Back to Back Issues Page
Scale Modeling Tips & Tools Monthly, Issue #019-- "A Little Light On A Small Thing"
August 15, 2008
August 15, 2008

Scale Model Photography or
A Little Light On A Small Thing

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not or am not trying to be a “professional photographer”. I am trying to share with you some of the information I have learned over the past four decades that will help you produce better images of your modeling creations.

This is important as (A) taking good photos and (B) being able to share them online helps others learn from your efforts and helps you see flaws in your own work you don’t see, or more likely don’t want to see because they stick in your craw.

The photo at the left is an example of composition excellence because it has "points of interest" around the center. Notice where each of the orange crosses occur and what is behind them. In your photos try to place at least a three of these intersections over a point of interest in your photo.

One of the things I learned from my journalism days (too long ago to be discussed) is that good composition, even unusual composition, counts for a whole lot when photographing a scene and that carries over to photographing models. There are far too many point-and-shoot shots.

Some of my most memorable shots as a newspaper reporter were taken from unusual angles. For instance, the editor’s eyes would always light up when he saw a photo of a parade shot from lying on the pavement as two lines of instrument players passed on either side.

You don’t have to go to that length in producing a pleasing shot of your model, but how about placing the camera directly on the table where you are close to eyeball height of a scale person whether in the scene or not. You will find these shots are more believable.

The “focus” (I know, lousy pun) is on Digital cameras as they are extremely popular, make digital photo sharing possible and most importantly, because that is what I use. If you haven’t got one, this information is still valid but please realize you will be wasting a lot of time and effort you could be spending improving your modeling.

Watch Out For Your Back(ground)

It is real easy to get so totally engrossed in the subject of your photograph that you all but ignore what is behind it,

Something in the background (even if it is out of focus) makes a big difference.

In the real world you will seldom finda scene with nothing behind it and you surelywon't find a scene with a bare wall or worseopen stud work.

Even if your scene is gazing off a cliff thereis always something there; a tree line on a far hilltop,the rock wall of a canyon, of clouds in the sky.

For instance, this tabletop shot of Miracle Chair would lose a lot if you removed the field of waving wheat and mountains in the background. (That would be pretty easy, just un-stick the tape holding the piece of stationary to the wall). It is amazing how simple (and inexpensive) tabletop photography can be.

A video Example of Tabletop Photography

What Makes The Shot?

Well lit model of a Lotus Elise

The above picture is a scale model of aLotus Eliise perched on a stainless steel BBQ grill

The number one ingredient in shootingquality pictures ofscale models is lighting.

A 2-megapixel digital can outshine a$7,500 Hasselblad H1Single Lense Reflex if the lighting is pre-planned and well balanced.

Okay,that’s enough of the professional stuff (I couldn’teven spell Hasselblad without Google).

Let’s get on with our own reality. In most cases you will not need to delve too deeply into the professional side to get decent photos you can upload to your site, a photo storage site or a forum. Online reproduction of your photos can’t make use of top quality images without letting the air out of them.

You can take great photos by taking them in extreme close up. Close up photos add a little creativity and drama to the photos as they provide a different viewpoint. This idea is only one of the many ways to enhance and create excitement in your photo.

What Color Is White?
When taking pictures with a film camera it simply captures the light spectrums of a scene on a negative film. When it is developed, the processor will have to determine colors by guessing how the color should turn out. That’s why picture color changes from one processor to the next.

Digital cameras accomplish this as the picture is being shot. The camera also guesses the right color by guessing the color of the light source. So, how do we solve this problem you ask?

The answer is you tell the camera what the light source color is. Tell it how white color should look like, thus the term "white balance".

Good Setup Often Makes Photo Possible

Lighting for the Table

Good photography requires good lighting and I have found I do my best model photography in an enclosed room with lighting I can control.

Good photos are those with good exposure, no washed out area, and no harsh shadow. To achieve that, the light has to be soft. The bigger the light source, the softer the light. The more distance between the light source and the object, the softer the light.

For most modelers, sunlight is a favorite lighting source as it is big, far away (soft light) and constant. I tried the outdoor sunlight. Yes it is great light, but there are other weather elements that make it impractical. Just a slight breeze sends models and backgrounds flying, I can’t control the light’s intensity and I can’t move it closer or further away.
P-51 Mustangoutdoor shoot
Above:P-51D Mustang (Tamiya 1/48 kit) photographed in natural light
Professionals consider good lighting equipment more important and often more expensive than the camera itself. OK, forget about the professional talk, its overkill for most of us.

What we are attempting here is to light small objects and maintain control of the scene. I prefer tabletop photography making use of my own lighting to make decent tabletop photos.

Besides, I was saving for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that wouldn’t involve tabletop photography.

It’s what you do with what you’ve got that pays off in the end is a familiar refrain, but when it comes to photographic lighting on a budget it has a lot of meaning.

I started off with a common desk (mine is a sunlight lamp which uses a 4-tube compact fluorescent bulb. It is equivalent in incandescence to a 125 watt bulb, yet uses only 27-watts.

This is my favorite, mainly because I already had it and it has a handy gooseneck support arm

Second, my wife got me a table lamp for my office and it figures into lighting my “tabletop studio” because it has large bulb focused on the ceiling and a side lamp that can be tilted down and aimed at the object of the photo.

That leaves just one side that could use more lighting. I am experimenting with a common flashlight to provide highlight on that side. It provides too much light and is too concentrated to provide the type of fill light needed.

