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Model Photography Part 4 – Setting up & Taking Photos


SMG Photo Studio

The ScaleModelGuide photo studio

This is the forth in a series of articles about scale model photography.  The first article discussed why there is such a strong interest in taking photographs.  The second looked at equipment needed and the third dealt with technical aspects.  This article covers the actual taking of photographs.

Setting Up

The second article in this series discussed the equipment needed and now we will describe how to set it up.

There is no definitive set up

When I wanted to begin taking photographs of my own models, I searched the internet for advice and found several relevant articles and videos from scale modelling websites and photographic studios.  They provided a lot of valuable information, but surprisingly there was no consensus on the best set up for taking model photographs.

The general advice indicated that anything between two and four lights were needed, but one studio recommended only using one light with mirrors being used to adjust the direction of the light.  All of this indicated that there is no definitive set up that has to be religiously followed, so the advice that follows should be regarded as guidance, but feel free to experiment.

Backdrop example M113 In the photo above, the red arrow indicates where the horizontal worksurface meets the vertical wall behind.  This is disguised by having a continuous curve on the backdrop.


Normally you will want the viewer’s eyes to be drawn to the subject of the photograph i.e. your model, not the background.  Therefore, a plain background is desirable, preferably in a light pastel shade.  Avoid white, dark or bright colours (a white background will often appear grey in photographs unless it is separately illuminated).  A colour that contrasts with your model is good.

Ideally the backdrop should be a single sheet of thin card or paper, but if you cannot obtain a sheet large enough, then several sheets can be stuck together providing the seams are stuck down well.  A piece of fabric can be used although it is difficult to avoid creases and folds that will spoil the effect.

In the photograph of the SMG studio above, note how the backdrop is laid on the table and up the wall behind making sure there is a gentle curve in the transition between the horizontal and vertical.  This is to avoid a horizontal line behind the model.  In the SMG studio the backdrop is held on the wall with a few blobs of Blu-Tak.

Camera and tripod

The camera is almost always used on a tripod and is placed in front of the backdrop.  It is very easy to move the position of the camera to get the best angle on the subject.  When taking photos very close to the subject i.e. less than 5 cms away, the front tripod legs will need to go under the table.  If you are taking photos on top of a cupboard or kitchen worksurface, you will not be able to do this.  In these situations, the two front legs on the tripod can be shortened so that the camera tilts forward.  The camera can now be put right against the front edge of the worksurface and can not fall over forwards because it will be leaning against the worksurface.

Photo M113 top light The above photo was taken with a single 40W halogen G9 bulb from directly above.  The camera copes with the lack of light by slowing the shutter speed but even so the photo looks ‘grainy’.  Furthermore, the single light source from above is not very flattering to the model.


Getting the lighting right is critical.  It is important to have enough light and to have light from the right directions.  Taking photos outside in good daylight can produce very reasonable results.  The earth’s atmosphere acts like an immense diffuser for the single light source (the sun) so that light actually hits the model from all directions.  Unless the model is in direct bright sunlight, the model will be evenly lit without the shadows being too dark.  However, if you want to take photos indoors then the following advice covers setting up your lights.

A single light source is unlikely to give good results.  This is because everything that is not directly lit will be in deep shadow – there will be too much contrast and everything will be either very bright or very dark.  Having light coming from all directions will also give poor results because all parts of the model will be evenly lit and there will be a lack of contrast.  The trick it to have the lighting somewhere between these two extremes.

In the photo of the SMG studio it can be seen that there are three main lights.  The two lights in front of the subject at about 45 degrees are known as the ‘key’ light and ‘fill’ light.

Photo M113 1 light

Here, the same light source has been moved to the left and once again the photo is not ideal since parts of the model are too bright and parts are in deep shadow.

The ‘key’ light is the main light source whilst the ‘fill’ light is mainly present to reduce the deep shadows and provide some illumination in areas that would otherwise be too dark.  The ‘key’ light should produce more light and this can be done either by using a bigger bulb, moving it closer to the subject, or putting a filter in front of the ‘fill’ light to reduce it’s intensity in comparison to the ‘key’ light.  Two lights can be sufficient and give good results, but I find that having a third overhead light normally improves the photograph.

