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Macro Studio/Background System Project

In this project I am going to show you how to go about creating a mobile macro studio/background system, like the one below, for use when needing to do close-up photography. As well as showing you how to think creatively to make different backgrounds to be able to generate different effects with lighting.

To make it easier to explain how I went about it I am going to use a specific size of 24" x 18" to be used for taking macro shots of flowers, but you could make any variation on this of different sizes in order to cope with your macro needs or for different macro projects. For example if you want to photograph small items such as coins, stamps etc, then you could make a smaller version or if your needs are larger and you have room then you can scale it up to meet this need.

You can see from the picture the structure of the backing board supports are placed on the board leaving the corners clear, so that the backing boards being used in them can slide in from either corner, giving greater manoeuvrability, but also allowing any length of card to be used. But you will also notice at the front there is a space between the two sets of smaller supports, this is to allow the camera lens to go through when doing really small items and micro work, but still be able to use boards at the front for reflectors etc.

In order to carry out this project you need the following items.

  • A Base Board - which could be ply, chipboard, MDF or something similar

  • Strips of Wood to hold the cards up

  • Rubber Feet (4) - we used household door stops

  • Wood Glue

  • Screws (25)

  • Mountboard

Before you go to buy your baseboard it is a good idea to already have a sketch of what you are trying to achieve and have worked out the size you want for the baseboard, that way if you are not confident that you could cut the baseboard to the quality and standard you would want to have, then some larger DIY centres will cut it for you, to the size you specify. I purchased a piece of MDF which was 48"x24" and got them to cut it into three pieces, two 24"x18" pieces and I was left with a spare smaller piece of 12"x24".

You also need to have worked out how many strips of wood you need and at what size to create the supports for the mountboard so that you buy the correct amount of strip wood. I decided to have back strips of 18" long and because I wanted to have one slot to hold the mountboard upright and another to be able to have the backing board slope back slightly, I needed 3 pieces this length. The side runners were to be 10" long and I needed two on each side, so need 4, and the front supports were to be 8" long and with two each side meant I also needed 4. So I need 3 x 18", 4 x 10", and 4 x 8" giving a total length required of 126" (320cm).


Tools required include:

  • Saw

  • Electric Drill

  • Screwdriver

  • Tape measure

  • Pencil

  • Guillotine or Mountboard Cutter

  1. Take the strip(s) of wood, and with a tape measure and a pencil mark up each of the sizes you require to make the 11 supports.
  2. Take the saw and cut on each of these lines until you have the 3 x 18", 4 x 10" and 4 x 8" strips.
  3. Place the baseboard on a table or workbench.
  4. Along the back 24" edge place one of the 18" strips against the back edge and centred, draw a line with the pencil along the front edge of the strip. Move the strip to now sit on this line and draw another line in front.
  5. Whilst holding this strip in place take another of the 18" strips and place on the board in front leaving enough space for the thickness of the backing board (mountboard) to hold it upright. When happy it's in the right place draw another line. We allowed the thickness of 2 boards so we could use this in a number of ways.
  6. Now take the third strip and position this to also line up, but this time leaving a larger gap between, this is the one that will be used for the backing board to slope backwards.
  7. Now do the same on both sides, using the 10" strips. This time you only have the one slot between the two pieces and spaced so that they hold the boards upright.
  8. Do exactly the same task again for the front supports.
  9. Once you're happy that everything is positioned correctly, you now need to put the holes between the lines. On the baseboard mark between the lines, three positions for the screw holes for the 18" strips and then 2 holes for each of the smaller strips.
  10. Take your drill and drill bit that will allow the screws to just go through the hole and drill a hole in the baseboard at each of the positions you have marked. You should end up with 25 holes.
  11. On the underneath of the board use a countersunk attachment in your drill to create small recesses for the screw heads to fall into.
  12. Turn the board back over to see the pencil markings again and take the wood glue and place a single run along the full length of the markings you have made for each of the strips.
  13. Take each strip in turn and fix into position on the glue. Once all are in place go away and have a cup of tea while it sets.
  14. On your return turn over the baseboard so you can see the screw holes, as I had a second identical piece I could take my second board and put it on top, which formed a sandwich, and so in the inversion process there was no risk of my wood coming unglued.
  15. Now put a screw into each of the holes and using a screwdriver tighten each screw. Once all screws are in place the wood strips are now securely mounted on the board.
  16. Take each of the rubber feet and screw one to each corner of the board. I placed the foot to line up with the strip of wood on the other side, so I could use longer screws that would go through the baseboard and into a wooden strip.
  17. Depending on what wood you used you could paint it with a sealant/acrylic to cut down dust and waterproof it.

