Uncle Phil's Miniature Photography Guide

        A big part of the fun of miniature painting is sharing your efforts with others. That usually means that you will want to photograph your minis. Photographing miniatures (or any other small object) is something that many people find problematic so I thought I'd share what has worked for me.

        Let me first begin by explaining that I am not a Photographer, nor have I ever been particularly interested in Photography. I mention this since in the following I may occasionally use the wrong technical term. I'd also like to thank [b]eastman[/b] of the [url=http://heresyminiatures.com/forumofdoom/index.php?topic=7255.25]Forum of Doom[/url] for the many useful suggestions.

        When it comes to photography one of the first questions that will come to mind is what camera to use, so it may come as surprise that for the first part of this article we will ignore the topic of cameras. Cameras are just one element in the system so initially we will concentrate on other important elements that are often not given the attention that they merit.

        Taking a good photo of a miniature requires lots of light. As a minimum invest in a pair of Anglepoise desk lamps and fit them with Daylight bulbs. Even if you have an abundance of natural light there are still likely to be areas of the miniature in shadow that you will want to illuminate. You'll find that normal Tungsten bulbs produce too yellow a shade of light. Some cameras or photography software can compensate for this to a degree, but you are better off starting off right and using daylight bulbs. Make sure all your bulbs are of the same type, brand and output. Mixing different types of light will just complicate things.

        A very useful piece of advice that I encountered was

[I][CENTER][size=18]“Fiddle with your lighting, not your camera settings”.[/size][/CENTER][/I]

        In other words, if you are not happy with a photo experiment with your light positions first rather than altering your camera settings. You'll find that very often in photography the real skill is in how you use your light, not your camera.

        As well as a good source of light you also need a “studio” to photograph your models in. Mine happens to be a cardboard box with the top and one side cut out, and a light blue cloth thrown over it (actually a hospital scrubs shirt). Light blue is a good choice for a background, particularly if you are using Daylight bulbs, which produce most of their light in the bluish part of the spectrum.

        Some miniature painters prefer using paper as a background, and if you look [b]here[/b] Keeper40 has kindly provided a graded blue pattern you can print out if you have access to a coloured printer. Place the sheet so the model is standing on the bottom half and support the top half so the paper curves up to vertical.

        On the topic of backgrounds, this [b]page[/b] showing the effect of different background colours is worth a look. For some reason models that are placed before a slightly irregular background seem to photograph better than those against uniform backgrounds. This is one of the reasons I use a blue cloth as a backdrop and why keeper40's printout is so useful.

        When photographing models I tend to place one lamp to one side of the model and quite high, shining down, while the other is placed on the other side, somewhat lower and directing some of its light to the model's front. The walls of the box help reflect the light back onto the model to produce more even illumination. This is, however, only my starting configuration for the lights. As I've already mentioned, you need to experiment with your light positions until you get a photo you are happy with.

        Some miniature photographers like to use Light tents or Light boxes. You can find these at very reasonable prices, or you can make your own.

[center]Cardboard and Paper Light Box
“Origami” Light Tent
Fabes Photo Studio 1
Fabes Photo Studio 2[/center]

         While I've seen some really nice photos taken using these, my own attempts were not as satisfying, producing photos that were rather dull and needed far more software processing. This is probably due to my lights being insufficient, so after numerous experiments I stored my Light tent away and went back to the cardboard box with a shirt thrown over it. Moral is that photography is all about experimentation and finding what works best with your equipment. Sometimes simpler and cheaper is just better.

        I've been told that if you want to use a Light tent you can't really have too much light, and that it is preferable to have at least three lamps, one each side and one directly above. If you are interested in Light Tents there a doubtless more detailed articles on how to use them out on the web. My own experiance doesn't warrant me going into further depth in this article.

        Another way to get a more difuse light source is to cover your lamps with a material such as tissue paper or greaseproof paper. This is not something I have tried personally, but is worth keeping in mind.

        For reasons that we will deal with a little later, photographing minis often requires relatively long exposure times. The good news is that minis don't tend to move around a lot. This leaves the problem of camera shake, and part of the solution is a tripod.

        You can get what are sometimes termed “pocket tripods” with legs about 6” long. These are actually quite expensive for what they are and you may often find that for a very similar amount of money you can get a larger tripod that can be stood on the floor. I'd recommend that you invest in a tripod of the latter variety. Mine stands at about 2ft tall, ideal for using beside the table I usually place my studio on and the fact that it is floor standing gives me far greater flexibility on where I can position the camera. I think the shop price for this tripod was £15, but I got it at a discount since I brought it at the same time I brought my camera. If you use your camera for tasks other than miniature photography then the larger tripod will prove useful in many of these roles too.