Photo M113 2 lights A second ‘fill’ light has been added 45 degrees on the right further away from the model than the key light to lighten the shadows.

Apparently, having a forth light behind and below the subject can improve the photograph by producing a halo effect around the silhouette of the model, but this is not something I have tried.  It would be difficult to hide the forth lamp behind the model for most shots.

You will note that in the SMG studio all three lights are on adjustable stands so can easily be moved.  I feel that this is probably the most important part of getting the best photo.  The lighting needed for extreme close ups is different to that needed for longer distances.  The lighting also needs to be adjusted to take account of the colour of the subject and whether the surface is glossy or matt.

Photo M113 3 lights

The top light is added. The 3 lights produce the best effect.  The 3rd light was a different type of bulb and changed the colour of the model which is why all lights used should be the same type.  It is very difficult to get the right colour balance when the lights are creating different colours on the model.

Generally, lighting a model with bare bulbs does not produce the best results.  You may have noticed that in professional studios the lights often point away from the subject into big umbrella like reflectors so the subject is illuminated by reflected light.  A small light source produces hard shadows and severe contrast.  Larger light sources created with either reflectors behind the lamp, or diffusers in front of the lamp make softer shadows and more even lighting.

Photo light with diffuser A sheet of baking parchment has been taped over this photo light to diffuse the light and soften the shadows.  It is only safe to do this with low wattage bulbs that produce little heat.


If you are planning to do a lot of model photography it is worth considering buying a pair of photo lights on stands with large reflectors and daylight bulbs.  They can be obtained at very reasonable prices through the internet and will make a big difference to the quality of your photos.  If you cannot afford specialist lights, then you may wish to consider fixing a sheet of tracing paper or translucent plastic in front of the lamps to diffuse the light.  Care is needed to make sure the heat from the bulbs does not get too close to any diffuser.

Hint: If you are having trouble justifying the expense of photo lights, remember that they have many uses and make good task lights in the garage or for late night barbeques on the patio – just don’t leave them out in the rain!

Another option is to use a light tent.  This is a box with all sides made from a thin translucent material.  The subject is put into the tent and the lights are outside shining on the walls and roof.  All the light falling on the subject is diffused thus providing very even lighting with almost no shadows.  This type of lighting is ideal when taking photographs of small objects for online catalogues, or for selling items on Ebay, but it does not always produce the best model photographs.

There follows a series of photographs for comparison where the only variable is the different type of lighting.

Challenger domestic lighting

This photograph was taken with normal desk lamps fitted with G9 40W halogen bulbs.  These give a yellowish light and cast harsh shadows.

Challenger domestic lighting detail

Here is a close up of the same photograph showing the shadow detail on the turret to the right of the main gun.

Challenger photo lighting

In this photograph everything is the same except the two desk lamps have been replaced with two photographic lamps.  The bulbs are 23W daylight energy saving CFLs with 10 inch reflectors.  The 23W bulbs are equivalent to 150W incandecent bulbs.  Note that the colour is more natural without the yellow tint of the first photograph.

Challenger photo lighting detail

Once again this is a close up of the photograph on the left.  Note how the shadows have softer edges.  What can not be seen here is that the additional light allowed the camera to take the shots with a shutter speed of 1/15th second instead of the 1/5th seccond in the first photograph.

Challenger in light tent

This final photograph was taken using a light tent.  The actual level of light is lower but the lighting is very even with almost no shadows.  Whether or not this is an improvement over the second photograph is a matter of opinion.

Challenger in light tent detail

Close up detail of the photograph on the left.

SMG studio light tent The SMG studio light tent in use.  These fold away to a very small package when not in use and often come as a package with photographic lighting.

