How I photograph scale models

photo_01

1:48 Airco DH-2 model, built using Eduard’s stripdown kit.

A few years ago, I made a small workshop on scale model photography during Beja Modelshow 2017. It was a challenge proposed by our friend Simão Matos, one of the organizers of the exhibition.  When finishing the workshop, I was surprised with the amount of requests for a written sum up, as it was considered to be to much information to be absorbed in a couple of hours. In the mean time, many other modellers have shared their approach and thoughts regarding scale model photography (some are listed bellow), so I decided just to describe my workflow for making a photo to share online. So, finally, here it is!I must start by stating that I am not a professional photographer (far from it) and the settings and photographic conditions I am suggesting provide me with the results I want using equipment I have available.  I hope you find my approach useful and helpful for your own photographic endeavors. At the end of this short sum up, you will find links to some sources that inspired me and/or give a deeper insight into photography.

Me410B2U4_09

1:48 scale DB603 engine, with a few added details, from the Meng’s Me 410 B-2/U-4.

Methodology

If you want consistent results, approach photographing your models in a consistent way. Keeping track of what you have tried out will allow you to figure out what works for you and iteratively will lead you to the photos you are looking for. I have a list of steps that I always follow:

  1. set up the light diffusion box, under ceiling lamp
  2. set up camera on a tripod and set “white balance” using the white background as reference
  3. prepare the model and place it in the tent
  4. frame the photo and establish exposure
  5. make the photo using remote control or timer (to avoid shaking the camera)
  6. process the file for online sharing

So what do I mean by each of these list items? Allow me to digress just for a bit. Photography was a hobby of mine (still is, but nowadays I mainly photograph scale models) that started during my childhood, when my father let me play with his old manual film camera. All the manual controls left me curious about their function and it lead me to read the camera manual and some books about photography. Learning a bit about photography will help you understand why your automatic camera is making the photo in one way when you wanted it differently.

Lets get back on track! I must reiterate that if you reproduce the previous list, in a similar manner to what I do, you will get photos that are pleasing to me and that might not be what you are aiming for. If you like the style of scale model photography I do, you should be able to reproduce similar results following the previous list. Each point is briefly discussed, detailing what is done and my reasoning, in the following text.

Gannet_AEW_08

1:72 scale Gannet AEW Mk.3, built using Alley Cat’s kit

Lighting and light diffusion box

I guess I am not alone when saying that lighting is much more important than the camera you are using. You can have a flagship camera model, but if the lighting is not good, there is no amount of fiddling around with the RAW file that will save it (it can make it better, but not better than a properly lit and exposed photo!). I prefer soft lighting, without harsh or confusing shadows. That is why I use a  light diffusion box (or tent) under a single light source that is at some distance.

BOXThis is my light diffusion box. It can be folded, which is very convenient, as I do not have a permanent “photo corner”.

Using a single light source simplifies the resulting shadows. Proper lighting (at least to me) does not mean expensive lighting as I just use the ceiling lamp! It is not very bright but that (to me) is actually a bonus, as the resulting shadows are somewhat subdued. Even so, without diffusing this light, the resulting shadows are not as soft as I want. So, for me it is imperative to use a light diffusion box, which provides me with what I am looking for. I still have to experiment more with natural lighting, but spare time for the hobby is generally found when the sun is already beyond the horizon.

light

Note how far from the light diffusion box is the light source. This helps to create the smooth and soft shadows that I want.

Camera set up

Nowadays, for sharing content online, the camera you use is not that important (I have seen brilliant photos made with smartphones!). I use an old entry level DSLR with its included lens (nothing fancy, even 16 years ago, when I bought it). As you can imagine, using just a ceiling lamp (a not very bright one) to lit the scale model equates to long exposure times (several seconds) and for that reason, a tripod is mandatory.

tripod

My tripod is a very basic one, but it is sturdy enough to keep the camera steady.

I use the lowest sensor sensibility (ISO value) the camera allows, because it results in a image with less noise. This also contributes to the long exposure times, but as we have a camera stabilized on a tripod, this is not an issue.

ISO

This image was pasted out of my camera manual, showing out to set up the ISO value (Sensitivity). You might need to check out the manual of your camera.

I tend to use either Aperture Priority (usually marked as A or Av) or Manual mode (marked as M) and an aperture (f/ value) small enough to keep the entire model in focus.

Ap_Man These are the icons usually associated with the Aperture Priority and Manual modes.

When using Aperture Priority mode, use the exposure compensation function as needed (usually increasing the calculated exposure for light backgrounds and reducing the exposure when the background is very dark). Presently I mainly use manual mode because I always use the same lighting conditions and I already know the setting (aperture and exposure time) that gives me a good exposure.

Exposure Exposure compensation is a great tool when using Dark or Light backgrounds, in Aperture Priority mode. Remember to overexpose (+ EV) for Dark backgrounds and underexpose (- EV) for light backgrounds.

I will not get into the details (you can search for a detailed explanation of Depth Of Field in the links supplied as reference), but in a nutshell, closing the aperture (f/high value) increases the amount of “picture” in focus (the opposite, f/low value, usually results in a photo where only part of the model is focused). I do not use the smallest possible aperture, as there are also issues associated with very small apertures. I use the larger aperture that  ensures the whole model is in focus. In my camera/lens combination, it is usually around f/22 for a 1:48 scale WWII fighter or a 1:24 scale car. If you have a “point & shoot” camera that allows manual control over the aperture, this value will usually be f/8, but it will depend on your camera model.

