Photographing Miniatures

I know, I know, there are a million of these posts, I’m sure! But a friend asked me the other day what I use for taking my photos, so I thought I’d put together a little how-to for my particular techniques, and hey, we might learn something new!

So here’s the actual equipment I use, so we can get the boring shopping list out of the way first.

  • 2 x Tertial desk lamps from Ikea
  • 2 x 10W 6500K daylight bulbs
  • 1 piece of A2 black card
  • 1 piece of A2 white card/cartridge paper
  • (some box folders and a drawing board because I don’t have a desk, like a hobo)

I use an iPhone X to take my photos, but the specific camera doesn’t really matter. Any modern smartphone can take decent photos, and of course a DSLR will do a great job if you have one of those. I talk about some of the specific functions of the iPhone Camera app later, but if you’re using an Android or a DSLR, I’m sure you’ll know how to work the equivalents.

We’ll look at photographing on a white background to start with. I don’t do this a whole lot, but if you’re submitting your photos to White Dwarf or GW’s social media channels, they like a nice flat white background.

Setting up the background isn’t rocket science. Tape your white paper to your vertical and horizontal surfaces of choice. I use a couple of box folders and a drawing board on my sofa, but a desk and a wall would do nicely (much better, in fact!). Let the page curve over the corner and you won’t see where your two planes meet.

Position your two lamps so that they’re nice and close to your model, slightly above and to the right and left of centre. You can move them closer or further away depending on how bright your lights are and how sensitive your camera is to light. The easiest way to work this out is to take a few practice shots. Photos too bright or overexposed? Move the lights further away. Too dark? Move them closer.

You want to cut out all ambient light as well. Pull the curtains, or wait until it’s nighttime. Turn off the main light in the room. Switch off your monitor and your TV.

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When it comes to taking the photos, you want to get your camera as close as you can to the model without the picture going out of focus. I’ll not get into sensor sizes and apertures and depth of field and all that jargon, but suffice to say that a phone is much more forgiving for getting right up in your model’s face than a DSLR is. The iPhone X and some of the newer Plus models (and some high-end Androids, I’m sure) have an optical zoom in them, which is super handy for getting even more of the model in the frame. Avoid the digital zoom though, as it’s really just cropping your photo, and lowering the resolution as a result. You can always crop afterwards, and still have the original as backup.

The next couple of paragraphs mention some iPhone specific features, but if you’re using an Android I’m sure it’s not too tricky to work out the equivalents. Manual controls on a DSLR are more involved, but there’s a link at the bottom if you want more info on that.

There are a couple of really handy features built into the default Camera app in iOS. First off is the ‘tap to focus’ feature, which also acts as an auto-exposure and white balance control. If your model has any white or neutral grey on it, tap on that bit of the model to adjust the camera to best suit your lights (you can also grab a little scrap of white paper and set it right in front of the model). If the model looks too bright, tap on a lighter part of the model, and if it’s too dark, tap on a darker bit. This will adjust the camera’s exposure to properly capture that part of the model.

You can also use the AE/AF lock (auto exposure/auto focus), by tapping and holding on a part of the model. This does the same thing as above, but means that the camera won’t try and change its settings if you move it or your lights before you take the photo.

And turn the flash off! It’s garbage and shouldn’t be used for anything!

If your lighting still isn’t looking quite right, this is where my favourite feature of the Camera app comes into play: the manual exposure control. See the little sun that pops up beside the box when you tap to focus? Press and hold on that, and slide it up and down. This will brighten or darken your photo, and can be used to get the lighting just right, as well as for some more creative effects which we’ll talk about later. Here’s a little video of it in action. (Click the little HD button down at the bottom of the video window to turn off potato-mode.)

I find sliding it up a little bit works great for photos on a white background. Just make sure you don’t blow out your highlights i.e. keep an eye on the brightest bits of the model – usually the white bits – and when they start to look pure white, stop there. Don’t worry about how the background looks. Make sure the model looks good, and people won’t notice the background so much.

I snapped the photo above, but it was still looking a bit off. It’s a bit blue, and the colours are slightly desaturated. Rather than going into the manual adjustments and playing around with the colour temperature and saturation controls, I cycled through the filters to see if any would have an instant fix. As luck would have it, the very first one did the trick.

I gave it a little bit of a crop, et voila!

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Shooting on a black background is much the same as white. I prefer black because it’s super moody and suits my models better. It works well for that Blanchitsu, grim-dark feel. It’s also much easier to get a pure black background than a pure white one, so your photos will look cleaner. It doesn’t suit all models and styles though, so have a play around and see what works best for your models. Grab your piece of black card, adjust your exposure down instead of up, and Bob’s your uncle.

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Here’s another video of how it looks.

I also like to use a pattered backdrop from time to time. The Necromunda cardboard tiles make a great background, and I’ve seen people use the inside covers of codexes and the big Forgeworld books to great effect. Find something to prop them against, and light them exactly as you would a black or white backdrop, and go to town.

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You can even combine the two effects. If you want to have the floor fall off into darkness in the background, just angle your lights so that they’re pointing away from the background but are still on your model, and slide the exposure down a bit.

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Once you’ve got those basics down, you can try getting creative with your lighting and framing. Try using only one light from directly above for some really stark shadows in the recesses, or set your camera at a jaunty angle to give the model some more energy. Or just crop the photo way in so your model fills the frame – a 12 megapixel phone camera will have more than enough resolution for an extreme crop that still looks great on Instagram or wherever. (Click to embiggen.)

And if you want to get really arty-farty, you can even make the lights part of the photo. Here are two examples of just that with my Sylvaneth.

The first one was done by cutting out a piece of tracing paper to the shape of the lamp shade and taping it on, and then bringing the exposure waaaay down.

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Well I hope that’s some food for thought! If you’d like to read more on the subject, here are a few links you can follow.

I’m in envy of Mengel Miniatures and G, both on Twitter, with their gorgeous terrain that they can photograph their models on. I intend to get to that stage at some point, where I can do GW style photos on nice scenery with coloured gels, smoke machine, all that jazz. Both of these guys’ Twitter accounts are full of great photography.

Here’s Tyler’s relevant tweet (you’ll need to click the picture link; the blog’s being weird about previewing them):

And here are Graham’s:

For more on taking good photographs, the Warhammer Community team did their own very concise guide to photographing models, where they talk a lot about the technical stuff and give a lot of good tips for using DSLRs.

And the guys over at Iron Sleet have done a couple of great posts on photography as well. Their set up is a bit different than mine, and there are some valuable insights in there. Mikko, and more Mikko.

As a final word, I work with cameras, lighting and Apple gear a lot for my day job, so if you’ve any questions on the technical side of things, don’t hesitate to ask below. And if you do end up taking any photos after reading this, shoot me a link so I can take a look!

 

~ Ross

4 thoughts on “Photographing Miniatures

  1. Mate, cheers for this. A lovely little resource that is getting bookmarked to buggery. You’re right – there are a few out there but I find this one especially well pitched to a photography noob – thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

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