Friday, July 1, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Miniature Photography

No, I'm not talking about a 28mm scale camera... Though a working model at that size could be cool! I'd make some comment about cameras the size of pens like the old spy movies... But we've already got those. What I'm talking about is how you take pictures of the projects you are proud of.

Let's take a look at some of the ways we can improve the pictures we take of our miniatures and models, and the tools we'll need to do so.

1. Environment

You'd think I'd put lighting at the top of my list, but truthfully, the environment you place the miniature in to begin with makes just as big of a difference to the quality of the photo as the lighting does. Why, you ask? Take a look at the two pictures below. One is a shot of the Kholek Suneater I converted. The other is a shot of a squad leader in my Centurions army. Both are unpainted to keep the comparison consistent.

I took the picture of Kholek on my dining room table, and the squad leader in my portable photo studio. See how busy and distracting the surrounding environment is in the picture of Kholek? Now look at the shot of the squad leader. The background is clean, neutral and devoid of any distracting elements. Which conversion looks more impressive? Personally I think the squad leader looks more impressive, but I know that technically speaking, the Kholek conversion is more involved and detailed than the marine. Unfortunately, woot of the details in the Kholek figure get lost from immediate notice because of the amount of distractions in the picture, where every detail on the marine is easily noticed and even highlighted by the neutral, clean environment it was shot in.

You can achieve this in a variety of ways. The easiest, and cheapest, is to just clear a space on your desk, tape up a clean sheet of paper to the wall at the top, and your desk at the bottom, which can be white or printed with a simple light blue to white gradient depending on your preference. Place two lights, one to either side of the designated area (more on lighting in the next point), and then place your figure on the paper, ready to be photographed. It's important to note that the paper should be curved, not folded, as your securer it to the wall and desk. This will create a seamless background for your figure that will highlight the figure even more without a distracting horizon line. The largest downside to this method is that you have no diffusion for your light sources, so you have to try and use the lowest watt bulbs o can to try and avoid harsh lighting conditions.

The more expensive route would be to purchase a portable photo studio, or photo cube. Usually these will come in kits that include the photo cube itself, a two-sided background, two lights and a mini tripod. They work great as the fabric the cube is made from diffused the light used to illuminate the figure, eliminating harsh lighting and shadows for your pictures. They come in a variety of sizes as well, so be sure if you are purchasing one, pick a size that you will use for the vast majority of your models. Try not to go too big though, as I learned when I bought one that is about 20" square, and when I place a 28mm figure in the center of it, the light diffusion is so great that the figure isn't lit well enough for a good picture. Because of that, I bought a second one that is only 9" square, and the lighting is much better for the smaller figures now.

A more affordable middle ground between the two extremes above would be to make your own photo cube. As I decided to not go this route (I'm lazy, so sue me), I won't pretend to know the best way to go about doing this, so instead I'll give credit to some fellow bloggers and link to a collaborative post at From the Warp, detailing and linking to many different methods of accomplishing this.

2. Lighting

Yes, we've finally made it to tool number two, lighting. When lighting anything, you basically have three common choices; incandescent, fluorescent, and white/daylight. I addition to the type of bulb you use, you then have three ways to project your lighting onto the miniature; direct, reflected, and diffused. You always want to light your subject from multiple and opposite sides for the most consistent lighting possible.
My recommendations are to use white/daylight bulbs, in a diffused lighting method.

White/Daylight bulbs will give you a clean, white light by which to illuminate your figures by, and not change the color of your paint. Used to be that daylight bulbs were hard to come by, but now they are common and purchasable even at your local Walmart.

A diffused lighting method, like in any type of photo cube either bought or homemade, will eliminate harsh shadows, and give a more soft and even light across your subject, showing off every subtle nuance of your figure... To it's benefit or detriment even at times.

3. Camera

Indeed the camera is at the low end of the totem pole in my opinion when it comes to order of importance in this section of the toolbox. My main concerns for a camera for miniature photography are two-fold; megapixel size and macro function. Most digital cameras nowadays are a good enough quality that we don't need to squabble over what brand and make or model are the best, or should you use an SLR or a Point-and-Shoot. All we really need to worry about is the amount of data the camera will capture (megapixels) and whether or not it can take a good shot of a small subject (macro).

I use a Pentax Optio RZ10, pictured above. It's a higher-quality Point-and-Shoot, 14 megapixels and has a standard macro function as well as a 1cm macro function. It's fully programmable as well so if I really feel like being anal, I can set it to take the most optimal picture possible given a controlled environment like my photo cube.

4. Image Software

Whether you use Adobe Photoshop or Google's Picasa, just use whatever you are comfortable with. I'm a Graphic Designer to pay the bills, and I use BOTH of the two I mentioned earlier. Photoshop to get in-depth, and Picasa to just get the job done quickly. Honestly though, this should mainly be used for resizing and cropping as if you don't slack off on the first three tools in this article, you shouldn't have to color correct much, if at all.

I hope this article shined a light on either some empty or neglected parts of your hobby toolbox, and if you've far surpassed me in your own photography, let me know that too!! I could always use a few pointers myself!

- Tim


  1. Great article, one thing I learned recently is that if you dont have a tripod you can use the timer function on your camera to make the pictures that little bit better, its surprising how much camera shake you get just from pressing the take picture button and this removes it completely.

  2. That's a great point actually! I completely forgot to mention that :)

    One of the cool things about the photo cube kits you can buy out there usually come with that mini tripod as well. I know they can be expensive at about 60 bucks... but then I realize that 2 lights and something to make the cube out of, will usually run about 40 anyway, the tripod is a bonus and makes it worth it :)