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Lighting

It is difficult to overstate the importance of lighting in photography in general, and regarding miniatures in particular. There are countless entire books about photographic lighting, but here we will cover some of the fundamentals to take the best lit miniature photos with the least expense and difficulty.

  1. Continuous The first and probably cheapest thing that you can do to improve photos of minis, is to provide a steady and bright source of light. Regular camera flashes are too close to the lens for miniatures, and tend to cast sharp unattractive shadows. Continuous light will make it much easier for you to frame your photo, and with some care and tinkering, can help eliminate shadows; or at least give you control over where they fall. I tend to favor cheaper lamps from the hardware store than the “professional lighting.” Three adjustable gooseneck or equivalent lamps should be sufficient, though more complex scenes might require a couple more fill lights for the best results.
  2. White Light For color accuracy and uniformity in your photos (and prints), using a true white light bulb is the best and easiest solution. You can easily spend hundreds of dollars on pro studio lights, but for our purposes any decent white light bulb will provide ninety-five percent of the benefit at a fraction of the cost. Almost all hardware stores sell fluorescent and LED bulbs with a 5000K color temperature [^1]. This type of light will provide the most accurate color; it is the same color temperature as the sun and almost all cameras white balance to this color readily. If the color still seems a little off, you can select daylight or 5000K in the color temperature settings in your camera. If you use lights that have a color temperature below 5000k, like incandescent, or above like certain fluorescent, you could get a yellow (warm), or blue (cool) cast, respectively, to your photos. If you are after a warmer feel to your photography then you can use lower temp bulbs (i.e. 3000K), however almost all photo software will have setting to change color temperature, and I personally feel that it is better to start with a true white color balance and edit in the computer later, as that will provide the most flexibility in the long run.
  3. Diffused Light Avoid point light sources, as they will cast overly harsh shadows. You can often find light bulbs with a diffusion coating or layer, or you can direct the light at a white sheet of paper, and use the reflected light to illuminate your subject. Some people prefer a “soft box,” a (usually) nylon fabric box that you shine lights on from the outside to soften the lighting inside. They are a good solution for small items, but don’t work well for larger things (or at all), and limit the angles that you can take photos from.

    Stabilization

    Because miniatures have to be photographed close up, and often with a narrow aperture (as discussed below), a tripod is very useful. Any tripod will do for the occasional miniature photographer, but if you need to take a lot of photos and want consistently crisp photos I recommend a good sturdy tripod with either a pan/tilt head (this simply means that the adjustment for left/right and up/down have separate controls), or if you have lots of money and want to best possible control over your camera’s placement, a macro head, where you can adjust your camera’s distance from the subject in fractions of an inch, rather than moving the entire tripod itself forward or back. Avoid using a tripod with a “ball head,” they are designed for quick adjustment, but don’t fine tune easily, and can be very frustrating when taking photos of miniatures.

    Macro Mode (![]())

    If you are using a small point and shoot camera, or a smartphone it is unlikely that you will be able directly control the aperture. In that case the best you can do is use "macro mode." You turn this on in various ways, depending upon the camera, but it is almost always denoted by a small flower icon. Macro mode tells the camera that you want to focus closer than would otherwise be allowed.

    Aperture

    For the cameras that allow it, Aperture Control will give the best results for photographing miniatures. A wider aperture allows more light to reach the camera sensor, enabling faster, usually less jittery photos. This makes for better hand-held photo, and provides more attractive bokeh. Bokeh is the camera jargon for the out of focus blur in the background (or foreground) of a photo. Bokeh is useful to separate something from the surroundings in a photo, and is most desirable in portrait photography. It can also be nice looking in product or single item photos, however generally speaking it detracts from photographs of miniatures. If you are taking a picture of a dollhouse, roombox, or even an individual piece, you generally want as much to be in focus as possible. Ideally the back wall would be in as clear focus as the items nearest the camera. To accomplish this, you need to reduce the aperture of your lens. Somewhat counter-intuitively this is denoted by a bigger number. For instance if you are photographing a boombox with a lens set to f2.8 (a very open aperture providing tons of bokeh) you will likely only have about 1/4 inch of depth actually in focus—if the front edge is in focus the back wall will be entirely blurry. Conversely the same photo with and f-stop of 24 will have inches deep focal range, and the back wall would either be in focus, or only slightly out of focus; a much better photo if you are trying to show details throughout the scene.

There are two caveats to high aperture photography. The first and most important, is that the narrower opening in the lens reduces the incoming light and slows down the picture taking significantly. Taking clear pictures above f8 or so becomes almost impossible without either a tripod to hold the camera steady, or extremely bright lights to give the sensor plenty of light to work with. The second problem, is that if your camera is an SLR with a removable lens and any dust has gotten into the camera body at any point, it will be much more noticeable at high apertures. This can be mitigated by keeping the sensor clean, or editing out any spots in photo editing software later.

