Wouldn't it be great to have a studio setup with professional lights such as a softbox for soft, diffused lighting and a hotspot for tightly-focused illumination where you want it? And when you're shooting garden wildlife, wouldn't you love to have a versatile stand to keep your camera steady on any surface? Instead of investing a lot of money in accessories like these, try making your own!
In this article we will show you how to use everyday items to make accessories you can use with your Canon camera and existing equipment to add creative effects and take your photography further.
1. Make your own softbox
If you're taking portraits, then a softbox is a must! It diffuses your light source, making for more visually appealing portraits.
- Cardboard box
- Strong cardboard
- Rubber bands
- Baking parchment or tracing paper (translucent paper works best)
A softbox is ideal for making your light source softer and more flattering for portraits. But you needn't go out and buy a brand new softbox straight away. With a cardboard box, a few sheets of foil and a piece of baking parchment, you can create your own in as little as half an hour. There's minimal cutting involved, and we'll use a neat trick that takes advantage of your Speedlite's plastic stand. Follow these instructions and you'll be able to create more polished portraits with your new softbox in no time at all.
Step 1 - Make a rectangular tube
Fold the cardboard around the top of your Speedlite and securely fasten with tape.
Cut down all four corners and then fold out the panels.
Cut a piece of strong cardboard to fit tightly around your Speedlite. It should measure about double the length of the bendy part of the flash. Tape it securely. Remove the Speedlite and cut along the four corners to about halfway down the length, then bend them so that they splay outwards.
Step 2 - Fasten a Speedlite stand
Tape the plastic stand from your Speedlite to the outside of the box and pierce a hole through the tape so you will be able to thread a screw through it. You will need this to attach the softbox to your tripod.
Hook two rubber bands over two of the cardboard flaps.
Take the plastic stand from your Speedlite and tape it to the cardboard tube (wrap the tape around a few times, then pierce a hole through the tape to the thread so you'll be able to attach the plastic stand to the tripod later). Next, hook two rubber bands over two of the splayed cardboard flaps so that they can be used to fasten your Speedlite within the cardboard tube.
Step 3 - Tape tube to box
Push your Speedlite through the hole in the cardboard box and tape down the four splayed flaps.
Tape the single flap on the outside of the box to the tube.
Position the end of the tube in the centre of your large cardboard box (the bigger the box the more diffused your light will be) and mark around it. Cut around three sides of the marked area, then fold the fourth side upwards to create a single flap. Push your Speedlite tube through the hole from the inside (making sure to feed the elastic bands through too). Tape the four splayed flaps on the Speedlite tube to the inside of the box, and tape the single box flap to the outside of the tube.
Step 4 - Cover the box
Use kitchen foil to create the reflective lining of your homemade softbox and another kitchen essential – baking parchment – to cover the front of the box.
Line the inside of the box with reflective foil. First wrap and stick foil to the top and bottom of the box, then make two angled side panels by taping the ends of two sheets of foil near to the centre of the box on either side. Pull the foil tightly as it leaves the box and fasten down, so you have a triangle-shaped cavity between the foil and the box. The angles will help direct the light. Tape baking parchment or tracing paper over the front of the box. Your DIY softbox is now ready for action. Screw it on to a stand or tripod via the Speedlite's plastic stand and slot your Speedlite into the tube, hooking the rubber bands over the end to hold it in place.
Step 5 - Position the light
It's time to test your softbox – position it to the side and slightly above your subject's face, then trigger the Speedlite to illuminate your image.
The use of the softbox softens the light on the face and adds atmosphere to the final shot.
Position your softbox to one side and slightly above your subject's face. You can trigger the Speedlite in the softbox either by using a second Canon Speedlite attached to the camera hotshoe, or with a wireless trigger (like the Canon ST-E3-RT) or using your pop-up flash (on compatible Canon cameras). As a starting point for your exposure, set your camera to manual mode with exposure at 1/200 sec, ISO 100 and aperture f/5.6. Set the flash to manual power at one-eighth power then take a test shot. If it's too bright or dark then adjust the flash power or aperture until the light looks right.
2. Make a spotlight tube
A focused spotlight is useful for creating all sorts of dramatic effects in your photography.
- Cylindrical, foil-lined crisps tube
- Craft knife or scissors
- Masking tape
A simple snack food tube can be very useful for controlling the spread of your Speedlite. Helpfully, these tubes commonly have a similar diameter to most Speedlites, so you can fit one snugly over the front of yours in seconds. This enables you to tighten the spread of light to create a spotlight or a hair light, and by placing the flash behind your subject to one side, you can add a rim light to pick out edges for a dramatic look.
Step 1 - Cut the tube
The metallic lining in this tube will help to bounce the light from the Speedlite towards the subject.
You'll need a cylindrical tube large enough to fit over the end of your Speedlite, such as a tube of crisps or, in our case, breadsticks. Ideally the container should have a metallic lining, because this helps to bounce light along the tube. Using a craft knife or scissors, cut the end off the tube.
