Author Archives: Gregwa

How to Photograph Miniatures: Depth of Field

This is the seventh in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures, in which we’ll learn how to keep your minis in focus, and also how to successfully photograph groups of miniatures. Much of what we will be discussing grows out of the previous article on exposure settings, so read that first if you haven’t already.



First, let’s define a fairly basic term of photography. Depth of field refers to what you have in focus in your final image. Let’s say that you have three objects lined up–one 3 feet from your camera, the second at 6 feet, the third at 9 feet. You can choose to have just one object in focus–let’s say the middle one at 6 feet–leaving the other two out of focus. Or you can choose to have two or even all three in focus. The “depth” refers to whether your focus coverage is deep, covering all three objects, or shallow, covering just one. More accurately, it refers to what area of the “field” (area of your photograph) will be in focus, whether shallow or deep.


The important thing to grasp at this point is that the depth of field is your choice. You can choose what to keep in focus and what to leave in “soft focus;” all you need to know is how to accomplish what you want. (Soft focus is different from “blur,” which is caused by camera movement.)


Smaller Aperture = Greater Depth of Field


Our most basic rule on focus is this: the smaller your aperture, the more things will be in focus. To illustrate this, I have shot three minis on a playing grid using different apertures and shutter speeds. (See previous article regarding these terms.) For the sake of accentuating the differences, I deliberately violated the Rule of Thirds, which I’ll describe in a moment. (Click any picture for a larger view)





Photo 1 was shot at an aperture of f5.6. Notice that the wizard in the middle is in sharp focus, but the front and rear minis are not. Photo 2 was shot at f11, improving the front and rear minis, while Photo 3 was shot at f22, bringing all three into reasonably sharp focus. (You will notice that the front image is still not as sharp as it could be; I’ll discuss this under the Rule of Thirds.)


The basic principle here is this: the smaller the hole, the more focused (less scattered) the light beams will be that pass through it. This is precisely what you are doing when you squint your eyes to see a distant object more clearly. You are narrowing your eyelids in order to make the aperture smaller in your eye, thus focusing the light beams more narrowly into your retina. This is also the reason that high school students (back in my day, anyway) always make “pinhole cameras” out of an old shoebox–and it works! The little pin-sized aperture forces what little light enters the shoebox to be focused into a narrow beam, thus producing a focused image on the film–even without any form of lens over that little pinhole.


So here’s the practical application: if you are shooting a group of minis, or even a single mini that has some depth (such as a weapon sticking out toward the front), you will want to use the smallest aperture possible if you want to keep everything in focus.


How to Do This


In the last article, I bored you with a ton of technical stuff about how to attain correct exposure using manual settings on your camera, and here’s the reason why: you will need to force your camera to use the aperture setting that is most appropriate, and this will entail at least some degree of manual exposure settings.


My Nikon has a dial with numerous settings, including A, P, S, M, and other stuff. Your SLR undoubtedly has comparable options available. Below is what those things mean:


    • P = Program: camera sets aperture and shutter automatically


    • A = Aperture Priority: you choose the aperture, and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed


    • S = Shutter Priority: you choose the shutter speed, and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture


  • M = Manual: you set both shutter speed and aperture manually, and the camera divests itself of any responsibility for your results


You can use the Aperture Priority setting to force the camera to use a smaller aperture, such as f16 or f22, and take a test shot to see how it looks. If the exposure is wrong, you’ll need to switch to Manual and set both yourself. (Shutter Priority is useful when shooting sports, for example, where the fast shutter speed is more important than what aperture is used.)


Either way, you’ll discover that you’re probably shooting at a fairly slow shutter speed. My example shots were taken between 1/4 second and 1/30 second shutter speeds. I can keep the camera steady enough to shoot at 1/15 generally (1/8 if I haven’t been drinking Red Bull), but anything below that is going to come out blurred. Here are some things you can do to compensate for this problem.


Shooting at Slow Shutter Speeds


The first and best way to keep your images sharp is to use a tripod. I shot my sample series on a tripod, which allowed me to get exactly the same composition in each shot while fooling around with different apertures. It also, of course, allowed me to shoot at any shutter speed whatsoever; I could have gotten a nice sharp image at f32 if I’d felt so inclined, shooting with a shutter speed somewhere around a 1/2 second. You don’t need a mammoth tripod to accomplish this, and these days you can pick up a decent one for under 20 bucks. It’s a basic piece of photo equipment that you should have, so get one now and skip the following tricks.