Your board is now complete. Now lets turn our attention to the backing boards and what you can use or design to use with this system.


You need to use a material that is strong enough to stand in the slots. I have used framers mountboard. This is thicker than normal card and is more rigid at larger dimensions, but also comes in a range of fabulous colours. You can buy mountboard in A2 size from any hobby or art shop, or you could even ask your local framer if they have any they could sell you, or even scraps that they might be prepared to give you. Create yourself a range of colours and be creative you could add acrylic paint washes to some, or add a marble effect and some you could glue colour felt to to give a softer background. Remember to have white and black options which can be used as reflectors and stops/flags. Have different sized pieces to cope with smaller to larger items, but also those being used in the side and front slots may want to be shorter so that the camera and flash units can go over top. You could also create yourself a chromokey version (green or blue) so that you could add a different background afterwards in editing. See our article on Chromokey to see how this is achieved.

Backlit Board

As well as using coloured boards as a background of course you could always create a backlit background which would allow you to add light from behind the subject, and when using flash you could use coloured filters to provide coloured light effects behind your subject. It would be wise to use mountboard for this as it is more rigid and you are going to be cutting a hole in the middle of it to shine the light through. Now you probably don't want the direct light it would be too harsh, so to diffuse it you could clip a large piece of white paper to the front of it and shine the light through this. If you use A3/A2 sized paper you can create a curve and avoid harsh lines in your image.

Backlit Base Board

Sometimes you may want to have light coming up from the base of the board, under lighting your subject giving more depth. To do this there are two possibilities. The first using mountboard, foil and paper, the second using a clear acrylic sheet.

The Mountboard Option. Cut a mountboard backboard with a hole cut out of the middle, the light will be coming through here. Cut a second piece of mountboard to the dimensions of the baseboard inside the support strips and cover with foil, this will act as a baseboard reflector. Cut a third piece of mountboard so that it will sit on top the inside supports and cut a U shape out of this. Place the backboard in the back support and the foil covered board in the base, then lay the U shaped board on top of the inside front/side supports. Take a piece of A2 paper and clip onto the top of the backboard and curve over the U shaped board, using clips on the edge to hold in place. Now you can shine the light/flash through from the back but also end up with the base lit as well.

The Acrylic Option. Cut a piece of clear acrylic sheet to the size which will fit on top of the inside supports. Place on top and position the light source to shine under the board. The main advantage of the acrylic sheet is that it will support items of heavier weight to the paper version above.

Backlit for Flower Heads

A variation for backlighting an item is to take a piece of mountboard and cut a large hole out of it, but leaving enough board to give rigidity. Take some thin coloured paper, this could be 80gsm or less paper, tracing paper or tissue paper, and cut to the same size as the outer dimension of the board. Place over the front of the backing board and hold in place with clips. Place the whole thing in one of the back slots and shine the light from behind. Alternatively you could use white paper and coloured filters on the flash head to give colour.

Side High Lights

Highlighting with flash from the side can add different dimensions to the final image by adding targeted shadows. You could just flash from both sides reducing or increasing the exposure of each flash head or you could flash high up from one side and use a white backing board in the opposite side support to reflect the light back. Another alternative for more targeted light is to create yourself a flagging system. To do this take a piece of backing board and create a large hole in the centre, again remember to leave enough edge to keep it rigid when in the support. Then take a number of sheets of thicker paper or normal office card and create shapes in different ones to create different effects. Hold the card in place with clips and position on the board for the light/flash to go through.

With any of the backboards we have mentioned here have a go, experiment and try out different variations until you get the effect you want. There will be many more combinations that will work and if like me you like working with flowers or doing macro I hope I have given you some inspiration to have a go.


By: Tracey Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: macro_studio_project Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 05/2009

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