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SLC-OE-06 Chocolate Box Studio

I am happy to announce my brand new studio. It features hardwood floors and a seamless, backlit ceiling as its primary light source.

Sadly, like many studios, this one is a little on the small side: it measures exactly one cubic foot. But that's fine, as this workspace was designed specifically for one subject: chocolates.

Today, we'll be harkening back to the roots of this website, namely working with cardboard and glue to solve a problem for next to nothing.

A Chance Encounter

This past December, my family made a visit to the Hamden neighborhood of Baltimore. We were out to look at Christmas lights—specifically the insanely decorated block known as the Miracle on 34th Street.

While there, we had some dinner and then dropped into a small chocolate shop on "The Avenue" at 36th street. Much to my surprise, the proprietors turned out to be Michelle and Todd Zimmerman. Michelle had been my travel section editor back in the day at The Baltimore Sun. Like many people in the ever-shrinking newspaper industry, Michelle has embraced the chance to have a second career. And thus was born Charm City Chocolate.

With family in tow, we did not have as much time to catch up as I would have liked. But I made a mental note to circle back and see if I could help in any way. Because being a chocolatier is God's work, is it not?

My idea was to help them to be able to make better photos of their chocolates, with nothing more than a smartphone if need be. Which is how the Chocolate Box came to be.

A Single-Purpose Studio

Chocolates are not big. Which means you don't need a lot of space to photograph them. So this entire studio will exist inside a box that is 12"x12"x12".

The idea is to design this box in a way that automatically creates the type of light a food photographer would create if shooting chocolate. I mean, as photographers we will always tweak our light. But when lighting a dark, silky object, our lighting will generally center around a theme of soft, overhead raking backlight. That gives you both the specular false tone needed to show detail, and the shadows needed to show form.

So we are going to design this box as a single-purpose object, built to create that style of light.

Off to Staples

Along with Home Depot, Staples (office supply) is one of my favorite photo stores. I usually get my white and black foam core boards there. But today, we are here for shipping boxes. A one-foot-cubed shipping box is $1.99, or five for $4.99. We'll get five, in case we screw the first one up.

The first step will be to make the box rigid on all sides. So let's glue down the flaps as shown, on both ends. Make sure the glue reaches all of the seams and edges, because we are going to cut windows out of each of these surfaces and we want the remaining joints to be secure.

After using a weight to clamp the bottom as it was drying, I closed the top and did the same thing there.

When that is dried, use a utility knife to slice off about 1/2" of the bottom as shown. We'll soon cut almost all of this glued panel bottom out, creating the internal frame for our diffision material.

Here, we are looking in from the bottom of the now open-bottomed box. The window on the opposite side (which will be the top) has been cut to fit our chosen light source, a $69 variable temperature Neewer LED panel. The window will be large enough for the LEDs to be fully visible, but small enough to allow the surounding frame of the light to rest up top.

The window seen at right will be the front, i.e., the window we'll be shooting through.

We have cut most of the bottom panel away, and are now gluing the remaining rails to the left and right sides of the box. It runs from about 4" from the bottom in the back of the box to about 2" from the top in the front of the box. When we add diffusion material, this will give us our soft, raking top/backlight.

Before we add diffusion material, we'll spray paint the interior of the area below that diffusion panel black. This will help us to kill fill light from reflecting off of the box, and allow us to control contrast. We can easily add white paper to any or all sides as needed, to better reflect and flatten the light if we wish.

Again, this view is through the bottom of the box. The shooting window is seen at camera bottom. The window cut out for the light is seen at center. The rails from the former box bottom are glued at left and right, and are open at top and bottom.

Using those open "slots" at top and bottom, we can feed our diffusion material through and tape it down. I used Rosco Tuff Frost, because I always have some of that lying about somewhere. But you could also use tracing paper or even waxed paper.

Here is the completed box, seen from the top. You can see that the light fits right on top, and is held in place by two brackets made of glued up scrap cardboard, positioned caddy corner from each other.

Even with the diffuser material, this thing gets plenty bright inside.

Oh, and since our studio is 12x12", you can have pretty much any floor you want for next to nothing. A trip down the tile aisle at Home Depot will give you many good options in the single-digit range. I even got some marble.

Since the box is open bottomed, you can of course commandeer any shooting surface you want merely by plopping the Chocolate Box studio down on top of it.


This box is designed to allow Michelle and Todd to easily make (quasi-)professional pictures of their chocolates. After testing it on a cheap box of Whitman chocolates (frankly, these are not in Charm City Chocolate's league) I think the box does a pretty good job of that.

The above photo was done with just a smartphone—a real camera would look better—and quickly edited in Snapseed, a free iOS/Android image processing app.

Crucially, Snapseed gives you two things. First, it has color balance control. This will be necessary to replace the color that the auto balance feature on a smart phone is going to suck out of your chocolate. This is one good reason a real camera would be better, all things being equal. They could set the camera to daylight white balance, and literally dial in the color by eye by adding warmth on the daylight-to-tungsten mixer that this light features.

Second, Snapseed has an excellent "healing" tool, which will allow them to smooth out the little irregularities inherent in any close-up photography.

Again, a real camera on a tripod is going to produce much better results. You'd have control of white balance, focus, depth of field, etc. Close-up chocolate looks dreamy at wider apertures. It's a suggestion I'll make to them. But I wanted to test it with known, worst-case camera gear.

Seamless White is Also a Breeze

You want that chocolate on white? Head over to the printer and grab a couple sheets of paper. (You need at least two to keep tones from bleeding through from beneath.) This is what I did before sneaking Susan's remaining chocolate box heart lid from the pantry for a quick test.

I think it looks pretty good—and again, shot and edited on a phone. If you want a white infinity horizon, just sweep that paper up the back of the box interior.

Hey wait, that means my new studio has a cyc-wall.

For those of you who have been reading this site long enough, this will certainly remind you of my original $10 Macro Studio. The Chocolate Box Studio is an evolution/purpose-built variant of that.

It's basically, Honey, I Shrunk the High-End Automobile Studio. That is, if all of the cars were lumpy VW Bugs painted in chocolate brown.

I am very pleased with the results, and happy to help Michelle and Todd spread the news about their delicious goodies.

And the best part of all? This job is a barter.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook


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