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Macro photography of scale models



If the constant discussion about it was not enough to hammer this point home, using higher magnifications you will notice that your depth of field reduces significantly. This means that only a small portion of your model will be in focus. If you work with microscopes this problem will be even greater; take a look at this micrograpoh I took of some human cells back in the days when I was working in as a researcher: at 63X magnification even a wafer-thin edge of a coverslip is not in complete focus.

You can go around the problem by simply taking a photo from further away in the largest possible resolution and then crop the photo (this is how digital “zoom” works, by the way). This is a perfectly valid solution. You may even use a telephoto lens to zoom onto you model. Telephoto lenses compress the perspective which will be visible on the photo, but the entire model may fit into their depth of field, which is a definite plus.

You can also decrease the aperture (and use a tripod to steady the camera) to increase the depth of field as much as possible, or, if you absolutely must have the largest possible depth of field, you can do some image stacking. It’s possible to do manually in Photoshop, but there are programs freely available.

Figures 3-4 show the difference that aperture settings have on the depth of field (figure 3: wide aperture, narrow depth of field, figure 4: small aperture, large depth of field)

White balance
Most light sources will modify the color of the object they illuminate, unless you are using special studio lights. (Please see this article for a very good explanation.) Incandescent, neon, LED, etc lights all have their own temperatures, that is to say, colors - just think of the sodium lights on the streets; they stain everything yellow. This -to a lesser extent- is true for most other light sources, too.

Normally your brain corrects for this effect, and you will see colors similarly under different sources of illumination regardless of the light source’s color temperature. However these differences will show up on your photos, so you must account for them. The best is to get a “natural light” bulb for your light-sources. (If you paint miniatures in the evening it’s a good idea to use it in your desk light as well… it can be really disappointing to see your previous night’s work in the daylight.) The other thing you can do to account for the different sources of illumination is to set your camera’s white balance.

Most digital cameras you can set the white balance to automatic, which works well in most cases. If there is some funkiness going on with the colors (for example you have a couple of different types of light sources that confuses the camera), you can use a white sheet to set the camera to your own lighting conditions. Your camera will adjust the photos it takes based on the white color you “show” it. (It’s quite important to set it properly in order to reproduce the colors faithfully.) If you shoot in RAW (that is you save your photos in RAW format), you can adjust the white balance later in an appropriate software (Photoshop, for example); however it takes time and effort, so it’s always better just to take the photo right at the getgo.

Macro options
“Macro mode”
This is an option on virtually all cameras, not just DSLRs. What this mode means is simply a preset set of values of aperture/shutter speed/ISO that is deemed to be optimal of getting the best close-up shots using the optics of the camera; that’s it. It does not change anything in the objective itself. For larger models (I mean scale models, not camera models), it is a perfectly usable option. Any kit lens (18-55mm) can normally do closeups that are good enough for a 1/35 tank. But that is where the usefulness ends; for true macro shots it will not suffice. If you want to zoom into smaller details, like a 1/35 (or 1/72) scale face, you will find that you need something extra.

Front Lenses
These lenses screw onto the front of the lens, like a filter. The good news is that bridge cameras and certain compacts can mount them, too, giving you some extra flexibility that you would expect from a more expensive DSLR setup. (You can find telephoto and wide-angle attachments as well.) These lenses are normally quite cheap, and produce acceptable results. (I took these sunflower photos using a 10X front lens and the D3300 Nikon with the kit lens mounted.) They come in sets, and are stackable to increase magnification; I tend to use them if I can’t be bothered to change the lenses, or if I don’t want to bring a heavy macro objective around for a hike. (They do affect image quality negatively, but for scale model photos to be published online they are perfectly fine. Amusingly, though, they do turn your camera short-sighted: you will lose the ability to focus into infinity…)

Bellows and extension tubes
These sit between the objective and the body of the camera, lengthening the distance between the sensor and the optical elements. This allows a closer focus than the normal minimum focusing distance of the lens, making the subject larger -essentially turning the lens into a macro objective. The tubes are sold in sets allowing the length to be adjusted incrementally, while the bellows – obviously - does the same thing in a gradual fashion; the principle is the same.

There are problems with this solution, though. One problem, the most important one, is that less light reaches the sensor; and in photography light is everything. You always want to maximise the amount of light you have; this is such a big issue in microscopy, for example, that they use immersion oils between the optical elements and the subject to get every little photon possible onto the sensor.

When photographing scale models you are in complete control of the lightning so the question of light is less severe, but you still want to have as much of it as you can. (This is a more serious issue for other types of macro photography; especially if you are working outside trying to chase down small insects.) The bigger issue for us is that normally neither the extension tubes nor the bellows have any electrical components that can transfer signals from the camera body to the lens, rendering the lens into a full manual one. Again, if you are happy to fiddle with the settings in full manual it’s not such an issue, but it does get old real fast. It’s good to learn to use the camera in full manual, but you really want to simplify taking photos as much as you can. Especially if you decide to expand your vistas and go on photographing wildlife - while a tank model will wait for you to find the appropriate settings, a spider might get bored and go off somewhere else if you can’t get the shot in seconds.

