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Miniature Photography 101: by Scott Hussey

Part 1: Choosing A Camera

digital camera with tripod and macro lensSo you want to take pictures of your miniatures. You are wondering what kind of equipment you should use to accomplish this. How is it done, what is the secret? Maybe you have seen the photography on this site and wondered if it were possible to make such stunning photographs yourself. Well, I can offer some insights into what I have learned. While I'm not a professional by any means, I do have a great deal of theoretical and practical knowledge.

I am not going to recommend a specific model of camera. In the next section I will describe some of the features I would consider when selecting a camera. There really is no perfect camera; you usually have to trade off some bad features against good ones and select the camera that is best suited to your needs.

If you do a search on the web for "digital camera", or "digital photography", you will find a number of sites that review cameras. Once you know what features you are looking for, you can shorten your list by eliminating the ones that do not have the features you want.

Why Digital?

I'm going to focus on digital photography, not only because I am more familiar with digital but also because I think it is best suited for taking pictures of your miniatures.

I bought my first digital camera a little over a year ago. Since then photography has become almost a sickness for me. I spend a lot of time reading about photography and the technology associated with photography. I can often be found walking around with my camera taking pictures of things I find interesting. Maybe some day, if I work at it, I will even be a good photographer.

It may be almost a sickness, but I think there are worse things I could be spending my time on. Digital photography is great. The cameras available today are arguably as good as film, and allow the average person a great deal of creative control over the process of making photographs. You can take pictures and print them in your own home. You can enhance the pictures yourself without relying on the whims of the lab that is making your prints. You can delete the inevitable duds that you make and save the expense you used to have to pay to get them developed. You can upload your photos and mail them, or post them on the web to share with others right after you take the photos.

Most importantly for photographing miniatures, digital cameras are very good at taking macro photographs. A macro photograph is a photograph that is taken of a small object that is close to the lens so that it fills the frame of the picture. A 28 mm figure will look huge, and show off all of the details that you worked so hard on.

These sites also have sample pictures that you can look at. Most of the cameras on the market are very good, but they all process the images differently. The amount of sharpening (how 'crisp' the picture looks), noise reduction (little dots that are off from the colour they should be, usually most noticeable in areas of sky), and colour saturation (how bright and vivid the colours are) differ for different manufacturers. Look at the pictures, maybe even print some off to see how they look on your printer. It is really a matter of personal preference as far as the in-camera processing is concerned.

Head to the store and play with the cameras you are considering. You want to find out if it feels good in your hand, if it is easy to change the settings when you want to, if the menus are easy to navigate, if you accidentally bump buttons that change things, if it feel solid, like it is well made, etc. This is probably the most important step. If you find the camera difficult to use you probably will not be happy with it.

Remember that having a more expensive camera does not mean you will take better pictures. Knowing how to use the camera is more important than how much you paid for it. Keep in mind too that you might have to spend more money before your camera really becomes useful. You will probably want a bigger memory card (or two), a couple of sets of batteries, a charger, and a memory card reader. This can add up to another hundred dollars or so. Some cameras come with this stuff already, so consider how much the stuff bundled with the camera will save you from buying.

Features To Look For

resolution on label

Resolution

Resolution is usually specified in megapixels. This will dictate the size of prints you can make with the camera without interpolating data to make the picture larger.

In general a resolution of 200 dpi (dots per inch) will give you pretty good prints. Note that this is strictly a rule of thumb; the resolution for printing depends on the process being used to print and the printer being used. A two megapixel camera usually captures images that are 1600x1200 pixels. This means that you can print an 8"x6" image without interpolating.

Interpolating is typically done outside the camera on your computer. Some cameras do processing internally, and claim a higher resolution, but it is basically the same thing (it's important to know the effective resolution of the sensor). In either case the computer takes the data and makes up more to fill in the blanks in the larger picture. As you might expect this has its limits. A general rule is going 50% larger will usually work. Any larger than that and the picture will start to get noisy.

Typically, pictures on a computer are sized at 800x600 pixels or smaller. This is because an 800x600 picture will fill the typical computer screen. More pixels aren't really needed, but they will take longer to load, and take up more memory.

The most important thing to consider is what you are going to use the camera for. A 2 megapixel camera is more than adequate if you are going to post pictures on the web, and make prints that are 4"x6" with the occasional 8"x10". More pixels would cost more money and may not be needed. Consider the cost and what you think you are going to use the camera for.

Some Info on Compression

When your camera records a picture, you can usually pick how large the size of the file is. This may change the effective number of pixels, and it may change the amount of compression the picture undergoes when you write the file.

A file with the extension .jpg is known as a jpeg file. This is a 'lossy' format, which means some data is lost to make the file smaller. This can be most noticeable as 'jaggies' or 'stair stepping' on the edges of objects. Typically you can choose between different levels of compression. Higher compression means smaller files, and more data lost.

There are also TIFF and RAW formats. Both of these are lossless and will capture the maximum amount of data. They are also big files. RAW is not actually a picture, but the raw data from the image sensor. There is usually software supplied with the camera that is used to convert the RAW data to a TIFF or jpeg.

Macro Mode

The macro mode on your camera will be very important. As I said earlier, this is what lets you fill the frame with a small object. It allows your camera to focus on an object that is very close to the lens. Almost all digital cameras on the market now have a macro mode.

The tulip icon is generally used to represent macro mode. This is because this feature is used by a lot of people to take pictures of flowers (when they could be photographing miniatures). A lot of cameras have a wheel that is used to select the mode you are using, some have a button somewhere, and some access it through a menu. Look for the tulip!

It takes some practice to use the macro mode effectively. Some cameras let you get closer than others, and it generally takes some practice moving the object and playing with the zoom to find out how close you can get. The minimum focus distance is what is important here. A shorter distance means you are closer to the lens, and you are filling more of the frame with your subject.

