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Model Photography Part6 – Photoshop

Challenger MkIII In this tutorial we will show how to put Tamiya’s Challenger 1 MkIII tank into a realistic desert setting.


This is the sixth and final tutorial in the series about model photography.  If you have followed the series you should now know what equipment is needed, how to take photographs of scale models and how to use image editing to improve them.

In this last tutorial, we will look at the related subject of combining a scale model with a realistic background.

Occasionally, some modellers want to have their model photographed in a realistic setting which makes it appear as the real thing.  Having a photograph of a scale model mistaken for the real vehicle is perhaps the ultimate complement with regard to both modelling and photography skills.

Acheiving this aim is actually quite difficult and rarely done with complete success and some might say it is best left to the professionals.  The human eye is very good at spotting discrepancies such as shadows in the wrong place and even if we can not consciously state what is ‘wrong’ with a photograph we may have a feeling that something it out of place.  However, for those readers who want to give this a try, there are two ways to go about it.

There are two ways to go about this.  You can either put your model against a real life backdrop or you can use image editing software to create a ‘virtual’ backdrop.

1. Creating a scale model setting

Panther sd kfz 171 against background This photo shows what can be done by putting a great model against a realistic background.  Model and photo by Lester Plaskitt.

The main aspect of this is setting up a backdrop behind the model with an image of the sky and perhaps hills or mountains.  A scenic poster can be ordered from the Internet, or purchased from a shop.  The backdrop will need to be fairly large, so it is unlikely that you will be able to download an image and print it yourself.

Additional realism can be obtained by putting a few model trees in front of the backdrop and these can be obtained from model railway suppliers, or you may even find something suitable in your garden.  You will need to make sure your photographic lights do not create shadows of the trees on the scenic backdrop.

The photograph should be taken from a low angle level or lower than the model.  If the camera is at a very low angle then the groundwork is not important.  However, if the camera angle means that the ground is visible then you will need to make realistic ground work as well.

The model should be close to the camera with the background some distance away.  This is one situation where you do not want to maximise the depth of focus.  Open the aperture of the camera so that the model is in focus, but the background is blurred.  This will add to the realism.  If you can get so close to the model that part of it will not fit into the frame it will also add to the impression that the model is large.

The lighting and shadows should be consistent with the backdrop.  If your backdrop is a clear blue sky then the lighting should be bright and the shadows should be well defined.

One final touch is to put a piece of scenery in front of the model – so close to the camera that it is quite blurred.  This will also add to the three dimensional effect of the model being in an outdoor setting.

All of this is quite an effort just so that one modeller can take photos of their models.  It makes much more sense for a model club to keep a scenic setting that is brought along to meeting for members to use.

2. Using Image Editing Software

Example of image editing

The following series of images illustrate putting a model into a realistic setting using image editing software.

Desert Landscape

The first step is to find a suitable backdrop image.  It needs to have a high resolution – this one is 2400 X 1800 pixels.


This is the photo of the model tank.  It was taken with strong overhead lights to imitate the sun overhead.  The tank has already been ‘selected’ which is why there is a dotted line around it’s edge.


The tank has been copied to the clipboard and pasted onto the desert landscape.  Initially it does not look like it belongs there at all.


The colours on the tank have been shifted to blend in with the landscape. The edges of the tank have been smudged.


Finally, the illumination tool has been used to add a bright light in the sky simulating the sun and further helping to make the tank look like it is part of the photo.  Although this photo still does not look completely realistic to my eye this was the point at which I gave up having already spent 2 hours on it.  See the main text for professional tips on how this photo could have been improved.

To begin with you will need good image editing software such as PhotoShop, Gimp or Paint Shop Pro.  This is not something that can be tackled with the simple imaging software that often comes free with digital cameras.

With this method, a picture of the model is digitally superimposed on to a realistic background using image editing software.  If it sounds complex, that is because it is and it is very difficult to get right.  However, when it works it can provide very realistic effects, particularly when used to give the impression of an aircraft model flying.  The advantage over method 1 is that you do not have to create a real life setting.  The disadvantage is that it is difficult to get the lighting on the model consistent with the lighting on the background – colour balance, intensity and shadows all have to be perfect or the model will look like it has been cut out in stuck in place (which digitally is exactly what has been done).


1. Take a photograph of the model against a plain background that contrasts well with the colours on the model.  Make sure that the angle of the model in relation to the camera is how you wish the model to appear in the final photograph.

2. Find a suitable digital photograph to use as a backdrop.  If you are making an aircraft appear to be flying then you may be able to take a photograph of the sky yourself – prefereably from the top of a hill.  Otherwise you will need to download an appropriate image from the Internet.  You will need to make sure that the image is high resolution, at least 1600 pixels wide, but preferably bigger.