        And finally, we get to talk about cameras! One of the fun parts of miniature painting is showing your efforts off to others, often getting useful advice and tips. For most of us this means we want photos that we can email and post on websites, so our first choice of camera is a digital. Digital photography offers other advantages too, particularly if like me you are relatively new to photography. You can experiment with various options when taking photos and see the effects they have in just a few seconds. Experiment as much as you like and it won't cost you a penny. Save what you like, delete what you don't and learn from the results.

        When it comes to digital cameras they divide into two groups. The first is what we will call the pocket cameras. Small and compact these usually have a lens with a fixed aperture or just a small range of options. These are usually the choice of first time buyers.

        The second group are digital cameras resembling SLR cameras. They can be fitted with a variety of lenses, have a wide range of options and settings and cost several times the price of a pocket camera.

        Whichever type of camera you decide to buy there are a couple of things to look for. Miniature photographers are lucky in that we can carry our models in our pockets. It is quite a good idea to take a mini along to the camera shop so the assistant understands exactly what you want the camera for.

        If you are considering a pocket camera you'll probably need to use a macro setting for miniatures, so make sure that the model you buy has one. Most SLR-type digital cameras I have seen seem to have Macro settings as a standard option, but make sure. Actually I've never used the macro setting on my SLR to photograph minis, but I'll come to that later.

        The other “must have” feature for your camera is a shutter delay option. This means that your camera takes the photo several seconds after you press the button. Some cameras have a delay of ten seconds or more. Make sure yours offers a delay of 2-3 secs too. Shutter delay is the other part of the solution to avoiding camera shake.

        Your digital camera will offer you a range of menus with a whole host of settings you can change. Until you know a bit more about photography it is probably best to leave most of them alone for the moment. Set your [b]ISO setting[/b] to a low figure such as 100, although some cameras only offer 200. The higher the ISO the more sensitive to light the camera is, but the more noisy the image will be. If you are using daylight bulbs set the camera to a daylight setting, if it has one. For image size around 1024 pixel width seems to be best. If your camera won't take images this small then use the closest, lowest setting. Switch off the flash and set up a shutter delay of 2-3sec.
        Most digital cameras have a built in exposure meter. If you have the option set this to “Spot Metering”. If this is not done then taking a photo of a miniature against a very light or dark background will result in the figure being under or over exposed. Spot Metering judges exposure time from the subject you are focused on.
        Leave the rest of the settings alone until you have taken some photos.

        Like most people I took my first mini photos with a pocket camera. The model that I'd chosen couldn't be fitted with a tripod so most of my photos were taken with it in its charging cradle, propped up on top of a stack of books or DVD cases. The camera had both digital and optical zoom modes. I tended not to use Digital zoom since this tends to reduce picture quality. Framing the subject was therefore mainly done by moving the camera back and forth, although I now realize I had a tendency in those days to photograph a model at too short a range. Typically I'd photograph at a distance of about 8” using the Macro setting.

        I took some nice photos with that camera, but soon learnt that such cameras were mainly only suited to photographing individual miniatures. If I wanted to photograph a squad of figures or a large figure I began to encounter a phenomenon called “Depth of Field”.

Witchhunter Warband        One of the best examples of too narrow poor depth of field I know of is the photo on the left. (I'll stress this is a very old photo and the owner takes far better photos now!).
        You'll see that some figures are in focus, but the closer figures and those further away are out of focus. This photo was taken with a very large aperture setting (f/4) and has a very narrow depth of field. The narrower the depth of field the less that is in focus before or behind the plane of focus.

        Depth of field is influenced by three factors. Firstly, it is influenced by the distance between the camera and the subject. The further the camera is away from the subject the deeper the depth of field. Secondly, it influenced by focal length. The more you “zoom” into the subject the narrower the depth of field. Thirdly, depth of field is influenced by aperture setting. The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field. The smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field. Photographers describe the aperture as an f-stop number. f/4 is a large aperture and would give a small depth of field. f/32 would be a small aperture and give a deep depth of field.

        My pocket camera only offered an aperture of f/3.5 on macro setting, hence the problems photographing groups of models.

        Thirteen months after I brought it, and inevitably one month after the warranty had expired my pocket camera broke down. Fixing it would cost nearly as much as I paid for it so I decided it was time to upgrade and see about fixing the depth of field problem. I invested in an SLR-type digital camera and a tripod. While this camera cost slightly less than twice what the old one did, I don't regret a penny since this is ten times the camera the old one was. If you can afford one, I'd highly recommend an SLR–type camera rather than a pocket camera.

        I decided to buy a Nikon D40. This is quite a reasonably priced model, but many reviews seem to rate it equal to or better than many of the more expensive models. The lens it comes with is very highly rated too, and apparently very versatile.

