04 November 2013

"The Making of Juanathan" | 10 Steps to Better Blog Photos

Every single time I sit in a room with a bunch of bloggers to brainstorm super-genius ways to collectively improve our blogs (and, let's be real: bump up our traffic) one idea always gets a lot of traction:

Photos. GOOD ONES. Take 'em and post 'em. Because all the awesome blogs have 'em.

Sure, it's about content. If you're boring, you're boring. All the great photos in the world won't make you interesting if you don't have a compelling story to sell in the first place. It doesn't matter how great an editing job you do on a picture of a rock, it's still just a picture of rock. Obviously, subject matter counts.

But assuming you are super sparkling and adorable and amazing and folks hang on your every (written) word, it's time to back that shit up with some phantasmagoric photos. Because the words are what draw them in, but it's the pictures that are going to get pinned and shared and tweeted like crazy, and that's the good stuff that drives up your traffic.

With that in mind, a fair while back I made an investment in the blog (and in myself) and bought a new camera. The old one, a little Fuji point-and-shoot, had done me well over the years and taken some of my favourite photographs ever. But it was feeling its age and if I wanted to get serious about this 'ole blog of mine (which I do) I needed a camera with a bit more range, so I took advantage of the post-holiday discounts and purchased myself a Canon T3i Rebel, which seems to be the "go to" camera for bloggers like moi. I call him Jimmy.

These past few months that Jimmy and I have been in a committed relationship have been some of the happiest of my photographic life. He's so versatile, so sophisticated and yet so easy to handle... quite the catch for a gal like me. But even Jimmy can't fully overcome the challenges of bad lighting, and a few days of cloudy, overcast weather a few weeks back brought the idea screeching home: in order to take better, consistent photos, I needed to be able to control the sun.

...... { crickets } ......

Upon further investigation it would seem this is impossible. Fartskittles.

So I did the next best thing: I built myself a light box!

Boo-yah! I did so. I seriously never make, craft or DIY anything, you guys, and I totally did this all by myself. And YOU CAN TOO!

In just 10 easy steps, you can control the sun in your very own home and take the awsmazing photos you've been dreaming about. Here's how:

STEP ONE | Collect your "ingredients"

You'll need:
  1. White tissue paper
  2. Ruler
  3. Box cutter or heavy duty Xacto knife
  4. Double-sided tape (or regular Scotch tape would do just fine, too)
  5. Clamp-on work light x 2 or 3 (though if you have a few desk lamps hanging around, these will work just fine too)
  6. Duck tape
  7. Sharpie marker
  8. Self-adhesive Velcro
  9. Light bulbs (I suggest using 100w "daylight" bulbs, which offer a clear white light)

Oh, and you'll also need a box, one that's at least 12" x 12" x 12" but larger is better (and easier to work with.) Depending on the condition of your box (better is better), you might want to reinforce the back seam with duck tape before proceeding to Step #2.

STEP TWO | Measure

On each of the solid sides of the box (all four, if you're me, or two sides and the top if you prefer) and along all four flaps, measure two (2) inches from all four edges and mark with a pencil (which I forgot to include in the fab photo of things you'll need... my bad. The Sharpie would work too.)

When you've marked each edge the requisite two inches, it's time to....

STEP THREE | Connect the dots

You should end up with an inner box on each side that gives you a solid (and equal) framework all around the outside.

STEP FOUR | Pull an Uncle Joey and...

All of your inner boxes, and the flaps too. Cut it all out. You won't need these cardboard inserts for anything down the road (to do with the light box) so go ahead and discard/recycle them. Unless you're crafty or whatever, then by all means keep them for.... whatever it is you might do with them. I'm not crafty so I don't know. But I assume it's something awesome.

Moving on.

It should look like this (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) when you're done:

STEP FIVE | Time to Tape

First, you'll want to fold your two-inch flaps down over one another and tape them together to create a "lip" similar to your other 3 or 4 sides, like so...

Then, if you've got some spare time and really wanted to, you could reinforce all the edges with your duck tape. This takes a bit of time and you can totally skip this part. I totally did (except the flaps, that is; that shit's mandatory.)

STEP SIX | Grab a Tissue

I used white tissue paper from the dollar store, which is huge... 20" x 30" maybe? I'm not sure exactly, but I bought it because it's cheap and plentiful. I suggest you do the same but it's your call.

Take up between three and five sheets of tissue paper for one side (the more paper you use, the less opaque the sides will be, which strangely makes the inside of the box much "whiter" than with fewer sheets, which is weird and I can't explain it, since I'm neither a scientist nor an electrician, but you can trust me that it's true.)

Trim your tissue paper to roughly the size of your cut-out, ensuring that the paper overlaps the edge by at least an inch. Fasten the paper to the box at each corner with your double-sided/Scotch tape to hold it in place, then tape each side corner-to-corner with duck tape.

Full disclosure: I fully forgot to take photos of this step because I got really excited when it was happening and totally engrossed, and I'm an asshat. So just refer back to Step #5 and check out the pic of the flaps being taped down, because it's essentially the same thing except there's tissue paper involved.

