The Basics of Mini Photography
Compilation by Edwin Molina
I'm constantly attempting to improve my painting skills. I try new techniques and approaches to painting, and the results are encouraging. Sometimes I want tot just blow people away with my art and have them go "WOW, how did you do that!" While this is fine, I could never get to take good pictures of my models. Some of my beautiful minis ruined by bad photos. When selling models, bad photos are probably the number one reason why some potentially good models do not sell well.
I have searched far and wide for information on how to improve my photographic skills, thus bringing my images closer to the reality of my painting skills. It is my intention to clarify the process in easy to grasp concepts, so you can take the photos your models deserve. Each main section will be filled with oodles of information and diagrams that will help you to understand and improve your skills. Remember, this are NOT rules... but guidelines to get you started. Once you grasp the concepts, then you can modify them as you see fit.
I want to thank the people of WeeToySoldiers
for great tutorials and inspiring this compilation... your part of your site lives on forever in this article! On the subject of credits, the basic setup of the compilation was based on material and photos I gathered long ago from Camo Specs Online. Once you read the information here, go there and learn a few other tricks. I have added minor information from numerous sources, but those sites offered a great bulk of the info! My respect to the authors. Lighting Setup and Cheap Alternatives
Now that you have made a cool background, it is time to learn how to take advantage of it to get the best look to your minis once completed. A lot of great minis and good photography is ruined by bad lighting. Now this section will not be a long one but it's not one to overlook. Let’s look at the different ways to light your minis.Professional Lighting Setup
Go buy a 3 light set with umbrellas, diffusers, and light stands. They start at around $200 and will provide the best well balanced lighting. Buying a setup will make it easy to make sure all of the bulbs are balanced and with the deflectors diffused. Here is a link to B&H, where you could buy one. If you are going to buy a kit, this is a good kind due to the fact that the boom arm on "5 inch light. I have seen Professional setup in Online Auctions as cheap as $100. Search for 'Photo Studio Lighting Kit'... if it is on budget, you won't regret it!!!Amateur (Do-It-Yourself) Setup
Most of us may not have $200 to spend on lighting, so let’s look at a less expensive alternatives. First, and very practical are the 'portable mini-photo studio lighting kits'. They are fairly new, and are composed of a light box (where you put the object to photograph) which is surrounded by diffuser cloth, two powerful lamps, a tripod and a carrying case. You can buy it either at Walmart or Online for ~$50... and it works great for me! For the Do-It-Yourself hobbyists you could gather material in your local hardware store to make one for ~$30. To me, it is not worth the time... but you love making stuff by yourself! You need:
1. Three metal 8" shop reflectors like this usually $6 when bought separate. Follow this link to Ace Hardware. You could find them cheaper on an Online Auction site.
2. Three decent light bulbs. All must be the same to get the same light effect. When one burns out, make sure to replace it with the exact same kind of bulb as the other two! Three would cost ~$6. The 'G.E. Reveal Incandescent Bulbs' seem to be good a good and affordable choice. Money permitting, you may want to have Neodymium lights, which absorbs the yellow spectrum from the visible light. They enhance the blues and reds causing colors to appear more vibrant. Ordinary light bulbs produce a harsh unnatural light that can contribute to glare and eye strain, but Neolites simulate a full spectrum of light similar to true daylight. Check them out here.
3. A yard of thin white muslin cloth or 3 large sheets of tracing paper. Muslin Cloth is preferred to the paper because it is safer and reusable; see a link here.
