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Photographing Your Models

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One of the biggest challenges for amateur photographers is how to light a scene. Whether taking high-quality pictures of models or dioramas, the cameras today are perfectly capable of giving the results I wanted when I was taking pictures for a living years ago with film and removable lenses.

Even today's smart phones usually have cameras that are as good or even better than the SLR (single lens reflex) models of the 80s when I was going around the globe for magazines and newspapers. That's because the resolution is so sharp, today's cell phone cameras capture as much information or more than yesterday's film.

Today's cameras also operate a lower light levels than in the past, so you often can take very good photos indoors without a flash. Back in the day, we needed huge banks of strobe lights (flashes) or else large, hot "klieg" lights like those used on movie sets even now. Film had to be filtered for color balance, while today's digital cameras compensate for the color temperature of the light source (warm for indoor lights, cool for fluorescent, in the middle for natural sunlight).

But even today's amazing digital cameras work better in bright light than in dim, and no software has yet been invented that can get rid of shadows and hot spots (called "flare"). That's where an inexpensive light box setup can mean all the difference in your photos.

The photos here were all taken with an iPhone 5 camera, and the set-up is relatively inexpensive (around $60 total). The lights are from Cowboy Studio (sold on Amazon.com) and the light box includes four backgrounds (black, blue, red and white). As you can see, it makes taking shadow-less photos almost as easy as point & shoot.

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About the Author

About Bill Cross (bill_c)

Self-proclaimed rivet counter who gleefully builds tanks, planes and has three subs in the stash.


That light set-up is "nice and simple". Should work well, even more so with a unicolor background. Ironically using a smartphone makes some stuff easier. The "miniature" sensor (compared to the 36x24 or 25x16mm sensors used in a DSLR) is that you get a better depth of field since that depends (among other things) on the sensor size. Flash is best not used in "direct mode". Bounce it through a photographic umbrella. If the flash is a filler you might also need to adjust the color temperature to match the main light (Flashes are often "daylight" in color temperature) If you use those photo lamps and another light source (Say cyling light) make sure they have the same color temperature. While modern cameras can do some nice stuff with "Automatic White Balance" multiple color temperatures can still result in "interesting" effects. More pronounced if you use more complex backgrounds (say a picture) but I still prefer "known color temperature" light sources of the same type for indoor shots. Still won't exchange my EOS 60D and my 18-35 "evil zoom" (Responsible for a number of spontanous, adrenaline induced self-detonations among prime users) for a mobile phone
MAR 02, 2016 - 05:27 AM
Thanks, MBR. No mobile phone's camera can compete with a good-quality digital SLR, but for the vast majority of users on this site, it should be enough. But I'm glad to get more perspective from people who know about things like "white balance," a term I haven't heard or used in some time.
MAR 02, 2016 - 05:59 AM
Damn you Bill Cross, I just spent $80 on a very nice light tent setup! Great little feature Bill, very informative. Nicely laid out and very understandable. I'm sure I'll be getting great photos with my new setup and your tips. Thanks buddy!
MAR 02, 2016 - 06:33 AM
That's a good price, Tom! It all depends on how much time anybody wants to put into it. Folks can rummage around Amazon where I got mine (also an ENORMOUS light cube that is waaaay too big for most things). You'll be so pleased with your results, I guarantee it.
MAR 02, 2016 - 09:29 AM
Modern upper class phones and digital compact/bridges have indeed come a long way and the specialist features of a SLR(fast focus,optical seeker) offer no benefits for model fotography. Even my old Canon A710 was "good enough" for model photography, even more for the "internet formats" of 1920*1080 or 1280*800. Maybe a tripod for longer times. Does not have to be a high end one since it will be used indoor only with a light camera (I used a 25 Culmann even with 1,5kg cam/lens indoors). There are even some for smartphones that work nicely. For post processing a look at Photoshop Elements can be taken. In my eyes easier to use than GIMP and cheaper than the full version. Good enough for jobs like adding a background and other minor tweaks. It can also do stuff like focus stacking that may be useful for larger models.
MAR 02, 2016 - 12:07 PM
nice write. Another thing to add about todays camera's is that you can buy a HS 1000 FPS camera for apx $150 for slo mo video. Compare that too high speed camera's that go for $20 G's. of yester year.
MAR 06, 2016 - 12:48 AM
Yes, the cameras generally aren't a problem today, but bright, contrast-free lighting will improve your photos more than a much better camera.
MAR 06, 2016 - 04:42 AM
0Just to add something. Cell phone cameras sometimes don't do well with artificial lights due to their inferior lens coatings and poor baffling inside the lens. You can see the glare in some of the authors shots. As a cheap alternative, soft natural light from a nearby window can be excellent. Use plain white foam core as a reflector to bounce the light onto the shadow side as "fill". You can cut several pieces to make multiple reflectors. I have pro setups for strobes and continuous lights, but sometimes that window light wins due its simplicity.
MAR 10, 2016 - 06:11 PM
Thanks Bill for the article.
MAR 12, 2016 - 07:57 AM
Thanks, Michael. Chris, natural light is great-- if you happen to have large windows. Given that many of us have to do our kit building at night, artificial lights are often the only answer. As to cell phones, they do an acceptable job if you clean the lens properly (I have a waterproof case on mine which lowers the sharpness if not cleaned right before each session).
MAR 23, 2016 - 10:47 AM
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