Photographing Miniatures for the Web

 

How Hard Can It Really Be?

So you have finally painted your masterpiece miniature, and you want to share it with millions of people on the internet. You might think that you would simply grab your camera, snap a couple of photos, and that'd be that. Sadly, most of have found that taking good photos of our miniatures isn't as easy as that. The good news is that it really isn't that hard. The initial learning curve might be a bit tough, but as soon as you learn the tricks, it is actually very easy.

 

The Camera

First, probably need a camera. There are other ways of getting decent images of your figures, but a camera is probably best. So for the purposes of this tutorial, I'll assume you have access to a digital camera or will be getting one soon.

Why Digital?
Digital cameras have many advantages over film cameras. First is cost. Yes, a digital camera might cost more up front, but you will save that money many times over once you factor in the cash spent on film and developing. You will have the freedom to take many more pictures, which in turn will allow you more practice shots so that you improve in skill more quickly. The second advantage is that the image will already be in an electronic format so that you do not need scan a print photo for online use. And the third advantage is speed. No time is wasted developing the photos. You can load the image immediately onto your computer and see if the shot was a good one.

How To Choose A Digital Camera
For most people, the choice will come down to how many features they want and how much they are willing spend. My biggest rule of thumb is to buy a digital camera from an established camera maker, not an electronics manufacturer. Sony tends to be an exception to this, since I know many people have been happy with their Sony cameras, but my own first choices are Nikon or Olympus. But whatever brand you choose, there are some key features you should consider when looking at cameras.

Megapixels
Megapixels refers to the size of the image when you take a photo. A megapixel is one-million pixels. This is a rough gauge of how high the quality can be of an image made with the camera. The larger the number, the higher the quality. A large megapixel count tends to quickly drive the cost of a camera up and is the most common way people compare digital cameras. That said, most of you don't need a camera with a super large megapixel value. If your primary use for a camera is going to be web-hosted images, then a 2 megapixel camera should be more than adequate. On the other hand, if you ever plan on printing images, then a larger image quality becomes important. If you plan on print publishing your images, than the highest possible image quality becomes critical.

But for most of us, web hosting is the most we will do, and keeping the megapixel count reasonable will go a long way towards keeping your initial camera cost low.

Macro Mode
Most digital cameras will have a macro mode. It is typically a button setting that looks like a little flower. The macro mode tells the camera to focus on object very close to the lens, and is ideal for photographing tiny objects. If a camera you are considering doesn't have a macro mode, don't buy it since it will be useless for miniature photography, but as I said, all but the cheapest cameras have this mode.

Some cameras have a better macro mode than others. One aspect of a higher quality macro mode is how close the camera can get to the object and still focus. The Nikon Coolpix cameras are renowned for have really good macro mode capabilities and are prized by miniature painters as a result.

Optical Zoom
Most cameras will have two zoom features, an optical zoom and a digital zoom. Ignore the digital zoom. It is useless. Actually, it is worse than useless. A digital zoom just enlarges the image by enlarging the pixels and results in a poor, blocky looking image. If you really want to enlarge an image this way, use photo editing software after the picture is taken since the loss of quality will be far less.

The information you are interested in is the optical zoom rating. This is the amount of magnification you will get through lens adjustment with no loss of image quality. 2X to 3X is a common optical zoom rating on most current digital cameras.

Tripod Mounting Point
Almost every camera will have this. It is simply a screw opening on the bottom of the camera that allows it to be mounted to a tripod. The use of a tripod is vital in miniature photography, so a camera without this mounting is much more limited in its use. Luckily, it is almost a given that a camera will have this feature, and it is only the cheapest cameras that are likely to miss it.

 

Setup

Ok, now you have a suitable digital camera, but you still aren't ready for miniature photography. Almost as important as the camera is having a proper area set up for photographing your miniatures, Luckily a reasonable area is easy to prepare and relatively inexpensive. All you need is good lighting, a tripod, and a neutral background or dropcloth.

Lighting
You need light. Lots of light. Even a brightly lit room will not be enough light once you are zoomed in with the camera. The solution is to use multiple directable lights that can be arranged closely around the model. While professionals may use expensive lighting rigs, there are much cheaper alternatives for the hobbyist.

I recommend a minimum of two and preferably a set of three swing-arm style desk lamps. These are the lamps that clamp to a table or desk edge, and they can be found at many places for only $6-8 each. Place two in front of the mini (one to either side) and one to the rear. All are positioned above and angled in towards the miniature. A configuration such as this provides good lighting all around, making sure the subject is well-illuminated while reducing the appearance of strongly contrasting shadows that a single light source introduces. If desired, the back light may be omitted, but the two front lights are important. The entire light set, even with light bulbs and an extension cord should run about $30 or less and is a good investment since the same lighting is ideal for painting as well.

In addition to the amount, care must be given to the color of the light. Normal indoor incandescent lighting is actually quite yellow. Typical convention hall lighting is even worse. Florescent lighting on the other hand is typically very cold and harsh. The solution is to use a daylight style bulb. One commonly available brand that is perfect for this use are the GE Reveal Bulbs. They are sold almost anywhere normal light bulbs are sold, and only cost a little bit more.

Tripods
The next key is to stabilize your camera. Luckily this is quite simple to do with a tripod. Many new photographers run out and pick up a miniature tripod because they are so cheap, but I find this foolish. Miniature tripods don't have nearly as many ways to adjust their angle, lack the potential height of a full tripod, and don't actually save much money. A full size tripod can be found for $20 or less at most "big-box" retailers such as Wal-Mart or Target, while a mini-tripod still typically costs at least $12. For the small difference in cost, a full size tripod is a much better investment.

