Generally, the fastest way to get images from the Canon EOS 7D is a case of popping the CF card out of the camera and into a reader attached to my Mac, then getting Aperture to copy the files into its library. If most of my photography has been out in the field it’s the only sensible method of downloading, especially if there are several cards involved.
Sometimes I find myself working in a studio environment, where seeing the results without recourse to pixel-peeping on the camera’s LCD would be beneficial. If I’m doing some model or macro work, where focus can be quite critical, or if I’ve got a bunch of products I need to shoot where the lighting and framing is all but identical, tethered or remote shooting — where the camera is connected to and controlled by software on a computer — is the way to go.
Canon ships a bunch of software* with their DSLRs, including a utility that lets you set up and control the camera from the computer screen. Combine this with the camera’s Live View feature, where the viewfinder mirror is locked up so you see exactly what the sensor is seeing, and you can perform critical focus and framing while seeing everything as large as your computer’s screen will allow.
Canon’s software hasn’t really been designed with a third party application in mind. I’ve used Digital Photo Professional (Canon’s RAW image management and editing suite) in the past, but let’s just say I was only too happy to move to something better when I could.
The ‘Studio’ setup. Black card forms the backdrop, with battery LED lamps to fill in, helped by a reflector on the right which is bouncing the desk lamp light into the scene.
I’ve been an Aperture user for some years now. Apple’s flagship image management and editing software has always supported camera tethering of some sort, but my previous DSLR was not supported. My current camera, the EOS 7D, is supported by Aperture 3. Keen to cut out the comprehensive but rather clumsy Canon control software, I tried it out.
With the camera on and connected, choose Tether > Start Session… to begin using Aperture’s tethering controls.
You are asked to choose some basic settings before you begin…
…and here’s your control panel. A button to capture the image, and a button to stop the session. Any camera settings must be performed on the camera itself. Aperture tethering is simply a way of downloading the images directly from the camera.
It was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. True, the 7D can be linked to Aperture. But that’s about it. You have some control over the EXIF or IPTC data embedded with the image, there’s a button that lets you fire the camera’s shutter and it does download the resulting image directly into your Aperture project, but for everything else you have to work on the camera itself. There’s not even a way to preview the shot, or activate the autofocus, or change the other parameters on the camera, as far as I can tell. Compare this with the complete remote control of the camera—save zooming in and out or moving the tripod—which is available if you use the EOS Utility.
The task, then, is to work with the Canon software to set up and control the camera, but make sure the images are downloaded into Aperture, neatly sidestepping the rather clunky Digital Photo Professional. Ideally, this should happen automatically, so I can concentrate on the work at hand, but still be able to review images if I need to.
Step forward a handy little free script, built using Apple’s Automator scripting package. Called Aperture Hot Folder, it’s a tiny application that monitors the folder where the EOS Utility is downloading images from your camera, and tells Aperture to import them. Easy.
Aperture Hot Folder is free, which is even better. (It’s for Mac OS X only. I’m sure there are similar things available for Windows and Linux, and Adobe Lightroom, too.)
So, here’s my workflow. Firstly, I set up the camera and connect it to the Mac with the USB cable. Once Aperture is running, and I’ve set up a project for the shots I’m taking, I launch Aperture Hot Folder and step through the instruction screens.
The first screen explains what the script does, and what to do next.
Select a folder on the hard drive to watch and click Choose.
Aperture Hot Folder then asks you to choose an Aperture project to which it should import the images that arrive in the watched folder selected in the previous step. If your Aperture library is large, with lots of projects, this list will be very long!
Next, you’re asked whether the imported images should be referenced (Aperture-speak for leaving them where they are in the hard drive) or imported into Aperture’s managed library. I choose the latter because I like to work with a managed library and not worry about where originals are.
Finally, a confirmation screen and instructions on how to stop the script running when you’re done.
With the camera connected, switched on and mode dial set to manual, the next application in the sequence is EOS Utility so we can control the camera.
EOS Utility itself initially shows a main screen where you can choose various functions. It’s a launch pad that gets you into a variety of software for downloading images from the camera, setting the downloads folder and all that kind of thing.
I’m not going into detail with this control panel. As you can see, it’s pretty comprehensive, with plenty of data showing how the camera is set up, battery condition and other information. The round button near the top right is the shutter release button. Before I start, I click the tiny folder icon below the shutter to select the destination folder being watched by Aperture Hot Folder.
From the control panel I can literally control every parameter of the camera, short of physically moving it on the tripod to frame my subjects. With the camera set to manual (M), I can set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, colour balance, file format, etc, by clicking on the relevant element and using the left and right cursor keys to change them incrementally. Remote control also works for aperture and shutter priority, but for full control manual is preferred.
