Light. It’s how cameras work. Light bounces off the subject, and some of it passes through the lens and hits the light-sensitive film or electronic device to record an image. Without light, it’s all but impossible to capture an image.

I’m a big fan of available light. Almost all of my model photography has been done using available light, relying on lengthy exposures to capture the image. Obviously, there are potential pitfalls with this, especially if you’re working in a busy exhibition environment—anything that moves in an exposure over half a second will become a blur.

For various reasons, I dislike flash photography for model work. If you use an on-board flash, such as that fitted to most compacts and relatively low-end DSLRs, the light is too harsh. On a DSLR, in close-up mode, you may well end up with a shadow thrown by your lens! If you have half-decent external flash, it’s cumbersome, and still ends up with a harsh light which throws dark shadows in a most unrealistic way. And let’s not get into the harsh spots of light on bright surfaces…

So, for most shots, I will try to use the available light. This may come from a layout’s own lighting rig, or from hall lighting, or even from adjacent windows. In an exhibition environment, there is the danger of passers by causing momentary shadows, but on a long exposure these become blurred and can be discounted. The problem can be that the lighting is not controllable, may contain daylight as well as artificial leading to colour balance issues, and you need to think on your feet to compensate for areas of shadow, or for situations where lighting is behind your subject.

Here’s a shot taken at a major model railway exhibition. I was using the available light from the hall, but this view really shows the perils of not being able to control the background of a model!

I find it’s beneficial to carry some sort of reflective material. You can buy some very nice professional reflectors, which I intend to acquire at some stage, but I like to improvise. I’ve used just a sheet of white paper before now! In the end, to ensure I had something a little more manageable, I created my own simple reflector. It’s a piece of hardboard, A4 in size (210mm by 297mm), which I’ve covered in aluminium cooking foil. I scrunched up the foil to give a randomised reflective surface. I can now often be seen peering through the viewfinder of my camera, while apparently randomly waving the shiny material about—what I’m looking for is the best amount of reflected light illuminating a shadowy area. When I’m happy, I will fire the shutter.

I am considering making a reflector which I can poke a lens through, although that will mean I lose an amount flexibility in positioning the bounced lighting.

So, what about “proper” lighting? I’m happy to improvise lighting where I can, but nothing can really beat a dedicated lighting system. True professionals may well have vast lighting rigs that use a flash system, but I’ve acquired a set-up that works for video as well as stills.

A while ago, a close friend of mine, an ex-professional photographer, was trying to sell a set of equipment she no longer required since she had retired. Amongst the collection was a pair of kilowatt tungsten halogen photographic lamps, with stands, all in a nice luggable holdall. I jumped at the chance, and got them at a knock-down price.

Suited better to a studio environment—they pump the heat out nicely—I have set these up in an exhibition environment for a “mini studio” where I could pose models for portrait work. They’re a little awkward to use in such environments, but with plenty of time to set up, and no people trying to squeeze by, they are an ideal solution to lighting a model shoot.

Photographed in the “portable studio” using the lighting rig. This image has been colour balanced in post-production, and I’ve left the sides in to show the roll of semi-reflective material I was using as a base. For future work, I’ll try to source a non-reflective material for the “infinity base”.

They do have problems. Being tungsten, they cause a distinct orangey-yellow cast in photos. This can be alleviated by setting a custom white balance in the camera, or adjusting in post-production. The key advantage is the lighting is controllable, and allows me to shoot using small apertures in short exposures. The stands can also be awkward in confined spaces, too. Using these lights is not ideal in exhibition halls.

At this stage, I don’t have a soft box systemfor the lights. I’m a bit wary of fitting anything like that over the heads due to the heat output and potential fire risk. I get around the problem by bouncing the light from nearby walls and ceilings, but it’s not completely ideal. I really don’t want to throw harsh shadows by pointing the lights directly at the subjects, so this is an ongoing problem in search of an ideal solution.

If I want to photograph small items, I use a portable soft box which can be lit by desk lamps. Ideal lamps for this are daylight balanced fluorescents, which can sometimes be found in DIY stores. Two of these lamps, either side of the box, provide lovely even lighting.

A typical “portrait” using the softbox, which is a cube about 40cm on a side. Here, I used two fluorescent desk lamps to light the model. The downside is the background is hard to remove cleanly, and the wide angle tends to show the edges of the background. It’s not easy, this small scale photography lark!

An additional item in my lighting armoury is a large white bedsheet. Where I can control the conditions I work in, I will, but there are times where I may be asked to photograph a layout in an environment where the background may be cluttered by ceilings, other layouts and stands and so on. The sheet, a king-size white linen sheet, can be held aloft by two willing volunteers to provide a manageable background to the photographs. It is certainly easier than having to painstakingly retouch extraneous background clutter later on.