How to photograph your models, part 2

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.

Homemade reflector.

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!

Taking photos

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.

Using a beanbag to support the camera.

Manually adjusting the 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.

Hyperfocal distance

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.

Focus Stacking

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.

Link to part one of this article.

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.

3 thoughts on “How to photograph your models, part 2

  1. That would be interesting to see – I would imagine the rules are mostly the same but you would need to avoid over exposure and camera shadows, as well as too extreme wide angle distortions.

  2. N is huge. I’ve done Z. I’ll dig out the negs and scan them. =o)

  3. These two articles are very interesting – thanks for sharing. I know a lot of this already, but it’s good to have a reference to come back to.N Gauge is far hrder to photograph that the scale you work at.

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