Shutter Speed

Seeing as how miniatures tend to be relatively stationary, we usually don’t have to worry about shutter speed. A narrower aperture with slower shutter speed is almost always preferable. If for some reason you do need to take a photo of something with movement, and are getting motion blur, try increasing the light available before you try opening up the aperture. That way you can keep the depth of field and freeze the motion.

ISO

ISO is more or less the digital equivalent of film speed, lower ISO settings make for cleaner less noisy photos; higher ISO allows for photos to be taken with less light, at the cost of adding some graininess to the photo. Generally you want to keep the ISO setting as low as you can, but with most modern cameras it is just fine to raise increase it some. The range of acceptable quality varies greatly from camera to camera, but a general rule of thumb is to keep the ISO setting below 1000.

Memory Cards

Of course memory cards really don’t matter to the photograph, but I’ll include a little about them for completeness. Memory cards do wear out, but it usually takes a long time with many thousands of photos saved and then erased. If you are using a memory card that is older than tens years it might be a good idea to buy a new one, better to spend a few dollars than loose hours or days worth of your photography efforts. When buying new camera cards (SD is the most common, but your camera could also be using Sony MemoryStick, or Compact Flash, or some other more obscure formats), avoid the cheapest brands, but also don’t buy the most expensive. A middle price range card will last just as long as the costly ones, but the bargain bin variety might corrupt files. I’ve personally had good luck with the Transcend and SanDisk brands.

File Formats

For most purposes the plain vanilla format of JPEG (files that end with .jpg or .jpeg) will work just fine. Photos saved in this format can be used everywhere and are easy to edit or upload to the Internet due to their reduced file size. The savings in storage size comes at the cost of quality, JPEGs discard at certain percentage of the information to save space. Depending upon the settings this can range from negligible, all the way to completely ruining a photo. However if you need to get the absolute most out of your camera, many cameras have a “RAW” format option. RAW photos are much bigger, and may require higher end software like Photoshop to edit, but the format saves more of the data from the sensor, so photos with poor exposure or color will be easier to fix. You would normally only shoot in RAW if it is critical that the photo be useable or you know ahead of time that you will want to do more technical editing. Your camera might also have the TIFF file type (this was especially true on cameras before RAW became common). TIFF doesn’t degrade photos like JPEG, but it doesn’t store extra data like RAW. It is fading away in light of newer better options, but can be useful for sending photos to glossy magazines, as many of them still use the format.

Lenses

Small point-and-shoot cameras have a built in lens, therefore there isn’t much to say about lenses for them. If you are buying a new point-and-shoot, make certain it has a Macro mode, and ideally at least 5x zoom. These cameras are convenient to carry, and can take decent photos of miniatures, but are limited by their built in lens and limited aperture range. If you are taking mini photos with your smartphone there are countless clip on macro and zoom lenses available. Usually your phone will do just fine without one, but they can offer a little more flexibility and are cheap if you want to try them out. There are so many on the market, and most of them seem to be roughly equal, that I don’t really feel it necessary to recommend any in particular. If you have invested in an SLR (Single-Lens Reflex) or interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, there are two lenses that are the most important and provide the best quality when used with miniatures.

  1. A 50mm lens (or equivalent). These lenses are the gold standard for sharp focus, clarity, and distortion free photos. While you might not be able to zoom in on the smallest miniatures with a 50mm lens, for room-boxes, dollhouses, or even larger 1/12 scale pieces this lens will easily provide the best quality. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica, and even Tamron and Tokina (both discount lens manufacturers) all have excellent 50mm options, and they are often some of the most affordable lenses available.
    1. A moderate to high magnification Macro (60mm or 105mm). For photographing the smallest of the small, there is nothing better than a 105mm Macro lens. Relatively low lens distortion and excellent sharpness make it vital for pictures of individual miniatures. Like the 50mm, virtually all the lens makers have a good macro or two available, they aren’t as budget friendly, generally selling for $800-$1,000, but they are well worth the money if you take many photos.

