Tag Archives: equipment


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.

UV protection

From my earliest days with SLR cameras, I made it a point of principle to purchase a “skylight”, “daylight” or UV filter to screw to the front of any lenses I acquired. The reasoning was sound: if I accidentally clout the lens, the filter takes the strain and — hopefully — the expensive bit of optical glass remains undamaged.

As I moved to DSLR, I continued with that reasoning. Modern lens optics often have a special coating which replicates the job of a “skylight” filter, but the filter glass is optically clear anyway, and shouldn’t give any disbenefits. However, there has been increasing doubt in my mind about whether it’s worth all the extra expense at all.

Some pundits will argue that, for a relatively small amount of money, you’re buying peace of mind. It’s cheaper to replace a broken filter than to have a lens repaired, after all. Others argue that, even with quite expensive optically-corrected filters (and the filter on my Sigma 10-22mm wide anglecost nearly £50!), there may well be a one or two stop penalty in exposure. Another point is that professionals often prefer to use a lens hood as a form of protection against knocks. If you’re going to drop a camera from head height, something may well break whether you have protective filters or not, and a good robust lens hood will do the job just as easily as well as preventing some lens flare. Don’t forget, also, that when you’re not actively taking shots it’s sensible to put the lens cap on!

So, while most of my current lenses do have a UV filter, and I have tested the “one or two stop” argument—inconclusively, it has to be said—I think that in future I shall not go out of my way to purchase a “skylight” filter. I think it’s probably more prudent to spend out on some form of insurance against accidental damage! My shopping list includes some rather nice Canon lenses that come out around the four-figure mark, and I don’t think a thin bit of glass on the front will make me feel any happier if I break one of those!

This may be my last entry here for 2008. I’d like to wish my reader compliments of the season, and let’s see if I get a chance to go out and about with the camera over the next couple of weeks. See you in 2009!


Steady now

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.


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.