$40 Home Depot Photo Lighting Setup for Clothing Photos

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An inexpensive and compact system for lighting hanging/modeled clothing for photography with true color representation and no shadows, using items widely available at any home improvement store.             

Introduction:

I'm primarily a clothing seller, and have experimented with different lighting setups for years - tried all the standbys, halogen (too yellow), Reveal bulbs (too spotty), strobes, (potentially great pics, but too inconsistent), outdoors (wind and shadows) and I think I've stumbled on a keeper - cost me $40 at Home Depot. Is it the "best" setup? Certainly not. But it's got two huge things going for it. It's compact and stowable, and it's probably about the best lighting setup until you spend ten times the money on professional photo lighting.

The Hardware:

  • The Fixtures: Two two-tube, 48" (4') fluorescent shop lights available at just about any home improvement store and many general retailers. Mine were roughly $7.50 each at Home Depot where they had three different kinds labeled "Good", Better", and "Best". I chose the bottom of the line. I don't know why you'd need anything better. You specifically want 48" fluorescent shop lights. There are thousands of kinds of fluorescent lights and several different kinds of shop lights. The key things are that they take a pair of 48" fluorescent tubes, have a cord to plug into an outlet, and they'll have a bit of light chain you may or may not want later. They generally look like this:

  • The Bulbs: This is the REALLY important part. The color of light is measured in Kelvin. It's an oversimplification, but "White Light" is 5000K and you need four 5000K "daylight" or "natural color" tubes for your fixtures. Different manufacturers call them different things, but the important thing is that somewhere on the package it says "5000K" - nothing else will do. and yes, they're the most expensive bulbs in the store ($6 each) - don't skimp! And no - more isn't better. In this case, more is bluer (less is yellower).
  • Tripod: This isn't counted in the 40 bucks. I assume you already have one.
  • Camera: Nothing fancy required. About the only settings you need are "White Balance" and "Manual Shutter Speed"
  • Backdrop: Most people use a white (or contrasting) sheet. It's a starting point. You can get creative as you go.
  • Mounting: Infinite possibilities for mounting the lights, hanging the clothing, and hanging the backdrop.

The Setup:

This is where the infinite possibilities comes in. The exact setup is going to be up to your space, budget, creativity, and experimentation. The basics are what you're going for, though, are
  • The Lights: The most important thing here is that you position the lights vertically (tubes straight up and down - the opposite of how you've ever seen a shop light mounted before. The reason for this is that you're illuminating the garment from top to bottom (or most of it in the case of long coats and dresses and such) with even light.
  • There are a myriad of ways to do this. If you're shooting with wood joists overhead, it can be as simple as screwing in cup hooks and using the chains that came with the lights. If you have sheetrock or suspended ceilings, you'll need special hooks. Some people build bases out of 2x4s and mount the lights to them.
  • Start with the two fixtures about four feet apart and about three feet from where you're going to be hanging your clothing. Angle each fixture in slightly so it's "pointing" at where you're going to be hanging your clothes. Don't commit yourself to placement yet! You're going to be doing a lot of experimentation - find out what placement works for you - further apart? closer together? further from the item? closer to it? I even know someone who swears up and down he gets better results by placing one light closer to the clothing than the other.
  • The Backdrop: Basically only one rule: Don't hang the item on the backdrop! The more flexibility you have with the distance between the lights, the item, and the background - the better. What we're doing is illuminating the full length of the item from both sides, canceling out shadows on the garment. There WILL be shadows on the backdrop BUT when you work it right, they're squarely behind the item you're photographing and you'll never see them.
  • Some Setup Pictures: I shoot in a bathroom. I have a second shower rod mounted in the back of my tub for the backdrop, hang my clothing item on the front (regular shower rod), and hang the lights from the ceiling. I don't take any pictures of the setup, but someone who's adopted the system has been gracious enough to allow me to share some pictures of her setup. (Bonus: note that she uses a mannequin, and keeps it on a turntable - clever).


Shooting and Beyond

  • Flash: No
  • Tripod: Yes (And remember to use the short timer or remote control so your finger's not on the camera when the shutter fires)
  • White Balance: A lot of this depends on your camera. I have one with a 5000K setting. Short of that, the best White Balance setting is "Manual", where it lets you hold a piece of paper or whatnot in front of the camera to "tell it what's white". Consult your owner's guide for details on your white balance settings. If you don't have a manual setting... try them all!
  • Shutter speed: Try a bunch! Just purely as a starting point, everything I shoot, I shoot three times. One at 1/4, one at 1/8, and one at 1/15. I find I use the 1/8 as often as not for long shots except on very dark items, and the 1/15 for closeups, with just enough exceptions that I still shoot all three. This almost certainly won't be your preferred shooting solution, but maybe it's a start.
  • Post: Other than accurate color representation, one of the best things about this setup is it eliminates all visible shadows from the shot. If you have a sufficiently "contrasty" background, you can now use the magic wand in your photo editor to "pop off the background" and "float" your pictures if you like:

  • Versatility: Now that you've got a couple of 5000K lights and know about color temperature, white balance, and shadow cancellation, you're not limited to just hanging items. You can mount them over a table and shoot other items as well...

Conclusion

  • Anyway: I think it's the best $40 I ever spent as far as eBay stuff goes, so I thought I'd share - hope it helps someone!
  • Questions/Comments: Feel free to contact me through eBay.
  • Discuss: For more tips, hints, answers, setup ideas, photos, and general discussion with users, visit this discussion on the eBay Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories Forum.
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