It's the bane of our existence (by "our" I mean figure painters on the
web); photographing those tiny little bastards and getting them to look at
least a tiny bit like they do in real life. Few things are as
frustrating as spending 20+ hours on a figure and then spending 200 more
trying to get a photograph that does the paint job some justice.
If you're going to post your figures to Cool Mini or Not? you've
got to have a decent photo. If you're going to put up a vanity
gallery (like yours truly), you need a good photo. If you're going to try
to sell your work on e-bay then
you most definitely better have a good photo!
Now, I'm not a photographer. I don't claim to be one, and you can mark my
experience with non-trivial cameras in weeks. What I'm presenting here is
not "how to become a kick-ass photographer and get a job at Playboy". What
it is, is a chronicle of what I've been doing on my quest to get a good
Up until a few weeks ago I used to use an AGFA ephoto 1280 digital camera
for all my digital image needs. It was a good camera, if a bit slow. Ok,
it wasn't a bit slow. It was glacial in its slowness. Still, I
bought it back in 1997 and it worked OK, had OK resolution, and was
adequate for general use.
It could take pictures of my figures fairly well. The problem was that I
had to get so damned close to the figure to get the Macro mode to work
that I almost always blocked out the light. If I managed to set up enough
light to shoot with I would "burn out" the highlights of the figure or
make even the best Testor's Dullcote finish look like a quarter inch of
The other problem was that the images were limited to around 250-350
pixels in width. By the time I'd cropped out the non-miniature bits of the
photo, there was precious little photo left!
The best the AGFA could do!
Now, the size limitation didn't bother me until I posted my first pictures
to the Mini-Painter
list and started getting the (standard) "Bigger Pics!" emails. I had also
just posted some stuff to Cool Mini and noted that my pictures were too
small to show all the detail, especially when compared with others up
So I tried and tried to squeeze out more pixels from my poor old AGFA.
This led me to what I like to call...
The Day I Snapped
Yes, the AGFA drove me to insanity. I had spent a week building an
elaborate base/diorama for my Visions in Color entry (thanks to
Sintricat!) and decided to get a good shot of it for my web site.
I turned on the bright lights, I put the camera on a tripod, and I
positioned the piece against a nice backdrop by HR Giger. But there wasn't
enough of the figure in the shot.
So I moved the camera in closer. Still not enough.
Then I leaned the tripod in and put a book under the (now) raised leg to
stabilize it. Still- too small.
I finally tilted the tripod way, way in and got "the perfect shot". I set
the camera to a 5 second timer and pressed the shutter button.
The camera took a very nice picture. This is all I have left to remember
the piece "as it was". The tripod fell forward as its front legs slid. The
camera bumped the piece, which slid back into the backdrop. The backdrop
was actually a propped up book, which fell forward and knocked the diorama
to the floor and then belly-flopped on top of it.
to the workbench!
The entire piece was smashed into its individual parts. Re-assembly and
painting had to wait until I had finished setting the world's record for
"longest utterance of the f-word" (half an hour, operatic).
I had had my eye on a new camera for two years and this tragedy spurred me
to finally go buy it.
The NEW Camera
After putting it off for two years, I finally went and got my dream
camera- the Nikon D1X. It's a professional digital SLR in the hands of a
complete and utter novice. There's more camera here than I can comprehend.
After years and years of being Mr. Smug-Computer-Guy I have finally found
a technical arena that makes me feel like Jethro Bodine at CompUSA.
But I know I'll grow into this thing and not out of it.
the beast in all its glory!
I asked the guys at the camera store to hook me up with the best stuff for
starting out in Macro and Close-Up photography. Eight thousand one-hundred
fifteen dollars and thirty-two cents later I am armed for bear.
I not only got the privilege of giving these fine people a hell of a lot
of my money, but also got to see into the world of the camera geek. Let me
tell you, Camera geeks make Unix geeks look like the friggin' AMISH. Once
the guy was allowed to really open up on the subject of depth-of-field and
perspective-correcting lenses it was like Al Gore was there campaigning
for the nomination to the Camera Party.
