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Three Stages to Better Photos of LEGO Creations


Stage 3: Using a Light Tent

Using a tripod as in Stage 2 is important to getting sharp and detailed pictures of LEGOs.  However, the tricky part of using a tripod is managing the lighting.  Even with three or more external lights, trying to reduce dark areas, over-bright areas, and shadows can be tricky and tedious because the results will vary a lot depending on the lights you use and the shape of your robot.  In addition, getting the white balance right can be tricky when using external lights mixed with room lighting.

The ultimate solution to these problems, and the way to get fully professional results, is to use a light tent, such as the EZcube.  The nylon material diffuses the lighting from external lights so that the light is well distributed evenly around the model and shadows are greatly reduced and softened.

The models on nxtprograms.com are taken using the 30" EZcube, which is a good size for most LEGO robots, and the product conveniently folds up into a small pouch when you are not using it.   If you get a light tent, you will also find it a convenient way to take excellent photos of any small "still life" objects for various reasons such as selling on eBay, etc.

Choosing a Background

The EZcube comes with a white background "sweep", but white does not work well as a background for NXT robots because the white LEGO pieces blend into the background too easily.  For the same reason, you don't want a gray or black background.  So, the photos on nxtprograms.com are taken using a light beige background.  The actual background used is a sheet of pastel art paper, which has a nice matte (non-reflective) finish, and a very subtle texture to further break up shadows and reflections.

Getting the Best Lighting

Although you can use any lighting with a light tent (even just the camera's flash will produce better results if allowed to reflect inside the tent), the best results will be obtained by using three external lights with daylight florescent bulbs.  This will ensure strong, even lighting, and a perfect "white balance" that you won't need to adjust afterwards.  This whole setup can be bought here as a convenient kit, but you could also use your own lights.  Using this kit, you should place the two main lights directly on either side of the light tent.  For LEGO robots and parts, I suggest normally placing the third accent light in front down low (on its stand without the boom), with the EZcube's small round storage pouch placed over it to diffuse it, as shown below. 
 

EZcube Light Tent with three external lights

You can also position or hold the third accent light wherever you want to get more light in certain areas for special situations. 

Finally, to get a perfect and consistent white balance with this setup, you should turn off the room lights and draw the shades to eliminate other light sources.  An example of what happens if you forget this can be found in in Building Step 17 of the Car with Game Controller Project, where I added a picture afterwards as an intermediate step but forgot to turn off the room lights.

 


Light Tent Settings for Point and Shoot Cameras

You can get excellent results with a Point and Shoot camera using a tripod and a light tent, and the settings are similar to the Tripod Settings for Point and Shoot Cameras, although you can get the camera a little closer.  For the Canon A570, I used:
  • Camera on Tripod

  • No Flash

  • Camera about 2 feet away from the robot, using the optical zoom to make the robot fill the frame. 

  • Aperture Priority mode with the f-stop set to f/8

  • ISO 80.

  • White balance set to "Daylight" when using daylight florescent lights.

  • 2 second self-timer delay

  • Fill Light and Highlights added via digital editing afterwards as desired

Using these settings on the Canon A570 results in the following photo:

Canon A570 on tripod, EZcube light tent kit with daylight florescent lights,
Aperture Priority mode at f/8, ISO 80, White balance set to Daylight,
2 second self-timer delay, Fill Light and Highlights added

 


  Light Tent Settings for SLR Cameras

For convenience and consistency when taking multiple pictures in a light tent (such as when making the building instructions on nxtprograms.com), it is best to use an SLR camera in Manual exposure mode.  You can make some test shots at different shutter speeds to determine the correct exposure for the lights you are using, then use these settings for all of your light tent photos.  Most of the photos on nxtprograms.com are taken at the following settings:
  • Camera on Tripod

  • No Flash

  • Camera about 2 feet away from the robot, 50mm focal length. 

  • Manual exposure mode, f-stop at f/16, shutter speed at 1/1.6 (0.6) sec

  • Auto ISO off, ISO 100.

  • White balance set to 5000k when using daylight florescent lights.

  • 2 second self-timer delay, or remote shutter release cable

  • JPEG format, Large, Normal compression, but sharpness set to Extra Sharp (enhances edges)

  • Fill Light and/or Highlights added via digital editing afterwards as desired

Using these settings on the Nikon D200 gives the following result:

Nikon D200 on tripod,  EZcube light tent kit with daylight florescent lights,
no flash, 50mm focal length, Manual mode at f/16 for 1/1.6 (0.6) sec, ISO 100,
White Balance 5000k, JPEG Large/Normal/Extra Sharp, Fill Light added


Useful Accessories

For added convenience when taking multiple pictures in a light tent, it is helpful to get a remote shutter release cable for your SLR camera, so you don't need to use a 2 second self-timer delay when taking each picture.  In addition, you could consider using a lightweight fixed (non-zoom) 50mm lens to make the camera easier to handle on the tripod.  Zooming is not necessary (you can crop to get close-ups), and it is better to keep a fixed 50mm setting for a natural and consistent perspective anyway.  The Nikon D200 with these two accessories is shown below.
 


Nikon D200 with remote shutter release cable and fixed 50mm lens

 


Summary of Light Box Photo Settings

 Point & Shoot 

 SLR 

EZcube with 3 daylight fluorescent lights (left, right, low front)
No Flash
Camera on tripod about 2 feet from robot
Optical zoom to fill frame Focal length 50mm
Aperture Priority mode at f/8 Manual exposure mode at
f/16 for 1/1.6 (0.6) sec
Sensitivity manual at ISO 80 Auto ISO off, ISO 100
White Balance "Daylight" White Balance 5000k
Self-timer with 2 second delay Self-timer with 2 second delay,
or remote shutter release cable
Resolution Large, Fine (normal) JPEG Large, Normal compression,
but "Extra Sharp"

Use digital photo editing software to add Fill Light and/or Highlights afterwards as desired

 

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2007-2011 by Dave Parker.  All rights reserved. 
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