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Scale Model Photography

These pages present a series of videos about scale model photography.  Each of the important elements that contribute to recording the best possible image are discussed as they relate to photographing scale models.

The Image

There are several basic considerations with any photographic image.  The most obvious is the subject and how it’s composed.  Second is the technical quality of the image and third ... how we record and store the image.  Because photography is a process these elements intertwine and become part and parcel of final result.

In general, photographing scale models, falls under the purview of macro photography.  Because we’re usually photographing relatively small objects, we need to be able to focus-in closely to optimize the size of the subject within the field of the camera ... and, in order to maximize documentation, we also want to have as much of that field be in focus.

Consider that the greatest amount of effort in photographing a scale model is in the setup ...  background, lighting, and camera setup take a lot of time and I’m not particularly fond of doing it over and over again so I always record and store my images in a way that allows me maximum use.  But before you push the button, you need to decide how you’re going to record the image.

Digital cameras record an image as a file on some sort of medium ... generally a magnetic card.  Think of this file as the digital negative.  Like any photographic negative, we want to capture as much information as possible.  In the digital world, this is controlled in two ways ... first with the exposure settings of the camera ... Second, by how much information we choose to keep. Exposure is primarily controlled by the amount of light on the sensor and secondarily by adjusting the optimum recording range, or sensitivity, of the sensor.  The amount of light on the sensor is controlled by setting the aperture of the lens and the shutter speed.  The recording range is set by adjusting the sensitivity of the sensor through the ISO adjustment.  The higher the ISO number, the less light is needed on the sensor but the greater the amount of digital noise.  Digital noise is more readily apparent in the dark areas of an image.  Every camera handles high ISO’s differently but as a general rule, you pay more for better low light capability.  When photographing models, movement isn’t an issue, so I usually use an ISO of 100 or 200 to keep digital noise to a minimum.

How much information we keep is controlled by how we tell the camera to save the file.  Cameras use two basic file formats ... JPEG and RAW.  Within these formats there can be additional variations.  While the JPEG is the most common, I think looking first at the RAW format will give a better understanding of what happens in the camera when you save an image as a JPEG.

A RAW file is basically what the name implies.  It’s the RAW data from the sensor. There’s no compression of the file so you’re getting the maximum the camera can deliver.  Also included in the file is additional metadata that tells the processing software how to handle the RAW data.  Some of this you set in the camera when you tell the camera how to render the color ... and set white balance.  However, when shooting in RAW, these settings are only guidelines for the software; you still have access to all the data the camera has saved about the image.  This is very important when it comes to working with your image later.

The unfortunate aspect of RAW files is that they are specific to a manufacturer and camera model.  To open and process a RAW file, you either need the manufacturer’s specific RAW converter or third party software that is compatible with your camera.  So here’s the bugger, you either rely on the camera manufacturer to provide a well written bit of software or you need to make sure your third party application supports your camera.  This dependency on specific software is a factor when you think about long term storage of RAW files.  What happens five years from now when you’re new operating system no longer supports your camera’s RAW converter ... All those images become useless.  So if you shoot RAW like I do, you should settle on a scheme of storage that works for you.  One method is to convert all the RAW files to DNG.  DNG is Adobe Software’s answer to a universal RAW file.  The DNG converter is a free application available from Adobe.

The major advantage of a RAW workflow is that all the adjustments made to the image while in the raw converter are non destructive.  When you open a RAW file with typical processing software, you will be faced with a number of panels or tabs containing what appear to be a myriad of adjustment.  Many of which are similar to a standard image editor but with one very important difference ... all edits made here are non destructive.  Any adjustments made in the RAW file are stored either within the files metadata or as a separate sidecar file.  So they can always be undone at any future date.

At first glance, the amount of adjustments can seem daunting and every software package is different so you’ll need to do your homework by reading the documentation.  But for the most part, you’ll probably find yourself only making a few basic adjustments for exposure, color balance, shadow and highlight adjustments as well as sharpening.  Depending on the sophistication of the software, you may also see adjustments for such things as noise reduction, lens corrections, and grayscale conversion. 

In essence, when you process a RAW file, you are manually making the adjustments to the image that you or the camera manufacturer would have delegated to the camera when shooting a JPEG, but you have the advantage of maintaining all the original data for future use.

The most common default file format is typically the JPEG.  JPEG is an acronym for the Joint Photographic Experts Group who developed the format.  It uses a form of lossy compression to store the digital information.  That means it compresses and throws away some information.  With most cameras, you can adjust the amount of compression when you select a file size.  The smaller the file, the more compression.  In the day of limited recording media and processing power, small file size was a factor, however with high capacity cards and faster computers, that’s no longer necessary.

Every camera manufacturer uses its own scheme for creating a JPEG.  So, Canon, Nikon, Sony ... decide on what information to throwaway and what to keep depending on how they are processing the image for sharpening, color balance, etc.  Usually this is based off some “Style” setting that you can select.
So when you hear people arguing about which camera has the best images and they’re comparing JPEG’s ... they’re really arguing more about how that camera processes the image.  My image looks sharper than yours is more than likely the amount of noise reduction and sharpening that a particular manufacturer applies during processing.  This may not correspond at all to the quality of the actual image capture.

A JPEG file is a very universal file recognized by all applications and it will probably be around for a long time.  So files stored in this format will have a long life.
One very important factor to keep in mind when editing JPEG’s ... every time you resave the file, it gets recompressed and you shrink the file even more.  Saving is different than just opening the file and then closing it.  If you open the file and lighten it ... or crop it ... when you resave it in a JPEG format, you’re going to be throwing away more information and the image will continue to degrade.  So in one respect, it is a dead-end file format.

