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Miniature Photography

E. James Small


Model building is a lot of fun as we all know (Duh!). But photographing your precious work can make or break what your contest winning piece can look like when you have it published online, in a magazine or just e-mailed to a friend. An award winning model can look like junk if badly shot, and consequently, a lousy model can look fantastic if you know how to shoot it well.



General

For the purpose of this discussion we will deal strictly with digital equipment, as it’s unlikely that very many people still use film anymore.

Use the best quality camera available to you. Low end cellphone cameras and the like are usually not suitable for taking good pictures of models, as they can't get in close enough, or have enough control over the camera's settings.  An SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera (such as the Canon Rebel series) is recommended, if you can afford one. Digital cameras that are adequate for this kind of work usually cost upwards of a few hundred dollars,  but the quality of digital cameras are going up and prices are coming down dramatically these days.  I started off in digital photography using a 3 megapixel Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera (bought in the early 2000’s) and now I use a Canon Rebel T3i for most of my studio work. The better quality Digital cameras are now superior to film and are easier to operate, plus of course there's no processing cost or wasted film. You can experiment and see immediate results and simply delete the stuff that doesn’t work out.

Also remember that it takes time to do a good job when photographing models. Be patient and set up your surroundings carefully and deliberately. Most casual pictures taken at a whim rarely look very good.

Now, we all hate to read those camera manuals, but do yourself a favour and at LEAST read through yours so you can get an idea of what the camera can do. Then you can familiarize yourself with the features and how to operate them relative to what I’m telling you in the following text. Good photographers must know more than how to point it and press a button.

When you learn how to do a lot more than that you can end up doing stuff like this...



Lighting and Background

Unless you are taking specific reference photography, NEVER use the camera's flash-bulb. Flash pictures usually… no, ALWAYS look awful or amateurish. If you have a very brightly lit shop using daylight type fluorescent tubes (not those stupid little curly things), that can do a nice job, but you do need a bright environment for any good photography. The more light the better. Use a neutral background. Keep background clutter nonexistent. You want to show off the model, not its surroundings. Dioramas which are part of the model display are, of course, an exception.



Try to keep the model evenly lit, unless you're trying for something particularly dramatic. Use lighting that shows off all parts of the model avoiding hard shadows. When shooting outdoors on bright sunny days, use large white cards to bounce light into dark areas and shadows. You can experiment with using mirrors too, but I find they often cause more shadows that look too artificial. Slightly overcast days (without being too dark) can produce very good results when taking pictures outdoors, as the light intensity is automatically well balanced and not too intense.



Here is something else to consider. Always make sure you use the correct “white balance” setting on your camera for the type of light you use. Consult your camera’s manual. But, know that (for example) if you are lighting with an incandescent light (regular light bulb) and your white balance is set to daylight, the picture will look oversaturated with yellow. Most of the time, the automatic white balance equipped on most cameras will do the job, but if the colour of the pic looks biased toward either blue or yellow, an incorrect setting of the white balance is usually to blame.


Below is a diagram of a typical indoor setup that I use to photograph models if I want dramatic lighting with hard shadows.. If I want softer lighting I just use the ceiling lights (fluorescent tubes) in my shop instead of the lights shown in the diagram. The lights for dramatic shots are common halogen (incandescent) work lights, available at most hardware stores, anywhere from 250 to 1,000 watts. Keep them well back from the model at least six feet, to avoid hot spots and also to avoid damaging the model from the lamp's high heat! The background is usually a bolt of cloth rolled up with one end stapled onto a dowel and unfurled when I need it. I just hang the bar on an old coat rack to create the vertical surface. If you’re shooting small models you can just use a sheet of paper propped accordingly. It's always best to have the vertical background curve down onto your table to become the floor which the model is placed on, as this avoids an unsightly "hard edge" behind the model. 

Photo Setup

In most cases when I want to make the model (such as a space ship) look realistic as if it were flying through the void, light #2 is usually placed behind and to one side of the model, and is sometimes the most intense (called the "Key" light). The light #1 is used as "fill" to keep the overall picture from being too dark, and is usually a lower wattage light or placed much further away from the model, or a large white card or sheet (a white bedsheet is good) is used to bounce the key light in place of that second lamp.