If you’re just too cheap to spring for a tripod, you can cheat. One way of cheating is to set your camera to emulate a faster film speed. I generally have my Nikon set to emulate ASA 200 film, which was the basic Kodak color film speed back in the pre-digital days. This was a good, all-purpose film that offered reasonable light sensitivity and sharp detail. But you could also buy “faster” film, films with higher ASA ratings—400, 800, 1200. These were called “faster” films because they were more sensitive to light and allowed you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without changing the aperture. The trade-off was something called “grain,” a degradation of sharpness in the details of your image. Your digital SLR can imitate this, allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without changing your aperture–but you’ll hate the grainy results. I don’t recommend going above an ASA 400 emulation.


The grossest, most reprehensible form of cheating is this: move your camera farther back from your subject, then crop the image in PhotoShop. This will permit you to have a shallower depth of field, thus permitting you to use a wider aperture and faster shutter speed—but it’s cheesy beyond belief, and the results will be quite unsatisfying. So just don’t do it. Buy a tripod.


Rule of Thirds


I mentioned earlier that I cheated a bit when shooting the three example photos, and what I did was to violate the rule of thirds. This rule has many applications in photographic composition and techniques, but all we’re interested in is depth of field, so here’s how it applies to this article: focus your camera one-third (1/3) of the way into the image field, then set the aperture as small as possible. The result will be that everything, front to rear, is in focus.


In Photo 3, you’ll notice that the wizard and the horse are in sharp focus, but the overburdened henchman in the foreground is still a trifle fuzzy. This is because I focused on the middle of the field—on the wizard, who is standing at the 50-percent point. I should have focused halfway between the wizard and the henchman, thus focusing one-third of the way into the field. This would have brought all three minis into sharp focus at a smaller aperture.


When to Use Soft Focus


Finally, there might be times when you actually don’t want your entire field to be in focus, in which case you’ll be doing the opposite of all that we’ve been discussing, using a wider aperture (say around f5.6) and a faster shutter speed. Just remember this important factor: the wider your aperture, the more critical your focus. You can be a bit sloppy on where you focus when using a small aperture, but you won’t have that latitude when you open up the lens.


Nevertheless, there are times when that’s exactly what you’ll want to do. The most common example is when you have a cluttered, distracting background behind your mini. You’re shooting it on your painting table, and all around the mini are paint bottles and brushes and whatnot—stuff that you don’t want your viewer’s eye to focus on. You want to draw the viewer’s eye to the mini, so you will want to set it away from the other junk, then use a wider aperture to focus only on the mini.


You can also use this technique if you’re shooting a diorama, and you want to create some sort of dramatic mood in the image. For example, you want your fighter to be standing heroically amidst a scene of carnage, dead bodies strewn all around him. A shallow depth of field can accomplish this, keeping the hero in sharp focus while allowing his dead foes to drop into soft focus.




Just remember these two basic rules from this article and the previous one:


    1. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.


  1. Changing the aperture requires an equal change in the shutter speed–in the opposite direction.


Gregwa will be taking a break from this series for the summer months. This fall, we’ll consider how to use your computer to perfect your final image.  If you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments so that other readers can benefit from the answers!

How to Photograph Miniatures: Correct Exposure

This is the sixth in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures, in which we’ll learn some basic rules involved in getting the correct exposure. This article is rather technical, for which I apologize in advance, but it’s necessary to understand the basics of how exposure works before we can get to some other important elements of photographing your mini.  

The lens aperture ring opens and closes to admit more or less light. (The one in this picture is actually damaged!)

Exposure Settings: The Aperture


Inside your camera lens, there is a disk which is actually composed of eight or so flat pieces of metal (called “leaves”) which overlap one another to form a circle. These leaves slide toward the center of the lens or outward, narrowing or widening the circular opening in the middle of the circle that they form. This opening is called the aperture, because it’s the hole (aperture or opening) which permits light to pass through the lens and into your camera.

Basically, you can adjust how big that hole (aperture) is, thus controlling how much light hits the “film” inside your camera. This is done using the aperture setting dial on your lens–that’s the dial with the weird numbers like 2.8, 5.6, 11, etc. (Or at least it used to be. In the digital age, many lenses no longer have the numbers on the “barrel,” the outside housing–they’re controlled through the camera.) These numbers are expressed with a lower-case f in front of them, standing for “focal point.” (Too technical to get into here, but it will come into play in the next article when we discuss depth of field and focus.) Thus, f8 means the aperture setting of 8. Easy.

First basic rule of thumb: the smaller the number on your aperture setting, the larger the aperture, which means the larger the hole, which means more light is coming in. I know it’s counter-intuitive; those numbers actually mean something, but this is technical enough without getting to that level. Just memorize this basic fact: smaller number = more light.