Fiddling around with all the lights is often the most time consuming part of taking the shot and it is important to be flexible.  Once you have taken a few photos with your particular set up you will soon learn where to position the lights to get the best effects. Fortunately, with digital photography it is possible to take several shots with different lighting and choose the best later on.

Flash Photography

As a general rule, forget the flash on your camera and switch it off.  For a start the flash will only work with a very fast shutter speed and fairly wide aperture so you loose control of both these camera features.  Secondly, any effort to set up the lighting will be lost if the camera produces a brilliant flash from the front.  Thirdly, at the short distances that model photography involves the flash is usually far too bright.

However, if your camera has a flash with adjustable brightness and you are taking photos of your model from a distance of 50cms or more then using the flash with a very low brightness might just improve the photo.  The camera that is used for ScaleModelGuide.com has a ‘flash fill in’ facility that adjusts the intesiity of the flash so that it supplements the ambient light. Occasionally, I take identical photos with the flash on (set to ‘fill in’ mode) and off and sometimes the flash photo produces a better result.

Taking The Photograph

1. Place the model on the backdrop and decide which side you want to take the shot from.  Generally. taking pictures in profile or head on will not be as interesting as those where the model is at an angle.

Photo Challenger high angle The photograph above is a fairly conventional shot and like most model photos is taken from above the model.  The photo below was taken very close to the same model from ground level and gives a completely different impression.

2. Switch on your camera and set the resolution (normally choose maximum resolution/quality). Now position the camera. Decide on the height of the camera in relation to the model.  The lower down you get, the larger and more realistic the model will appear to be, but at the same time you will tend to see less of the model.  Make sure that the model fills the LCD screen/viewfinder and that no part of the model is accidentally cut off.  Try moving the camera in and out and also try zooming in and out.  Sometimes having the camera a little further away from the model and using the zoom will get better results than putting the camera very close to the model.  For close up shots remember you may have to switch on the camera’s Macro facility to allow it to focus on very close objects.

Photo Challenger low angle Notice that framing the shot to show only a small part of the tank makes it appear larger and more impressive in this case.  One can almost imagine standing behind a real tank in the blazing sun under a cloudless sky.

3. Now switch on the lights and adjust them for best effect.  Remember to look at the LCD screen – what the camera is seeing may be different to what you see with your eyes.

4. Check that the colours in the camera’s viewfinder/LCD screen look right, if not then adjust the white balance.  Close the aperture as far as possible (normally F8) so that the depth of field is maximised.

5. Now do a final check on the LCD screen:

  • Is the focus OK? Be prepared to use the manual focus.  If the depth of field is poor then make sure the right part of the model is at the focus point.
  • Is the model still positioned correctly?
  • Is the lighting OK?
  • Is the aperture minimised?
  • Is the flash switched off?

6. Using the self-timer, remote shutter cable, or remote control, take the photograph.  You can either check the quality on the LCD screen right away, or wait until it is downloaded on to your computer depending on how good your camera is at displaying photos and how difficult it will be to retake the photo if it does not turn out right.  It can be difficult to check that the focus is perfect on some camera’s LCD screens.

The More The Better

With digital photography, it is generally better to take many photographs from many different angles.  It costs nothing to take extra photos and they can easily be deleted later.

If you are tying to take one or two photos for posting on the internet, then after you have taken your ‘preferred’ shot, move the model a few degrees left and right taking shots at each position.  Raise and lower the camera with each movement of the model and take shots from high and low.  You may be surprised when you look at them on your computer that the shot that looks best is not the one you intended.

If you are taking photographs of your model to keep in a portfolio as a record of your accomplishments then take plenty of shots of the entire model from different angles and heights.  In addition, take plenty of photos of close up details and capture every feature – especially those parts that are unique to your model.


Taking photographs of scale models may seem daunting at first, but with a little effort and practice good results can be acheived without vast amounts of expensive equipment.  The really great thing about digital photography is the opportunity to take a photograph, correct any problems and take another photograph.  Trial and error works wonders.

There is one final article in this series – Model Photography 5 – that deals with post photography image editing and placing models in a realistic setting.

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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