Tag Archives: scale model photography

LNER K-2 Class 2-6-0 No 1742

There are regular open meetings of the ScaleSeven Group around the country. This past weekend saw the Thames Valley Group host a meeting in the delightfully-named Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire.

I’ve posted this image to illustrate two of the problems you can face photographing models in a public environment. The first is the lack of control over the backgrounds, despite this model being posed on a test track with a nice tall white backdrop. The second is the variable lighting conditions.

The hall is a light and airy venue, with tall windows high in the walls. The day was sunny and clear, yet we also had the hall’s fluorescent lighting on. As you can see, on a slightly shiny model, the reflections from the surroundings can be a little distracting.

I tried to counter the light spilling from the bright window above and behind me to the right by using a board as a block, and moving my own body around to act as a baffle. Under some circumstances, I’ve even used several bystanders to act as a shield!

Still, it’s all good fun.

Minnie versus larger stuff

Okay, so the Minolta with added close-up filters was adequate in “studio” situations. What was it like in other environments, such as photographing whole layouts while at exhibitions?

(All the images used in this blog are of models built to a constant scale of 7mm to 1 foot, or 1/43rd scale.)

Well, to be honest, it was okay. Not brilliant, but okay. I was asked by some fellow members of the ScaleSeven Group to photograph their new layout Ellerton Road at its first outing at Telford (the Gauge O Guild convention) in 2006. I had access to the layout before the show opened to public, so I could take my time, while the guys set things up around me.

The problems I encountered were these:

  • Taking images from a low angle means you see a lot of ceiling. Convention and exhibition hall ceilings are not that nice to look at, unless you’re a heating and ventilation engineer.
  • The hall lighting was orange. You don’t notice this when you’re looking about, but electronic devices (and film cameras) end up with a distinct colour cast if you don’t consider white balance. 
  • The lighting caused lens flares.
  • Lack of depth of field.

Let’s take these problems in order, and look at how I solved them.

  • I had to live with the ceiling. I will not take photos of models from a helicopter looking down, because it instantly ruins any illusion of realism. I figured I could remove the worst excesses of air conditioning ducts and lights in post production, so I concentrated on getting nicely framed shots as best I could.
  • I let the camera handle the lighting. The Minolta Dimage, being a sort of hybrid digital stills camera with video camera technology, usually managed reasonably well with auto white balance. I decided to let it do its own thing, and adjust in software later.
  • Lens flares were all but impossible to avoid. Looking generally upwards, there were lighting systems in frame most of the time. Anything that obviously caused a flare could be shielded by holding my hand to block it.
  • Depth of Field.Not one of the Minnie’s strongest points. To counter this, I did a series of long-ish shots to take in the general view of the layout, then concentrated on small detailed sections.

Here are the results:

That sky looks wrong, doesn’t it? There’s also a bit of flaring going on up there. But, on the whole, it works well. Nothing half an hour in Photoshop with an alpha channel or two couldn’t cure. In fact, the DoF here looks really good. I put this down to the Cokin close-up filter.

The next shot suffers badly from the stand beyond with their own lighting. It sort of gives the impression of the foreground action taking place under floodlights – hardly appropriate for 1910! Again, the DoF is adequate, if a little soft in the foreground, but a bit of creative cropping to lose those lights would work wonders.

The third shot works quite well, with the locomotive framed nicely between wagon on the left, and the sheeted load on the right. Even the walkway at the back, actually part of the main exhibition hall, doesn’t look too out of place. Sadly, the DoF lets the foreground down. Pity.

The close-up filters let me take some shots inside the goods shed, which was perched at the front of the layout. This image shows the lighting problem well. It’s very bleached and orange in tone, which meant that any colours on the layout simply did not reproduce well. In context with the period in which the layout is set, it doesn’t look so bad, but orange mercury vapour lights (or whatever they were) were not ideal for this job. What I didn’t see until back at base and downloading the images to the Mac was the dust on the filter. Live and learn!