From the menu buttons below the data panel I can pop up the camera’s built-in flash (where I can also control flash exposure levels) and, with the Live View shoot… button, crucially kicking the 7D into Live View shooting mode.
Once in Live View mode, rather than peering at the image on the camera’s LCD, I see it in a larger window on my computer screen. I see exactly what the sensor is seeing. In this new window, I can turn on grid overlays, move the focus block about and set the colour balance to my liking. I can even turn on selective focus and exposure points. Almost every part of the camera’s operation can be controlled from my computer. If the lens is set to autofocus, pressing the shutter release button focuses the lens before the shot is taken—though this is a little hit and miss. If the focus misfires, the resulting shot will still be taken, which is why I prefer to work with manual focus for tethered shooting.
For critical focus, I click the zoom magnifier below the main image or double-click the white rectangle in the image. This area can be dragged around the screen, and once clicked opens an enlargement window zoomed into the defined area.
I can drag the image about for a better view, and zoom to 200% to allow really fine manual focus if desired. Closing this window returns me to the main window, although most of the settings are available in both windows. If I have chosen a small aperture, I can also turn on depth of field preview to see how it will appear in the final shot. There is also a mode where the Remote Live View Window will simulate the exposure settings to give me a better feel for the final image.
Depth of Field preview off. The lens aperture is wide open, allowing critical focus.
Depth of Field preview on. This shows me how the image will appear with the aperture set to ƒ/16. The software brightens the image artificially, unlike when you squint through the viewfinder when pressing the DoF preview button on the camera itself!
When I’m happy, I can click the faux shutter button on the control panel, or the real thing on the camera or remote release, and my image is captured and downloaded to the watched folder. I can, of course, check it for focus and colour balance without leaving the Canon software suite if I wish. I’m going to do my reviewing in Aperture, so I will have to wait for a few seconds.
EOS Utility downloads the captured image from the camera to the watched folder.
The original downloaded images remain in the watched folder, so they’ve been copied into Aperture’s library rather than moved.
The captured image appears in Aperture where I can review and work on it.
Once the image has been downloaded to the watched folder, Aperture Hot Folder notices the new arrival and pokes Aperture in the ribs. The new image is imported as a copy to Aperture—leaving the original capture in the hot folder for later disposal, just as when downloading from a CF card—and after a short pause I can study the image in greater detail in my preferred image management software.
While Aperture Hot Folder and Aperture are sorting themselves out, I can carry on and capture further images. Each will be dutifully imported into Aperture while I work. If not seamless, at least it lets me avoid the step of importing the images to Aperture later. Theoretically, I could be capturing the shots on my laptop, controlling the camera settings, while the images are downloaded and then perhaps copied across a network to an assistant working in Aperture who can then process the shots. The potential for a busy studio workflow is there.
I should also add that the EOS Utility and Remote Live View Window let you record video as well as stills. Ideal for the director who simply must see everything as it’s being filmed. I plan to use this feature soon for a short video I have in mind.
*The full list of software Canon provides is Digital Photo Professional (management and RAW editing), EOS Utility (download and camera control), Picture Style Editor (allows the user to edit and create new picture styles which can be uploaded to the camera), PhotoStitch (for creating panoramic images for multiple shots) and PhotoStitch Viewer (to view the resulting panoramas), and CameraWindow (I have no idea what this is for: when you launch it, it launches EOS Utility for you…).
Snapshots and Focus from the web of photography
NameTBC is a site for photographers of all levels who are interested in the technology behind the tools they use and the way the internet and social networking has changed the world of photography beyond recognition. We will bring you interesting links (snapshots), detailed articles (focus) and anything else that interests us and, hopefully, you.
I don’t think I mentioned this new photography site before. I remember adding it to my blogroll, but not a specific mention. So, here it is. It’s mentioned. Go visit. It’s a cool site. Sign up for the Twitter feed, friend it on Facebook, get the RSS feed.
I think that’s enough of a plug. =o)
Diffraction is an optical effect which can limit the total resolution of your photography– no matter how many megapixels your camera may have. Ordinarily light travels in straight lines through uniform air, however it begins to disperse or “diffract” when squeezed through a small hole (such as your camera’s aperture). This effect is normally negligible, but increases for very small apertures. Since photographers pursuing better sharpness use smaller apertures to achieve a greater depth of field, at some aperture the softening effects of diffraction offset any gain in sharpness due to better depth of field. When this occurs your camera optics are said to have become diffraction limited. Knowing this limit can help you to avoid any subsequent softening, and the unnecessarily long exposure time or high ISO speed required for such a small aperture.
