How to photograph your models, part 1

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.)

Link to part two of this article.

Useful web links A technical web site, which explanations of depth of field, and information about how to calculate it.