      What to avoid in SLR lenses

      Camera stores and manufacturers love to sell zoom lenses. They let you bring the subject up close by zooming in, or capture a wide angle vista when zoomed out, all in one lens. The problem is that all this flexibility comes at a cost. Zoom lenses tend to have more distortion, especially what is know as barrel distortion, where the tops and sides of the lenses bow outward, and squares are decidedly rounded. While this distortion is noticeable in photos of people or scenery, it can be very distracting in photos of dollhouses, where the straightness of the walls is immediately apparent. Zoom lenses also have to change shape internally when they zoom in on something, this means that the volume inside the lens increases and air from outside the camera is sucked in (this is called breathing). This doesn’t really matter most of the time, but when taking pictures of tiny things close up, the lens can suck in dirt and dust with the air, which will eventually stick the the camera sensor and leave specks in the photos until it is very carefully cleaned. If you only have a zoom lens, don’t throw it out, it will still take perfectly acceptable photos of your miniatures, and if the barrel distortion does bother you, it can be removed in Photoshop or other photo editing software, but consider one or both of the lenses listed above if you take many photos, or are buying a new camera.

      Tripods

      A high quality tripod is vital for good steady miniature photos. Often with miniatures you will want to keep the shutter open a little longer than other photography to make certain the photo is exposed well enough, and it is therefore usually impossible to take a crisp photo by hand. If you have a tiny camera, then something like a small tabletop tripod would be ideal, you can even buy clamps to mount your smartphone to one. Personally I recommend GorrillaPod for their flexibility. If you have a bigger camera, or a heavier lens (like the 105mm Macro), then you will need a good steady full sized tripod. Don’t buy a cheap one as it will tend to be too springy and cause your photos to blur, even from just the vibration of the shutter opening and closing. When buying a good tripod you should have a choice of heads—the part that connects the tripod legs to the camera mounting plate (which is in turn screwed into the tripod mount lug on the bottom of the camera). One of the common varieties of tripod heads are ball heads, they are fast to adjust and therefor popular with wildlife and sports photographers, but they are difficult to fine tune and keep level. Therefore ball heads aren’t very good for miniatures. A better option is a pan/tilt head (also called a video head). These are common for video cameras, as they allow smooth panning while filming, but they are also excellent for miniatures because you can control the pan and tilt axis independently and also make relatively fine adjustments. If money is no object, there are also Macro heads. They have the most adjustment options and are designed to move the camera backwards or forwards with millimeter precision. I’ve personally never used one, and I think that they are a little bit of overkill for miniaturists. Of the full sized tripod brands I’ve owned, the one I recommend for most people is Manfrotto. They are well made and fairly affordable (at least as much as any camera gear is affordable). I figure that most miniaturists don’t need carbon fiber legs, or a tripod that folds extra small for carrying in a backpack.

      Photo Editing Software

      While you can manage your photo library and edit photos on any computer, I feel that it is much easier when using a Mac. The Mac comes with a competent photo manager/editor called Photos, which is sufficient for most people’s needs. Windows 10 does also have some rudimentary photo organizational software built in, but I haven’t used it enough to offer much of an opinion about it. If you need something a little more powerful to organize your photos, Adobe Lightroom is designed to help manage huge libraries of thousands of files, but starting at $10 a month, it isn’t exactly cheap. To edit photos the de facto standard is Photoshop. Like all Adobe products it is expensive, but it is also unparalleled in power and features. Though it really is more than almost everyone needs. For Mac users a good alternative is Acorn (available in the Mac App Store), it will give you all the features you are likely to need at a fraction of the cost. Another alternative to Photoshop is GIMP. GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free/open source software Photoshop clone. It isn’t particularly easy to use, but is powerful, free, and runs on any computer platform. You can also do a decent job of managing and editing photos on a iPad (or even iPhone), and if your primary purpose is sharing the photos online and over social media, then it might well be the best option. It is more difficult to transfer photos from a camera to an iPad, and there are fewer options if you want to print them, but apart from those drawbacks they are a good alternative to a full computer.

      Additional Resources

      Ken Rockwell If you are looking to buy a new camera or lens, especially a higher end one, Ken Rockwell runs one of the best review websites out there. It is full of tips and tricks, and I’ve met a number of photographers who wouldn’t think of buying a camera without reading Ken Rockwell’s review. CNet CNet reviews almost everything that uses electricity, including cameras. They are a good starting place, especially for non-experts. If you are thinking about a new camera, but not sure what is available, this is a great beginner to mid-range resource. Amazon, Adorama, and B & H Photo I buy most of my camera gear at Amazon.com, but if you prefer to shop elsewhere, or what you want is unavailable at Amazon, Adorama and B & H Photo are the two biggest and generally most respected names in online camera sales. Their prices are comparable, and both have massive selections of both new and used camera gear available.

[^1]: In photography color is usually measured as a temperature using the Kelvin scale, so white light radiates at 5,000 degrees Kelvin, or 5,000 Celsius degrees above absolute zero. When you see the 5000K label is isn’t an abbreviation of “kilo” meaning five thousand thousand, but instead five thousand degrees Kelvin.