Although quite technical, this page does help to explain the phenomenon of “circles of confusion”. The lens diffraction problem is something that does affect scale model photographers, because we tend to use the smallest apertures we can reasonably get away with.
The effect in my photos is to give a soft focus effect to objects in the distance. I don’t actually mind it, because it does – to my mind – at a level of haze that is seen in real life.
A way to overcome the problem in small scale work would to use focus stacking, where several images are taken focused at different points, and then combined using software later.
When I first began using Aperture to upload images to places like Flickr, I wasn’t aware that I could readily add a watermark to my images. It was something I didn’t even consider at first, but various external circumstances prompted me to change my mind.Anyway, like I said, it’s not immediately obvious how you actually go about adding a watermark through Aperture. This may have changed in Aperture 3, but I am still working with Aperture 2. Everything that follows is for version 2, but should still hold good for version 3, I suppose. The nice thing is the watermark is added as part of the export process, so isn’t added to the original images in your library, and you can decide whether to add the watermark or not at export time. First up, create your watermark. Any decent pixel-editing application will let you do this, provided you can save the resulting image out with a transparent background (alpha channel). I used Photoshop to create my watermark, simply a copyright symbol and my name in white letters, reasonably large (96px high, if I recall), with a subtle drop shadow to hold it against lighter backgrounds. The image was saved as a .psd. Next, step into Aperture. From the Aperture menu, choose Presets and Image Export.
Choose the output style you want to add a watermark to, and click the plus button to make a copy of it.
I rename it to add “WM”, so it’s clear it has the watermark embedding feature enabled.
Now, click the check box next to Show Watermark to enable the panel. Click the Choose Image… button to locate your watermark image. The other settings are personal preference.
Once you’re happy, click the OK button to dismiss the dialog. You can now experiment by exporting a file to gauge the size of the watermark in the final image. You might need to return to the Presets > Image Export dialog a couple of times until you’re happy.
Now, when exporting as files or as uploads to web sites, you can choose the “WM” version to add the embedded watermark. Aperture 3 has built-in Flickr uploading, but I still use the Flickr Uploader plugin.
Just for completeness, I always upload to Flickr using the “JPEG – Fit within 1024 x 1024 WM” option, and if I can be bothered to send something to Facebook, I have the 640px setting.This post was prompted by a new Aperture user who commented on Twitter they liked my watermark. I hope folk find it useful, even though I am aware there are plenty of other people out there who’ve explained how this almost hidden feature works.
This is the second part of a two-part article, first printed in the ScaleSeven Group Newsletter. The images are from the printed version, and are greyscale for production purposes. Link to part one.
In this second part, I’ll look at more complex digital cameras. Just to reiterate, there are no arcane secrets here, no requirement to understand complex calculations of exposure and shutter speed. The object is to show how to take effective and attractive photographs of your modelling.
What do I mean by complex? Well, effectively, any camera which lets you take control of the functions that affect the photograph: exposure, ISO, aperture and focus. By default, this applies to any DSLR or similar camera, but it also applies to more expensive compact digital cameras.
For this article, I am working with a Canon PowerShot G9 and one of its DSLR siblings, the EOS 400D with the kit lens. Somewhat necessarily, especially if you didn’t read the last article, there is a level of repetition in what follows.
Canon PowerShot G9.
Canon EOS 400D with kit lens.
What do you need?
It really pays to have a solid understanding of your camera’s features and operation, so thoroughly read and understand the manual. I can’t emphasise this enough. While many functions are common across manufacturers, some are subtly different, so I don’t want to get into details. One important thing is the minimum focus distance for your camera or lens—how close can you get before it stops focusing properly—followed by macro mode. Another important thing to learn is how to switch to manual modes, or at the very least understand the difference between the modes available.
You really need a tripod, or some method of holding the camera steady. This avoids camera shake, which becomes more likely depending on how long the shutter remains open. A remote shutter release is also useful, or learn how your camera’s timer works.
Things to remember
What we’re trying to do is make a photograph of a scale model look like a photograph of the real thing. Get the camera as low down as possible. No matter the scale, nothing spoils a model shot more than looking down on things. If you get down so the lens centreline is about solebar height, things take on a much more realistic aspect.
Try to keep things level. While it’s easy to adjust for a little crookedness in software later, it only takes a second to check things are as square as possible before you press the shutter.
Many cameras have a minimum focus distance. In macro mode, the PowerShot G9 will almost literally focus on the front element of the lens! The 400D’s kit lens minimum focal distance is around 100mm. Anything inside that distance will be out of focus, no matter what. Try to frame the shot by moving the camera rather than using the zoom. Keep at wide angle whenever possible.
The DSLR set up on the tripod. Notice the use of a sheet of black card as a backdrop.
