Guslado’s Guide to Miniature Photography

Posted: November 16, 2015 in Hobby Tutorial
Tags: , , ,

Guslado's Guide to Miniature Photography
In some recent forum threads I’ve been reading there have been posts on how it would be nice to have some sort of tutorial on photography and photo editing for miniatures, especially in regards to editing together collages for submission to online photo competitions.  This inspired me to put the tips and tricks I’ve learned on that subject down onto digital paper.

The tips I am listing here are intended for those who don’t have access to high end photography equipment. The way I figure it, if you own an SLR you probably already know a thing or two about macro photography (although there may be a few useful nuggets of info here that are tailored to photography of miniatures). Most people have access to a smart phone of some variety and frequently those are the go to camera for most people. The technology for smartphone cameras have improved drastically over the last few years; I use my iPhone 5 for all of my miniature photography and it handles what I need it to do with great ease. Please note: these tips are designed for circumstances where you have control of the lighting conditions—taking photos at a convention or tournament is a different beast. I’m not a professional photographer, but I have been hobbying for a long while and I have a fair amount of experience working with various types of photo editing software.

 

Sure, using a big expensive camera may make the photos of your minis better, but one major thing to remember when photographing your minis—these photos will be viewed almost exclusively online or for using your phone to show your work to a fellow hobbyist. The resolution on most modern smart phones is plenty for this purpose. You won’t be printing these off in a large format to hang on your wall, that’s what the miniature itself is for.

This tutorial is broken down into two sections: 1. Taking Photos of Your Miniatures and 2. Editing: What To Do With Those Photos Once You Have Them (including how to make a photo collage).

Section 1: Taking Photos of Your Miniatures

When it comes to taking photos of your miniatures, there are a few tricks to get the most out of your camera; most of these tricks don’t actually involve the camera at all but the setup of what you are photographing.

Lighting—how you light your miniatures for photography is one of the most important parts of taking good photos of them.

  • Turn off your flash—the flash on your phone is crap and will just wash out the colors and detail in your photograph. Turn it off, leave it off.
  • 3 point lighting—when photographing a miniature you want to set up your lights so that you eliminate shadows; to do so you’ll want to light your subject from 3 angles: front right, front left, and top light. By having your light coming from opposing angles, you eliminate the shadows caused by directional lights so you can better show off what you have done. I use 3-gooseneck LED lamps I picked up from IKEA for about $10 each which are also the lamps I keep on my painting desk for painting (painting with the same lighting I will be using for photography helps to see how the finished miniature will look!). It’s quite useful to have lights that you can change the positioning on; it allows you to tweak the angle of your lighting depending on what miniature you are photographing. I also usually turn off the other lights in the room so that light from other sources doesn’t bleed into the photo; it’s all about controlling exactly what light is hitting your mini and what angle the light is hitting it from.

    Photo Box 10

    Proper 3-Point light positioning.

  • Light diffusion box—using diffused light as opposed to direct light is a common method employed by professional photographers to obtain light conditions more conducive to photography. In the simplest terms, when it comes to photography, direct light is bad; it can be unflattering, cause harsh shadows and make bright spots too bright. To avoid this, professional photographers send their lights through diffusers to scatter the light and make the light appear as ambient instead of direct. A light diffusion box is a handy tool to obtain diffused light on a small object (such as a painted miniature!). If you search for Light Diffusion boxes on Amazon you’ll find they can get a little expensive, that’s why a while back I put together this handy tutorial (It’s a tutorial inside a tutorial! It’s tutorial-ception!) on how to make your own from cheap household items such as parchment or tissue paper and something to make a rigid frame (sprue from models, thin sticks, coat hangers, etc.).

