entire process: assembling the white box, taking the photos, and disassembling the box took less than 30 minutes.
The technical stuff:
Camera: Olympus E-620 digital SLR
Lens: Zuiko 35mm macro
Settings: manual exposure (F16 @ 1/125 sec)
Lighting: Vivitar 283 flash and VP-1 Vari-power adapter (1/8 power)