At another exhibition, this time in London, I took a series of shots of Clydesdale Iron Foundry. This is an industrial layout, set unsurprisingly in the network of lines of a foundry, and is one of the S7 Group’s Scottish area group layouts. Of note is the tramway style electric loco. 

I didn’t have my tripod with me, as I hadn’t been expecting to take any photos. However, while the exhibition was quiet, I managed to get some very good shots handheld. I did this by boosting the ISO to 400 so the shutter speed could be faster with a smaller aperture. Luckily, the barrier I was leaning on was sturdy, and my hands weren’t shaking too much! 

Again, I was using available light, but this time I didn’t have the close-up filters on. I guess I was just lucky.

Well, the Minnie was okay for working with the larger stuff. Still, it wasn’t perfect, and certainly limited what I wanted to do with the small scale model photography. It seemed the only way forward was to move to a proper camera. It was back to the saving for the proper DSLR.

Next time I’ll take a look at why Depth of Field is so important to what I do.

Images – at last!

I promised some sample model images, so here we are. I’m presenting these in some sort of chronological order. We start with images taken with the Minolta Dimage 7, so you can see some of the issues I encountered with what was then a high-end digital camera.

The first image is of a 1/76th scale model lorry. 1/76th means literally that one inch on the model is equal to 76 on the real thing. It’s also known as “four mill”, because 4mm equal 1 foot.

(For the truck spotters, this is a British Road Services Bristol HA6L motive unit, coupled to a BTC 4-in-line semi-trailer of the late 1950s. I built this from a Langley Miniature Models whitemetal cast kit.)

The biggest issue in this image is depth of field. We’ll get to DoF in more detail another time, but you can see that the cab is fairly sharply in focus, while the nearer end of the trailer is slightly out of focus. The goal for anyone photographing scale models trying to make them look convincingly like the real thing is to maximise the amount of the model that’s sharply in focus. The problem I faced with the Minnie was that it had a smallest aperture of ƒ/9. This came as a bit of a blow to me, as my work with film SLRs had been around ƒ/22 or higher! The result was as you see above. Not a bad photo, but not technically that good.

Here’s a tip for the budding model photographer — go wide. Don’t think that a zoom lens will make things easier, because all it does is close down the field of view, and compress the effect of distance. In worst cases, telephoto will give you an even smaller DoF. In almost every case I will show you, I’ve had the camera set at the widest angle and the smallest aperture (largest ƒ-stop) possible. In the case of the Minnie, I think had an equivalent to a 35mm lens, which is not an ideal model photo lens but, as it was fixed to the camera, I had to put up with it!

The next image is also of a Langley kit, this time an Austin FX3 taxi. To overcome the shallow DoF, I’ve changed the angle at which the model sits in relation to the camera. I was reasonably successful, though if you look carefully the rear bumper is just going slightly soft.

Both these models have been in what I laughingly call my “Studio” – a large sheet of white paper, stuck to the wall and draped across the desk to give the infinity curve effect. The lighting here was two standard desk lamps, one each side. I think I also used a reflector, fashioned from a sheet of A4 cardboard and cooking foil, to bounce some light into the shadow areas. The “Studio” is fine for these small scale models, but becomes a bit of an issue when I try to photograph anything larger – especially since a wide angle lens, and low camera position, will often end up showing the top edges, and the detritus on my desk! You’ll see what I mean later.

Incidentally, I needn’t mention I’m using a tripod at all times, do I? Thought not. 

By adding Cokin Close-up filters, I could actually force the Minolta to focus a little closer to the subject. I used the Cokin Close-up 1, 2 and 3, sometimes in multiples. 

Here, for example, is a heavily modified Airfix/Dapol Scammell Scarab. Again, I’ve opted to have the model broadside to the camera in order to maximise the DoF available to me. The close-up “filter” allowed me to bring the subject much closer to the camera than the standard minimum focus would allow. The effect is a cruel enlargement of a model that is only about 25mm in length.

Okay, so photographing small scale models was acceptable with the Minolta. How did it cope with the larger stuff? That’ll be the subject of my next post. Thanks for reading.