4. Tape or large rubber bands.
5. Camera Tripod (~$10.00)
6. Some kind of system to clamp the lights to at equal distance from the mini. This may require you to build something or improvise... clamp two of the lights to the back of kitchen chairs and one to an old tripod set above the table. You need to place the lights as seen in the diagram below. Then place the muslin over the lights to diffuse the overall intensity and to knock down any hot spots. Watch your lights if the muslin gets to hot it could burn! Check your lights often!Camera Setup and Use
This is, without a doubt, the longest and the most complex part of the whole photo experience. Don't worry... remember that they are concepts! Once you get them, and decide what works best for you, taking good pictures will be as easy and natural as dry-brushing (remember how 'hard' it was to learn the technique? LOL!) This part of the tutorial will be broken down into several sub-sections to help you navigate thru the minefield of mini photography.Picking the Right Camera
In today’s world with the advent of the Internet and the rapid drop in digital camera prices, it really makes more sense to discuss digital photography. I'm in no way advocating that digital phtography is best than film photography... I leave that discussion to the experts. I just want to take the best pictures of my models to post on the internet, thus is easier to skip the scanning phase and have the photos already in digital format. The first thing I want to cover is the different types of cameras available. They fall into mainly 4 classes of cameras.Point & Shoot
: This covers almost all cameras $400 or less. There are basically 2 types of point and shoot, the Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) and Compact Cameras. Both of these types will do a decent job if they have the features we will discuss below.
1. Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) Cameras usually have bigger zooms and when you look through the viewfinder you are basically seeing a smaller LCD screen. Lenses are non-removable. Careful, there are some stores that will try and tell you that an EVF camera is a D-SLR. There is a difference!
2. Compact Cameras these are 90 percent of the types of cameras you will see on the market today. They are identified by either not having a viewfinder at all, or when you look through the viewfinder you are actually looking through a small focusing window in the front of the camera.Digital Single Lens Reflex (D-SLR)
: A digital still image camera that uses a single lens reflex (SLR) mechanismis known as a D-SLR. Most professional cameras have always been single lens reflex cameras, although analog. D-SLRs began to emerge in the early 1990s, but became very popular after the turn of the century. Following are the two major differences between DSLRs and standard Point & Shoot digital cameras.Removable Lenses
No single lens can accommodate every photographic requirement, and SLR cameras have always used removable lenses. A wide variety of lenses are available for each camera system, and many lenses that fit 35mm analog SLRs also fit digital SLRs. However, the CCD or CMOS sensor in a digital SLR is generally not as large as a 35mm film frame, and there is typically a multiplier factor in focal length. For example, using a multiplier factor of 1.5x, a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera is equivalent to a 75mm lens when attached to a digital SLR.Through the Lens
In an SLR, the photographer sees the image through the actual picture lens. To compose the picture, a mirror reflects the light from the lens to the viewfinder. When the picture is taken, the mirror momentarily flips out of the way to allow the light to pass through the lens diaphragm to the CCD or CMOS sensor (or to film in an analog SLR). Through-the-lens viewing enables precise manual focusing because tiny LCD screens do not have sufficient resolution. In addition, holding the camera against the face helps steady it. With most digital SLRs, the LCD screen is used to review the recorded image, not to preview it for picture taking. In 2006, Olympus introduced the first DSLR with an LCD preview.Beware the Dust!
Unlike an analog SLR, which uses a completely fresh film frame for each photo, the digital SLR uses the same sensor chip for every image. Unfortunately, that sensor is susceptible to dust, which is why D-SLR users are advised to keep a lens on the camera at all times. In 2007, D-SLRs began to include some form of built-in dust reduction or removal.Cleaning the Sensor
D-SLRs have a "mirror lockup" function that flips the mirror out of the way to expose the sensor for cleaning, and there is a raft of sensor cleaning materials on the market that cost from a few dollars to several hundred. For a comprehensive overview of all cleaning methods, visit www.cleaningdigitalcameras.com.
These are the best cameras to use for this type of photography with the right dedicated lenses. These cameras, even the lowest priced, will produce a higher quality image than a Point & Shoot camera due to their larger sensors and better optical properties. They also have a lot more leeway in how you can set the camera up and the range of settings that you can use. These cameras start at around $400 for just the body; the lenses will cost extra.Medium Format
If you can afford one of these cameras... I really hope you know how to use it. You should be way beyond the point of this tutorial if you can drop over $1,000 on a camera.Range Finder
At this point the bodies of the cameras start at $3,000... out of the general price range of this tutorial. At this prices... you can definitely afford have Deafnala to paint your models, buy HIM D-SLRs with LOTS of lenses and a Lighting setup as well as send him to professional photography school.
Now there are a few things to keep in mind when looking for a new camera or upgrading your old one.
* You want to make sure the camera has Aperture Priority Mode.
* That there is a macro mode or a macro lens available.
* That there is a custom white balance setting.
