Miniature Photography Part 2: How do I take good photos of my miniatures with a DSLR?

by Phil

This is the main part of the photography tutorial. In the first part I showed you that don't really need a fancy a camera. However if you paint on competion level and want to get the best from your photos you should consider buying a better camera than your average point-and-shoot.

In this part I will cover the process of taking a photo of your miniature. I will only use a DSLR, but now and then I mention some tips for compactcams, too.
These methods are not perfect, but that’s how I take pictures and I want to share it with you.

Some equipment you need

Essential
DSLR (one of those new mirrorless system cams should work, too)
Lens (kit-lens or 50mm)
Tripod
Remote
Greycard
Backgrounds

Optional depending on method
Lamp or flash
Lighttent/Ikea bucket

If you want to get one step further
Lens (105mm Macro)
Colorchecker
Spyder

Fixing the beginner mistakes

Do not go too close to the miniature.
This is the most common mistake. There is no need be very close. It’s just the opposite, you have to go far away, to get a sharp picture and hit the sweet spot. Lenses have a close focusing distance, which is the minimum distance you have to keep to your object if you want to make a proper photo.

Don’t care too much about the frame.
This goes hand in hand with the first mistake. You don’t take a picture of the final frame you will be using online as final picture. You will have to crop a lot from the sides to get to your final picture. So don’t worry if you can see the box or other stuff on the edges of your photo.



Do not use Macromode.
Most compactcameras and bridge cams have a macromode. Do NOT use it. Taking pictures of your miniature is not macro photography. We do not want to have something small very large. No, we want it just as it is.

Do not use enhancement features.
A lot of cameras have enhancements like autosharpening, over-contrast-boost etc. Turn all of them off. We will take care of all of this manually to get the best results.

Don’t use a too small aperture (meaning a high number).
Do not use crazy settings like f30. A too sharp image looks flat, boring and not dynamic. And you need to use a way to long exposure to handle the light because you will get just a little bit of light through the aperture. Something between f10 and f16 is great. But it depends on the miniature you are taking a picture of. For a 1/9 bust f8 or lower can be very cool, and for a big diorama or vehicle you might need to go higher than f20.

More tips you should keep in mind

Use the RAW format.
If you want to have full control and the best quality there is no way around RAW files. JPG or TIF are no options.

Use a tripod and a remote.
This one is a must, too. Any kind of vibration will make your photos blurry, so we want to be as steady as possible. You can use the timer of course, but I do not recommend it, because you have to touch your camera.
Even better than a remote is to tether the picture right to your computer. I highly recommend to use it. If you have a Nikon and are on Mac try Sofortbild it's super simple to handle. (Please suggest more tethering applications for Canon, Win etc).

Dust off your miniature and the background.
Ever found some dust just in the middle of retouching. Yeah, that sucks!

Use the manual mode.
Do not use those automated or semiautomated modes. We have all the time we need to set everything manually to get the best results.

Set ISO to 100
Since we have time we don’t need to set the light sensitivity higher. Higher ISO will  make our photo noisy, except you have a quality DSLR.

Use Silent/Quiet Mode
If your camera has a silent or quiet mode, use it! It will reduce the vibration by the mirror so you can get sharper results.

Focus on the face
If the miniature has a face then focus on it! People will automatically look at the face, if it’s blurry you lost. Except you intentionally want to focus on something else of course.

Slight view from top
Position your camera slightly above your miniature otherwise the image will be boring. And you want the people to see the base, too!

Turn off all distracting lights
Just keep those lights you are using on your miniature, if you are using some. And don’t forget to cover your windows. Except for the long time exposure method.

Aperture
In case you don’t know, here is brief explanation about aperture. The higher the number, the smaller the aperture and so less light but a longer depth of field. The smaller the number, the bigger the aperture and so more light and a shorter depth of field.
Meaning if you want a lot of your miniature sharp you will need a small aperture (big number), but then you will need a longer exposure to have enough light for a proper photo.

Methods to take pictures of your miniatures

Essential steps for all Methods

  • Dust off background
  • Dust off miniature and place it properly
  • Clean lens
  • Position the camera
  • Set the whitebalance. Use a colorchecker if you have one.

Use a lightbouncer or simply a piece of paper to bounce the light from the bottom if you are using a black  backdrop. That way your miniature will get a little bit of light from the bottom and you will have more depth in your photo.

The Camera
To have a fair comparison I used the same camera and lens for all three methods. A Nikon D7000 with a 50mm/1.4 lens.

Method 1: Using Lamps

Set up your lamps. The more the better. But don’t over do it. I suggest to use two or three lamps. Two angular from the top sides and if your are using a third one put right above the miniature. You can make great photos with simple desktop lamps. Don't make big fuzz about light temperature, just make sure they don’t have too cold or too warm light and are the same you are using for painting! Daylight or neutral lamps will have more accurate colors and save some time when retouching the images.

