Are you thinking about taking your product and still life photography to the next level, but can’t decide if it’s worth buying a light tent? Lighting options can be confusing, especially if you’ve only ever used natural or ambient light. It can be tempting to buy a light tent, as they seem to make it very easy to get beautiful photos – but do they really?
First off, what is a light tent? Contrary to popular belief, light tents aren’t temporary shelters that photographers live in when they’re down on their luck; I learned this the hard way.
A light tent is basically a wireframe cube covered in thin white fabric, creating a very soft, diffused lighting environment inside. One side is left open so you can point your camera in and photograph whatever’s inside. They come in a variety of sizes, with standard ones being a foot or two wide. For reference, the one that I’m inside of is 4 feet wide.
As mentioned above, photographers are often drawn to light tents since they promise to make lighting simple and pain-free. This is actually pretty accurate. Light tents are like giant lighting equalizers; no matter how you position lights around it, you’ll get something fairly well lit. If you want to take photos using the ambient lighting in your room, or small lamps, a light tent eliminates the hot spots that the lights would otherwise cause and generally makes everything look a little bit nicer.
PRO: Diffuses ambient lighting into a more flattering light.
For this reason, light tents are very useful for small business owners and less serious photographers who don’t want to mess around with fancy lighting and just want some photos that show what an object looks like. Lots of photos for eBay and other e-commerce listings use light tents, as simple white backdrop product shots are so easy to do with them. As an example, I took two photos of a GoPro. One’s in a light tent, the other uses a couple foam-core reflectors positioned around it.
In the light tent:
With custom set-up:
The two photos are very similar, though you can see some slight differences due to the perspective and how I lit it. To get the two looking exactly the same would take a fancier lighting set-up than I used, though it would be possible. I actually think the light tent photo turned out best here, and it took less time to set-up. So for simple shots like this, a light tent really is a great option. Plus, it allows for great consistency – as long as you don’t totally change the lighting outside the tent, every shot will be lit in approximately the same why. This is another huge advantage for people selling many items online.
PRO: Consistent results.
Unfortunately, the light tent has a huge weakness. It’s not something that really matters for people who are selling on eBay, but for creative photographers, it makes the light tent pretty much useless.
Light tents are boxes.
Yep, that’s the big weakness. You can’t do anything with a box – you have a finite amount of room, and anything happening outside of that box is irrelevant. Want to include a background in the photo? Too bad. Hoping to use some of those cool lighting tricks from Lighting 101/201? The light tent dashes your dreams to the ground.
CON: Light tents limit creative potential.
If you’re seriously interested in creating beautiful photos, you will find yourself limited to mediocrity by the light tent. You simply can’t manipulate light the way you need to when you’re stuck working in a tiny box. You’re much better off with pieces of foam-core, tracing paper for reflectors, and cheap speedlights or even desk lamps for light.
Here’s an example, using a whiskey bottle as the subject. There’s nothing all that fancy about this shot, but you can see that reflective objects like glass and jewelry will be problems for a light tent.
In the light tent:
Arguably, it fits the brand since it kind of looks old and dirty, but I’m going to guess that most people would prefer this next shot, taken with a custom lighting set-up:
The only difference is that I had the flexibility to place lights and reflectors in different locations; places that the light tent would have blocked. For highly reflective objects, it’s impossible to get a beautiful shot inside a light tent. You need very precise control over where every light is, and trying to work around a translucent box of fabric will just give you headaches.
Light tents are great tools for people who want to simply show an object, and have consistent lighting between photos without having to think about it. It’s perfect for getting shots of things you’re selling online. For photographers who are looking to create beautiful images that truly showcase the subject, a light tent will just slow you down. Do yourself a favor and don’t spend money on a light tent – buy some foam-core and diffusion screens instead, and learn how to assemble lighting set-ups that bring out the best in whatever you photograph.
What do you think? Does a light tent have a place in your bag, or are they a waste of money for your style of photography?