Around sixty hours later, when the camera guy stopped speaking I went to
Border's books to buy some instructional supplements. I reviewed one key
book, Macro and Close Up Photography
Handbook on this site.
I quickly set up my little "mini photo" studio. First I put up a nice 250w
photoflood for ambient light. My studio is normally for painting in
acrylics, and I have a set of four daylight color-corrected bulbs
overhead. For photography this is just inadequate. Short of putting the
friggin SUN in the room I needed to add as much light as possible.
main light sitting over the figure
The figures are placed on a stand I made from a cheap-o broken tripod and
a piece of plywood. The plywood has a 1/4" nut embedded in it to allow it
to screw down onto a tripod for positioning. A graduated background was
printed out on an HP-1220c inkjet and held up with a book-end and some
tape. This background didn't work with every figure since the larger
ones cast shadows onto it. The further back your backdrop is, the fewer
incidents of long shadows you'll have. For really long backdrops an
old window shade works nicely. Rolls of butcher paper are good as well.
Next I set up two flashes for the Primary light and the Fill light.
The primary light is a Nikon SB-28DX speedlight, and the fill light is a
Promaster 7000m. I positioned reflectors around the figure to minimize
harsh shadows from these lights. The Primary light is the light that's
going to provide most illumination to the subject and provide most of
the details. It should be above the subject and angled downward about
45 degrees or so. The Fill light is there to reduce the amount of harsh
shadows caused by the Primary and "even things up", so to speak.
primary light- a Nikon SB-28DX Speelight
The lens on the camera was a Nikon 105mm AF lens, which works great for
the large figures, but tended to have depth of field issues on the smaller
ones, or ones that had "extended bits" like upheld swords or long
Depth of field problem with the 105mm lens
I switched to the Tamron AF70-300mm for most of the figures and that seems
to have fixed the problem. Of course, this lens has a minimum focus
distance of 1.3 meters! So I'm back against the wall when I take the
pictures. This lens is the one seen on the camera in the photo.
The camera was set to f10 and a speed of 60. A remote control
shutter release cable was critical for this stuff, so the camera will not
shake or vibrate during the exposure.
Remote control is essential for this
This setting has gotten me some good results- much nicer than when I first
started out. The first day I got the camera I just let it decide
what to do. Good thing I don't have to pay for film processing- I've shot
probably a gigbyte of useless or wasted shots while learning.
This is my latest "best mini" with the camera. Compare it to the shot
from the AGFA at the top of this and see the difference. One thing that
helped a lot was the addition of a "polarizing ring filter" which will
work sort of like sunglasses for the camera. They only allow light to
come in at a certain angle and that angle can be adjusted. The effect
it has is to remove glare and gloss and intensify the colors. This
makes blues and reds really pop out. It also gets rid of pure-white
highlights from the bright lights and makes metallics look smooth.
and improved Shawna
Pretty remarkable improvement, I'd say. I know I have a lot more to learn
about this subject, and as I get better or come up with useful advice I'll
pass it along here. I don't expect everyone to rush out and spend a
fortune on a new camera, but hopefully my extreme insanity may spur people
to get the best out of their current one... at least until it brutally
murders one of their show-pieces...
Things I Learned
...and the most important thing I learned: My wife is the most
understanding woman on Earth! Hallelujah, Brother!
- There is no limit to my Figmentia
- You can use bright lights if you set the exposure low (bigger
f-stop) and the shutter speed high. Always set the flash to TTL (through
the lens metering)!
- Always use a tripod!
- If your camera doesn't have a remote shutter control try setting the
auto-timer so you can let it stop wobbling before the picture is snapped.
- Ink jets can make good backgrounds, but some times you need a much
larger one. An old window shade can do the trick nicely.
- Polarizing lenses help get rid of "glossy" spots and intensify the
color of the figure.
- Sometimes the polarizing lenses intensify it TOO much and it looks
like a 1960's black-light poster.
- Every paint job gets worse looking the greater the magnification.
wife, Leigh reading the "Figmentia" symptoms and nodding
© 2002 Mike McCuen
Questions or comments? Email email@example.com