3. On the photograph of the model, the model itself needs to ‘clipped’ or ‘selected’ from the background.  How this is done depends on the particular selection tools on the software.  Often it is easier to ‘select’ all of the background and then ‘invert’ the selection so that only the model is selected.  The selection should be copied to the computer’s clipboard memory.

4. The background photograph should be opened and the image of the model ‘pasted’ on to it.  You will have to make sure that the backdrop and the model have compatible resolutions.  For example, if the backdrop is an image of 1600 X 1200 pixels and the model is 800 pixels wide then it will occupy exactly half the width of the photo.  You may have to change the resolution of the model photo, so that it takes up the right amount of space on the backdrop photo.

5. The difficulty now is to make the model look as though it is part of the background and not stuck on.  This is where some experimentation needs to be done and you may have to make changes to the model while it is still a separate selection or layer.  Try making the model selection brighter or darker, more or less colourful etc.   If you have a good enough image editing application and are familiar with it you may be able to add highlights, shadows and other effects.  Slightly blurring the edges of the model may also help to make it blend in.

If the above all sounds tricky, that is because it is a skilled operation and professionals sometimes take years of practice to become experts.  However, with a bit of patience reasonable results are possible.

Tips on Realistic Image Editing

The last photograph of the Challenger tank in the desert on the right was the best that I could do to make the model tank appear in a realistic setting.  However, I was not happy about it as something about the photograph did not appear right.

My thanks go to to Mikko Granlund, a professional illustrator and photographer for pointing out what is wrong with the photograph:

1. Perspective/angle of the tank

It does not conform with the ground it appears to be driving on. It looks as if it is climbing an invisible boulder or something along those lines, which does not entirely make sense to the eye since nothing indicates any obstacles/elevations for the vehicle to drive over. The fix is to match correcting perspectives in model image and background image. If we don’t change the background, we must get a different photo of the tank, which is taken from further down below/behind it. This one was taken a bit too high up.  If background can be changed, we would need to ‘angle’ camera down in the photo, looking more towards the ground (raising the horizon if you will).

2. Height of the ‘photographer’

Judging from the background image (proximity to the ground etc), it seems to have been taken by an average height person standing on the ground. Thus any model images inserted as close as this need to mimic that, being taken from miniature man height behind the model, assuming we have a flat surface like this.

3. Shadows

The shadows fall straight down from the turret on the chassis, indicating that the light source is from straight above. This does not match what we see in the sun being from that angle. With this sun it should make drawn out shadows from turret, hatch, guy in the hatch, the radio antennas and so on, falling towards the observer (us). The fix would be to not have the sun in that direction, or a rather (for most people anyway) extensive post-process of re-arranging the shadows of the vehicle.

4. Highlights

Specular highlights are missing (to describe them, they are the ‘reflective’ quality of surfaces which is similar to that of a mirror. The more smooth a surface is, the more defined the mirroring of the light is. Rougher/uneven surfaces make more diffused reflections. But the reflections are usually there. To match the sun in this example, I think that large parts of the top of the tank, part of the guy’s helmet and so on would be extremely bright, almost pure white bright (overexposed) from reflecting the sun into our eyes.

5. Attempting to deal with over and under exposure

There’s a few specular highlights present (overexposed areas of the rear bolt-on fuel tanks). Disregarding their position, they have been altered by messing with the brightness (tuning and so on, understandably). There is a problem in trying to darken overexposed areas – it never works properly because overexposed areas have no color and no detail. Trying to darken them gives a flat greyish appearance (visible on the right fuel tank). The same is true if one attempts to brighten underexposed (black) areas – it cannot be done properly by just raising the brightness. To fix this, one can either paint the detail back by hand or set things up differently.


This concludes the final tutorial on model photography.  We have attempted to cover all aspects of the subject and show that anyone who has the skills to make good scale models certainly has the skills to take good photographs of those models.   A small amount of equipment is required and better equipment will help to produce better results.  However, reasonable photographs can be obtained with the most basic of equipment.

Remember that with digital photography it costs nothing to take photographs over and over again so keep trying – like modelling itself, practice makes perfect.

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GRAB YOUR FREE STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO GUIDE !Here you'll find the BEST on the web video tutorial on how to make 1:48 scale WW2 German jet. In our friendly step-by-step video guide we cover topics like: drybrushing, applying washes, applying decals and many more. Do not miss out - WE GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL LEARN SOMETHING NEW!!!!New GraphicName: Email: We respect your email privacy