Set image quality to the highest level you can. With memory cards being relatively inexpensive these days, there’s no real reason to use anything but the highest setting. Besides, it would be a shame to spend a lot of time taking images at a low resolution setting, which would be next to useless for publication.
Set the ISO level to the smallest your camera supports. On the G9, it goes to 80, the 400D manages 100. High ISO allows you to take images in lower light, it’s true, but high ISO also means more noise in the image. Film grain is nice; digital noise is not. As we’re looking at fairly lengthy exposures anyway, a high ISO will make digital noise more of an issue, so keep the ISO as low as possible.
Finally, and probably most importantly, remember to use the smallest aperture in order to maximise the depth of field. The corollary to small apertures is longer exposures (and increased noise), so a tripod and remote shutter release is mandatory. You need to ensure you don’t inadvertently move the camera while making the exposure, and that’s very critical with the long exposures we’re expecting. In some low lighting circumstances, don’t be surprised to find exposure times heading towards the ten second mark or higher. One or two of the examples in this article were about 15 seconds. If you don’t have a remote shutter release of some kind, then learn about the built-in timer release and use it.
The camera has decided it needs 30 seconds at ƒ/22 to expose the image.
I’m a great fan of available light, and no lover of using flash—especially on-camera flash. Turn off the flash on your camera.
If you’re working around a layout, or in an exhibition hall, the overall lighting level can be quite low which often means lengthy exposures. As explained in part one, avoid flash if at all possible. Work with what you have, use reflectors, desk lamps, move closer to windows, etc. If you get serious about it, you can acquire lighting rigs, soft boxes, studio flash units and so on, but that’s a bit beyond what I’m trying to explain here! I remember once seeing Barry Norman working on photographing a layout, and he used a single naked 60-watt light bulb as his extra light source.
While browsing around our local DIY emporium we came across some tiny battery-powered LED desk lamps.
Cheap LED lamp without homemade diffuser
Cheap LED lamp with homemade diffuser.
At less than £3 each, we bought a couple to play around with. They’re a little too blue in colour, but nothing that can’t be overcome with white balance. I’ve modified them with tracing paper diffusers, which helps a bit. They are very handy for throwing light into nooks and crannies. One of the depth of field sets in this article was taken using these lights.
Reflectors are indispensable. I have a home-made one, aluminium cooking foil stuck to a piece of A4 board.
It’s ideal getting a bit of light under a model to illuminate below the footplate, even in low light situations. Don’t forget, with long exposures, you don’t really need a lot of light to make a difference.
With a single light source, the end of the van is thrown into shadow.
Using the reflector, light is bounced into the shadow.
Camera set-up, part one
Let’s look at the compact camera first. The size advantage means it’s possible to get into places on and around layouts all but impossible to achieve with a DSLR. The downside is it may not always be possible to see what you’re about to photograph. With digital, though, there is no cost to trying a shot, reviewing it, and then trying again. Some cameras also have adjustable screens that flip out, but I digress…
Setting the camera up for model photography involves a good understanding of its workings. I’ve already said you should read and digest the manual, and you at least should be familiar with switching to the various modes, changing aperture and shutter speed, and focusing. It doesn’t hurt to be completely comfortable with total manual control either, but that depends on the camera.
I assumed aperture priority on the G9 would equate to the same setting on the 400D. I was wrong. The camera wouldn’t allow for exposures beyond a second, so the smaller the aperture the darker the exposure. To get correctly exposed images, I chose Manual, the desired aperture (ƒ/8 maximum), then adjusted the shutter speed until the correct exposure was indicated. While I was at it, I selected one of the timed shutter release options so pressing the shutter button gave a two-second delay before the image was taken.
The G9 controls set for ISO 100 and manual control.
I mentioned manual focus earlier, but automatic focusing gives acceptable results. It’s really a matter of knowing where you want the focal point to be, and making sure the camera uses it. There’s a method called “focus and recompose”, where you aim the camera at the subject you want in focus, half press the shutter button so it focuses and locks, and recompose the shot before finally taking the photo. This is a bit awkward, especially when you may not even be able to see the camera’s screen to check the composition. Then again, using manual focus, you can “fix” the focal point where you want it, and leave the camera to work out the rest. Most high-end compacts also let you move the focus point, assuming you can see the screen. The fact you can review the image after taking a shot is a bonus here: you could take several images to get it right.
You may have noticed that your compact digital camera has an uncanny ability to get almost everything pin sharp no matter what the subject. Compact cameras have tiny image sensors, no larger than your little fingernail, placed generally close to the optical system. This appears to mean that ƒ/5.6 on a compact is equivalent to a 35mm ƒ/22 or so. Bad for arty blurred backgrounds, but great for model photography! In short, most compacts have superb depth of field acquisition.