The Pterodactyl model above was shot with the simplest setup of a pure white background and just the overhead shop fluorescent tube lights.

For the picture of the Galactica below, a shot that was actually used for the Moebius kit's box top, the setup was almost identical to the diagram above. I used a halogen work light (the "key" light) placed high above and behind the 17" all-white model, but a small fluorescent tube light positioned far to the left to cast the bluish hue, as if to impart the sense of the ship approaching a planet which might reflect like the Earth does, and the "sun" behind the ship high above.  I had the camera's white balance manually set to counter the key light's yellowish hue, but this renders the fluorescent light a lot more blue in colour temperature, so this is an example where you can play with different sources of light to achieve dramatic or unusual results, adding life to the shot. By lighting the model from unusual angles, rather than just from the front as most people do, you can achieve very dramatic shots and make the model look a lot more realistic as well as show off its texture and detail.



When choosing a background, try to make it in contrast to the model. For example, if the model is very light, use a black or gray background. If the model is very dark, you may wish to use a white background. If the model is neutral, like a gray battleship, use either one, but don't use grey or the model will blend into the background too much and will not stand out.  Experiment to see what looks best even if you break some of these rules. Have a look at the pictures in the "Gallery" section of the “smallartworks.ca” web site if you wish, as a guide. Note the many different ways a model can be shot.

Unless you have a really specific reason, resist using a coloured background though. Best to use black, gray or white, because a coloured background, even a soft pastel, detracts from the model's own colour scheme and can fool the eye into thinking it’s a different colour than it really is, and can also throw off the white balance of the camera itself if you are using the automatic white balance feature. Use solid, smooth, backgrounds only.



Unless you have a very specific and necessary reason, don’t use wrinkled or textured cloth or anything with a pattern on it as that detracts from your model. Remember, it's the model we want people to notice, not the surroundings... unless you're doing a diorama like the big dump truck toward the top of this page.

Below is a good example of the use of a gray background, as white would have blended in with the car itself too much, black would have absorbed the tires and trim as well as look too much as if the car was floating in space which is something most cars do not normally do! Note that there are no hard lines in the background, because the floor curves up to become the wall due to the use of a flexible material, in this case an old vinyl window blind sprayed with gray primer!




If you're not going for anything particularly dramatic or realistic, but simply want to show off the model, the background should still be very evenly laid out and well lit. Experiment with various lighting setups that suit your needs, or just plain "looks cool". Lighting is an entire science and art form in itself, and I must tell you that I find lighting and photographing a model every bit as much fun and sometimes even more of a challenge than building it! …..And I am still learning!    

Using the Camera

First, use a tripod. Always. Tripods are not expensive. You don’t need a high end one but you should get the most solid one you can afford. You just need something to hold the camera perfectly still when taking the picture.  Also, the floor you set up on can be detrimental. If you are on a wooden floor, your own movement during the shot can flex the floor just enough to impart movement through the tripod and to the camera. If the camera moves even a microscopic amount during the shot, it will result in a blurred image. If possible, set up on a concrete floor or stay absolutely still during the exposure.

Second, use the camera’s self-timer so you can take the shot without touching the camera to prevent bumps which would ruin the often necessarily slow shutter speeds you’ll be using for time exposures.

Why time exposures?

First, two important definitions to remember…

“Shutter speed” refers to the amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open, which allows light to enter the camera and therefore exposes the “film” for the purposes of verbal illustration (digital cameras use a CCD or CMOS chip in place of film). Shutter speed can vary from thousandths of a second to many minutes in extreme circumstances.

“F-Stop” refers to the size of the camera’s aperture (like the iris of your eye) which limits the amount of light that enters the camera when the shutter is open. The higher the F-stop, the smaller the aperture admitting less light, and therefore the longer the time exposure needed.

When shooting small models, something called “Depth of field” annoyingly comes into play. It’s a problem that special effects guys have been struggling with since the medium began, and if good depth of field is not maintained it's usually the first thing that gives away an FX shot as a miniature!
Depth of field describes the amount of the scene that is in focus from the closest objects to those that are farther away from the camera.  A shallow depth of field would mean, for example, that the foreground is out of focus, the centre of the model is IN focus, and the background is out of focus. To look realistic (or indeed just presentable) we want all of our miniature scenes to have what is called “deep focus”, so we need a longer depth of field. You achieve this by manipulation of the camera’s F-stop combined with shutter speed.