[center]Nikon D40 Review
Nikon 18-55mm Mk2 lens[/center]

        The most obvious difference between my pocket camera and the D40 is, of course, the lens. Rather than propping the camera on a stack of books and sliding it back and forth it was now simply a case of adjusting the lens. What's more, the tripod gave me more options on where I could place the camera.

        A word of warning. Lens descriptions can be misleading since they usually specify the maximum Aperture/Lowest f/stop that the lens offers, while we are more interested in how small an Aperture is available. For example the lens on my D40 is marked f/3.5-f/5.6, which one may mistake for the Aperture range. This is the maximum Aperture (which varies with focal length). Minimum for this lens is f/22-f/38.

        While the D40 has a Macro setting, some invaluable advice from the assistant in the shop was that I should try using the D40 on Aperture Priority mode. In layman's terms this means I have manual control of the Aperture setting and the camera adjusts the exposure time to compensate.

        As I've mentioned, the main problem that I'd found with photographing miniatures was depth of field, and this is influenced by Aperture, Focal length and Distance.

        A little experimentation revealed that there were several advantages to taking a photo from a distance of 15-24” rather than 8”. Cranking the lens up to full magnification wasn't the best option. Around 38mm was good for a single figure, while for squads and larger beasts I should zoom out. My camera offered a centre-weighted “Portrait” meter setting as an alternative to Spot or Area Metering and I found I preferred the results taken with this.

        Aperture is the main camera setting that I am likely to alter when photographing. If I crank it up to as high a number as it will go for a particular focal length I'm assured that there will be no depth of field problems. What is the catch, you may be wondering? Well, the higher the f/stop number the smaller the Aperture and the less light that enters the camera, so the longer the exposure time needed to get a well-lit image. A long exposure time may mean a blurred image. The good news is that miniatures don't move, so your main source of blurring will be camera shake. Use a tripod and a 2-3sec shutter delay and your camera will be perfectly still when it takes the photo.

        As your experience grows you'll begin to get a feel for what is the correct Aperture setting for a shot, rather than using the maximum. By varying the setting you can get all of your subjects in focus while making the background out of focus. Some people like such an effect and it can be a useful trick for dioramas. The great thing about digital photography is you can take lots of shots at varied settings and use the one you like without wasting any money. Also have a look around the Cheddarmonger's site, which includes information on the camera settings used and is a good source of inspiration and guidance.

        There is a saying in science and cooking that guessing a quantity takes experience and skill, but [i]anyone can measure.[/i]
        If you are still having problems with Depth of Field then there are several on-line Depth of Field calculators that can be used. A rather nice one can be found here.


        How to use this should be fairly obvious. Measure the distance to your figure and alter the Aperture or Focal Length values until you get a total depth of field big enough for your subject. If necessary alter the distance. For a typical 28mm mini total depth of field needs to be at least an inch, possibly more if it has a weapon or staff posed forward or back.

        If your camera offers the option you may like to use a custom setting for your Preset White Balance and reset this before each photography session. Consult your manual to see how or if this can be done. For the D40 it is simply a matter of going to a certain part of the Menu and taking a “calibration shot” of a piece of white or grey card lit under the lighting that you intend to use. The difference this makes can be stunning! Below are two pictures of the same model, taken a day apart, with the one on the left using a calibrated Preset White Balance and the other the automatic White Balance setting. The left photo also has a shade more exposure compensation.

[center][url=http://www.cheddarmongers.org/prod/pic/uncle+phil/imperium/jay52.JPG.html][img]http://www.cheddarmongers.org/prod/gallery2/d/12000-2/jay52.JPG[/img][/url] [url=http://www.cheddarmongers.org/prod/pic/uncle+phil/imperium/kurt41.JPG.html][img]http://www.cheddarmongers.org/prod/gallery2/d/11955-2/kurt41.JPG[/img][/url][/center]
        White Balance is best set with an 18% grey subject and Photography suppliers sell cards in this exact shade. I invested in a [url=http://www.photo-software.com/greycard.htm]Douglas Grey Card[/url] and using this for White Balance does seem to produce better photos. A nice feature of this design is that it can be used free standing. An object you use for White balance should not be tilted or in part shadow.

        Once you've taken your photos you will usually upload them onto a computer and add some finishing touches using software. Generally all of your miniature photos will need to be cropped. If you want to use your photo on a webpage then 150-600 pixels width is the size range you want. I used to use my pocket camera on a 1024 x 768 setting, while the smallest setting the D40 offers is 1504 x 1000. What this means in practice is that your raw photos tend to look like a tiny figure in a vast sea of blue. Hence you need to crop the photo.