Camera set-up, part two
The techniques used for analogue photography generally still stand for digital. Rather than get technical and cover all the various lenses and whatnot, I’ve assumed we’re using the standard camera kit lens, in this case a Canon EF-S 18mm–55mm zoom. This lens, while built down to a price, is perfectly adequate for model photography, with a nice wide angle at one end, and a reasonable amount of zoom to allow for framing.
My 400D is now obsolete. Newer relatives have a feature called “live view”. This lets you see what the viewfinder sees on the rear LCD, like a compact camera.
When I first set out using my DSLR, I tried to do it the analogue way: setting up the shot, taking a light meter reading for the shadow areas, reading off the exposure time against the chosen ƒ-stop, and opening the shutter for the indicated time. Every shot ended up overexposed by a huge margin. After some experiments, I realised I could let the camera do most of the work. Now, I tell the camera to work out the length of exposure from the aperture I’ve chosen (aperture priority) and its own meter reading. It seems to work very well, and is easier than the compact, that’s for sure!
The generally smaller size of compacts means mounting on a tripod is probably even more essential. The smaller form factor only adds to the possibility of camera shake. I defy anyone to be able to hold a camera still while its shutter is open for more than 1/25th of a second!
In the example, I’ve set up a macro shot using a beanbag for support. The camera’s macro mode is selected (tulip icon), as is the timer release. Being in manual mode (apart from focus) I had to use the control dial to adjust both aperture and shutter speed.
Depending on make and model, shutter speed is normally the default adjustment, so a toggle button must be pressed to allow changing aperture to ƒ/8. Partially pressing the shutter button lets the camera focus and take a quick exposure reading, when the button can be released again.
Once the exposure is taken, using the graduated scale visible on the right, I used the control dial to adjust the shutter speed down, which moved the marker point to the centre of the scale. Higher up the scale is over exposed, lower down is under exposed. In the centre, the image should be correctly exposed. In this case, the required shutter speed for ƒ/8 was five seconds.
Now, pressing the shutter button halfway again confirms the focus is locked, and pressing it all the way down activates the timer to fire the shutter. Once the shot is taken, it’s displayed on the screen for review.
The four images show the effect on depth of field and exposure time of increasing aperture from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/8. The focal point was at the far end of the van and was not changed.
For very close-up shots, engage macro. However, even at the smallest aperture, depth of field in macro is very shallow. Notice how the buffer and rail furthest from the camera are out of focus. This is an extreme example, but it is fairly typical of the very close-up image you may want to illustrate model construction or a particular detail.
A scary amount of detail can be seen with a good macro setting. In this case, the camera was about 30mm from the model.
Something else to consider when using macro mode is an optical effect called “barrelling”. This shot was taken using macro mode, and you can see the roof line and rails are bulged outwards. To avoid it, consider moving the camera further away, and zooming in for the detail, or look at an alternative set-up to avoid the problem.
The way macro optics work can result in optical effects like barrelling, rather like a fisheye effect.
With the DSLR the overall process is similar, though as noted the Aperture priority mode works properly! There are a couple of things you may want to consider. One is switching focussing to manual so you control the main focal point. Another is to find out where the depth of field preview button is on your camera. On the 400D, it’s near the lens mount. When you stop down the aperture, it doesn’t show in the viewfinder. To get an idea of how much of the image will be in focus, holding the DoF preview button activates the aperture diaphragm in the lens and you see it in the viewfinder. In a dark environment with a small ƒ-stop, the viewfinder will go almost totally black, but if there’s plenty of light you should be able to make out the extent of the depth of field in your image. Of course, you could just take a shot and then pixel-peep with the LCD.
As a rule of thumb, don’t focus at one extreme or the other. Aim for the focal point to be about a third of the way along a model. Please note, for the example shots I’ve purposely focused in the wrong place (the nearest end) so you can see the effect of increasing DoF as the aperture stops down.
These enlarged images show the effect of stopping down the aperture on the DSLR. The focus was set at the near end of the van.
I did say we weren’t going to discuss arcane secrets, but occasionally they rear their heads, and need some explanation.
Wikipedia says of hyperfocal distance: “In optics and photography, hyperfocal distance is a distance beyond which all objects can be brought into an “acceptable” focus.”
Put more simply, by adopting the “third of the distance” rule of thumb mentioned earlier, and not having objects closer than the minimum focus distance of your lens, we don’t need to do any complex maths or use tape measures to get an image that is more or less in sharp focus everywhere.
This series of articles has been an attempt to show how you can take good images of your models and layouts with fairly ordinary equipment. So far, I’ve concentrated on getting it all done in the camera, which is something I prefer to do.