Focal length Graphic

In the image above, showing two rods with one inch increments, you can see the left side is mostly out of focus except for a small section, indicated approximately by the red arrow. This is a very shallow depth of field because the camera's aperture was large (low F-stop) and was exposed or just 1/15th of a second. The right side is mostly in focus. That's because on the right, the camera was set with the highest F-stop (small aperture) and a time exposure of over 2 seconds was needed. The smaller your aperture is made, the more exposure time is needed.


Even though your model may be to exact scale, the camera you are using to photograph it is not. It’s designed for shooting full sized objects behaving like our own eyes. But when shooting miniatures, the camera's normal settings are undesirable, because the lens still sees the small model for what it is, betraying it’s diminutive size. So, we have to force our full sized camera to “fake” itself into behaving like a scale camera that would actually be in our miniature scene, giving us that deep focus we want. You do that by closing up the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field, but less light gets into the camera. So we need to keep the shutter open longer (usually for many seconds) to fully expose the shot. Some cameras have “aperture priority” settings that allow you to dial in the F-stop and the camera then automatically keeps the shutter open for the amount of time needed to take the shot. However, once you begin experimenting, you will find that you will prefer the fully manual features and dial in both aperture and shutter speed yourself if your camera is capable of those manual overrides. Rule of thumb is, the smaller you make the aperture (higher F-stop) the longer the shutter needs to remain open. Hence the need for those time exposures! Now you see why you need to use a tripod and the self-timer, as the slightest movement or bump during the exposure will streak or blur the image!

You may need to experiment with various camera settings due to your camera’s built-in limitations. The camera manual is still your best friend. Force yourself to read and understand it for maximum exposure (sorry, couldn't avoid the pun!) to the camera's capabilities.

If your camera does not have manual override controls over the aperture and exposure settings, your best bet is to flood the model with as much light as you can… like shooting it outdoors in bright sunlight. Then bounce that raw sunlight into areas of shadow as discussed previously and let the camera’s “computer” figure it all out and hope for the best.


Image Composition

Frame the picture well. Fill the scene with the model rather than background or clutter.  Try to get the model to fill a generous amount of the frame without any of the model falling out of the shot, unless you are trying to shoot a specific detail of the model in closeup, like this....



Use a model position that shows the best overall look. Also, for a model with direction, such as an airplane or car... something that is known to travel, as opposed to a picture of a mountain or house for example, leave a little bit (just barely noticeable) more room in front of the vehicle than behind it to impart a sense of anticipatory distance ahead of its perceived forward motion. This rule is not set in stone, however, as our dump truck picture shows back near the top again. There is actually more room behind the model in this case, and I tried cropping the image leaving more room up front, but for some reason it still didn't look right, likely because of the very dramatic position of the model and the atmosphere and lighting. Remember, all these rules can be broken if the end result is a good photograph that looks realistic or shows off the model well. A lot of this stuff really does come down to a judgement call, which proves that this is really more art than science and can be highly subjective.

If you’re going for Hollywood visual effects realism in a surface based diorama style shot, get the camera down low, simulating where the camera would be if it were held by a scale person taking the picture from his point of view. Use the camera’s wide angle lens to make the model look large and impressive, as was done with our big dump truck example, or this shot of the HO scale Bates mansion....



This house model was built especially "dressed to camera", meaning it was built and prepared only with regard to what the camera was going to see. I knew it was going to be shot from just this one side so I didn't even bother to complete the far side of the miniature. I made a quick base out of a piece of insulation foam roughly carved to shape, quickly spray painted and decorated the surrounding set with Woodland Scenics ground materials. A fog machine provided the eerie atmospheric effects and subdued lighting completed the highly realistic effect. I'd bet that if you hadn't been told this was a model, you might have thought it was full scale. That kind of photography is what I live for! Real, honest to goodness in-camera special effects with no digital enhancements!

