Posted by Martin on August 16, 2010
Recently I noted that I had reached the stage where I’m consistently happy with the miniature photography results I’m getting. I also promised to write it up – as much for my benefit (in case I forget how I achieved it) as for any interested BfKers.
Before I go any further, I make no claims to expertise in photography. What I describe here is the result of a lot of experimentation and exploration of blind alleys over the last couple of years. I reckon almost anybody could get good results by emulating and adapting my approach to suit their own circumstances. What I propose to do is split this description into four sections: the physical set-up, the photography equipment I use, taking the pictures themselves and an incy-wincy bit about digital post-processing. My aim throughout is to get crisp, evenly-lit pictures of miniatures against a white background that require the minimum of post-processing.
Let’s start with the physical set-up: the first point to note is that I set up figures for photography in natural ambient light. I’m fortunate that the dining room at the back of my house has big French windows that let in plenty of light during the day. So I tend to do photography in the early evening (during the Summer) or at the weekend but I avoid sunset because the light changes then.
I use plain old A4 white paper as the backdrop and I simpy prop it up against something like a box or pile of books to provide a curved background. I’ve learnt that one sheet of paper isn’t a good idea because it tends to be surprisingly translucent so I typically place two or three sheets on top of each other. The other thing that I got wrong for a long time was that I would put the miniature directly on this paper. Nope, that’s not the way to go because the figure casts shadows across the white paper that appear in the frame of the photo and are difficult to get rid of without lots of post-processing or having several lights positioned at different angles. I can’t be bothered with lighting – I never seem to get rid of the shadows and I get annoying reflections – even off figures that appear to be comlpetely matt varnished.
The breakthrough came when I realised that I could place the figure on top of a small pedastal of some sort. Then the shadows fall in the valley behind the pedastal and in front of the white background. This area is outside the frame of the photo and so the shadows cease to be an issue. As an added bonus, when the camera is focussed on the figure in this set-up, the background is out of focus and thus its whiteness seems more even. The even better news is that the pedastal doesn’t have to be anything special. You can improvise a solution with all kinds of things like an upturned mug or eggcup – I happen to use my stacking white ceramic paint palettes. Ideally, you want something white and sufficiently tall to create a valley for the shadows to fall into (a couple of inches is enough). That’s a lot of words to explain something relatively simple but the picture on the right should make everything perfectly clear.
Secondly equipment: now this is, of course, an area where budget constraints come into play. We all have to cut our cloth according to our finances and what I use might seem expensive to some but pretty basic to others. Fundamentally, as long as your equipment lets you do certain things, then you should be able to get good results. The single most important factor here is a camera that has a fully manual mode that let’s you control both aperture (f-stop) and shutter speed (exposure). I rely on natural ambient lighting, so I need to be able to vary both these parameters to get enough light in through the lens and have a decent depth of field (more of that another time).
That means I often work with slow shutter speeds which in turn means that hand-holding the camera would result in blurred images. So I use a tripod to keep the camera steady. And, as a bit of overkill, I use an infra-red remote shutter release control but that’s not necessary if your camera has functionality for delayed shutter release.
Being specific then, because I know photographers like to know this sort of thing: my camera is a second-hand Nikon D70 DSLR. Second-hand cameras like this can represent really good value for money especially if you buy from a reputable source (I was lucky here) and it’s your first foray into DSLRs. The lens I usually use is the kit lens that came with the camera – an AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-44.5G IF ED (phew, what a mouthful) zoom lens. The tripod is a lightweight Slik Spint Pro – it’s probably not a good choice for outdoor use in windy weather but it’s just perfect this job. And the last toy I use is a Nikon ML-L3 remote control which removes the risk of camera shake from my finger pressing the shutter release.
And so to taking the pictures themselves. Here’s the process I follow:
- Set up the figure on its pedastal against the white background.
- Position the camera on its tripod so that it’s as close to the figure as possible while still retaining the ability to autofocus with the lens at its highest zoom.
- Set the camera to Automatic mode – that’s the mode in which the camera makes all the decisions about aperture, exposure etc for you. On most DSLRs this is labelled as “Auto” on the mode selection dial but check your own camera’s manual.
- On my camera, you can partially depress the shutter release button and the camera will autofocus and record the settings its selected so that you can read them off the display. Do this and make a note of the aperture and exposure selected by the camera.
- Now set the camera to Manual mode – usually denoted by a letter “M” on the mode selection dial but, again, check your own camera’s manual. Set the aperture to the one you recorded from the camera in Automatic mode.
- Now we’re going to use a technique photographers called “exposure bracketing”. The idea is to take a series of photos, each one at a different exposure (shutter speed) – some of these will turn out over-exposed or under-exposed but one of the photos should turn out just right (well, hopefully!). I tend to take five pictures – one at the exposure I recorded from the camera in Automatic mode, two shorter exposures and two longer exposures. A lot of cameras provide specific functionality to do this for you (look up exposure bracketing in the manual). Mine does provide this option but only for a series of three photos so I normally take my five photos by manually adjusting the exposure between each one.
- Before finishing, I preview the photos on the camera’s display just to check that it looks like got one or more candidates that appear to have the right level of exposure. If I suspect that I haven’t got one that’s right, I take a couple more pictures at different exposures.
I love digital cameras. The process I describe above takes only a few minutes with my DSLR and I can check the results almost immediately. Ironically, exposure bracketing is a technique that pre-dates digital photography and was (still is) used by film photographers to ensure that they capture at least one good shot of their chosen subject because the time and effort needed to go back and do the shoot again was significant (sometimes impossible) if they discovered, after developing the film, that none of their photos had the correct exposure.
After the photography session, I download the pictures on to the computer, select the best ones and do as little post-processing as possible. There’s all sorts of picture editing software you can use across a range of prices and complexity – anything from freeware like GIMP through to the professional kit like Adobe Photoshop, so I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to use a particular software package but rather make some general comments. The main four software functions I use are the ones that let me control level equalization (I normally let the software apply this automatically to be honest), crop the image tightly round the figure, resize the image to fit in a blog posting and save it as a high quality JPEG (I take pictures in RAW format, which isn’t web-compatibile).
On another occassion, I’ll write a little about the topic of depth of field. It isn’t much of an issue when photographing individual figures but it’s useful to understand if you want to take pictures of a whole base of figures and get as many of them in focus as possible.