First basic rule corollary: Each click of the aperture setting adjusts the light by a factor of two. That means that, if you open the aperture one setting (moving to the next smaller number–f11 to f8), you double the amount of light passing through the lens. Close it by one setting (moving to the next bigger number–f8 to f11), and you halve (cut in half) the amount of light.

Aperture settings on the lens barrel. Many digital lenses no longer have these settings, but some still do.

This is a trifle confusing because the numbers don’t seem to be related to one another. One would expect the light to be cut in half when moving from 8 to 16, since those numbers are related by a factor of 2. But moving from 8 to 16 actually cuts the light to one-fourth–or four times as much when going from 16 to 8. The numbers go in two sequences rather than one: 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, etc. (Sort of like a question on the SATs: “What is the next number in the series?” Answer: 22.)

Exposure Settings: Shutter Speed 

The next element of exposure is how long your shutter stays open. To avoid confusion, understand that the shutter is not the same as the aperture. The aperture is inside the lens, controlling how much light passes through it; the shutter is inside the body of the camera, controlling whether or not that light enters the camera in the first place. The shutter works like a sliding door that’s normally closed. Press the shutter release, and that door slides open for a fraction of a second, then slams shut.

And fractions of seconds is exactly what shutter speeds are measured in. They start at 1 second, then proceed in halves from there. Thus, typical shutter speeds are 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/125—oops! It’s true: the halving gets fudged at 125, just for simplicity I guess. Regardless, these speeds don’t generally include the “1/” portion of the number (is that a numerator or a denominator? Hamblin would know), and are written simply as 16, 32, 64, 125, etc.

Second basic rule of thumb: Smaller number = more light. Yup, same as with the aperture. Makes these rules easy to remember–or easier to screw up both shutter and aperture. The basic premise is actually pretty simple if you start from 1 second and work forward: a shutter open for 1 second admits twice as much light as when it’s only opened for 1/2 second. It’s easy to forget this, however, when you’re shooting at 125 or 250–as you generally will be.

Aperture and Shutter Work Together 

The final thing to understand is this: Correct exposure is determined by how much light is admitted into the camera and how long it’s admitted for. Not grammatical, but accurate. Just remember: How much + how long = exposure.

And here is our third rule of thumb: Restricting the amount of light passing through the lens (via the aperture) requires that we admit light for a longer period of time (via the shutter). If that’s not easy to remember; try this: If you move the aperture one click, move the shutter one click in the opposite direction. Closing the aperture one setting (larger number) cuts the light in half, so we must make the shutter one click slower (smaller number), thus leaving the “sliding door” open longer. Change the aperture from 8 to 11, change the shutter from 250 to 125. It’s more intuitive and simple to do than it is to explain.

This is a Bunch of Useless Information 

“Why are you filling my head with all this techno-mumbo-jumbo about f-stops and shutter speeds,” you ask, “when my camera does it for me automatically?” Because you cannot permit your camera to do it for you, that’s why–you must learn to do it manually if you want to retain control over things like depth of field, correct exposure, color balance, and all sorts of stuff.

“I knew I should have kept my point ‘n’ shoot and not bought this stupid SLR!” Yes, I did mention in my very first article that many people avoid SLR cameras because they expect you to be smarter than the camera. But you are, you just don’t know it yet. Just grasp these two fundamental rules:

  1. Correct exposure = aperture + shutter
  2. Changing the aperture requires an equal change in the shutter–in the opposite direction.

The aperture in the lens determines how much light passes to the camera, and the shutter determines how long that light is admitted. If you cut that light in half (one aperture setting), you must admit it longer (one shutter setting). In our next article, I will explain why this matters in determining what is in focus in your image.

Next Article: Depth of Field (or, How to Photograph Groups of Miniatures)

How to Photograph Miniatures: Color

This is the fifth in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures. For the rest of the series so far, click the “Article Series” link in the menu bar.

In this article, we’ll answer your burning question: “Why on earth do I care about this ‘white balance’ stuff?” (If you don’t know what “white balance” refers to, don’t despair–just keep reading.)

Taking the initial picture is just the first step in the process of photographing miniatures. Once you have the initial image, you will still need to do some color correcting in PhotoShop or some other image-manipulating software. If you did not give any thought to the white balance when you took the photo, you will have a nightmare on your hands when you try to make a presentable photo. So knowing what you’re doing before clicking the shutter is important.

