This is the second of a series of articles that covers all aspects of scale model photography. The first article discusses why many modellers feel the need to take photographs of their models. Other articles can be accessed via the ‘Related Articles’ box on the right of this screen. This article looks at the equipment needed.
How Good Do Want Your Photos To Be?
This is a question you need to answer before going any further. The answer will detemine both the amount and quality of equipment that you need to gather together.
At the most basic level, the only absolutely essential equipment is a camera and it does not have to be a particularly good one at that. It is possible to take reasonable photographs of scale models with most family compact cameras by taking the model outside and taking pictures in good daylight. The model will not look at it’s best and it is unlikely you will be able to get close enough to highlight details, but nevertheless you will be able to take pictures that can give a good representation of the model. If that is all you want then there is no need to read the rest of this article.
However, most modellers will want something better. Having spent a considerable amount of time and energy producing a miniature marvel it is natural to want to display it to best advantage. In order to show off a model to good effect then it is necessary to control the lighting (and the lack of lighting i.e. shadows). If you want to show off specific details of your models then you will need to be able to get really close – maybe only a centimeter away. If you want your model to stand out in the photograph then you will need a good backdrop. You will also need to be able to control technical aspects such as aperture, focus and shutter speed.
To get high quality close-up photos of scale models – suitable for public display on websites – then a small list of equipment is needed. This list comprises:
- Image editing software
That’s it. Not too daunting and something that most modellers will be able to gather together without breaking the bank. Now we shall look at each of these in turn.
Few modellers will get a new camera specifically to take photographs of their models. However, when the time comes to buy a new camera for yourself, or the family, then it is worth bearing in mind the additional features needed for model photography. Two very similar priced cameras may have very different capacities for taking good photographs of models. The good news is that any camera that is good for taking model photographs will almost certainly be excellent as a general purpose ‘family’ camera so you do not need to get two cameras. Not surprisingly the camera is the most important piece of equipment and it is the limitations of the camera that will dictate the limitations of the type of photographs that can be taken.
First we will take a brief look at the types of camera available. At any one time there are hundreds of different models on the market and it is difficult to categorise them because however it is decided to divide them up the edges between the categories will be blurred. Nevertheless, it is useful to think of cameras as falling into one of three broad categories:
This is the type that can be found in most households and in fact many homes will have several of these. They are recognised by being small (sometimes very small), easily transportable (the lens usually retracts into the body) and easy to use. They are designed to primarily take photos of family and vacations without effort and at this they excel.
These cameras are expected to be almost exclusively used as ‘point and shoot’ by people with little or no photographic knowledge. The cameras have automatic settings that are aimed at being foolproof and taking all the guesswork out of aperture, focus etc. This is fine for most purposes, but unfortunately model photography often means taking the camera out of it’s ‘comfort’ range where automatic settings will not get the best picture. Also these cameras do not normally have the ability to focus below 8-10 cms which will prevent taking photographs of specific details on models.
However, there is a huge range of cameras available covering a wide price range and some of the top end models do have some manual settings. So whilst the majority of these are not suitable for good model photography, there will always be a few on sale that are capable of at least half-decent pictures of scale models.
SLR-like or ‘All In One’
These are difficult to define. They are bigger than the compacts as the emphasis is not so much on transportability. They look very much like professional cameras with largish lenses permanently sticking out the front and a through-the-lens view finder. In effect they are one step up from the compacts with just about every feature a little bit better (or in some cases much better).
They are generally designed for amateur photographers who take a genuine interest in the subject but who cannot afford to spend thousands on a full Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. The important thing from the modellers’ point of view is that although these cameras will have automatic settings for easy shooting, they will almost certainly allow the photographer to override these and take manual control. Furthermore, many of them will focus to extremly short distances (less than 5cm) allowing shots to be taken not just of models but of details on models. These features make them ideal for taking photos of models.
You may wonder what separates them from their bigger brothers – the full size SLRs. Normally, the size of the sensor that actually records the picture will be smaller and the optics will not be of such high quality. However, unless you intend to blow up your model photos into wall posters this difference will not matter. Also, the SLR-like cameras do not normally allow for interchangable lenses although you may be able to add additional lenses to the one provided with the camera.
A camera from this category will give excellent results when used for scale model photography and will also be very good for general family photos. The only disadvantages they have over the compacts is that they are a little more expensive, bigger to carry around and a little more complex to use. With regard to price there is a big overlap between the Compact and SLR-like categories and there are some compacts that cost a lot more than some SLR-likes.
DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
This is the full monty. These cameras are the largest and most expensive allowing a wide range of settings and interchangeable lenses and accessories. There is no doubt that these cameras will give the best photographs of models and anything else.
However, they are expensive and will take a while to learn how to get the best out of them. The additional quality over the SLR-like camaras is unlikely to be noticed for scale model photography. Unless you are a professional, or an enthusiastic amateur photographer, then you do not need to get one of these types of camera.
Features to look for
When deciding on what camera to buy, or whether your existing camera is suitable, the following features should be considered.