Bellows and tubes costs more than front lenses; and they cost significantly more if they can transfer electronic signals to the lens. I found that these high-end versions actually cost as much as the cheaper, second-hand dedicated macro lenses, even though they do have the severe disadvantage of taking light away from the sensor. Since they seem to cost about the same as a superior solution, I never really bothered with them. There is no shame in buying a second-hand lens.

Inverted lenses
There is a budget option to turn any lens into a macro objective. This is an interesting solution, but not very practical in my opinion. (Again: let’s simplify things as best as we can.)

Dedicated macro objective
Well, this is the real deal. A lens that produces close-ups, and can also be used as a portrait objective. True macros have a reproduction ratio of 1:1- meaning that a 20 mm long object will be 20 mm long on the sensor. (Here’s a good tutorial on macros that is worth reading.) Several companies put the word “macro” on their objectives without them being “true” macros only giving you a 1:2 magnification. These are decent enough objectives but not true macros (but they may perfectly suit your needs nevertheless). True macro or not, objectives are – obviously - not cheap (my dream objective costs about 300 GBP and it’s not even expensive as lenses go), but they do produce the best results. (Here’s a good guide on choosing one.) I use a 90mm Tamron objective; it can be very useful in wildlife photography as well. The 90mm focal length allows you to be suitably far from your subject, so bees and other critters don’t feel like you’re invading their personal space. (Which is a mutually advantageous thing, believe me, especially when we’re talking about bees.) The quality is simply incredible.

Macro objectives are not the perfect solution for every need you may have, though. With larger models you will find that you can’t fit everything into the frame, and the depth of field will be an issue, too. Be prepared to use a combination of lenses: sometimes a kit objective with a small aperture (and a tripod will be enough). When you need to focus on the very small details (1/35, 1/72 faces, fine casting textures, etc.), you will need to break out the front lenses or the macro objective.

So here are some examples of the same 1/72 model using different methods available to me (tried to do overall shots and closeup shots as well).

Mobile phone camera (Huawei P10 light): see Figures 5-6

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm): see Figures 7-8

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 4X front lens: see Figures 9-10

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 10x front lens: see Figure 11

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 2x, 4x, 6x, 10x front lens stacked: see Figure 12

D3300 telephoto lens (55-200mm) – I had to stand about 2 meters from the tank… :see Figure 13

D3300 Tamron 90mm macro lens: see Figures 14-15

Overall it can be safely summarised that if you don’t want to zoom into the model, even a phone camera does reasonably well even in 1/72; however you do need a bit more serious equipment if you are interested in showing off small details. Even though the detail and quality is significantly better when using a dedicated macro objective, for the purpose of scale models it’s a definite overkill; the extra quality you get comes for a very steep price. With a larger scale these issues become less pronounced. If you are mostly interested in 1/35 you can take decent images using a good phone. Generally speaking if you only want to photograph your models, you are probably better off not buying expensive equipment. If you already have a bridge camera or a DSLR, you can cheaply adapt them to macro photos, though with a set of front lenses.

So now we have the camera chosen, and the lenses sorted out; what else is needed for taking photos of your models?

STUDIO SETTING
Getting a dedicated light box is not really expensive any more. You can get a collapsible light box with two/three light sources for less than £30. See Figure 16

Background
The background – normally - should be something neutral, which does not take away the attention of the viewer, and which allows for the most visibility of the object in the foreground. Used to use the colored cloths that came with my photo-box: black (not ideal, too dark), blue (OKish, but darker than should be), and red (not the best pick, it looks weird). These are admittedly less than ideal solutions, but on occasion they are the better alternative (lightly colored parts show up better against a dark background). The best option I found was to use colored papers from craft stores (but real velvet works well, too -something I will need to spend some money on). You can get them in many different colors: you would ideally need to buy a few that would allow you to choose the most optimal one depending on the model in question. White is an OK choice although the contrast can be too stark. Light grey is a better option; however it always depends on your subject. A white-washed tank might be better photographed against a darker background. (After all, the whole point of the white-wash was to blend the tank into the light background.) Make sure you don’t pick strong colors - again, I say this with the understanding that a lot of my photos were taken using precisely these colors. (As I said before I am an unashamed hypocrite.) If you gently bend the paper you can make the background and foreground blend seamlessly. If you photograph sprues, I found that the cloth background was better than the paper- it eliminated the dark shadows under the sprues.

About the Author

About Andras (spongya)
FROM: BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

I am a biologist by trade, and as a hobby I've been building scale models for the last twenty years. Recently I started to write reviews of the models I bought. These reviews are written from the point of view of an average model builder; hence the focus is on quality of the model, how easy it is to...