White Balance

As I mentioned in an earlier article, the term “white balance” refers to forcing your camera to record the entire color spectrum of the rainbow as nearly as it can (which, so you know, is not very near). If your camera captures all the colors correctly, from infrared through ultraviolet (which it can’t), then a truly white object will appear truly white in your image, and all the other colors in the rainbow will fall naturally into place.

Did I mention that you cannot accomplish this? That’s because God invented your eyeballs, and a human invented the camera: the camera simply cannot capture the entire spectrum which your eyes see. So you need to make some compromises.

The easiest way nowadays to do this is simply to tell your camera to do it for you. Digital cameras (SLRs–see article 1) give you some amazingly simple but important controls over your photography. All you have to do is to tell your camera what type of light you’re using, as I explained in a previous article. But the simplicity of this step is a trap: you will be tempted to forget to take this step, and your photos will come out all wrong.

Very Important Thing to Understand

Your camera by nature cannot see blue light. Please remember this fact; it’s very important in understanding why things come out too warm or too cool. Cameras are basically blind to blue light. This is important because your images, as a general rule, will be too warm–that is, they will show too much red in the color spectrum. You will see this if you try to photograph a beautiful landscape on a clear, sunny day with deep blue skies. You will get the landscape reasonably enough, but your sky will be anemic at best. Try shooting it in black-and-white, and you’ll have a blank grey sky. (This is why black-and-white photographers, back in the days of film, used special filters which forced the film to record the blue light in order to get some detail in blue skies.)

This is the basic fact which led to tungsten lights and tungsten film (see previous articles). Tungsten lights and film were designed to add gobs of blue light into the spectrum of the final image, in hopes that whites would become truly white and all the other colors would follow suit. This worked reasonably well in the film days; in the digital age, we must learn how to accomplish this in other ways–which is simply to reiterate that we must tell the camera what type of light we’re using so that it can make adjustments to the blue end of the spectrum.

Allow me to illustrate with some samples. I shot a series of photos using right and wrong settings just to see how much difference it made–and it made a lot.

Correct White Balance (photo #1)

Photo 1 – Correct White Balance (click for larger picture)

We will begin with a photo showing good white balance, just for reference. I used a standard “gray card” and “white card” in these images (very standard gear for professional photographers) to give us a reference point. I also used Citadel paints in red, green, and blue (RGB) because computer monitors use RGB to display the images. (We can discuss true CMYK printing in some future article, if there is an expressed interest.)

You will notice that the white card looks close to genuinely white–and that is what we will focus on in this article. We want our whites to be truly white, because then the other colors will fall where they belong. As a result, the red (Citadel “Blood Red”), green (Citadel “Scorpion Green”), and blue (Citadel “Ice Blue”) look very close to the real thing. If you own these paints, grab them now and check them against your monitor. I think you’ll find that the image on your monitor is pretty close to the real colors of those paints.

Remember this: getting the white right makes the colors bright. Okay, it’s not real technical, but it rhymes.

Incandescent Lamps on Daylight Settings (photo #2)

Photo 2 – Incandescent Lamps on Daylight Settings

This is the most common screw-up in photographing minis, so we’ll begin here. If you are using table lamps to shoot your minis, you must tell the camera that fact. In photo 2, I deliberately set my camera for “daylight,” then shot the paints under incandescent lamps. As you can see, the white card is too “warm” — it has too much red in it to produce a true white. Consequently, all the paint colors also are too warm. Consequently, your mini will look like it has a fever. Red is still red, but green takes on a sickly yellowish hue, and blue moves toward gray.

Incidentally, if you’re still using a point and shoot camera… well, you need to read article 1 in this series. Because point and shoots are factory set to shoot in either daylight or flash settings; they have no option for “incandescent” lighting, and photo 2 probably looks like every photo you’ve ever taken of your minis.

Flash (photo #3)

Photo 3 – Flash

I shot my paint pots with direct flash just to prove the point that I raised in Article 2 (or whichever it was). Yuck! Simple rule: don’t use flash.

Fluorescent (photo #4)

Photo 4 – Fluorescent

As I mentioned in a previous article, fluorescent lights produce a very greenish color cast. They are horrible to use and require some very aggravating and nearly impossible color correction later–so don’t use them. In this image, you can see that the white card is too warm. Unfortunately, red is not the issue here. Getting it to a true white is very difficult.

Open Shade (photo #5)

Photo 5 – Open Shade

I mentioned in a previous article that shooting outdoors in open shade produces a muddy, low-contrast image. This example demonstrates that (although I forgot to use the white card). It’s not bad overall; you could bump up the contrast in PhotoShop and gain a useable image–but it’s not your best choice. Remember: get the photo right when you click the shutter, and life will be more happy as you prepare your final image.