        If you've followed my suggestions for distance and focal length you'll probably find the cropped image comes out just about the idea size for posting on a webpage or to a friend. You'll also appreciate another advantage of taking your photo at a distance of 24”. Often a miniature that appears perfectly acceptable to the naked eye can appear a crude and clumsily daubed monstrosity when photographed close up. Using the settings that I have suggested gives a far more realistic and natural impression of how the figure looks in real life (or that's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

        Photo software offers various other ways to manipulate your images. When I took photos with the pocket camera I tended to tweak the images with the Manual Enhance setting of Adobe Photoshop. With my D40 the quality of the pictures is so much better that I only ever use software for cropping. After I stopped using the Light Box and went back to the cardboard box I did feel my photos could be a shade brighter, so changed the exposure setting on the camera. This is obviously easier than altering each photo individually with software. The advantage of a SLR camera like the D40 is you have far more control over the settings, but this can also be a great temptation to fiddle! Remember our rule of thumb –“Play with your lights, not your Camera”

        As I've already said, my photos tend to be the size that I want once I've cropped them. You can also resize photos and if you are new to photography it is important to understand the difference between cropping and resizing. Cropping is cutting off the bits you don't want, resulting in a smaller image. Resizing is making the entire photo smaller or bigger.
        If you do choose to adjust your photo for colour, levels, brightness etc using software then do this before you resize the photo.

        As I said at the start of this article, I'm by no means a photographer but I hope the above suggestions go some way to helping you in photographing your miniatures. If you want to see the results of some of my techniques, visit my Cheddarmonger gallery.

[b]Update. [/b]
        Moving to my new place meant that certain things weren’t worth moving, and one of the things I left behind was the box I had been using to photograph my miniatures in. When I finally got around to taking some pictures in my new place it turned out all the cardboard boxes I had were too big to accommodate the blue shirt I use as a back drop (most of the boxes I had were also full of miniatures, but that is another story!).

        What I decided to do was place a plastic box on the table and drape the shirt down one side. The box here is just acting as a vertical surface with a flat top to weigh the top of the shirt down on. The result is that the shirt formed a nice curve but was open at the sides, unlike my pervious rig. I can position my daylight lamps on either side of the photography area and angle them to project light onto the front of the miniatures. The main light of the room is above and slightly behind me.

        This arrangement is not only easier to stow away than the old box, but gives me more room when photographing multiple models, since the walls of the old box would sometimes got in the way. This is nicely illustrated by this shot I took


        You can see the other photos I took with the new arrangement via this link

[center]New Flat Uploads[/center]

        I used f/13 for all of the shots I took that night, and this seems to be a good starting point for everything from a Zombie Chihuahua to a Hellhound tank. 40mm focal length seemed to give a reasonable sized image for single normal size 28mm scale figures. Generally I leave the aperture at f/13 and just zoom in or out to compose a shot. [i](right)[/i].
        Previously I had been using the software that came with my camera to edit photos but a recent computer problem had removed a lot of the software from my machine, so I decided to try some of the other programs I still had installed.

        Generally the only thing I do to photos is crop them, so I used Infranview. This allows me to crop and save an image with just a few keystrokes, and hitting the spacebar takes me to the next image in the folder, so was very quick, convenient and easy. I got a hair on the backdrop of some of the photos so used GIMP and its “clone tool” function to edit this out.

        I’m very happy with this new setup. The next thing I intend to try is to make a low reflector to throw some of the light back at the lower parts of the models, as David suggests. This will probably just be a V section length of card covered in Aluminium foil.

        If you have enjoyed this article or it has been helpful to you please feel free to show your appreciation. Thank you.



Here is a blue to white gradient for a photo background. Click for the full image:

[img_assist|nid=1069|title=Blue to white gradient|desc=|link=popup|align=center|width=389|height=640]

Just click the image, print it out with a color printer, and you have a background for your pictures! Look like the pro painters!.

By the way; that pic of the witch hunters warband... it is a great study in depth of field, and I think it turned out very dramatic, with the puppet guy in sharp focus. It was not intentional, but a happy accident!

See my gallery here!
David's Miniatures

Now that you've had the joy of playing with a gray card, here's one more thing that will produce amazing results when taking pictures. Light! I got a studio strobe set, and it works awesome. Quite a bit of fiddling around with settings to achieve perfect results, but well worth it. Here's an example of a strobe setup like mine:


Well, I started experimenting with my old camera and just couldn't get the flash to trigger the strobes and take a good picture. My photography mentor suggested mounting a mirror to redirect the built in flash to trigger the strobes, but then the camera couldn't figure out exposure. Here's an awesome solution -- constant lighting. No, I'm not talking about those silly little desk lamps, not even the hallogen ones, but something like this, with diffusers:


I actually use this type of lighting to illuminate my painting table. Mine is a bit more powerful than this kit, each of the bulbs is the equivalent of 305 watts of light.

A useful tip from a pro photographer friend of mine (click [url=http://www.digitalheap.com]here[/url] for his site) -- use a white sheet of paper to bounce light where you need it! A little light reflected onto the underside of miniatures will help a lot!