If you don’t mind spending time working with your images on a computer, then there’s another technique you can try which will give you almost infinite depth of field. It’s called focus stacking, also known as focus bracketing.
The idea is to take several images, focussed at different points across your subject, which are then combined into one image later. There are many techniques you can use, and even software to help you do it. There’s plenty of information available on the Wikipedia link.
Submitting your images
Finally, some brief guidelines on how to get the images you’ve slaved over to print.
JPEG is the universal standard file format. Most digital cameras save JPEGs as standard. If, like me, you prefer to work in RAW format, export to best quality JPEG when you’re finished.
Don’t edit, or over edit, images before submitting them. Leave any major editing to the editorial team. Don’t be tempted to resize your images. Nothing is gained by saving to an apparently smaller file size, apart from data loss. If you think your images are too large to email, contact the Editor and see if there are alternative ways to get submit them, like CD.
Don’t crop too much. Apart from anything else, an uncropped image gives the editor or designer something to play with in their page layout! You can always indicate you’d like an image cropped for publication. Most cameras have a sufficiently high megapixel count an image can subsequently be cropped without losing much resolution.
Please do not enlarge an image if it’s too small. Digital images are made of pixels, many thousands of tiny little squares of colour. By enlarging an image, all you do is make bigger squares and you lose detail. Use the highest quality image setting, as mentioned earlier.
I hope I’ve shown the techniques are not difficult to grasp, and like most things just take a little patience to master. I’m happy to answer questions, too, so please drop me an email if there’s anything you feel I haven’t covered.
Useful web links
Chris Nevard is a professional model photographer, whose work has been seen in various railway modelling magazines.
A technical web site, which explanations of depth of field, and information about how to calculate it.
Useful information and links on the post production technique for increasing depth of field.
Lots of technical information about hyperfocal distance.
This is a two-part article, first printed in the ScaleSeven Group Newsletter. The images are from the printed version, and are greyscale for production purposes. Link to part two.
This is a reworking of a short article I wrote nine years ago about taking photos of models. Technology has moved on since then, so what follows is completely new and concentrates on digital cameras.
There are no arcane secrets here. There is no requirement to understand complex calculations of exposure and shutter speed. The object is to show you can take effective and attractive photographs of your modelling with even a relatively simple camera.
As someone who enjoys photography as a hobby anyway, I currently use a low-end Canon digital SLR with various lenses, and recently acquired a high-end Canon compact camera to complement it. I don’t expect everyone to be so keen, or want to splash out on high-end equipment. That said, many people do now own DSLRs and reasonable quality compacts, but a lot still have smaller, cheaper cameras. I borrowed a compact camera to see what something that cost less than £70 could do. I was quite impressed.
The test camera: a fairly typical mid-range compact digital camera.
This article concentrates on using the “cheap” digital compact. The next article will look at more complex cameras.
What do you need?
Have a good understanding of your camera’s features and operation. In other words, read the manual. This is important. While many functions are common across manufacturers, some are subtly different. One of the important things to learn is the minimum focus distance for your camera—how close can you get before it stops focusing properly—followed by macro mode, and disabling the flash. We’ll get to those in a bit.
Apart from the camera, you really need a tripod, or at least some method of holding the camera steady. This is to avoid camera shake, which becomes more likely depending on how long the shutter remains open.
Ideally you need some control over placing the model. Think about the background: will it complement the model, or will it clash and be distracting? Can you place something behind to act as backdrop? If you’re photographing completed models, a length of suitable track—ballasted or not, it doesn’t matter—upon which to stand them makes a big difference. Of course, there will be times, such as trying to photograph a layout during an exhibition, where you have absolutely no control over the background.
Things to remember
Again, there are no arcane secrets here. All we’re trying to do is take an image that gives the impression the subject is much larger than it really is. We’re trying to make a photograph of a model look like a photograph of the real thing.
The general setup. This shows the optimum height for realism.
Get as low down as possible. Nothing spoils a model shot more than being too high, looking down on things. It can scream “train set”, no matter the scale. Imagine the camera’s lens centreline is where your eye height would be if you were standing next to the real vehicle or locomotive. I usually find if you get down to just above solebar height, things take on a much more realistic aspect. Equally, if you were standing on a station platform, your eye height would different again.
Try to keep things level. While it’s easy to adjust for a little crookedness in software later, it only takes a second to check that things are as square as possible before you press the shutter.
Here’s how the model looked in the camera’s screen. The small brackets in the centre of the screen show where the camera has focused.
Try to get as close as you can. Many cameras have a minimum focus distance. My test camera will not focus below 15cm, even using the macro setting. You can step back and use the camera’s zoom to frame the shot, but remember if your model is at an angle to you the more you zoom the more it will compress length. Try whenever possible to keep pulled right out as wide as possible. If nothing else, it will help to emphasise height in your subject.