Incandescent Lamps (photos #6 and 7)

Photo 6 – Incandescent Lamps

Photo 7 – Incandescent Lamps

These two photos illustrate my next point: a decent SLR will allow you to tweak your white balance beyond choosing the light source. I shot both of these images under gooseneck hobby lamps using regular frosted light bulbs, and I set my camera to “incandescent” so that it would know what I was doing. Both images came out within the “okay” range.

However: notice that photo 6 is slightly warmer on the white card (more red tones) than photo 7. My Nikon allows me to tweak my settings from -3 through 0 to +3 on any light source. Photo 6 was set to “incandescent +0,” while photo 7 was set to “incandescent +3.” On my Nikon, adding a few “plusses” to the setting adds some blue at each step. This means that my Nikon is adjusting itself toward the blue end of the spectrum when I add a “plus” to the setting, which is why photo 7 is slightly more “cool” (blue) than the warmer (more red) photo 6.

Your camera might not offer this feature, but if you’re using a name-brand SLR, I’ll wager that it does. And when it comes time for the PhotoShop article, I’ll be using the +3 setting (photo 7) as my starting point–because the white card is just a trifle closer to a true white than it is in photo 6.

Daylight (photo #8)

Photo 8 – Daylight

In this image, I simply told my Nikon that I was shooting in “direct sunlight,” and it did the rest. For single minis, this is by far the easiest way to go. Notice that the white card is a true white–something that we have not seen in any of the other examples. This makes our final touch-up painless and quick.

However, I have yet to try this for multiple miniatures. It’s entirely possible that shooting a diorama in direct sunlight will be the cat’s meow–but I doubt it. I’ll let you know in a future article, once I’ve tried it myself. My gut feeling is that, for multiple minis set up in a diorama, you’ll need artificial lighting. (Notice, for example, the harsh shadows behind the paint pots.)

Your Job

Please remember that all our fussing about camera settings really does matter. It will make our job so much easier color correcting in PhotoShop once we’ve taken the initial image. My goal in these articles is to help you get it right when you click the shutter, so that you will be doing little if anything in PhotoShop afterwards.

Take some test photos using reasonably bright red, green, and blue (RGB) paints. Place them in front of a white sheet of paper for the background (I used some Staples photographic paper in these images, using the non-gloss backside to avoid hot spots). Place a photographer’s grey card under the paints if you have one; if not, don’t worry about it.  Experiment using different types of lighting and different camera settings, then examine the results on your computer.

Cardinal Rule: Whenever you’re experimenting with your camera, write down what you’re doing on each shot. Once you upload those shots to the camera, you can give them meaningful names, such as “Incandescent light on daylight settings.jpg” or whatever works. Then you can easily see how the different lightings and settings have affected your images. This is the only way to learn.

Next article: Exposure Settings

How To Photograph Miniatures: Natural Lighting

This is the fourth in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures. For the rest of the series, go to the “Article Series” link in the menu bar above.

In this article, we’ll consider how to use natural daylight to illuminate your subject.  When I speak of natural light, for simplicity I mean taking a photo of your mini outdoors. In this setting, you have two basic choices, with a third add-on option:

  • Direct sunlight
  • Open shade
  • Open shade with a white card or fill flash

Direct Sunlight

I mentioned last time that I approached writing this series with a bunch of preconceptions based upon my experience using old-fashioned film cameras–and direct sunlight was one of those preconceptions. That is, I fully anticipated that it would be one of your worst options.

It isn’t. As it turns out, it’s probably one of your best and easiest options, with certain caveats of course. If you were photographing something of “normal” size–a painting to hang on your wall, let’s say–you would not want to shoot it in direct sun. You’d get hot-spots, glare, harsh shadows, inaccurate colors, wind disturbance, and melanoma. But zoom in on an object less than two inches tall, and suddenly all of those issues disappear.

Well, mostly. Here are the caveats: first, remember to set your camera’s white balance to “daylight” or “direct sun” or whatever its setting is called. (See article 2 if you are not familiar with white balance settings.) Second, you will still need to be on guard against glare and hot spots on your subject; it will vary from one mini to another, depending on the paints used (gloss vs. matte), the colors (you might lose detail in yellows and whites), the mini’s size (smaller is better), and so forth. (A “hot spot” is an area of the subject that is over-saturated with light, often a place which is more reflective than other areas of the subject. Shiny armor could give you hot spots, for example. Hot spots will show up in your image as blank white with no detail recorded.)