Now you have three options.

1. Direct lighting
This is ok, but you can get some hard reflections on your miniatures if the light cone of the lamps is too sharp.
And we don’t want that, we only want to see the lights you painted.

2. Using diffusers on your lamps
A better solution is to use some kind of diffuser on your lamps. These will soften the light so the reflections are minimized.
Depending on your budget you can buy some special diffuser lamps or just wrap some white (backing)paper around your lamps (not too close if your bulbs get hot!).

3. Using a lighttent/Ikea bucket
Another solution is to put you miniatures inside a lighttent to diffuse the light. You can even use an Ikea bucket which works very well as diffusor and costs just a few bucks. Check out how to make an Ikea photo bucket.

I will be using lighting option two because it is the most convenient and you should have everything you need at home. Lamps, paper, backdrop. Also with diffusers on the lamps you have full control of the light source, the lightbox/bucket option will limit you a little.
Using this method I could shift the light until it was in the place where it casts the least the shadows/reflections on the miniature. Plus I added two papers in front of the mini to remove shadows in the face and lighten that huge belly.
Terthering is very comfortable here, because you can change the settings without touching your camera and you can instantly see a result on your computer.

Settings: ISO100, f10, 0,5s


Method 2: Long time exposure

This is the solution with the least equipment. You don’t need any extra lamps. Just some kind of dark box. Arsies showed this way to photograph miniatures on his facebook page. Very simple and cool idea.
This is the method where you can and should use daylight from your windows, just make sure the light does not cast any shadows on your miniature. Place the box far away from the windows or, like Arises does, place it in front of the window with the open side facing away from the window. If you don't  have a large enough window, turn on the light but avoid direct light to the miniature.

Set the aperture to a depth of field fitting to your miniature. In my case I used f13. Now play with exposure until it has the perfect lighting for you. It’s better to go a bit lighter than darker. I had to use 6 seconds. Again if you can tether to your computer do it!
Make sure there are no vibrations while taking the picture. Sit down, turn of the music (subwoofer) etc.

I placed the miniature outside the box because I wanted a black background. If you place it inside you should have even less dropshadows on the miniature.

And again a piece of paper in front of the mini to bounce a little bit of light.

Settings: ISO100, f13, 6,0s



Method 3: Using a flash

The last method I am showing you is the one using a flash and no extra light. It is more expensive because you will need a flash. The setup is the same I used for the long time method. Meaning no lights, and just a black box. It is important to point the flash away from the miniature. Straight to the ceiling or even a few degrees to the back is better to minimize reflections on the miniature. You ceiling should be white of course or at least neutral. With this method I set the camera to f10, 1/60s and the flash to full power.

Settings: ISO160, f10, 1/60s




See all photos in one image

Step by Step checklist

  1. Cleaning and dusting
  2. Connect cam to computer/Take remote/set timer
  3. Position miniature and camera
  4. Set the whitebalance. Usa a colorchecker if you have one.
  5. Set cam to manual, set ISO to 100.
  6. Set aperture according to your mini or use f10 as a base.
  7. Set the expore according to your lighting and aperture or us 1/2s as a base.
  8. Set the focus. Use the autofocus as reference and then fine adjust manually.
  9. Play with the exposure until you find the ideal amount light. May be a little bit lighter.

Conclusion

All three methods can get great results, each has its pros and contras. But I prefer the flash and long time methods. But that’s just my personal taste. Actually I like the long time method most right now. I used this method for the first time, but definitely not for the last time. I really like it because you only have very few dropshadows on the mini that are not painted.

Lamps
Pros:
Can be done with a simple camera

Cons:
Shadows can be a bit too hard
Doesn’t really show the shadows you actually painted

Long time exposure
Pros:
Almost no dropshadows/reflections created by external lighting

Cons:
Can be little bit too flat for some tastes
Everything will look very matte, even if it’s painted glossy
It can create some very smooth shadows/gradient, which can fake your mini to look better (e.g. the jar of the monk)

Flash
Pros:
Looks the sharpest
Not so flat

Cons:
Needs a DSLR and an external flash

Little Extra: Achieving a black background

Today black or very dark gray backgrounds are very popular. Some friends asked me how I make those black backgrounds. Well, actually it’s pretty simple. Just place the mini far away from the background, at least 20cm, so the background won’t catch so much light.  If you can, place the mini outside the box! You can minimize the hole of your box, where you place the mini, to reduce light inside it.


I hope you liked the tutorial and it will be a little help for your next photos. If you have some suggestions, improvements or disagree feel free to discuss in the comments. I will try to update this post.

If you want to dig deeper into the topic I recommend watching the MiniatureMentor tutorial about photography. But be warned it is very long and very techy.

See you in Part 3: Post processing your photos. (It will take a bit longer to be postet because it's not finished)

Cheers,
Phil

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