* Three megapixels or better (a higher number does not necessarily mean better picture quality... see below).
* That you get a decent tripod.
Okay now lets look at each of the sections by themselves. You will need to refer to your camera's manual to find how to set each of these modes.Aperture Priority Mode
This is the mode that allows you to set the lens opening to achieve the desired depth of field, while the camera will set the proper shutter speed. This mode is important to achieve the proper focus when taking pictures of small objects. By setting the proper aperture you will get all parts of the mini in focus but achieve a blurry background. This will give you the best display for your work.
In digital photography (and digital video recording) the F-Stop
refers to the international standard sequence of numbers that express relative aperture. F-Stop is the "lens focal length" divided by the "effective aperture diameter." Ughh?!? In plain English; The smaller the F-Number, the greater the amount of light that passes through the lens.
Each change of F-Stop halves or doubles the image brightness as you step up or down. A setup of f-2.8 will have a large opening that will let in more light. The camera has less time to gather the image (lots of information being gathered) and the result is that depth of field will be much shallower. In the reverse situation, a setup of f-22 will have a very small opening letting in less light in. Since there is less information to gather most of the subjects will be in focus. You need to have a lot of light (4-6 professional sources) to avoid issues with blurriness due to a shaky camera.
What this means to your miniature photos? Well, since the models are so small, each tweak on the F-Stop actually will give you great changes in focus... which is what we are looking for! For most of your standard mini photography you will stay between f-6 to f-11.
Most cameras will have a dial (like the one illustrated below) where you can find and modify the Aperture Priority mode on a Canon. Most point and shoot cameras have only the ability to set this to f-8 max. There are very few that will go beyond that. Their price is above that of a D-SLR so you might as well get the D-SLR.
The examples below will give you an idea of the depth of field as affected by the aperture setting of your camera. First, you will see photos taken with a 4.0 megapixel Canon camera (~$199). Notice that the cheapest cameras now are 7.0 megapixels, but the most important feature is that you can change the aperture!
As you can see with the D-SLR has a much broader range of F-Stops to use. This allows you to get just a small area of the mini in focus or the whole image in focus. This helps when showing a single point like a decal or a whole diorama. To get the proper depth of field is the reason that you want a space between where the mini sits and the background. Macro Mode
Macro Mode is a setting on Compact cameras that allows you to focus at a shorter range. This produces a close up image that is used in mini photography. Usually a flower is the symbol found on the Compact cameras to indicate that you are in macro mode. Macro or Micro Lens is a dedicated lens used for close up photography on a D-SLR. There are several to choose from, from many different makers. I recommend that you get the longest focal length that you can afford.
Macro Photography is used for shooting a close up image of your mini to really get it to show. Now remember that the closer you are the more mistakes will show also! When taking a macro shot try to focus on the spot that you want the observer to naturally observe, such as the face of your hero/monster or the cockpit of your 'Mech. Set the F-Stop to bring the whole mini into focus. This may require several test shots to find the right F-Stop. This is a great advantage of digital photography... images are free and you can study them in few minutes (instead of waiting days!!!)Custom White Balance
The White Balance
is a setting in digital cameras that is used to compensate for different colors of lights. This used to be corrected by using filters or a color balanced film for the type of lighting that will be used. Now, the digital camera can do this (again... for free!) This is an important feature that needs to be on the camera that you purchase. We all have seen photos that are orange, yellow and blue in color. This is caused by the color of the lights that are used to light the mini. The human brain is amazing in that it can figure out what is supposed to be white and adjust the image we see to compensate. Cameras on the other had record exactly what they see.
If you have a camera and it does not have a custom white balance setting you are going to have to just experiment with your settings to figure out which works best. The White Balance
is the reason why 95% of the photos look 'too dark and orangy'... Easy fix!
Here is what happens if you use the auto white balance setting with normal household lighting:
Here is after using the custom balance setting to calibrate the camera to the right lighting.
With most cameras you will need a white object to set the custom white balance setting on the camera. I suggest a business card or a small piece of poster board. If you use a piece of regular paper fold it in half so that no light leaks thru from the back. You can write an 'x' on you calibrating sheet, to help with the focusing and to make sure that the color is correct.Megapixels
Pixel (photosites) are the actual point on the chip in a camera that records the image data. Cameras are listed by the number of photosites that are on the chip, usually referred to as megapixels, which means millions of pixels.