Simple common sense and paying attention will educate you quickly on how to shoot in direct sun. You’ll want the sun coming more or less over your shoulder, so that the subject is fully illuminated and you’re not casting your own shadow across it. You’ll also want something set up behind the mini to provide a back-drop; otherwise, stuff in the background will become distracting.

Open Shade

Open shade will generally avoid some of the pitfalls of direct sun, such as hot spots and glare. Unfortunately, it will also produce a more drab, low-contrast image than you will get in the direct sun. (I include overcast days in this category for simplicity.) This is not insurmountable; you will just need to do more tweaking in PhotoShop when you’re done–subject for a future article.

You don’t need to worry about angle to the sun, since you’re not in the sun, but you still need something for a backdrop to avoid distractions. This is probably just common sense, and applies regardless what your light source is.

White Card and Fill-Flash

You can add some zest to open shade photos by selectively adding light where you want it. This is a trick that all professional photographers use when shooting outdoors. They will generally set up in open shade, then have someone standing off camera holding a large white piece of paperboard, known as a “white card.” The white card collects ambient light and bounces it onto the subject, adding a nice soft “halo” of brilliance. If you pay attention, you’ll be able to detect the use of white cards in the movies or TV, particularly on close-ups. The star’s face will be just a bit brighter than the background, because someone is standing behind the camera reflecting daylight toward him. In the photo above, the photographer is using a white card to bounce light onto the subject, which will soften the shadows on the sides of the pots or whatever those things are.

Fill flash is the art of using your flash attachment (rather than the little one built into your camera) when shooting in open shade. Most flash attachments nowadays have a setting for “fill,” but if yours doesn’t you can still do it manually. The idea is to add some light on your subject directly, leaving the background illuminated only by the ambient light in the open shade. You don’t want to use full-strength flash for this; 25 percent max, less if you’re able to control the output to that degree. Or just set it to “fill” and let the camera do the thinking. (Some cameras also have this option, usually with an icon of a tree with a person standing under it.) In the photo above, the photographer is using his flash attachment (attached on top of the camera) to add a little more direct light onto his subject. (I’m guessing that he also has studio lights set up which are not seen in the photo–in other words, the flash attachment is only an additional source of light, not the primary source.)

Having said all this, I must add one caveat: I found that both white card and fill flash were of little value when shooting a tiny miniature figure that’s only an inch tall. I include this information for the sake of completeness, but I don’t know how much practical value it will have with your minis.

Next article: Why lighting and camera settings matter.

How to Photograph Minis: Artificial Lighting

This is the third in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures. For the rest of the series, click the “Article Series” link on the menu bar.  In this article, we’ll consider how to use artificial lights to illuminate your subject.


Swivel style hobby lamps, like the one you probably use for painting, work great. Dust is optional.

 The first and most important consideration when doing miniature photography (once you’re using an SLR, that is–see article 1) is how you will light your subject. If you have spent many hours painting the mini, you will want your photos to accurately portray the colors and the numerous little details–but this can be immensely frustrating or even impossible if your lighting is wrong. So before we begin clicking the shutter, we must first decide how to illuminate the scene. There are two basic types of illumination:  

  • Natural light (daylight)
  • Artificial light

Natural light is easier in one way–you don’t have to set up anything, for example, since the sun is already in position–yet it brings its own challenges, so we’ll start with artificial lighting in this article. The beauty of artificial lights is that you have easy control over lamp positioning and brightness–plus you don’t have to wait for a sunny day. There are several different types of artificial light that we can use, and we’ll address them in reverse order, from worst to best. (Refer to the previous article if you are not familiar with “white balance.”) 

Camera Flash 

Shooting your mini with a flash creates so many problems that you really should find another alternative. It blasts the figure with a merciless explosion of light which washes away all the color, and it creates looming shadows that produce a very ugly photo. If you must use flash, then you must also bounce it–and this means that you will need to use a separate flash attachment on your camera, not the little flash that’s built into it. You will need to bounce the light off the ceiling or a nearby wall so that the light which hits your mini is diffused and softened–and the wall is the most likely option, since the ceiling is too far away. If you don’t know how to bounce your flash, don’t use your flash.Bouncing may also introduce some strange colorations into your photo, because the light bouncing off the ceiling or wall will pick up the color of the ceiling or wall. This is not likely to be a problem if you bounce off a white ceiling, but it will become a problem if you bounce off chartreuse walls. (There is another flash alternative, using a white card to bounce off, but we’ll discuss this when we address daylight photography.) 

