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.

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