Is bigger better? That is a very common question. There is no clear answer. The more pixels on a camera, in a perfect world, would give you around an 11% increase in quality for every 1 million you went up. As we all know though the world is not perfect. The more pixels in a camera the higher the noise produced in the image. So a 3 megapixel camera from one maker may produce a better image than a 5 megapixel from another. It all boils down to the software in the camera and the optics in the lens.
This is why Nikon and Canon are the tops in the field of digitals. They have some of the best software to handle the noise in the camera. Now most cameras will produce an excellent image for what we are trying to achieve here. A 3 megapixel camera is good enough to win any contest you may want to enter. The higher the pixels the more reduction will be required to fit into picture size and file size requirements, but the more detail will show.Tripods
This is probably the most over looked and most needed piece of equipment for mini photography. Taking pictures without tripods causes pictures to loose focus, or 'smudge' from your hands shaking. Now you don’t need to spend $300 on your tripod. The important thing is that the tripod is is steady and strong enough to support your camera. Older people, or at least those with unsteady arms will learn to appreciate the simple tripod! Setup Your Area
Now lets put all together. You created a good background, got appropriate lighting sources and bought the best camera for you. Now, the setup to maximize your photos!
First thing you need to do is find an area to shoot that has plenty of plugs or that you can get a power bar to the plug. A dedicated area with little outside light sources is best.Now setup as described in the lighting section. How you do this is up to you but I usually clamp the lights to the back of the chairs. Here is a reminder of the proper light setup:
Once you have got the tripod and camera ready to go, turn on the lights. Now the first thing you need to do is set the camera to the Aperture Priority Mode. Set the camera to f-8.0 to start. If you are using a compact this maybe the highest you can go. With a D-SLR you will be able to play with several f-stops to get the best one.Turn off the flash on the camera!
You got the correct light setup... the flash will mess it up and create shadows in the back. Set the custom White Balance on the camera by holding a white object in front of the camera. You will need to refer your manual to set this for your camera. Now turn on the Timer function in your camera. The timer function is important because it allows you to let go of the camera when taking the picture and avoid having any jitter caused by your own hands. The process is slower than just manually shooting... but its the best way to go!
Focus on the models point of interest and take your picture.
Once you have taken a picture review it on your computer. Don't be silly... the tiny LCD panel on the camera is only good for your grandma to view the pictures she just took of you in a compromising position... NOT for reviewing high quality pictures. If you need to re-shoot the picture, it will be a snap since everything is still setup! Remember all digital photos will need some 'sharpening' with image software such as Picassa (my personal favorite!), Photoshop, or Microsoft Picture Manager. I will write another compilation on the subject later.Backgrounds
A good background can make a good picture; all depends on the theme and focus you want for your model. Backgrounds are a very liberal area of discussion; some people like not to have any, thus focusing the viewer's attention to the model, while others like to have one to increase the model's realism and sense of scale. What need to be understood is that the background is there to add to the overall effect of your image, but should not detract from your beautiful work. For example, a ruined building, big rock (or large piece of painted Styrofoam) or vegetation (miniature trees) standing next to you mini it could draw the viewers attention away from the mini unless it is very well done and blends into the background.
The following will be a step by step walk-thru of a simple but effective backdrop that some people use. This is designed for those of us that need a quick break down and not take up much space. You can change this up to fit your style any way you see fit if you follow a few simple rules. I personally have not use backgrounds for my photos because i have NO SPACE at all, but someday I will go crazy with it! First let’s gather the supplies...
1. 16x20 Basic Wooden Photo Frame ~$15.00
You could do this without the frame but it makes it easier to store and keeps the terrain flat.
2. Foam Board ~$0.30
3. Flocking - $9.00
Personal choice, but keep it a neutral as possible.
4. White Glue ~$2.00
You will need at least a bottle, maybe a little more depending on the size of the bottle.
5. Some Modeling Trees ~$7.00
Local train, modeling or hobby store would have several to choose from.