Fluorescent Lights 

Fluorescent lights produce a ghastly green hue. Plus they flicker (though your conscious mind may not notice it, your eyes do) and they contain mercury and old ones buzz annoyingly and the government is trying to force us to buy them. So don’t. If all you have available is fluorescent, then wait for the next article on using daylight. The effort involved in color correcting from fluorescent is simply not worth it. 

Tungsten Lights 

Tungsten bulbs are a specialty light source designed to produce correct white balance with film–tungsten film, that is. This is no longer a major issue with digital cameras, however, so my suspicion is that tungsten lights will one day become archaic. If you don’t own any (and you probably don’t), leave it that way. On the other hand, if you do own tungsten lights, you can still use them to photograph your minis–just remember to set your camera white balance to “tungsten” (see previous two articles). 

Incandescent Lamps 

When Benoit asked me to write this series, I immediately assumed that regular household lamps would never suffice for accurate white balance. This was because I was still thinking in terms of old-style film cameras; when I started playing around using my digital, I was delighted to discover that household lamps work perfectly well–provided, of course, that you set your camera’s white balance to “incandescent.” 

Now, when I refer to “regular household lamps,” I really mean regular hobby-type lamps: gooseneck reading lamps, clamp-on shop lamps, scissor-style swivel lamps–any type of lamp that will focus the light and permit you to aim it where you want it. I found that two 60-watt bulbs in gooseneck lamps provided enough light to get respectable photos. 

I also tried using those “daylight” bulbs vs. the basic incandescent frosted type, and did get marginally better color control. If you don’t mind spending the extra on daylight bulbs, I’d recommend them–but they’re not essential. 

Finally, you need more than one lamp–two is sufficient for a subject this small, set at 45-degree angles from your mini. 

 Next article: using daylight.

How to Photograph Miniatures: Camera Adjustments for Light

Notice the tonalities in the white card (background) in these two photos. This one is too "warm;" it has too much red.

You will discover, as we go along on this series, that color balance is immensely important in photographing your miniatures. Back in the day, I used to photograph art and antiques for a living, and I have a set of photographic lamps in my garage which were a necessary part of that work. The reason was that film was designed to react to specific light frequencies. (“Film” was this stuff that you used to put inside cameras once upon a time.) If one used regular daylight film (the stuff that 90 percent of everyone on earth used), the colors would come out all wrong–and wrong colors in a catalog of priceless paintings made people angry. So one used tungsten film with tungsten lights (and sometimes special filters over the lens) in order to get correct colors–and I’m very serious about how important correct color is with these things. My clients would hold my transparencies (sort of like slides, only much bigger) next to the paintings and carefully compare how accurate my colors were.

This one has been color corrected to bring the white to a true white. When the whites are true white, the other colors should fall into their correct range in the spectrum.

Well, digital has changed this–to some extent. That is, correct color is still very important, but now one does not need to use tungsten lights to attain them. Any decent SLR digital camera these days allows you to set it for whatever light source you’re using. This is generally a very simple push of a couple buttons, nothing the least bit challenging to do–yet immensely important to do.

The reason is that different types of light produce different color spectrums. Daylight produces the broadest spectrum, covering (literally) every color in the rainbow. Incandescent lights, by contrast, have a much narrower spectrum, drawn from the red end of the rainbow. Fluorescent lights (yuck) have a narrower spectrum still, drawn from the middle yellow-green range.

If you just mindlessly point and shoot under incandescent lights, your images will come out far too warm. (“Warm” refers to red tones, while “cool” refers to blue tones. “Barf” refers to fluorescent light.) That means that the images of your mini will be too red, and all the colors will be wrong–making color correction much more difficult (if not impossible) in PhotoShop. However, you have control over the way your digital camera responds to the particular light spectrum that you’re using.

This control is known as “white balance.” Please remember this term, as we’ll be using it a good deal while addressing color correction issues. In layman’s terms, white balance simply refers to a correct balance of light frequencies required to gain a pure white—white being, as you know, an even mixture of all colors in the spectrum. If your image has a true white, the other colors in the spectrum will be pretty close to real-life accurate.

 How to Balance Your Whites

So the first step in attaining accurate colors in your image is to force your camera to record the colors accurately in the first place. This will be accomplished using the menus on your SLR camera. I don’t know what kind of camera you have, so I will simply use my own for illustration purposes.

My Nikon has a main menu, off of which is a choice called “White Balance.” I simply select that, then choose my light source from available options: Auto (which presumably makes some sort of electronic guess); Incandescent; Fluorescent; Direct Sunlight; Flash; etc. Off of this menu, I have more choices: I can fine-tune the balance from -3 through 0 to +3. We will address all these choices at another time.