When editing an image you should always be working and saving in a lossless format like a .TIF file.  If you work in Photoshop like I do, you more than likely save off in a .PSD format.  The .PSD format is Adobe’s native lossless format that allows you to save additional information for certain Photoshop features.  However, keep in mind; if there’s ever NO ADOBE ... you may have a useless file.  On the other hand .TIF files are universal and will probably be around for as long as a JPEG.

So how good does the image have to be?  For some modelers, maybe only as good as the intended destination.  If all you need is a little thumbnail, then virtually everything I’ve talked about so far may not matter to you.  You could even do it with your phone.  If it’s just a snapshot for a forum board, you might be happy with a JPEG that you process in your camera.  If you want something more polished, doing a construction article, writing a blog or a magazine article, you’re going to want all you can get, after all, you can always throw information away, as long as you hang on to the original file.

However, you might want to consider the bigger picture ... if you’re going to be putting any image of your model out for public consumption, why not put your best foot forward.  The model that you spent so many hours on deserves a proper showcase.  So take your time with the setup and record the image in the best possible way available to you.

The Camera

It can be difficult to categorize cameras today as manufacturers continually mix form and features to broaden appeal to wider markets, but roughly speaking digital cameras fall into some basic types: Small compact cameras; cameras that can resemble a dslr but the lens isn’t interchangeable ... these cameras are sometime referred to as bridge cameras; Actual DSLR’s ... which are the digital equivalent of 35mm SLR; Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens cameras; and a variety of Medium Format cameras.

While you can use any of these to record an image, some of these have features that will allow you to achieve a better result.  At the top of my list is the ability to use interchangeable lenses, so for me, I can quickly eliminate the compact and bridge cameras from my list of possible best choices.  Likewise, medium format digital cameras are simply not practical for a number of reasons.  This reduces my field of choices to either a DSLR or a Mirrorless with interchangeable lenses.

So what’s the difference between a DSLR and a Mirrorless?  With a DSLR you traditionally frame and focus your image through an optical viewfinder.  Light comes through the lens, is reflected off a beam splitter mirror, bounces around a mirrored prism and then finds its way into the eyepiece.  If you use the autofocus function, the camera uses an autofocus sensor that gets the image from the light passing though the beam splitter.  In both these cases, when you actually take the picture, the mirror flips up and the shutter is tripped.  If the DSLR is capable of live view shooting, the mirror flips up and you use the actual image sensor and LCD screen on the back to frame and focus.

In a mirrorless camera, the light passes directly onto the image sensor which is used for direct framing and focusing.  If the camera is equipped with an eye-level viewfinder, the image in the finder is actually a small digital display. 

Precise focusing is key when photographing scale models.  Because depth of field is so shallow with our small subjects, there isn’t a much room for error.  Trying to rely on autofocus can be hit or miss, so in the end, my choice of camera is going to be a DSLR that can shoot in live view or a mirrorless camera.

The next must-have is a good image sensor.  Here’s where you face the fact that all pixels are not created equal.  Sensors come in a variety of sizes and architectures.  Most all the current high-end cameras use an image sensor that’s known as a full frame sensor.  A more common sensor size is the APS-C ... This type of sensor is also termed a crop sensor ... The reduction in size is expressed as a Crop Factor ... Typically this is 1.5 .. but Canon uses 1.6 ... So for instance .. a camera with a 1.5 crop sensor has a sensor with .666 the area of a full frame sensor...

The reduced area of the crop sensor means that the pixels are smaller and the images typically exhibit more high ISO noise than from a full frame sensor ... but I find this is pretty much a non-issue for my use because I rarely ever shoot above ISO of 200 .. and my finished images are relatively small ... One advantage to us as modelers ... is that smaller sensors offer a greater depth of field ... However .. there’s a limit to how small the sensor can be and still produce an acceptable image ... which is why images taken with phones and ultra compact cameras don’t hold up well when viewed on anything larger than an eight inch display ... The architecture and structure of sensor design has many permutations but sensor performance is a key element when choosing a digital camera.

The sensor isn’t the only new bit of the digital world.  The firmware that runs the camera is equally important for maximum performance and functionality and I’ll be talking about the specifics throughout this series, but I would encourage you to download the manual for any camera that you are considering so that you can survey the menu system and review the functions and customizations are available.

Since the cameras that I’ve suggested have interchangeable lenses, what lenses might be a good choice?  The first is what I think of as a general purpose all-round zoom that ranges from around the 20’s to the 105 - 135 mm range.  This lens is the workhorse when you’re imaging your entire model.

My second must-have lens is a macro lens with a focal length of 100 or 105 mm.  Macro lenses focus in much closer ... most often at a 1 to 1 magnification.  That means that the image on the sensor is the actual size of what you focus on.  I prefer to avoid short macro lenses like a 50mm because the working distance is so close that it limits many lighting options.  Macro lenses are your best choice for those close up detail and construction shots.

If your budget doesn’t allow for a macro lens right off, there are a couple of alternatives.  The first are magnification filters that screw on to the front of your zoom.  Second are extension tubes that move the lens further out from the body.  The tubes are a better choice because they eliminate any further optical issues that might come along with the filters.  However, neither of these alternatives offer the other big advantage of a macro lens ... which is that macro lenses typically offer much smaller f-stops .. like f-32.  Smaller f-stops are a key factor in improving depth of field.  Also, generally speaking, macro lenses are better optically than standard lenses.