Here, I know you're lazy. I am too, so I'll do you a solid.

See what I did there? Supported your laziness AND recycled!

You're welcome.

And here's a shot from when I DID actually remember to take one, in which the light box is totally done but I've captioned it like I meant it to reflect the process of fastening the diffuser (by which I mean the the tissue paper, in case my talkin' fancy got you confused,)

So you see what I mean.

STEP SEVEN | Congratulate Yourself

You've just made a light box!!

That's pretty badass, dude. Seriously. Pat yourself on the back and give yourself a big high-five, because that's just awesome.

And yes, high-fiving yourself winds up looking more like clapping so yeah.... you could be applauding yourself also. Or at the same time. Two birds and all that.

Whatever. It's all good. Manhandle yourself however you like to congratulate yourself because dude? You've done good!

STEP EIGHT | Set Up Your Studio

The beauty of a little light box like this is that you can set it up virtually anywhere in your house that you have a flat surface and access to electrical sockets. For purposes of demonstration I hijacked my dining room table, and have refused to move ever since. The family is less than thrilled but that gigantor floor lamp that I hoisted up on top to serve as my overhead light is freaking heavy, so I have no intention of hauling it up and down every time I want to take a snapshot of something.

No. Waaaaay.

Once I get my office into semi-decent condition (and get a desk, which is critical to the operation), I'll move it upstairs and out of everyones' way. Until then, it stays put.

Sidebar: Does anyone have a desk for sale? I'm in the market.

But I digress.

Basically, you need to set up your box on a flat surface that gives you flexible camera angles and allows you to position your lights as required. This is also why my dining room table is perfect, since the clamp lights are the exact perfect height when fastened to the back of my dining room chairs.

See how bright it is on the inside? That's the good stuff right there. Clear, even lighting on all sides is what you're looking for, to minimize shadows and highlight details. You can't see from the photo above but all four sides of my box are fixed with a diffuser in the event I want to do any top-down (overhead) photo shoots in future. This isn't necessary, but it does give me added flexibility.

And there's nothing I like better than bending things to my will.


Except maybe dill pickle chips. But again, I digress.

The beauty of having diffusers on all four sides also allows me use my light box horizontally or vertically.

Just more options. I'm all about options.

STEP NINE | Backgrounds Are The Bomb

You can use whatever you want as a background: Bristol board, fabric, plastic sheeting.... whatever strikes your fancy. I like a charcoal grey Bristol board in matte finish, but that's just me. You can use whatever you want and in fact, you can set up your box to allow you to have multiple backgrounds that you can swap out according to your moods and what you're photographing.

This is where the self-adhesive Velcro comes in.

Cut your backgrounds down to size: the edges should sit flush against the side edge-to-edge, but have some excess at the bottom (as pictured above.) Once you're happy with the fit, fasten a strip of Velcro to the top of your background, about one inch below the edge. Then, fasten the husband Velcro to the strip on your background, and peel off the adhesive. Press the background into your box to allow the husband to adhere to your box. When you're ready to change out, simply separate the Velcro and Bob's your uncle!

For additional backgrounds, reverse engineer this process. Fasten a new strip of wife Velcro to the husband already in the box, remove the backing, then press your new background onto the strip. Separate as described above.

Again, I'm an asshat who forgot to take photos but take my word for it: it works. And it's super simple. If I can figure it out, you totally can. I'm not just saying that.

STEP TEN | Take Badass Photos of Awesome Shit

Seriously. Start shutterbugging!

Remember these photos?

Courtesy of Juanathan, La Light Box. And there's more to come..... oooooooooh, there's more.

And there you have it! You've just created with your own two hands a way to make your photos ten times better, all in about an hour and a half and a hundred bucks worth of materials. I'm sure you can make one for cheaper, or faster. More power to you if you can. And I know I'm not breaking any sort of revolutionary ground here with these instructions -- I did Google it, after all, so you know.... it's "out there." But if you didn't know how and really wanted to, I hope you found this helpful!

PS |  The story of Juanathan is this: During a recent episode of the Property Brothers (which is a guilty pleasure that I watch occasionally even though I find the premise completely implausible) Jonathan attempted to convince a couple to name their soon-to-be-born offspring after himself. Jonny, John, Jonita (if it was a girl)... all excellent proposals.

And then he came out with Juanathan (Hwahhhh-nathan) and I seriously laughed for five straight minutes. Juanathan tickled my funny bone something awful. Juanathan is fucking hilarious.

So when I decided to make a light box of my very own, I had an epic OMG moment when I realized I could use the much-coveted mustachioed duck tape I've been trying to weasel into the house for years (but since I'm not handy and never DIY, there never was a good time. You can understand why.) HERE was the perfect opportunity, and what better to name a mustachioed light box than...


And thus my mustachioed friend was born.

How do you feel about DIY'd photo props and accoutrements? Would you use them, and have you built them? I'm looking for a new challenge so hit me up with your amazing projects!