 

Backgrounds and Dropcloths
It is to your benefit to photograph your miniature against an even, neutral background. Doing so ensures that the figure will stand out more and not get lost in background clutter. Also, it is easier to remove the background with photo-editing software if the photo was taken against a solid-colored background. In general, a light blue is the best color for a photography background as it keeps the color balance more true.

What you use as a background is up to your. Most people use either a sheet of paper or a cloth sheet. I use a pale blue bedsheet that I purchased just for this use. Cloth is durable, but also tends to show folds and wrinkles. The advantage of a paper background is that it will be much smoother unless you crease it. If you are photographing primarily at home, then you might want to consider paper. If your setup needs to be portable, then I recommend a dropcloth.

 

Taking The Photo

So now you have the camera and you have an area setup for photographing your miniatures. All that's left is taking the photo. Lucky for you this is the easy part. Just follow these easy steps...

First, mount your camera onto your tripod and turn it on. Set your camera into Macro Mode. This is normally a button with a little icon that vaguely resembles a flower (if you can't find your camera's Macro Mode control, refer to your camera's manual). Place your figure in the middle of your light setup and place the tripod mounted camera in front of the setup The distance you want to keep between your camera and the subject varies depending on your camera, but 8-14 inches (20-35cm) is fairly common. Rotate your figure, and adjust your camera angle to line up the shot you want.

Next, make sure your flash is turned off. Allow me to clarify... Do not use your flash! A camera's flash is designed for standard photography and is intended to illuminate a subject six to eight feet away. It is quite simply FAR too much light for your purposes here. If you use a flash, your photos will typically have the color washed doubt to some degree with all the lighter shades blasted out. This is why you invested in a set of lights. So do yourself a favor and make sure your flash is off.

Last, simply focus the camera on your figure, keep the camera still, and snap the photo. If you are having trouble keeping the camera steady even with the tripod, most cameras have a timer function that will take the photo 15-20 seconds after the the button is pressed. This function normally gives the photographer a chance to jump into their own photos, but you can use it to get your hands completely off of the camera when the photo is snapped so that the camera remains absolutely still.

That's it! You now have a photograph of your miniature. You might need to make slight adjustments to the directions above depending on the particulars of your camera, but the reality is that miniature photos are easy to take once you figure out the tricks. Just practice and familiarize yourself with your camera, and you will be taking top notch photos in no time.

TIP: If you are photographing miniatures with bright, light colors such as red or white, you may notice that the colors in your photograph come out to washed or blasted out. This happens because those bright colors don't need much shutter time to show up in the image and in fact will blast out the upper range of the color if exposed for too long. To counter this effect, manually increase your cameras shutter speed so that the picture is taken even more quickly.

 

After Image Care

Once you have transferred your images from the camera to your camera, you can clean and edit them to suit whatever final purpose you have for them. There are many image editing applications on the market, and many PC's come bundled with some form of trial software, but the most commonly used program is Photoshop.

The two most common adjustments you will want to make are to crop the excess background from your image and then to resize it to something appropriate for viewing on the internet. When you are picking a size for your image, there are two factors to consider. If you have a lot of detail and careful blending you want to show off, then a large photo will make those details visible. On the other hand, if your work is rougher, a large photograph will only magnify those flaws. A smaller image will make your work look better in that case - and when you think about it, a large photo is only showing your figure at a size larger than real life! I addition to detail level, the other thing to consider is file size. Large images will be much slower to download, especially for viewers on slower modem connections.

More advanced users of photo editing software can also make use of features that allow you to adjust the brightness, contrast, and even color balance of digital images. Of course, a well taken photograph makes such aftercare less necessary.

TIP: If you are adjusting colors for a set of photos where you used a drop cloth, you can use the drop cloth as a guide for what true color is. This is especially useful if you photographing a set of miniatures for a convention's painting contest. When you go back to fix color balance, you may not have the original figure to compare to, but you do still have your drop cloth.

 

FAQ

Batteries
Digital cameras eat batteries! If you are using standard disposable batteries, you will go through them quickly. If you usually only take small groups of photos at a time, investing in a good set of rechargeable batteries will save money in the long run. The disadvantage of rechargeable batteries is that they do not last as long, per charge, as normal alkaline batteries. If you are going to be shooting a lot of photos all at once, especially away from home, rechargeable batteries can get a little tedious since you will need more of them than you would normal batteries and you need to keep separate depleted batteries and fresh batteries. If you plan only mostly using your camera only at your home, then you might even consider an AC adapter that will allow you to plug your camera directly into a wall socket.

Figure Sealers
The finish coat properties of a figure will have a profound effect on your photography results, so it is worth a brief mention here. Gloss figure varnishes reflect a lot of light, and this glare will show up in your photograph of the miniature. When possible, seal your miniatures with a flat varnish if you plan on photographing them. If you want the protection of a thick gloss seal, spray that on the mini first, then seal the figure again with a flat finish when the gloss sealer is fully dry. This two coat sealing technique is sometimes referred as "Bullet Coating". Also be aware that not all flat sealers are equal. Many still have a very slight sheen to them. In my experience, the flattest spray sealer commonly available is Testors DullCote.

Image Hosting
Having fantastic photos of your miniatures does little good if you cannot share them with others. While there are many sources of free webspace or image hosting, most of them are ill-suited for sharing figure images since they will either have severe bandwidth restrictions or will disable your ability to post images to another site. If you have your own paid webspace then you can always host there. If you don't have access to your own webspace, then there are two places I recommend. The first option is to post your figure onto CoolMiniOrNot.com. If you do not wish to post your figure there, I have heard many good things about PhotoBucket.com. They are free and have very few limitations.


 

So Get to Work!
If you have any further questions, please ask me, and I'll likely even include the answers in this tutorial! Have fun and good luck!