(…And some people still believe the camera cannot lie! The fact is, the camera is a very effective “truth enhancer”!)


Image Preparation and Editing

Hint:    No, not a hint… this is an absolute MUST!   

NEVER work on or edit the original digital image. Work on a copy instead, in case you make a mistake. One wrong mouse click can destroy all your careful photography. Always save an archived copy of the original image as it came directly from the camera. Burn your original pictures to a DVD disc, for example, to archive them. Remember, hard drives can fail and you’d lose everything. Double check the archive validity on a second computer if you are not used to archiving your files.

If the picture is to be manipulated, always edit your copy at the highest resolution as it comes from the camera, then scale it down to appropriate size after the image editing has been completed.

When editing save your image in a "lossless" format as you work. Photoshop, for example, uses the PSD format for continual saves as you work. Then it can be saved as a Jpeg when you are finished. If you save the image as a Jpeg multiple times, the compression will degrade the image (“lossy”) a bit more with each time you save it.

Take your edited image copy (again, never use the original) and resize it to an 800 pixel wide (minimum) image or so (if you will be emailing it or posting it on the internet) and save it as a medium quality JPG file. The photos posted above are mostly 1,000 pixels wide except for the tall Pterodactyl which is 800 pixels wide. Never send a bitmap (BMP) image through Email, as the file is not compressed, resulting in an unnecessarily large file which may clog some email servers. Your 800 pixel wide JPG image shouldn’t be much bigger than about 150 Kilobytes (K) or so. 50 - 70K or so is better, but as Internet speeds are getting better these days it’s not as important as it once was. If you want to, you can keep the picture larger, such as 1,200 pixels wide if you really want to show something off in great detail or allow people to have images which they can use as wallpaper or have printed off. Remember that the bigger the file size, the more internet bandwidth you'll use and/or the longer it will take to send/receive.

Although there are many good quality image editing software programs available, the use of Adobe Photoshop as a digital image preparation tool is highly recommended to make your images the best they can be for publication on the web or print. You can also have fun with special effects such as placing your models into realistic scenes by compositing them like this 1/24th scale Revell Gemini capsule kit shown here, which was shot against a green screen and matted into a background of the Earth as if in orbit...



Or you can create complete fantasy scenarios like this:



The above shot was created by photographing Round 2's vintage "Pilgrim Observer" MPC kit against black velvet with strategic lighting. The model itself is not retouched. The asteroid belt was created by photographing the model's stand (which is designed to look like an asteroid) many times from different angles and repeating/resizing those images in Photoshop. The engine's "nuclear thruster" exhaust, inspired by Ed Valigursky art, was painted in digitally.

However, if you do not have Photoshop (which is very expensive if you don’t acquire a skull and crossbones edition), there are also now many online photo editing tools that you can use for free!

One of them, called "Pixlr" (www.pixlr.com) is strikingly similar to Photoshop and has many of the same tools. It's totally free to use online! Try it out!

These editing tools, which are likely daunting to the novice, do require a lot of patience to understand how they work. Just dip your toe into the water and welcome yourself to the digital world. There are likely dozens of tutorials on Youtube and elsewhere online.

Like model making itself, the photography and editing of your hard work is a hobby and reward unto itself… and can involve a lot more than I’ve written here. This is just a primer. Take your time and learn to shoot, just like how it took you time to learn how to build your great creations!

E. James Small. Website: www.smallartworks.ca,   Email: jim@smallartworks.ca


Oh, by the way, here`s how Barry`s big dump truck, shown at the beginning of this article, was shot.  The background is a black velvet bolt stapled to a rod, suspended from a modified coat rack. The rocky ridges were made from crumpled tin foil sprayed with gray primer and taped down to the table. The whole set, strictly "dressed to camera", was liberally dusted with kitty litter gravel, cement dust and spritzed with flat black and gray paint from spray cans. Atmosphere was provided by a fog machine which you can see as a black box on the right.  Just ahead of the box is a little LED lamp to provide secondary lighting. The key lights were placed out of frame. The overhead shop lights were turned off and 30 second time exposures were used. It took less than an hour to build the set, compose and shoot several pictures. The Aliens APC shown at the top of this page and Bates Mansion photos were shot almost exactly the same way.