Viewfinder

There are basically four types of viewfinder. The LCD on the back of the camera is a viewfinder. Some cameras have an optical viewfinder that is near the lens. Some cameras allow you to look through the lens using mirrors or prisms. Some cameras have an Electronic View Finder (EVF) that is basically a small LCD that shows you what is in the lens.

All of the viewfinders have pros and cons. The important thing here is that most of your close up miniatures pictures will probably be taken using the LCD. An optical viewfinder has parallax error; because it is offset from the lens, the lens does not see exactly what the viewfinder does. This is worse as you get closer to your subject. I find most of my pictures are taken at table top height, and using the viewfinder would be pretty awkward anyway. The LCD does use your batteries though; your battery life is much shorter with the LCD on. If you are going a long time between shots it is usually a good idea to turn the LCD off.

White Balance

You will probably be taking most of your pictures indoors and your camera is probably made to take pictures outdoors. The big difference is the quality of the light. The light outdoors is very close to white. The light indoors from a tungsten bulb has a lot more yellow in it, which can lead to your pictures turning out yellow. With my camera this is especially an issue when I don't use the flash.

The way to fix this is to adjust the white balance setting on your camera. Most camera have preset white balance settings. The one you want to use indoors with the lights on probably looks like a light bulb. If you are shooting beside a window or under a skylight, there may be a cloudy setting that will work better. Some cameras allow you to hold a white card in front of the lens, and press a button to set the white balance.

auto white balancecloudy white balance
The pictures above were taken with different White Balance settings. The one on the left was taken on automatic white balance, and the one on the right was taken on the "cloudy" setting. They were shot under natural light falling from a window to the right of the frame. You can see the difference the wb setting makes when it is adjusted for the dim light coming through the window; the right picture has richer colour and more detail.

Some Info on Exposure

Exposure is basically controlling the amount of light that the sensor in the camera is exposed to. It takes a certain amount of light to make a picture. This is controlled by three things on your camera: the shutter speed, the aperture size, and the ISO setting.

The shutter in your camera is probably mechanical, but in a digital camera it can be electronic as well. The shutter is like a curtain that is moved in and out of the way of the sensor for a certain period of time, controlling the time the sensor is exposed to light. If you want to capture motion, then you need a fast shutter speed. Otherwise moving objects will appear blurry. This is also an issue if your are holding your camera in your hand. If you move at all, and the shutter speed is less than 1/60s, then the picture will probably turn out blurry. Another issue with long exposure time is noise. Some pictures taken at long exposures (usually 1 s or more) will turn out noisy, but a lot of cameras have routines to remove the noise built in.

The aperture is basically the hole that lets the light in. A large hole (small aperture number) will let in more light, and a small hole (big aperture number, a little confusing and counter-intuitive at first) will let in less light. The advantage of a small aperture is that is give a wide Depth of Field (DOF). This means that more of the picture will be in focus. A large aperture will have a shallow depth of field, which can be used to isolate your subject from the background.

The ISO setting is the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Most cameras have ISO setting of 100, 200, and 400. The higher the number the more sensitive to light the sensor is. The camera does this by amplifying the signal from the sensor, which typically creates noise. Pictures taken at high ISO numbers will generally be noisier than pictures taken at low ISO numbers.

Most cameras have a light meter that is used to set the exposure setting on your camera. On automatic exposure the camera will usually select the largest aperture it can. This allows a faster shutter speed to be used, and reduces the potential for camera shake.

Depending on which camera you buy, you will have more or less control over the exposure settings. Your miniatures probably won't be moving when you take pictures of them, so shutter speed probably won't be a factor. Aperture may help a bit with DOF, but in macro mode you won't have much DOF anyway. The most important thing to have control of is ISO. I usually lock my ISO at 100 to keep the noise down.

Most cameras have exposure compensation, usually shown as EV, or a plus/minus symbol. This allows you to make the picture brighter or darker. Your camera chooses the exposure setting that renders the image to an average that is 18% grey. Most of the time this works fine, but sometimes it doesn't work well and you have to tweak it a bit. In general underexposing a bit is better that overexposing. You can correct an underexposure in your computer, but an overexposure is a lost cause.

Lens

For photographing miniatures the zoom range of your lens won't be too important. Of course, you might want to use your camera to take pictures of other things that are not miniatures. For general use a 3x optical zoom is pretty good. It brings stuff a little closer, and can help compose your photograph. A bigger zoom is nice if you want to take pictures of stuff that is far away, like birds or airplanes.

One thing to look for is how much light the lens will let in. This is generally listed as an f number, or equivalent aperture. A typical lens on a digital camera will be about f 2.8. A smaller number, like f1.8, will let in more light. A larger number, like f4.0, will let in less light. This is somewhat important, because the more light the lens lets in, the faster shutter speed you can use.

Another thing to watch out for is distortion. Typically at a low zoom, also called short focal length or wide angle, a lens will show barrel distortion. It is called barrel distortion because it looks like the center of the picture is pushed out towards you. At a high zoom a lens will usually show pincushion distortion. It is called this because it looks as if the center of the picture has been pushed away from you. Both of these can make some things look curved that are supposed to be straight, and make things look like they are falling over when they aren't.

example of barrel distortion

The assault marines above are not falling over, but they look that way because of the barrel distortion of my lens. I could have corrected this, but I felt it made them look more 'dynamic'.

The third thing affected by the quality of the lens is Chromatic Aberrations (CA). These will show up in places of high contrast, like a tree branch against a bright sky for example. It appears as a purple fringe around the dark object.

go to Part 2: Camera Accessories


Written by Scott Hussey, last updated February 3, 2003
HTML conversion by Steve Patterson
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