This camera has two macro modes. The most obvious is to press the Macro button, which switches the camera’s optics to close-up mode. I found this the least satisfactory.
In some cases, it may be necessary to use macro mode. Macro essentially means enlargement. Choosing macro adjusts the optics to allow focus to be closer than normal, magnifying the subject. My test camera had two macro modes. The first was accessed by the multiway rocker switch; the second was to use a programmed “scene” mode. I found the latter to be the more reliable.
The second mode was found through the “scene” menu, and proved more reliable. Choosing “Close up” from the menu set everything, including automatic flash, so the next step was to turn the flash back off again!
It helps to have some kind of light available, and the more you have the better. I’m a great fan of available light, and no lover of using flash. Of course, using available light can often mean lengthy exposures. If your camera doesn’t let you control such things as aperture and shutter speed—and many low end compact cameras do not—you need to throw more light in to force the iris to close further.
If you’re working around a layout, or in an exhibition hall, the overall lighting level will usually be quite low. This will encourage the camera to open its aperture to let in more light, or even to switch on the flash. This is not a Good Thing. Flash is really the last thing you want. Images will be bright and clear, perhaps over-exposed, but if you’re too close to the subject the flash will definitely throw some very harsh and unrealistic shadows and blow out details.
Flash on: the effect of using flash in close-up shots. The nearer parts are over-exposed, the background is in shadow. It all looks wrong.
Flash off: the lighting is more even with the flash turned off, but the length of exposure is longer. It does look more realistic, though. The answer in such circumstances is to mount the camera on a tripod, or stand it on something. It’s useful if you can use a remote shutter release to avoid jogging the camera as you press the shutter. If that’s not possible, as is probably the case with most compacts, then use the camera’s self-timer to fire the shutter while you stand back.
Use the camera’s self-timer, usually between five and ten seconds, to fire the shutter to avoid camera shake. If flash is unavoidable, try attenuating it by sticking translucent material over it. It will help soften the light, too. Another option is some kind of artfully folded paper which forces the flash upwards to bounce onto the subject. This, too can soften the harshness.
Low light is a problem in another aspect of the craft, however. With an iris wide open to let as much available light onto the sensor, there is a very shallow depth of field—often accentuated in macro mode. To counter this you need to get more light—something not possible if you’re working in an exhibition hall, sadly, but quite readily available if you’re photographing your own models. It’s called daylight.
Taking a model out into the garden, conservatory or well-lit room on a sunny day means plenty of light is available. Lots of light will make the camera close its aperture to make sensible exposures, and of course a smaller aperture means better depth of field.There’s that phrase again: depth of field. There are links at the end of this article for a fuller explanation. Don’t be scared.
A macro shot taken in direct sunlight. Notice the hard shadows, and also the nearest part of the model is just out of focus. I was using the camera hand-held, and crept inside the minimum focal distance for the camera’s macro of 15cm.
This is the result of moving to a shaded area. Notice how the nearest corner of the van is sharply focused, while the furthest point is just out of focus. This is a limitation of this camera’s optics, but shows it is capable of good sharp close-ups if the subject is framed properly.
You need to consider shadows when using daylight for model photography. If you use direct sunlight, shadows will be harsh and dark which can look unrealistic. To avoid this, move into shade. Light will still be bright but it will be diffused, and the shadows will be softer.In my test shots, the camera’s depth of field, even in bright sunlight, was quite poor. The answer here is to work within the limitations of the camera, and frame your subject differently so out of focus parts are less noticeable.
Changing the framing of the subject avoids the problem with lack of depth of field.
Depth of Field
“Image clarity or sharpness is not just a matter of focusing a lens on the subject. There is an area in front of and behind the sharp focus plane that is also sharp or clear, and the extent of this area changes, depending on the focal length of the lens, the focusing distance, and the aperture used. This three-dimensional area of sharp focus is called depth of field.” Lonely Planet Landscape Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures, Peter Eastway, 2005.
Don’t be put off by the apparent complexity, it’s not hard to grasp. Depth of field is important to model photographers for one reason: it helps make our pictures look more realistic by increasing the amount of the image that’s in focus from the closest possible point to the lens to the far distance. As mentioned earlier, we achieve good depth of field by closing the aperture and letting less light through the lens to the recording medium. The trade-off is exposure time increases in order to make any image at all! In essence, the smaller the aperture the greater the depth of field, but the longer the exposure. With more light, the exposure time decreases for the same aperture setting. (Actually, that’s not quite true, since other factors come into play at very small apertures. However, that’s beyond the scope of this article.)