Our goal at this point is simply to understand how to make our original image as color correct as possible. This will make any later adjustments very easy in PhotoShop or some other imaging program. And, as you can see, the process of doing so is very simple: just tell your camera what kind of light you’re using, then get busy snapping the shots.

As I said in the first article of this series, SLR cameras are not at all intimidating to use–once you know the basics of operating them.

If you read the first article in this series, you will know that incandescent lamps provide an easy and efficient light source for shooting minis. Now you know how to tell your camera that you’re using incandescent lights, and you’re ready to try some practice shots.

Next article will discuss shooting under natural daylight, and a future article will teach you how to analyze and correct the colors in your resulting images.

How To Photograph Miniatures: The Camera

For the next few months, we’ll be periodically presenting a series on how to photograph miniatures.  While we’re aware that this subject does not apply to a lot of gamers, we feel that some of you will find the series very useful.  Our hope is that, even if photographing miniatures and dioramas isn’t something you’re interested in now, that you’ll at least consider it in the future.

A standard SLR camera

Photographing miniatures may seem daunting at first, but once you understand a few basics of digital photography, it is actually a very easy process–and fun, even. We will offer a series of articles on how to take out the frustration and put in the fun of mini photography, covering elements of lighting, color control, focus, PhotoShop manipulation, and so forth.

However, before we begin, let’s address the most important piece of equipment: your camera. Here’s the short answer:

You will want a decent single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.

SLR vs. Rangefinder

There are two basic ways of viewing your subject with a camera: rangefinder, and SLR. Both cameras, of course, have a lens which is used to take the photograph, but a rangefinder also has a second lens, usually a small aperture which you peer through to see what you’re shooting. With a rangefinder, you’re looking through one lens while the camera is shooting the image with another lens.

The single-lens reflex, on the other hand, has only the one big lens which the camera uses to capture the image. When you peer into the viewfinder, a series of mirrors inside the camera reflect light from the subject through the lens and up to your eye. When you click the shutter, one of those mirrors flips up so that the light will travel to the “film” (whatever digital processors are used inside the camera instead of film) rather than to your eye. This “flipping-up” process is the “reflex” part of SLR.

The advantage of SLR vs. rangefinder is that, when you peer through the viewfinder, you are seeing exactly what the camera will see when you click the shutter. If you’re shooting a landscape, where your subject is a significant distance from your camera, the rangefinder shows you almost the same thing that the camera will see. But when you’re photographing a tiny miniature that’s just a few inches from the lens, then the rangefinder’s viewing lens is going to be way off from what the camera lens captures.

Point and Shoot Cameras

Most folks don’t want to spend the extra money on an SLR, and many are also intimidated by how complicated they seem. After all, you can change the lens on an SLR! That notion by itself awakens fears of limitless future expense buying fancy lenses and filters and flash attachments and doodads galore. And then there are all those mind-boggling settings to worry about. Much easier (and cheaper) just to get that little Sony and press the button. Let the gadget do the thinking.

Of course, the basic premise of this thinking is faulty. One can easily find an SLR for a few hundred bucks, and many point ‘n’ shoots actually cost more. Furthermore, all SLRs these days offer a no-brainer point ‘n’ shoot setting where all you do is … well, point and shoot. You don’t even have to focus anymore. The beauty is that, as you learn how to use the SLR, you will have a whole world of control over your images that is not available with a point ‘n’ shoot.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want to photograph your minis, you cannot hope to do it with a point ‘n’ shoot. You’re going to want an SLR someday anyway, so don’t waste your money–start out with a decent SLR to begin with.

 Pixel Count

These days, just about any SLR will offer a large enough image with sufficient detail to capture your mini, so the pixel-count numbers are essentially irrelevant. Don’t get sucked in by big numbers; this is where many people waste lots of money that never pays back. Stick to the name brands — Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Sony — and you’ll do well with whatever you get. Provided it’s an SLR, that is.

 Camera Settings

Another feature of an SLR is that you will be able to control a wide variety of elements when you click the shutter. One important element is the type of light that you’re using. Are you shooting your mini in direct sunlight? Then you’ll want to set the camera for “daylight.” Using table lamps? No problem, just set it for “incandescent.”

This will also come into play in dealing with getting things in focus. With an SLR, you’ll be able to take full control over depth of field issues. There are a myriad such things that will affect your images, so it will be easier to address them by subject in future articles.

That’s enough for now. Basic take-away point: use an SLR.

Next article: How to Light Your Mini.