A digital photograph is made up of tiny dots called pixels. Generally more pixels the better will be the picture. Nowadays the number of pixels on a camera sensor is measured in millions. When digital cameras first came out they had only a few hundred thousands of pixels which meant that the photos could be somewhat course, especially if they were blown up to a large size.
The first digital cameras to come out with a million pixels were considered to be a break through, but these days even the cheapest camera phones seem to have at least this resolution and compact cameras have anything from 5 to 15 million with the number increasing each year.
We have pretty much reached the stage where additional resolution is not important unless the photograph is to be expanded to larger than A4, so provided a camera has at least 5 million pixels it will be fine for scale models although the more the better. For comparision, a typical photograph on the web of 800 by 600 pixels has less than half a million pixels. We discuss resolution in more detail in the next article.
It is difficult to take good photographs of scale models without being able to control the aperture and focus. It is possible, but will be a little hit and miss and there will be times when you will want to have a different aperture to the automatic one that the camera has chosen. Look for a camera that has manual focus and ‘aperture priority’ functions. Control over shutter speed is also good but not so important.
You will probably need to take photos with a slow shutter speed and that means any camera shake will ruin the photo. The ideal is to have a remote control to take photos without touching the camera. An alternative is a self-timer so the camera takes the photo after a delay of say 2 or 10 seconds. Some cameras also allow a shutter release cable to be attached to the shutter button to allow it to be depressed from a distance without disturbing the camera.
If you want to take photos of specific parts of your model such as a wheel or the inside of a cockpit, the camera will have to be able to focus very close. At least 5 cm is needed, although down to 1 or 2 cm would be even better. Some of the photographs on this site were take with the camera lens actually touching the model.
Generally, the flash on the camera needs to be turned off, so the ability to do this is essential. If a camera has the ability to adjust the intensity of the flash then it is sometimes useful to use the flash for additional lighting or to reduce the amount of shadow. The camera used for many photos on this site (Sony DSC-H50) makes a test flash to gauge the amount of reflected light and then adjusts the main flash accordignly and this sometimes gives an improved photo over no flash at all.
Almost all cameras have an LCD screen to both view the scene before taking the photographs and review the photos that have been taken. The bigger the LCD the better. I have found the 3 inch LCD on the Sony camera imuch easier to use for both taking photographs and reviewing them than the 2 inch LCD on the previous Fuji camera.
Choosing a Camera
When choosing a camera you will first need to set your budget because this will be a major factor.
There was a time when you could visit a local camera shop and get good advice from experts. You will be very lucky to be able to do this nowadays since most cameras are bought over the internet and those shops that still sell them over the counter are rarely staffed by camera experts.
However, there are several websites which give camera reviews and two that SMG.com would particularly recommend are DPReview.com and Steve’s Digicams . The first of these has a Features Search where you can insert required features and bring up a list of cameras that have those features which is extremely useful for narrowing down the field. It is also useful to search on Amazon where there are often customer reviews of most makes of camera. Another source of information are the dedicated photography magazines.
In order to increase Depth of Field (more about that in the next article) you will often have to set the camera aperture to a high setting. That means letting less light into the camera and that means having a slow shutter speed to compensate for the limited light. A slow shutter speed means that the camera must be held absolutely still whilst the photo is being taken or the photo will be blurred. The way to hold the camera still is to put it on a tripod.
There is not much to say about tripods. They are relatively inexpensive and will be very useful from time to time for ‘normal’ photographs such as family gatherings and so they represent a good investment. Look for a model where the legs can easily be lengthened and shortened then clamped in the new position without any tiresome turning of screws or legs (remember you will have to do it for all three legs). Also look for a system that allows the camera to be easily clamped and removed from the tripod. Finally, a handle that allows the camera to be altered in height by a small amount without adjusting the legs is very useful. Fortunately, most tripods have all of these features as standard.
After the camera, the lighting set up is the most important aspect in achieving high quality photographs. It could be argued that the lighting is just as important as the camera because both are essential.
There is no definitive lighting set up used by all photographers. Good results can be achieved with a variety of set ups and experienced photographers may use between 2 and 4 light sources. In fact it is possible to take good ‘table top’ photographs with a single light provided it is supplemented with mirrors and reflectors. Therefore, the following advice should be considered as guidance only and you are encouraged to experiment with lighting.
A single light source will generally not give good results. Everything will either be brightly lit or in shadow and all the shadows will be the same intensity. In other words there will be too much contrast between the light and dark spots and there will be a lack of variation.
You should have at least two lights that can be set at approximately 45 degrees on the left and right of the model with the camera in the middle. A third light from above may improve some photographs. A forth light from behind the model can cast a glowing halo effect that can enhance the edges of the model, but this can be very tricky to acheive so is only likely to be used by perfectionists.
The two front lights are known as the ‘key’ light and the ‘fill’ light and as the name suggests one should be stronger than the other, but this can be achieved by placing one closer to the model than the other.