Useful web links
http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html A technical web site, which explanations of depth of field, and information about how to calculate it.
A good tripod is one of those essentials that every photographer has to have in their arsenal. Even those posh lenses (or cameras) with image stabilisation occasionally require additional support. The requirement for good depth of field, especially when photographing scale models, usually means that with long exposure times at large ƒ-stops, a good sturdy tripod is all but essential.
I have two tripods. They’re both different, and have different strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of good quality tripods out there by other well-known manufacturers, so please read the following as my own personal experience with the products I mention. The usual disclaimers ought to go here about there being many other reputable tripod manufacturers whose products are readily available through the usual channels, etc, etc.
The largest tripod I own is a Uni-Loc 1700. (I’ve removed the link since the Uni-Loc stocks seem to have disappeared since originally posting.)
…the smallest of the System range of heavy duty tripods designed to cater for both professional and amateur user. The 3 leg sections mean it has a smaller closed size and is lighter in weight. Constructed from rigid aluminium alloy tubing and high impact nylon moulding, the tripods incorporate fully sealed lower leg sections with tough spiked feet, making them equally at home in the studio environment as well as outdoors even when immersed in mud and water. The single curved bolt and locking lever allows independent movement of each tripod leg and centre column, allowing the tripod to be locked into almost any position. The result is an extremely rigid tripod, versatile enough to be used on the most uneven terrain.
It’s a beast, to be sure. Coupled with the ball-joint camera mount, there’s virtually no position in which you cannot hold a camera. In fact, it’s really easy to locate the camera in positions where you are simply unable to look through the viewfinder, let alone operate without remote release or tethered to a computer! Despite being made from aluminium, this tripod is heavy, which is great for studio work where a rock steady platform is essential. The single locking/unlocking system is excellent, save it really does unlock the whole system, legs and central column at once — think wrestling bagpipes, then consider wrestling bagpipes when you have some expensive camera gear attached at one end, and you’ll have a pretty good idea! The system is awkward to set up in confined spaces, although being able to swing a leg up to a wall for stability is not to be sneezed at. If only I was still that flexible!
So, on the positive side, the Uni-Loc or Benbo systems are sturdy, versatile and rugged. On the negative side, they’re quite pricy, hard to set up without practice, and hefty to lug about. I used the Uni-Loc on some landscape work last year, and that alone set my mind on purchasing something a whole lot more portable for when I’m lugging the camera bag and a tripod more than a few metres from my car!
After some research into a lighter tripod system (essentially posting a budget limit and asking for recommendations on a forum), I came down on the Giottos MT 9242 tripod. That particular link will take you to a page with the current (June 2010) version of the MT 9242. While you’re rummaging, check out the MH 5001 three-way head, and MH 1302 ball head, because I’ve added one each of those after a while. (In this case, I’ve not linked directly to the Giottos web site, because it’s framed, which means I can’t link directly to the product page. How 20th century!)
MT professional classic tripod series made from classic aluminum by a precision manufacturing process, elaborately assembled by hand to assure the maximum stability and for maximum security. They are feature black and silver fleck hammered paint finish. The center column can be reversed to position the camera upside down. With Non-slip foam rubber sleeves, Non-slip shoulder strap, carrying bag and bubble level and compass. All the MT series have quick releases for individual leg spread at different angles.
I know this will sound like a completely Appleista thing to say, but from the moment I opened the box, I was struck by the thought that the design and manufacture of this tripod would not have been out of place if it had come from my preferred fruit-flavoured computer manufacturer. Please don’t bite my head off for saying that. If you haven’t experienced unpacking any Apple hardware, you won’t have a clue what I mean, and I’ll sound like a complete loon! Suffice it to say there’s a lot of thought gone into the Giottos range, from the packaging to the product, and I am still amazed at the value for money and the build quality. I bought it over a year ago, paid less than £90 (three-way head extra), and got a shoulder strap, weatherproof carry bag and a little toolkit as well as the tripod. I can’t recommend Giottos kit highly enough for anyone wanting a light, sturdy and well-made tripod that doesn’t cost the earth.
On the positive, then, the MT 9242 is a tripod I’m happy to sling over my shoulder in its carry bag or not, and trek across fields or set up in an exhibition hall. I carry it around in the back of my car, something I never did with the Uni-Loc. If there is a negative to the Giottos, it is that it’s not possible to get the camera over a layout — something very easy with the bagpipesUni-Loc. Oh, and you can’t tilt the camera up and down when the head is set in portrait mode. (I did find I could fit the Uni-Loc ball head to the Giottos base unit, though.)
That’s it for this post. Next time, I’ll consider the efficacy of UV filters for DSLR lenses. Thanks for reading.