Digital Model Photography: Tips and Techniques

                                                                                   Fred List


First let me preface this article by saying I have no technical background in photography, nor is it what I consider to be a primary hobby of mine. I can’t tell you here, how to use your camera. Things like aperture settings, exposure times, etc., are well detailed in most camera manuals and are explained there much better than I could.

Secondly, I must say that this is primarily directed toward those who use digital cameras. That’s not to say that film camera users can’t derive benefit from these tips, but film cameras have different requirements than digital cameras and not everything can translate directly.

I’m a modeler. I like to take pictures of my models that make them look as much like the real thing as possible. Through a process of trial and error I have developed a series of things I do that have yielded some satisfying results. These I am happy to pass on. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s shoot some pictures!


Ok, you’ve built a scale model that you’re proud of and you’d like to share it with say, Uncle Ned who flew that plane in the war. Well, you can simply aim and shoot and you will have a decent picture of your model, or with the right lighting, camera angle and exposure you can have a picture that looks like you’re standing 10 feet away from Uncle Ned’s plane in the afternoon sunshine. In short, a much more exciting and evocative shot. That technique is what I’m going to try to describe. Now, I wish I could say this was very hard to achieve and it took me months of shooting picture after picture to get it just right but in actuality, I stumbled into it.


Equipment & Lighting


The equipment you’ll need can be somewhat expensive. Consumer digital cameras can cost up to $1000 US, but for this type of photography you don’t need anything that fancy. There are excellent 1.3 to 2 Megapixel cameras out there for $250 - $600. Most of the model photos I have taken have been with a 4-year-old 1.3 MP Epson digital camera.

Lights are the second key item in model photography. Generally, using the camera flash is a no-no if you want to take realistic photos of your models, so additional lights are a must. You may be thinking, “Hey, why don’t I just go outside and use sunlight?” Well sure, I’ve seen quite a few people make some outstanding photos of their models outdoors, but sometimes it’s just not convenient.  Knowing how to set your lights indoors gives you more control over the way your model is presented.

I use several area/flood lights and one or two high intensity lights in my pictures. The area lights I mentioned are Photoflood lights that can be bought for relatively little money in camera supply stores. They are clip-on type lights with the metal reflector domes like the ones you use for temporary lighting in a garage or shop area.

At the risk of being controversial, I’ll also mention that I’ve also used regular Cool White light bulbs in the clip-on lamps. This can be done because many digital cameras allow you to adjust the White Balance setting which removes much of the yellow tint that would otherwise ruin the photo. Most digital image editing software can also correct minor white balance problems.


The P-47D photo below was taken using only regular Acme brand light bulbs in the flood lights. The white balance was set to “Incandescent” and any remaining yellowing was corrected with the image editing software.

The high intensity lights are a little more expensive, but are necessary to simulate sunshine in your photos. These lights are the adjustable “gooseneck” type incandescent lamps with the small reflector shade that you usually use on a desk. They use low wattage bulbs, but they focus their light on a fairly narrow area. They can run from $20 - $50 dollars.

Many digital cameras on the market now have a pre-programmed “Macro” setting.  With this comes the necessity to hold the camera perfectly still to insure a sharp, clear shot. Basically, this means you can’t hand-hold the camera for macro photos. For this, a camera tripod is a must have. A nice one can be had for under $70 and the one I use was more like $40.




Staging your shot will require you to put your model on a realistic base. This could be a simple flat piece of wood with model railroad grass-paper on it, a sheet of plasti-card painted and detailed to look like tarmac, or a well-detailed and weathered hardstand with some equipment lying about. My suggestion is to spend as much time as you can detailing the base, because it’s a major element in the illusion you’re trying to create. For many of the bases I make, I form a slight rise toward the back, so that it obscures the boundary between the background photo and the base.

The background photo is the other element necessary to create the illusion.

The backgrounds I use are simply digital photographs printed onto matte photopaper. Normally, these background photos are printed on one 8.5” x 11” sheet. Many of the new digital cameras make it easy to take multiple exposure landscapes that would allow you to put a series of two or three photos behind your model giving you a little more freedom to take wider angle shots.

When you’ve chosen a background photo, mount it to a stiff piece of cardboard with loops of tape so the tape isn’t visible. Place the model on its base directly in front of, and close to the photo.

Setting the lights just right can be somewhat of a trial and error process, but most of the time you’ll want to have the floodlights positioned to illuminate the background and the foreground while the high-intensity light is directed on the model. If the light is uneven or if you want to fill in some shadowy areas, a homemade reflector can be made out of aluminum foil. To do this, simply crumple a sheet of aluminum foil, then straighten it out and paste it on a piece of cardboard.




Snapping the Photo


I always felt that photographs that show a finished and weathered model from above seemed to make the model more “toy-like” in appearance, no matter how well the model was done. This is just a matter of personal taste. In many of my model aircraft photos however, I like to duplicate the perspective of a person standing close to the plane. I want the model to look big! This means close-ups from low angles. In some shots the view is so close that only a portion of the aircraft is pictured. I like to think this makes for a more dramatic shot. As I mentioned earlier, you want the aircraft to be in focus as much as possible. Just like it would be if you were standing near it. The “Macro” feature on many digital cameras is very handy, but limits depth of field to about an inch or two. My current camera a Nikon Coolpix 950 (along with many others nowadays), allows the user to set the aperture, or lens opening manually while still in “Macro” mode. This allows close-in shots while still allowing you to adjust the depth of field. The minimum aperture setting on the Nikon is F11, which allows nearly the entire model to be in focus when taking a shot from the front or rear of the model (See photo).





Another very handy thing about digital cameras is the convenience of not having to send the film away to a lab for processing. We can set-up, shoot and review the photos in just ten or fifteen minutes. Take advantage of this. Don’t hesitate to take lots of shots and delete the ones you don’t like. Just be sure not to keep those hot lights directed on your model for too long!


Post Processing


With the plethora of image processing software available it’s remarkably easy to fine tune your digital images, so that shots which look questionable can wind up being terrific. What I find myself adjusting most often is Brightness, Contrast, Hue and White Point. The names of each of these variables will differ from software to software, but with a little tinkering you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Take for example the two images below. The one on the left appears as it came out of the camera. The one on the right was tinkered-with using Adobe PhotoDeluxe. Ultimately what this means is, you can be a pretty poor photographer and still get away with it! Have fun!