    Photo Box 13

    This is a look at my Light Diffusion Box

  • Photo backdrop—a piece of white printer paper, a piece of black cloth, or a print of some kind of unobtrusive pattern; having a variety of backdrops convenient is handy as different models look better on different backdrops, just make sure you keep the photos for one set all on the same backdrop. You can find hundreds of free backdrop images on the internet and then print them out at home or a copy shop (depending on the quality of your printer). If you want to make the back drop completely disappear and have the subject floating in space (which looks great with a diorama) use a piece of black fabric; a black t-shirt can work for this or any black fabric without texture to it. If you light it properly, a black backdrop completely disappears and leaves your model sitting in a black void. Position the back drop so that it curves upwards behind your miniature. This helps to create a seamless background for your miniature. If you’re using a Light Diffusion box, you have a built-in way to do this; if you’re ignoring my suggestions [how dare you! 😉 ] or perhaps just didn’t have time to throw one together and you need photos now, you can just prop your backdrop up against some books. You should position your model a few inches in front of the backdrop; if you position it too close to the backdrop you will see its shadow against the backdrop. If your miniature and lights are positioned correctly, your miniature won’t cast much of a shadow in your photograph.

    Photo Box 14

    An example of proper backdrop and miniature placement.

Now that you have your own little photo studio set up, here are a few tips for actually taking photos. As I have said before, these are assuming you are using your smartphone for photography, but most digital cameras have the same functions I mention here. The phone I use is an iPhone, so the exact method and layout of functions on your phone may be different, but this is what I have access to and these functions should be there somewhere in most smart phones.

  • Most phones allow you to tap on the screen where you want the focus to be, which is very helpful when taking pictures of something close up. If you can’t get your camera to focus exactly where you want it to, try backing your camera up from it a little. Where you tap also determines what the camera is using to determine brightness, so if you have some really bright spots on your model you might need to tap around a few different spots to get just the right brightness levels throughout.
  • When using the selected focus, as I mentioned directly above this, you can scroll drag the little sun up or down to decrease/increase the brightness of the photo. This helps to get the right average brightness when you have contrasting bright and dark points on a model—for example, snow on bases tends to either make the model look really dark or look washed out when you select the brightness off of a dark model.

    image

    After selecting your focal point, slide the little sun up or down to adjust the brightness. The subject is a black background so you can see the little sun.

  • Take several photos from the same angle. This lets you pick exactly which one looks the best—you will always find minute variation in sharpness, brightness, etc. between your photos.
  • Take photos of your mini from several angles. Miniatures are a 3 dimensional art form, so capturing them from multiple angles is the best way to show them off. Rotate it, try taking a photo looking down or up at it—taking a photo straight on can give a very different emotional feel to the model than from above. Experiment and find what you like the best—you can always delete the photos that don’t work out!
  • When framing your photo in the viewfinder remember that you can always crop it (and usually will), so leaving more empty space around your subject is just fine and sometimes is the only way to get the photo focused on the right spot. You can crop extra room out, but you can’t add it in.
  • If you have shaky hands, you can make a simple tripod out of cardstock and use the headphone button as a remote trigger.

 

Section 2: Editing– What To Do With Those Photos Once You Have Them

Now that you have a bunch of great looking photos of your miniatures, it’s time to get them ready to share. Editing photos of minis can range from very simple fixes to more elaborate compilations, but remember: you are trying to accurately represent your miniature, so don’t do anything that which misrepresents your work. Please note that the instructions I give below do assume a basic understanding of your phone and/or how to use a computer; the terminology I give is close to what you will find in the device/software you are using, but its exact labeling/appearance may vary.

If you are just looking to show off your painted minis and don’t need to put together a collage, you can do most of the editing on your phone. The two main edits I do are my phone are:

  • Cropping—I mentioned above that sometimes it’s easier to get the right focus if you are a bit farther back from your subject, which means you will be taking in more background than you want in your final photo; just use the crop feature in your phone to properly fit your miniature.
  • Adjust the Black Point—this edit changes the threshold for what is considered black within the photo, evening out the brightness of the photo. This compensates for when you have something very white near something dark (ie: snow on bases) and keeps things from being washed out or too dark. You only need to adjust this slightly; too much and things look really weird. To find this while in edit mode on an iPhone, tap the dial icon-> tap the downward pointing arrow next to “Light” -> tap “Black Point” -> a slider will come up which you can slide right or left to slightly change the threshold for what is considered black. Adjust this only slightly (less than 0.25). I prefer this to edit to the “Brightness” edit because if you followed my tips above, your mini should be properly lit and be close to the right brightness, it might just need a little balancing of the natural shadows and highlights that photos can flatten or wash out.

