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How To Build a Field Studio Light Table

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To photograph animals, insects and plants in the field the way the Meet Your Neighbours Project does, you need a way to support them against a white background. The DIY light table is a perfect field studio that you can take everywhere. Let's see how it is done.

A studio field light table lets you have a portable white background to photograph invertebrates and more in the field, the MYN way.

The original idea for this field studio table came from Clay Bolt, co-founder of the international project, Meet Your Neighbours. The project promotes nature and conservation by examine the wildlife around you. Bolt wanted to have a portable table, easy to carry everywhere and assemble without the need for tools. It had to be light and fit in his backpack.

Clay Bolt used the table for the first time at the National Geographic BioBlitz in Rock Mountain Park, Colorado, to shoot the in the Meet Your Neighbours style, and wrote a note about it in MYN's blog. This was last August and I was hooked when I looked at it. But I wanted something different. Before telling you how I built it, though, let me explain you, through the words of Niall Benvie, the other co-founder of the project, the MYN concept when it comes to photography.

Niall Benvie is responsible for the MYN concept when it comes to photography. He has perfected the technique of photographing against white backgrounds for over five years. Intrigued by the look of images shot in the studio against white backgrounds he wanted to apply the idea with something else: backlighting. For that he needed a translucent background, and a portable one, as he did not want to move his subjects to the studio, but rather shoot them in their environment.

To photograph subjects like flowers you can use a reflector/diffuser as the background.

The white surface of a diffuser or softbox with a flash behind it can be used to obtain the result, and the system works well with plants and animals that can be photographed where they are found, but for small invertebrates that you need to move the soft tissue of a diffuser would not be a good solution. So a piece of acrylic is used.

The exact specifications of the material used are explained in the technical documents available at Meet Your Neighbours website. And Niall Benvie even wrote, recently, a long explanation of the method  and how the technique has been refined with the introduction of new solutions that make it easier for various photographers to explore the MYN way of photographing the world.

Besides the simplicity that exhales from the images, and that was what first struck me, there is a unique advantage in the process: as the white background is a pure white, the images can easily be used directly on a white page, which makes them suitable for educational books and other materials that need to show a clear image of the subject.

Also, as shown on various presentations from MYN, the different pictures can easily be mixed in a composite image. And this is not a Photoshop cutout but a final image made in the field and simply retouched in Adobe Lightroom.

The same flower photographed against a white and with a natural background. The white background centers the attention on the flower and offers other options in terms of use.

Although MYN images are shot in the field, the protocol does suggest that you can move specimens to a "field studio" under the condition that "any subjects that require to be handled must be returned as soon as possible to the spot from which they were collected. Photographers are expected to observe the normal ethical standards of their discipline."

This is an interesting option, but for that to happen and in the case of invertebrates you need somewhere to place them. I had tried to support the acrylic sheet I use with clamps on a tripod but it was not a perfect solution. It was then that I saw Clay Bolt's note on his portable table. He used PVC pipe and connectors bought for a few dollars at a home improvement center. It looked great.

I looked around to find the exact same materials but although I could find the PVC pipe, I could not find suitable connectors. Those used by Clay are from a gardening watering system, but we do not have something similar in my country. I visited a few shops until I came to my own solution, aided by employees at one home improvement center I visited. They were so surprised when I told them what I wanted to build that they helped me to find the exact pieces to get my own table. So here is the story of how I got my own table.


1. Your Table Materials

The connectors with 3 spigots are essential to build a table. And the system used also has end caps for the legs.

For the field studio table I bought different materials from a brand found in Portugal, but that you can also buy internationally: Alfer. They're specialists in aluminium, but they also have a whole section of materials in PVC, so I could find within their Combitech range a solution that is accessible to everyone.

My main concern was the connection corner, that seemed hard to find, but they have exactly what I needed (see image above): the 90º edge connector with 3 spigots with a reference size of 23.5mm. I also decided to buy some end caps (image above) for the legs of my table, to make them stronger.


2. Leg Sizing Issues

My final table ready to be taken anywhere. In a few seconds, I can set it up and start photographing

The connectors are 23.5mm in size because the tube used for the legs is also 23.5mm in size. I did not have much choice as this was the only PVC tube the shop stocks, but this seems to be the ideal diameter for stability, so I can not complain. But the Combitech system does offer other sizes, 29.5 and 35.5mm that you may find in your area. From my experience now, I think the 23.5mm size is good enough, as it supports my table.

The Combitech tube in the catalogue comes in two sizes: 1 meter and 2.5 meters. I could only find the one meter tube so I had to start with them. But then I had to decide how many tubes I needed and that depended on the height of the table. I bought 6 tubes, 4 edge connectors and 4 end caps and went home. I wanted a big table, with one meter high legs!


3. Determining Table Height

The table from Clay Bolt that inspired me seemed a little too low for my liking. I understand photographers, especially nature photographers working with plants and small animals, work a lot on their knees, but I do not think it is the most comfortable way to photograph.

I believe that the more comfortable you can be when photographing, the better you can direct your efforts to better composition, define exposure and explore options. So I opted for a high table, that I can use standing up, moving around it. I've tested it in the field and it works just fine.


4. Start Building

Two small clamps that should always be in the backpack of a photographer - and bigger ones too - are used to keep the acrylic sheet in place.