Hard and Soft Light
A light source that is small compared to the subject (the model) will produce hard sharp shadows and extreme contrast. Generally this is not good. A light source that is large compared to the subject will produce a more even light and softer shadows. This effect can be seen outside. When the sun is out in a cloudless sky the shadows are dark and hard edged. When the sun is blocked by clouds the light becomes more even and any shadows are soft edged. The clouds are acting like a huge diffuser spreading out the light source (the sun). This is why professional photographers often reflect their lighting off large umbrella like reflectors, or put large translucent sheets between the lamp and the subject. Doing this makes the light source much bigger and the light softer.
The Colour Of Light
Different light bulbs produce a different colour or spectrum of light. We want to reproduce the colours of the model as it would appear in natural daylight, so it is best to use bulbs that are as close to natural daylight as possible. Select daylight simulation bulbs where possible, but it is important to have the same type of bulb with a similar spectrum in all the lights. The camera can compensate for different type of light, but will struggle to do so if the lights are emitting different colours.
If you are on a budget, then you can use household desk and floor lamps. The more powerful the bulbs the better. It is important that they are adjustable so that they can be arranged to give the best lighting effect on the model. Ideally, all the lighting should have the same type of bulbs. Different bulbs emit a different colours of light, some lamps have a yellowish tinge and others a bluish tinge. The camera can compensate with the ‘White Balance’ function but it is difficult to do this if you have light bulbs emiting different colours. The lighting will also be improved if the light source is large, either by using a reflector behind the light or diffuser in front of the light.
Although specialist photographic lights can be very expensive they do not need to be. It is possible to buy a pair of good lamps on tripods with daylight bulbs and large reflectors for under £100 (€110/$150) and these will make a big difference to the quality of photos. If you are unable to afford the expense of specialist lighting yourself, then consider combining resources with members of your local model club. If the ‘club’ owned the lighting equipment it could either be loaned out to members or it could be brought along to club meetings so that anyone could take the opportunity to show off and photograph their models.
Generally, the more light the better. You can get by with a couple of 50 Watt bulbs but the shutter speeds will be very slow and you may notice the photographs become grainy as the camera increases the sensitivity to compensate for the low light. If you can get at least 150W bulbs in your key and fill lights it would be great. However, putting the lights closer to the model can compensate.
Remember that different types of lights have different outputs for the same wattage. A CFL (compact flourescent lamp) energy saving bulb of 20W will give the same level of light as a 100W conventional filament bulb. Halogen bulbs give a light output somewhere between the two.
Something that can enhance the lighting is a light box. This is a lightweight box made entirely of translucent material. The model is put into the box and the lights are shone on the outside. The sides of the box act as diffusers so it appears the light is coming from all directions making the lighting even and any shadows soft.
Usually, you want the viewer to look at the model and not it’s surroundings and this is achieved by putting the model on some sort of backdrop. A large sheet of paper or thin card will usually suffice. It has to be large enough to stand the model on and gently curve up the wall behind the model without any of the edges showing in the photograph. You can make it from several small sheets of paper and card, but the edges would have to be stuck together well so they do not show in the photos.
Colour is important and regrettably is somewhat controversial so it is worth discussing the pros and cons of different colours. Generally, it is agreed that bright or lurid colours should be avoided because they will clash with the model. Light pastel shades are often recommended and a light sky blue is often seen used in modelling magazines and on websites.
It is white backgrounds where there is some disagreement. I have seen an article from one leading modelling magazine that recommends against using a white background. This is because white can be too bright and the camera exposure will show it as a dirty grey. If the exposure is increased to make the background truly look white then the model will be over exposed. However, the advice given to me from Brett Green – the editor of Model Military International and Missing-Lynx.com – is that white is the best background for model photography because any other colour will reflect on to the model and change the colour. A white backgound is also the easiest colour to ‘cut out’ the model from its background when doing post photo image editing.
It seems that white can give the best results when used well, but it the most difficult colour to get the best results. The problems of using a white background can be overcome by illuminating the background and adjusting the exposure. A little trial and error is needed to find a lighting set up that works for you. If you still have problems getting a good result with a white background, then try sky blue or another pastel shade.
Image Editing Software
After you have taken your photos you can print them directly from the camera yourself or go to a shop to have it done professionally. However, the photographs will almost certainly be improved by editing them on a computer using image editing software. Most cameras will come with software for simple image editing such as cropping (you will find the software on the disc that came with your camera). If you want to do any serious editing then proprietory specialist software will be needed.
Image editing programs that are suitable for most purposes can be downloaded from the Internet and are either free or have a nominal charge. However, if you are really serious then your will probably have to pay out to get one of the more excellent applications available. At SMG.com we have used Paint Shop Pro for years and have found it does everything imaginable, but other people swear by other applications and it probably comes down to what you are used to.
One word of warning with image editing: If you are sending the photographs for publication, then keep any editing to a minimum. It’s fine to crop the photograph, but the publishers would normally prefer to receive the ‘raw’ image and enhance it themselves, rather than receive a photograph that has been tinkered with.
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This concludes the article. The third article in the series covers technical aspects of model photography such as maximising Depth Of Field.