blackpoint1 blackpoint2 blackpoint3 blackpoint4

Many online painting contests only allow you to enter a single file into the competition. Most of these competitions do allow that single file be a collage so that you can show off multiple angles and details of your entry. Putting together a quality collage is beyond the capabilities of any photo editing software I have seen on a smart phone. While most computers come with a paint program already loaded on them, I prefer to take things a step up from Paint when it comes to making a collage.

The important requirement for photo editing software for making a quality collage is that it allows you to work with layers (I’ll explain what those are momentarily). Adobe Photoshop is the most well-known of these pieces of software and is awesome if you have access to is, but it’s incredibly expensive. I use GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) which is a free, open-source software and if you’re not a professional graphic artist it can handle everything you need to do.

The reason why I enjoy using Photoshop or GIMP is that they allow you to work with layers in your image. The best way to think about layers is that each is like a sheet of paper in a stack of papers; if you place one image over the top of another, all of the information of the image underneath is still there and can be revealed by moving things around, cutting out pieces of the upper image, or changing the order in which they are stacked. In Paint (or other software that don’t support layers) if you place an image over top of another one and deselect it, the top image overwrites what was underneath and doesn’t allow you to move things around to reveal the lower images. By having layers you can lay things over top of the image behind it without overwriting what is there so that you can move pieces around as you work. You can also edit each layer separately without affecting the other layers (move, resize, change attributes, erase, etc.).

A collage allows you to show off a model from multiple angles and to highlight details in large or complex pieces. When it comes to making a collage there are two styles that I tend to make: collages with a central image with inset details/alternate angles and collages with a grid layout. Both styles of collage use the same basic techniques to assemble, it’s just their layout that varies. Which style of collage you want to use depends largely on personal preference and what the subject is. Either style works well for dioramas or groups of miniatures, but using a central image with inset details/alternate angles tends to work especially well for larger pieces; for single miniatures I tend to prefer the look of a grid layout.

A collage with a central image and inset details/angles

GusladoBeginnersGuidetoPiracy

A collage with a grid style layout.

As the techniques for making both styles of collages are mostly the same, I will be explaining how to make a collage with a central image and inset details/alternate angles first. When assembling this kind of collage, the first thing you should do is decide which image you want to use as the central image of your collage—this central image is the single image you would select to represent the piece if you weren’t allowed to do a collage. Once you have decided what the central image of the collage will be, select the alternate angles you want to show and the details you want to highlight; you want to make sure you have a good showing of everything, but don’t go overboard on the number of extra images you want to put in.

extraspace

Here you can see the extra space I added in around the central image. I show it in red here so that you can see it; in the final image I matched it to the background color of the central image.

Once you have determined which images you will be including in the collage, place these images around the main image so that they don’t cover it up (this is where that extra room around the subject can come in handy); you do this by copying the image you will be adding and then pasting it into your collage image. Pasting that image into the central image will create a new layer which you can move around and edit without affecting the other layers. Most of the time you will need to resize and/or crop your inset images so they will fit without covering up your central image. If you need more room around your central image, you can use the expand canvas function and then use the fill tool to match the color of the newly created space to the color to the background of the central image (which you can sample from the central image using the color selector dropper tool).

Each layer you add to your collage can be moved around and edited independently of the other layers. You can also move layers up or down in the stack as you need. Photoshop and GIMP both have a layer tracking window so that you don’t misplace your layers. This is also how you select which layer you are working on.