F-stop

To adjust the diaphragm aperture on DSLR cameras, there is usually a thumb wheel. On other cameras, if this control is available, it might be in a menu (once again, check the camera manual).

If your camera does not allow manual control, use the Landscape mode! This is a great tip that I picked up from J. M. Villalba, at a workshop on scale model photography lectured during the first Static Model Competition “Ciudad de Leganés”, back in 2011. It sounds counter intuitive to use Landscape mode for scale models but it makes sense if you think a bit about it. Landscape photographers can use long exposure times and small apertures because they want to capture the entire picture in focus and their “object” does not change (at least, not quickly). These settings maximize depth of field and that is what cameras have programed in Landscape mode, helping us to get the entire model in focus.

Landscape

Typical icon used on cameras to indicate the Landscape mode.

Another important factor determining the quality of our photos is color rendition. What I always do is use the Preset white balance option and calibrate the camera using the white background as reference (you can use a neutral grey card, but as I use a white background, it is more convenient). You will need to read your camera manual to figure out how to calibrate it. This will ensure that as long as your lighting does not change, the photo will correctly capture the model’s color. If your camera does not have such option, try out the available settings to figure out which one better matches the light you are using.

WB

Another image from my camera manual, showing the available White Balance options. I have highlighted the mode I exclusively use for scale models.

Finally, I use the highest image quality available in the camera, using JPEG format. I know that RAW files are the best way to manipulate an image, being very flexible and allowing the correction of many parameters, but the time I have available for the hobby is too short to be fiddling around with these setting, so I just prefer to make a nicely exposed photo in JPEG, that needs little corrections.

The Model

Just check if the model is not damaged, dusty, etc… It will show on the photos!

Dust

A small fiber (highlighted) spoiled an otherwise nice detail photo of an 1:35 scale M4A4(t).

Framing & Exposure

After placing the model inside the diffusion box, figure out the angle you want to capture it. I like to make a few photos from “eye” level (imagine that you where photographing the real object the model is depicting), which often involves laying the camera lens on the same surface the model is, specially when capturing photos of small scale models.

After framing your photo, check if the exposure is correct, because if you are photographing a detail that rests in a shadowed part of the model, you might need to adjust it (if using and automatic mode, use the exposure compensation function).

The Photo

As I use very long exposures (several seconds), the camera needs to stay as stable as possible. After focusing the camera, I use a remote control to make the photo, completely avoiding touching the camera (and inducing any motion to it).

remote
I always use a remote control for scale model photography. Check your camera manual to find if such accessory exist for your camera.

If you do not have a remote trigger, you can use the timer function, allowing you to depress the shutter button a few seconds before the shutter opening (any vibration induced by depressing the shutter button will be gone by the time the shutter opens).

timer
Refer to your camera manual to learn how to use the timer.

Post-processing

I keep post-processing to a minimum, as the images already have a proper exposure (and as I mentioned before, I use JPEG; I only capture photos in RAW format when I am making a photo for a publication and the editor requests files in RAW format). I use an open source image editor (GIMP) and my workflow is very simple; cropping, resizing, slightly adjusting the lighting (Levels command) and slightly adjusting sharpness (Unsharp Mask tool).

Cropping:

I use it to correct the way the model is framed. After loading the photo file in the image editing software, I use the Selection tool to select the are of interest. The Crop function removes everything else.

Crop

 

Resizing:

The photo is now properly framed, but the file resolution is still too large for online sharing. I usually scale it down to 1200×800 pixels, which is still large enough for most computers or other devices screens.

scale

 

Levels:

The Levels tool allows the correction of the exposure (within a small margin). This tool is found in the Colors tab.

levels1

Levels tool opens a window showing a histogram which helps to adjust and do small corrections. As I mostly use a white background, I use it to guide my correction.

levels2

 

Sharpening:

Scaling down the image results in a small loss in sharpness. Using the Unsharp Mask tool, we can slightly improve it.

sharpness1

The amount of added sharpness is minute, but it improves the image definition. Here are the typical values I use.

sharpness2

Lastly, I export the modified file (I always keep the original camera files untouched, just in case). And that is it!

fw190A5U12

1:48 scale FW 190 A-5/U-12, built using Hasegawa’s kit.

I hope you find these tips helpful in figuring out how to get the photos you are looking for. To conclude this post, I leave you a small list of references and source of inspiration for your scale model photography.

Ken Rockwell: this website is a photography encyclopedia with lots of information! For our purposes (photographing scale models) I recommend his article on Product Photography.

Paul Budzik’s Fine Scale Models:  Paul Budzik shares many of his works in this website and his thoughts on model photography have been very helpful for me (you can check several videos on image, camera, depth of field and color managing.

DOOG’S MODELS: Matt McDougall has several tips and tutorials on his website, including some thoughts on model photography. I specially like his post about focal length as a way to make your models more imposing!

Night Shift: Martin Kovac’s youtube channel has a nice tutorial with his take on model photography.

Me263V1

1:72 scale Me 263 V-1, built using the AMP/Mikro-Mir kit.

How I photograph scale models

4 thoughts on “How I photograph scale models

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