The DIY Light Table – A Weekend Project


Here’s a great project for a weekend. The DIY Light Table, courtesy of Félix Ménard (Flickr).

The idea behind the light table is simple. Things look really great if the light is passing through them. As opposed to light being reflected off them. This is why slides look so good, this is why we love vitrage windows in churches.

A light table is the perfect way to inspect slides, negs and to do some really interesting art.

This project by Felix uses an old desktop (from when desktops were actually made from wood and did not have any chips in them), however, a similar project can be made with more temporary means which are great for a weekend project. I’ll discuss this towards the end.

Felix Never-Break-Really-Permanent Light Table

Let’s see how Felix approached the light table project, materials first:

  • Table or desk ($15) Found at the local eco-centre (a user-friendly dump) – That two points for environment friendliness right there.
  • White piece of plastic to diffuse the light ($12). Plexi is very
    expensive so I’ve cut a part of these opaque white diffuser for ceiling
    fluorescent tube.
  • Glass (7$)
  • Fluorescent lights (2x $10)
  • Extension cord ($1)
  • Thin foil, tape, glue, screws, electrical switch, etc (few dollars)

Here is how you go about building the table. Now those instructions are for a real table. I’ll switch to quick and dirty hacks in the end.

First thing, mark the size of the hole you’d like to cut from the table. It should be as big as you can without going outside of the underlying box.

The DIY Light Table - A Weekend Project

Next step is cutting the board. This is, as Felix mentioned really easy if you have the right tools. You can take the board of the hinges to make it easier. Once the table top is cut, install it back.

The DIY Photography Light Table - A Weekend Project

We’re almost there. Now glue some tinfoil on the internals of the box. The tinfoil really helps to get the diffusion right and avoid any hotspots. Another more permanent, yet time consuming, option is to spray paint the internal with silver paint.

Last step is to install the fluorescent lights. The best options is to place the lights in parallel, pointing to the sides of the box in opposite directions. (You can use more lights if you want to, this will give your table the option to double as a softbox as well)

The DIY Photography Light Table - A Weekend Project

This is how the final product looks like.

And this is how it looks like when it is used to examine slides (yea, those square things that used to capture excellent quality images. And don’t tell me that digital can do it better… OK, you can tell, just don’t start a film Vs. Neg flame)

The DIY Photography Light Table - A Weekend Project

How To Make It Portable, Sofboxy And Flashy

OK, the Desktop Light really rocks, however, here are some ideas that play on the theme.

Make It Portable – Felix used a desk which made his construction a full-fledged light table. There are other options, though – use a wine crate instead of an old desk and you – A. Don’t need to cut anything and B. Can move it easily from location to location. You don’t even have to glue the plastic on. Don’t have a wine crate? Good! Simply use the cardboard box you were going to throw away.

Make It Double As A Softbox – yes, that’s right. If it is portable and have enough power it can be used as a soft box. Simply turn the box on its side and you have an instant softbox. How to get more power, you ask. Use more fluorescents.

Use Flash For Lighting – you can use one or more small flashes to light the table. A similar setup using transparent glass was the base for the infamous Corona shot. This of course will not help you browse your slides, but it can surely kick on the next section:

What’s With The Pacman Thing?

The DIY Photography Light Table - A Weekend ProjectOK, the Packman thing is what happens when you light through thin slices of fruit. The light going through the fruit reveal its texture.

The same effect is shown on the left in a peppermint leaf image made by Ciro Boro.

While taking such image may look easy it hides a few challenges. On the camera side, you’ll have to deal with flare coming from the relatively huge surface that is being lit. The best option to manage this flare is to block all non relevant parts on that table with black paper or cardboard (read more on the best photography book ever – Light, Science and Magic, chapter 7)

On the fruit side you have to cut the fruit thin. It is easier to cut a fruit when it is hard – use hard, not very ripe fruits. A super sharp chef’s knife will also help. Don’t mind the price, anything for a good picture!!