Step 2 - Fit over your Speedlite
Slide the tube over your Speedlite. It should fit snugly – if it doesn't, secure with masking tape.
Your spotlight tube will act like a torch, illuminating your subject.
Fit the tube over your Speedlite. If the diameter is not quite right and it doesn't slide on snugly and stay in place, then use masking tape to fasten it. Next attach the Speedlite to its plastic base, then screw this on to a light stand or tripod plate.
Step 3 - Triggering the flash
Make sure to test your new spotlight with a few practice shots to ensure it is working to your liking.
We need to trigger the Speedlite remotely, either by using a second camera-mounted Speedlite like this or by using a wireless trigger. Alternatively, many Canon camera models also let you control compatible Speedlites using the camera's pop-up flash – not only to trigger the Speedlite but also to set the power. Take a couple of test shots to ensure the flash is firing.
Step 4 - Positioning the light
Position your spotlight to the side of your subject and take a few test shots. The spotlight is quite narrow, so it might take a few adjustments to find the right position.
Hang a background – made of a sheet or drape – in a contrasting colour to ensure your subject really stands out.
For a backlit look, position your Speedlite behind the subject to one side, angled back towards the subject and camera. As our beam of light is quite tight, it's important to get the angle right. It can help to use the modelling light function on the Speedlite (press and hold the test button) or alternatively use the Canon Camera Connect app to fire off test shots remotely from your smartphone while you tweak the positioning of the flash. Shoot your subject against a plain background – a drape or sheet works well – and use a contrasting colour to ensure your subject stands out.
Step 5 - Set up your exposure
Take a few test shots and adjust the settings on your camera until you achieve the desired result.
Here's a good starting point for your exposure: set your camera to manual exposure mode, and set ISO to 100, shutter speed to 1/200 sec and aperture to f/8. Next, set the flash to manual mode and lower the output to 1/32. Take a test shot. If it's too bright or dark then simply lower or increase the flash power until it looks right. Position your subject side-on for a dramatic profile shot, then start shooting.
3. Make your own beanbag
You can't always use a tripod when shooting macro, especially low to the ground, but something versatile such as a homemade beanbag can steady your camera and help you get better results.
- Pair of old trousers
- Needle and thread or a sewing machine
- Bag of lentils / rice or similar dried food
A beanbag can come in handy in all kinds of shooting situations. You can rest your lens on it for steadier shots, use it to cushion your camera when low to the ground, or place it on your car window for a makeshift bird hide. You can make your own beanbag with ease by using a pair of old trousers, a needle and thread (or even better, a sewing machine) and a bag of lentils or similar dried food.
Step 1 - Cut off a leg
Cut off the bottom of an old pair of trousers with a pair of scissors – you need a length of about 30cm.
Sew up the opening at one end with a sewing machine or a needle and thread.
Take a pair of old trousers and cut off one of the legs. You'll need a piece about 30cm long. Next grab your needle and thread (or sewing machine) and sew up the opening at one end. Sew up the other end but leave a small opening of a few centimetres.
Step 2 - Pour in dried food
Fill your beanbag with small dried pulses or rice until the bag feels almost full.
Take a bag of lentils, or similar small dried foodstuffs such as rice, and pour it into the opening (a funnel comes in handy – you could make one out of a sheet of A4 paper if required). Fill until the bag feels almost full, then take your needle and thread again and sew up the opening to seal the food in the bag. Your homemade beanbag is now ready for use.
Step 3 - Steady your lens
Your homemade beanbag is ideal for keeping long lenses steady and preventing camera shake.
Your beanbag can be great for keeping long lenses steady. Not only can longer lenses be heavy to hold for any length of time, but the longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view, so any slight movements will be exaggerated. Your beanbag will help to prevent shake when shooting at longer focal lengths. If, like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens here, your lens has Image Stabilization then it's best to turn this on too while shooting handheld.
Step 4 - Use it low to the ground
It can be tricky getting into position for low-angle shots, but your beanbag makes an ideal mouldable cushion.
Placing your camera low to the ground can often give you an unusual perspective, but it can be tricky to shoot at such low angles. Your homemade beanbag can help by cradling the lens while you frame the shot, and you can also mould it to the required angle. A camera with a flip-screen like the Canon EOS 250D here is also helpful, because it's difficult to compose a shot using the viewfinder at such a low angle. You could also use the Canon Camera Connect app to control the camera remotely from your phone.
Step 5 - Track moving subjects
Your beanbag will allow you to track the bee's movements…
…while helping to keep your camera steady.
Tracking moving subjects with a long lens can be tricky, especially small garden wildlife like bees. Because your beanbag will support your camera but not lock it into place, it will help to keep things steady but leave you free to follow movement. It's also important to set your autofocus for moving subjects. The live view subject tracking on the Canon EOS 250D makes it easy to focus on the bees here.
Written by James Paterson