I cut two of the tubes to have a longer side of 60cm with a shorter side of 40cm. That is enough to support a sheet of translucent acrylic (not shiny) I use to photograph in the field. Having done that I just had to "build" the table. Once I had fixed the end caps, I just had to insert the connectors on top of the legs, where they remain, and connect the whole structure. Done. I placed the acrylic sheet on top and to keep it in place I used two small clamps I bought and that are good enough to hold the sheet firmly.


5. Testing It at Home

The first tests at home convinced me that my new outdoors photography tool is going to have some use in the future.

My first tests at home, with my always present plastic lizard reveal that the system works just fine. I am happy with the table, but I am also considering the option to cut the legs shorter, and use a Combitech straight connector to extend them when I want to.

This will give me the option to work either standing or sitting down. I do not want to do that right now, but I've envisaged the options and I want to use the table with my Walkstool bench, a field solution I've used since they first came on the market.


6. Your First Results

This is the kind of result you get with a table like this. The lizard was returned to its habitat once the session ended.

The image of my friendly lizard shows what can be obtained with a light table. To achieve this you have to place a flash under the translucent acrylic and another flash, with diffuser, above it. Getting the exposure just right is the trick of this. You start by adjusting the background lighting in a way so there is no spill forward, and only then can you introduce the front flash. And you should work with both flashes in manual - and camera also - for absolute control.


7. The Lighting System

My solution is based in a Rogue Flash Bender with diffuser panel and a Rogue Grid, but you can build your own system of lighting.

The MYN project has some suggestions in terms of lighting equipment, and Niall Benvie has also discovered the joys of using small flashes instead of bigger, although portable, studio strobes. You'll find specific information on his article I mention above.

This said, I've tried other solutions, even more portable, and I can say I am very happy with them. My setup is based on two Canon flashes, a 580 EX II and a 430 EX II, with a Phottix Odin radio system trigger (TCU and two receivers), so I don't need cables or have to depend on IR communication.

In terms of light modeling, I use the bigger ExpoImaging Rogue Flash Blender with the Diffusion Panel on the flash positioned under the acrylic sheet, for a soft, controllable emission of light. I use a tripod to support the system, so I can move the center column up or down to adjust the distance between the flash and the acrylic sheet.

For the top light, I have an unusual setup based on a Rogue Grid with the 45º honeycomb grid and a Heavy Frost Diffusion filter in front. It is a small but powerful light for small objects or animals. The 430 EX II flash used with the grid is placed atop another tripod or a studio light stand with a Manfrotto Justin Clamp with hotshoe on top, for the versatility of the system.


8. Other Lighting Solutions

The table does not have to be used for invertebrates. It can be used to photograph any small objects you can place on the surface. The limit is your imagination.

Some of the equipment used, like camera and tripods or light stands to support the flashes is common to any system you want to build yourself and you'll probably already have them. But for those starting to use flash, there are various options in terms of lighting.

I use two Canon flashes because that's what I have, but if you're on a budget you can look for cheaper manual only flashes (no TTL or HSS , just plain regular sync, at speeds up to 1/250 usually). It is more than enough for this kind of work, and in fact for most other flash photography.

One solution usually referred by people is the Yongnuo YN-560 II speedlite, a manual only flash that costs around $75. Another common option is the Vivitar 285 for a around $85. Use which ever is more available in your area. You can also look at the offer from brands like Nissin, Metz or search in e-Bay for an older Vivitar flash.


9. Diffusers and Reflectors

As stated above, I use the Rogue Flash Benders and Rogue Grid for much of my flash and macro photography. It does what I want, so I am happy. But nothing stops you from following Nial Benvie's advice in terms of softboxes, diffusers and all other ways to control light.

In fact I also use, sometimes, a small Ezybox Speedlite from Lastolite as well as a bigger Joe McNally EzyBox, and even a big Joe McNally Skylite (1.1x1.1 meters) if I need to. But mostly I carry the Rogue system in my backpack, because I like to use stuff I can carry with me everywhere.

Most of the things I'm shooting are small anyway, although I've used the concept to photograph birds of prey, a project I've been working on for some time and that I wrote about previously here at Phototuts+. Please see How to Photograph Birds of Prey in White.


10. Portability

The results with small living animals will look like this, once you get all your lighting right.

Truth to be told, my field studio light table is not the most portable system, because of the acrylic sheet (it's 65x45cm) and the one meter legs used. But I've built it to work at some locations I visit regularly and where I can carry it from the car easily.

A bag like Photoflex's Transpac Outbound Case, made to carry stuff like light stands, umbrellas, cables and frames is a good solution, but any bag that can accommodate the one meter long legs is welcome. I use my Lastolite Skylite bag to take the table, Justin Clamps, light stands and tripod. The acrylic sheet is carried in a plastic protective sleeve and is the most cumbersome piece of equipment, in fact. But it is essential.


Looking to the Future

Building this table as led me to be curious about alternatives, and now that I know enough about the DIY options from Combitech, I am thinking of another table, with lower height, with a smaller piece of acrylic sheet (bought elsewhere), that I really can carry with me anywhere.

That's something I think I'll end up doing, because I see no end to the options of using a white background for a lot of photography in the field. Things like tree leaves in Autumn photographed with light through them to show texture. But that's something I may write about in the future. For now, go build your own light table the MYN way and enjoy it.

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