My next investment will be an external flash I can cable to the camera for control. I’ll point it at the top rear of the scene at about 45 degrees to bounce it back into the scene where it will wash out or reduce shadow intensity.

What I have learned is that good photography can be done with a minimal investment in lighting in a tabletop studio.

Quality Photo Printing...
More Than Just Paper

A MRR Forum user questioned the word quality in the slogan “photo quality printing” in a recent posting regarding signs and photos uploaded to the forum. He got a voice of experience response from Lee Weiss a veteran of 14 years in the printing business, we’ll leave it in his words:

The short answer:
is that you need to do some trial and error and go with what looks good to you. There are a lot of variables involved, including the subject matter of the image, your printer, the paper you are printing on, etc. Enlarging one of the signs should work better than trying to enlarge an image of a structure or locomotive and rolling stock.

Enlarging an image in 10% increments, and then viewing the new image using whatever display method the final image will be seen on, is one way to go. In your case you would print out the incremental versions. You keep doing this, and save copies of the image as you go, until it no longer looks acceptable to you, and then use the copy that is a step or two back from that. Write the percentage on each printout in case you get interrupted.

The long answer:

Ok, I will try to keep this as short as possible, but not knowing the experience level of everyone reading this, I will give some background first. I will also try to stay away from techno-babble and higher math, which means I may gloss over some parts. My apologies in advance to anyone that has more experience than me, or a degree in Graphic Arts (which I don’t).

Everyone, please keep your hands, arms, and feet inside the car at all times, please.

When we look at reality, we see a continuous color spectrum. A leaf on a tree has many subtle shades and variations, but if you look at the leaf under a magnifying glass (stop burning that caterpillar), you can not really pick out where one shade transitions to the next. A camera that uses real film (silver based) can capture this continuous spectrum better than a digital camera since the silver particles are really, really tiny.

A digital camera, scanner, or any other digital image capture method needs to break the continuous tone image into tiny dots called Picture Elements (Pixels) so that it can store the information in a binary format. This allows any computer or TV screen, ink jet or laser printer, or other digital display device to recreate the image from the binary data.

A higher number of pixels in the original image results in more data being stored and a better reproduction, but a much larger file size, especially at a color depth of 32 bits per pixel.

A little math (not my strong suit so just use these numbers for illustrative purposes):If your digital camera has 4 megapixels, that means there are approximately 4 million pixels worth of data in the image file on the memory card for that image. If the basic physical size of your image at 100% is approximately 33” x 25” the resolution of your 4 megapixel image will probably be close to 2400 pixels by 1800 pixels (2400 x 1800 = 4,320,000).

When this file is reduced to 800 x 600 (or smaller), so it can be uploaded it to the forum, the poster's image manipulation software (Paintshop Pro, Photoshop, etc.) uses logic to throw away approximately 3.8 million pixels (800 x 600 = 480,000; 4,320,000 – 480,000 = 3,840,000) and the largest image at 100% is now approximately 11” x 8.5”.

The problem comes in when you try to enlarge a digital image. Since our 800 x 600 example sign only has 480,000 pixels to begin with, if we need the image larger than 11” x 8.5” (as in Dave’s backdrops for the Nantucket project), our image manipulation software needs to add pixels to fill out the image (3.8 million of them if we need to get back to our example's original size of 33” x 25”). Where does it get them? Most programs clone the existing pixels and add new ones next to the existing ones. Better software looks at every two pixels and averages them, it then adds a new one between the two that is also between the two in tonal value.

Only a few very sophisticated (Latin for expensive) professional image manipulation programs can truly analyze an image and adjust the values of pixels it adds to the image so that it looks close to the original. This is what they want you to think they have on TV shows like CSI or NCIS, but in reality, probably only NASA, the CIA, and NSA have that level of image enhancement.

Note: Doubling the size of a picture actually quadruples the area the original pixel occupied. Which effectively doubles the height and width of a grab iron, eyelash, or other delicate feature.

Z-Scale Module at Anaheim
Worthy of Photos, Video

Whenever I see the word amazing in an email subject head I am at the ready to boot spam, but in scale modeling that would be a mistake, somewhere, sometime someone is always coming up with something that is truly amazing.

Take for instance, Loren Snyder’s Z Scale display at the NMRA National Convention & National Train Show (NTS) in Anaheim, California, July 13-19.

His module depicted an operating section of highway with Z Scale automobiles, trucks and buses moving in both directions coming out of or entering a tunnel, rounding curves in their separate lanes.

The smallest vehicles were just over ¾ of an inch in length and according to Loren can be set up two inches apart.

The video shows them moving pretty slowly but evenly around corners and along the straight aways.

His module depicted an operating section of highway with Z Scale automobiles, trucks and buses moving in both directions coming out of or entering a tunnel, rounding curves in their separate lanes.

The smallest vehicles were just over ¾ of an inch in length and according to Loren can be set up two inches apart.

Get the Lowdown On How This Project Was Done

Loren explained the operation: “The drive is a chain with magnets super glued onto the side of the chain. It is powered more...

Quick Tip: Detail Your Car Models

Plastic Car models, regardless of scale can be measurably improved for viewers by adding the details they remember about cars.

look at hot rod magazines, on articles about show detailing, now do the opposite to your model, show cars hide wiring etc. Try show as much as you can, spark plug wires, battery leads, fuel lines, handbrake cables etc. Some models look good with a few extras, things like a scaled pizza box in the back seat, a stuffed animal, fluffy dice, even a flat tire etc.

Until Next Month...

Make It Your Best Effort!

Back to Back Issues Page