6. Light Blue Poster Board ~$0.25
7. Craft Knife ~$2.00
8. Old Large Paint Brush ~$0.00 (Free!)
9. Spray Glue ~$4.00
If you are the impatient kind!
10. Old Small Paint Brush ~$0.00 (Free!)
11. Masking Tape ~$3.00
Blue painters tape will work wonders!
12. Super Glue ~$2.00
13. Finishing Nails ~$2.00
14. Spray Matte Acrylic Finish ~$4.00
15. Other Background Materials
You may want to use other stuff for your background like rocks, buildings, cliff faces, etc.
You should have a budget of around $45.00. Of course, you may already have some of the supplies which would change the general investment. This to be more versatile than any other system. When choosing your flocking material, grass is always a good choice. It can be used for almost any mini. The nice thing about this setting is that you can switch the base board out rather easily and make several different setting if you would like.
First disassemble the Photo Frame. Be careful with the glass! You can use it on another project or you can dispose of it. Take the matte board that came with the frame. Trace its outline on the foam board. Start in one corner (you are going to need that extra foam board later). Now with your craft knife cut out the foam board test fit to your frame and trim as needed. Once the foam board fits leave it in the frame and flip it over. Now trace the inside of the frames edges onto the foam board. Take everything but the foam board and set it aside. Now tape the edges to your marks or a little over if you'd like to give yourself some wiggle room.
Now is the time to get messy! First, paint the base board of a color somewhat darker than your flocking material. This will immediately give your flocking material some depth. If you are using combination of materials (such as desert rocks with few grass patches) this is the perfect moment to plan your layout. Paint the base board with the majority of the base ground flock color and then (when it dries) paint the patches of the other flock. For example, paint the board scorched brown first for your gravel; then when dried paint patches of goblin green for your grass.
Once it is all dry, pour a generous portion of glue on the board (take on flock color at a time) and spread it out evenly with that old large brush inside of the taped area. You need to move quickly or the edges may start to dry a little on you. Now sprinkle the flocking materials in a pattern of your choice remember to try and keep it looking natural. If your areas are large, then you want to spread the glue in strips across the long side then flock let dry then do the next strip and so on until the board is covered. This method will cause less warping and more time to tweak the look of the surface if you are using more than one type of flocking.
Either way will work it is up to you what results you want to achieve. Now walk away and let it dry thoroughly. This could take a couple of days depending on humidity and temperature! Patience is key... if you rush this simple step, you will regret it! When it is dry shake any loose flocking from the board, save this you may need it for other project. Now spay a THIN layer of your matte finish letting and let dry around 5 minutes. Repeat coating, 3 or 4 times more. You want many thin layers rather than one think one. Thin layers would keep the flocking looking as natural as possible, and multiple layers will give you the protection needed for the base board to maintain is usefulness for years.
Remove the tape (this may require making a slight cut along the tape to help removal) and test fit in your frame. Look at the edges and look for any areas that you can still see the foam board. Use the smaller brush and touch these areas up with a little glue and flocking. It is best to mark these areas with a pen and the do this outside of the frame. That way you don't accidentally glue the board to the frame. Seal your finish work once more time and let dry.
While this is drying take your remaining foam board and cut a piece the same length as the inside of the frames edge. Don't worry about its height. This will be the back support for the blue poster board. Take the remaining foam board and cut in half these will be the sides. Once everything is dry, mount the base into the frame. Take the finishing nails and from the bottom along the back push them up thru the bottom and align the back board. Now mount the back board but do not glue it down yet. Do the same for the sides.
Remove the base from the frame and cut the backs and side pieces to the same height. Now using the super glue the back piece in place. Once it is dry, do the sides. Now take the blue poster board and spray with the spray glue. Press to the back starting at one side and work your way around across the back to the other side. Let dry. Once dry use the hobby knife to cut off the extra poster board.
We have reached the point where your creative juices get to flow. In a 4" inch area from the back, place your trees and background materials to create a more dramatic background. You now have a backdrop to take you pictures against! Now on to how and light your backdrop...Practice until you get the results you want and start snapping away!
Remember... taking pictures is like painting. If you understand that your first attempt to paint will NOT land you a Golden Daemon... why in the name of the Emperor you expect to win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography with your first photo? Trust me... you get better with practice!!!