How to Make a Tabletop Studio for Perfect eBay or Craigslist Photos

So you’ve decided to flex your mercurial muscles and start selling products online. High-quality photos are a simple way to attract more buyers, and contrary to what you might think, they don’t require thousands of dollars in equipment. With a simple photo tent and some lights, even a decent smartphone camera can take great photos of small-to-medium objects.

Here’s how you can make a photo tent on the cheap with less than $20 spent at your local hardware store or supermarket. The lights will be extra if you don’t have anything easy in your home, and of course you’ll need a camera, but building the tent yourself will save you a nice chunk of change.

What You’ll Need

Most of the tools you’ll need for this project should be in your house already: you probably have a good knife and a pair of scissors, a ruler, glue or tape, and maybe even velcro and refrigerator magnets handy. The hardest thing to find will be a big coroplast sheet—the only retail store I found in the area that sold one big enough to make the photo tent in one big piece was at Home Depot.

Here’s a full list of what you’ll need:

  • White coroplast sheets: this material will form the structure of the photo light box. The plastic is inexpensive and diffuses light evenly for great photos.
  • Velcro strips: for holding the coroplast frame together, making it easy to assemble and then break down for storage.
  • Paper or felt backdrop: to give your photos a neutral and even background. Choose a color that contrasts with your subject.
  • Scissors, knife, or box cutter: you want something that can cut through surprisingly tough plastic, but still make fine slices on the seams. Multiple blades may be necessary.
  • Refrigerator magnets or clips: for holding the background in place.
  • Ruler or tape measure: for laying out your pattern and cutting straight lines.
  • Marker: for drawing your pattern on the coroplast. A dry erase marker is good for this, since you can wipe away any stray marks.
  • Glue or tape: for holding the background clips in place, or apply the velcro if yours doesn’t have an adhesive back.

If you’re not the handy type, online retailers sell pre-made versions of this inexpensive photo tent, along with lights and backdrops. You can get a small tent for less than $50—all you need to add is a table and a camera. But this DIY version is so cheap and easy to make that it’s well worth it.

Step One: Assemble Your Materials

The coroplast sheets are the most important element: they’ll form the walls and structure of your photo tent. Coroplast is a portmanteau of “corrugated plastic:” it’s a flat material approximately the consistency of cardboard, but made of two sheets of polypropylene for rigidity and resistance to wear, with spacing bands to make the two sheets stand apart from each other. (It’s the same material that politicians use to print signs and stick in people’s yards.)

We’ll be using this property, as well as the translucency of the plastic, as key elements of this project. The size of the sheets is determined by the size of your box: see Step Two. Coroplast might be hard to find in sizes large enough if you want a bigger box—if your local hardware store doesn’t carry it, try a sign shop. They tend to buy large three-by-six or four-by-eight foot sheets by the pallet, and might be able to sell you blank ones at or slightly above cost.

You’ll want to take particular care when choosing the paper or fabric for your backdrop. White is generally preferred for photos of products, but you might want to get several colors: black can be useful when you’re taking photos of all-white items, and something with a bit of texture, like canvas, can be useful for contrast. You can go to the sewing or crafts department to find material and buy it by the yard, but avoid any kind of obvious pattern, as it will be a distraction in your final photos. Since this stuff is generally cheap, don’t stress out about getting exactly the right thing—you can always buy and make replacements later.

You’ll want strong scissors, preferably with long blades, or a box cutter (if you have steady hands) to get through the tough plastic sheets. Some kind of sharp, fixed blade is necessary either way, since we’ll be making some fine cuts in the plastic as well. A pocket knife will work here too, if it’s good and sharp.

Step Two: Cut Out Your Tent Shape

You’re going to make a box with an open top. That means making the shape in the coroplast is approximately that of a cube, minus the sixth side. The shape below is what I recommend: two sides are extended, allowing for a slightly sloped top for easier photo shooting. Small tabs on the side will enable the box to freely stand on its own when assembled and connected with velcro.

Choose either the one-foot box or the 1.5-foot box, or scale this design up or down as needed.

You can make your box as big or as small as you like, using the same basic shape: a 12-inch box will work fine for smaller items like jewelry, but you’ll need something even bigger for things like small appliances or clothing. Keep in mind that bigger boxes will need bigger paper or cloth backdrops, brighter lights, and a bigger table on which to work. The above pattern can be scaled up or down, but the shortest side of your coroplast sheet needs to be three times as wide as the shortest side of the box.

Use your ruler or tape measure to trace out the pattern. Measure the bottom edge to the length you’d like and expand from there. Note that the long diagonal lines on the trapezoidal pieces should be equal to the length of the extended rectangle at the top.

Coroplast is surprisingly tough stuff to cut: if you’re using a straight blade, place a scrap piece beneath your main piece so you can get the blade deep without damaging your table or carpet.

Step Three: Cut Out Your Backdrops

Your photo backdrops need to be rectangles, double the size of the smallest square in the pattern above. For the 12-inch version of the box, you’ll cut each paper or cloth into a shape 12×24 inches. For the 18-inch version it’s 18×36, and so on.

Step Four: Cut Seams and Apply Velcro

Use your ruler along with your knife or box cutter to carefully cut only one side of the coroplast on the red lines of the pattern below. Be sure to only cut one side of the two-sheet plastic: the point is to slice a small seam that makes the opposite sides of the tent easier to fold inwards.

Apply the velcro strips to the four tabs on the top and bottom squares. Stick the opposing strips onto the original ones, then remove the plastic tape covering the adhesive, fold the coroplast sides, and stick them in place. Remove them once the adhesive has set.

Step Five: Assemble the Photo Tent

Close the box shape as so, with the open end pointed towards you. fold opposite to the seams that you cut in Step Four.

Place the photo backdrop inside the box, with the corners at the bottom edge of the opening and the inside of top seam of the interior wall.

Use the refrigerator magnets or at opposite points inside and outside the tent to hold the paper or fabric in place, or place the clips on the inside with double-sided tape. You can glue or tape the magnets on the outside of the tent for easier changing.

The tent is now ready. The curve and neutral color of the backdrop makes a perfect background for small items, and the coroplast walls on all side allow light to the interior, diminishing shadows and evenly illuminating the subject.

Step Six: Finish Your Studio and Start Taking Photos!

Your tent’s all set up. Now you just need to set it on a table and apply some light. Ideally you’ll use a pair of photo lights: the bright light from the bulbs will be ideally diffused by the coroplast. Small table lamps with high-watt bulbs, or even a bright window, can be substituted if you’re on a budget.

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Take your photos with your cell phone or camera, moving the subject inside the tent for ideal light. If you’re familiar enough with your camera to shoot in manual mode, you should be able to use a much lower ISO and F-stop value and a higher shutter speed than if you were simply shooting on a table or carpet. A tripod or monopod will help.

Here’s the setup with the white backdrop above, and the final photo result below. Note the smooth transition from the base to the background with no visible edges or seams.

Even if you don’t have photo lights and your photos turn out darker than you’d like, you should be able to brighten them considerably in your photo editing software. The even light and neutral backdrop will give your customers a great look at your online merchandise.

Trust me: a good picture goes a long way on a site like eBay or Craigslist. You’ll be glad you threw this together.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.