To make a grid layout style collage, you use the same techniques I mentioned above with just a couple of minor differences. Instead of using the central image as your starting point, you will start with a plain backdrop which you create by going up to the File menu when you are in your editing software and select create new image. When you do this you will have the option to set the size of the new image you will be creating, make sure that its height and width are large enough to accommodate size of the images you will be pasting into it (you can view the dimensions of these images in various places within the software, I find that under the “resize image” option is the easiest place to find the dimensions). Once you have created your back drop image, you can copy and paste in the images you wish to use in your collage and lay them out in a grid however you like. If you would like frames separating your images, leave space in between the images where the background shows through; during the editing process, I tend to make the background a bright color not found in the images I am working with so that I can easily see where the background is and then change to color to whatever color I want the frames to be after I have the layout of all of the images where I want it. If you don’t want frames between your images, don’t leave any space in between them.

One collage layout that I’ve seen many times in painting contests that always seems to cause problems is assembling the images in a horizontal or vertical strip. This tends to cause problems because the images are often resized to fit the parameters of the website on which they are being displayed. A rectangular grid collage tends to resize better than a strip.

As I mentioned in how to make a grid layout collage, sometimes you want to have frames around your inset details in a collage with a central image. This can be done by creating a new image that is slightly larger than the image you want the frame behind and then positioning this new image behind it. You can then make this frame any color you want, but I do suggest keeping frame color consistent across the image.

ColdComfort

An example of text where I matched the color to the piece and then used the Emboss filter on it.

Sometimes you want to add in some text to your collage for a title or label. If you are doing this for a competition, double check what information you are allowed to share before adding a title or label in. You can either add the text to a blank area in your image or create a box for it like how I described adding in a frame. For the font color I usually use the color selector dropper tool to pick a color from within the miniature so that it ties into the miniature without standing out overmuch; you can click around the image with the dropper tool until you find just the right shade. Once I have the text layer created, I tend to use the Emboss filter on the text layer to give it some depth (you can find this under the Filter menu at the top, it sometimes needs a little fiddling with to look right depending on the software you are using).

As you are putting together your collage, you should make sure that you are saving your work on a regular basis. Once you start to work with layers, most editing software saves in its own special type of file to accommodate these layers and leave them editable (for Photoshop it’s a .psd file, for GIMP it’s a .xcf file). While these files work great in their respective software, they are generally only able to be opened in these softwares and need to be converted to a .jpg for submission to painting contests or for sharing online. If you are submitting your work to an online contest, make sure you check what the limits on the dimensions of the photo and file size are. During the editing process you generally want to be working with images larger than what you will be submitting, this lets you shrink it down for your final submission. For resizing your final image, you should make a copy of the file so that you have your original final piece and one for resizing—you lose data when you shrink the image and you don’t want to spoil all of your hard work in this final phase by messing around with the size of the original.

To prepare your image for final submission, resize the copy you made for this purpose to fit within the required dimensions. If there aren’t limits on the required dimensions, you might not need to resize the image (although you might, depending on the final file size—larger image = larger file size). How you convert your file to a .jpg file depends on the software you are using, but they effectively do the same thing—you will either “Save as” or “Export as” and then select the file type of “.jpg”. As this is compressing the image, you should have a window pop up that gives you some options; the important one is a slider determining the quality of the new file you will be creating. You want to make sure this Quality slider is at 100% quality to ensure your image doesn’t lose any sharpness in the conversion. Once your .jpg has been save, check the properties of this new file to see how large of a file it is.

If your file is larger than the maximum file size for submission, you will need to shrink the image again. Don’t resize the .jpg file you created, resize the .psd or .xcf file you made for resizing; how much you need to resize your image depends on several different factors (size of original, maximum file size, etc.), but how I find the size that usually works for me is I set the view of the editor to 100% (which usually zooms the photo WAY in) and then use the resize image function to shrink it to the point where it fits comfortably on the screen and is the sharpness I want it to be. Convert your image to a .jpg again and check the file size; if the file size is within the requirements for submission, excellent! If not, keep trying gradually smaller sizes until the file size is within the requirements. Name your final .jpg within the file naming requirements of the contest if it has them or whatever you want if it doesn’t, just make it something that you won’t confuse with your other files. You’re done; time to go submit your photo!

 

I hope this tutorial helps you to take better photos of your miniatures and edit them together into something great for a painting contest. If you have more tips or tricks for miniature photography/photo editing, please let me know—I am not the source of all knowledge and am always looking to learn more as well.

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