Photographing Models

Well, that has probably got your attention but that’s not the sort of model I am going to go on about here today.

I have had an interest in photography for years and have done the same as many, nicked my Dads camera, got my own Practica then Zenit E (that might have been the other way round), the a pair of Yashicas and finally a Canon. All these were film cameras and I did photos of model and real railways. Never really did people or the really small stuff. I did a bit at school and I did an evening class which worked its way up from the bowl of fruit to, for the final lesson, a real live model.

I sort of lost interest in the proper photography and my proper cameras as the cheapo digital age dawned. At that time `cheap’ DSLR’s were several thousand pounds and I said I wouldn’t get one until they became affordable. Then compact, bridge and mobile phone cameras all got pretty amazing and the photography I was doing then was basically snaps documenting what I and the volunteer groups I was involved with were up to, often just for websites so portability was more important that how clever it was. Cost also proved to be important when I dropped a camera whilst stood on top of a loco which happened to be stood on an inspection pit. I was going to say, “it didn’t bounce” but it did, on pretty much everything it could find on its way down. It didn’t work at the end of it.

Eventually I bought myself a Canon DSLR, an EOS 1300D, with a short zoom and a macro lens in the hope of improving my photography for both my models and as a diverting hobby that makes a change from trains.

Photographing the larger models wasn’t a real problem. The skills I could remember from earlier photo lessons were enough to have taught me about depth of field vs shutter speed but getting decent pictures of the really little stuff eluded me.

It also eluded others as I requested help through my business e-mailed newsletter and sent out four sets of these small and fiddly parts. I sent them with the warning that it wasn’t easy and I don’t think they believed me.

I guess it must have been harder than they thought because five months on precisely bugger all has been forthcoming.

As a result of a whole bunch of issues I won’t go into here I set myself a target to reach and a reward for achieving it. Suffice it to say I achieved it and the reward was a days 1 to 1 tuition with a professional photographer.  It turned out to be a splendid day and money well spent.

When trying to do what I have taken to calling Phiddly Photography my reaction, when the images were poor, was to add more and more light. When they were still poor I increased the digital equivalent of film speed. Still poor, I assumed that it was something to do with the white balance or some such. Just to rub salt into the wound the bridge and phone cameras were doing better.

The tuition session was done one to one in the studio in which we used a very small fraction of the space and equipment available. Mostly we were sat around a white cloth covered table, very nearly in the dark with just one light and a sheet of paper.

Photography only happened after we had sat with a brew and had a chat about what I wanted to achieve and what I knew about my camera. Just that revealed a lot. In that bit of the session I learned

  • Always use a tripod
  • To shoot in RAW format and do the compression after editing
  • How to get the camera to focus where we want instead of where it wants
  • How to set a profile in the camera

Only then did we start trying to do some photographs. Seems the counter intuitive solution is less light. It’s light, and directional light at that, that creates shadows and shading to highlight the detail. To the left is one of my efforts with `add more light’ approach and its very difficult to see any of the detail in the mouldings that make up the bogie.  In the image above it the truck has all the details revealed and that was shot with just one directional light about 12 foot away at with a 4 second at f32 exposure. You can clearly see the detail but its a bit too arty and `noir’ for a catalogue and website shot.

We tried a whole load of combinations, not just to get the better picture but to teach me the effects of the different things you can do with the light and reflectors and the consequences.

For this picture the light source was even further away, sort of top right corner, and a sheet of A4 white paper to the bottom right reflected light in to fill the side shadows whilst another in in an L shape to the left reflected light in to the back and the end. The exposure this time was still at f32 but we’d reduced the light intensity so much that the shutter was open for 25 seconds and it was a better picture for websites etc.

With more understanding having little light, we were at this stage close to sat in the dark, things got smaller. Its all the small stuff on my website that has never been photographed and you can only get away with “No Image” identifiers for so long. As a result quite a lot of stuff has been sold only at shows.

We moved on to photographing brass castings and then adding a ruler in to answer the inevitable “how big is it” question.

You are possibly seeing the results here larger than the real part is. I was quite pleased with this but we really do need a more contrasty ruler, black on white or some such.

Probably avoiding the issue of the items that started this whole experience we then discussed illustrating assembly instructions and set about trying to photograph an assembled motor gearbox.

There were a couple of problems with this. Firstly, as you zoom in the depth of field shrinks, so picking a set up that gives you enough focus on the essentials of construction. Secondly, the gearbox frame shields the very bit you want to see from the light.

This was 30 seconds at f32 with several bits of paper reflecting light into the gloom. A little bit of post processing lightened the gloom too.

Click on this image it will fill your screen with an image many times the size of the real thing. The motor shaft is 2 mm diameter to give you an idea.

Unable to put it off any longer it was time to face the music and try the Phiddly Photos and capture the plastic nut, bolt and washer details.

However, with what we have learnt so far it wasn’t that hard. We made many attempts to get the angle of the light right and arrived at this. This was another 30 second f32 exposure. The nuts in this shot are 1.32 mm across the flats. You’ll probably have to expand the picture to see that they are nuts on a thread!

With some slightly larger rivets we tried to introduce the ruler to give some scale but the steel ruler wasn’t ideal and again made the focus a challenge.

With the images captured we had a break and then spent a couple of hours processing the images in Photoshop. I had never used the real Photoshop before. Photoshop has taken on the same sort of role as `Hoover’ for any sort of vacuum cleaner and I have used a couple of the cheaper clones but I think I am going to have to bite the bullet and go with the proper thing even if its only to be compatible with my teacher.

Now to Replicate the Lessons Learned

First thing to note is that I don’t have a studio with loads of space and studio lighting so it was always going to be a challenge but one thing I did learn was to experiment.

This is my `studio’. A shelf in the stores. Whilst actually taking the photos the only source of light was the flexible lamp you can see in this picture taken with my mobile phone. This has been used before as the picture much further up of the K36 locomotive was taken on that shelf but with the lights on. I am quite keen to make this, or a similar location, work so that I can have a semi permanent `studio’ as taking pictures of models and stock is going to be a routine thing.

So, how did this work out?  Expand this picture and see what you think. I thought I was being clever printing some labels with the part number and a scale on them which demonstrates the lack of fidelity from my label printer. The part number is needed because without it they all look the same – small and fiddly – but blue tacking it to a ruler duplicates the scale indications.  In my opinion…..

  • The light is still too close/bright. Its making the small plastic translucent.
  • Not high enough. The light needs to come more from above.
  • Its needs to be lower shelf. Not evident from the actual pictures is that the tripod is close to fully extended. This pushes it away from the shelf due to the spread of its feet and its prone to wobble.

I should mention that all these close up pictures were taken with the camera self timer on 10 seconds to allow it to settle after the shutter release had been pressed.

So What Next?

I shall carry on with my experiments using what I have learnt to photograph my models but this has rekindled an interest in photography which I will pursue. I mentioned setting goals and there are a couple of more I want to achieve and the linked rewards for success are some more photo training sessions.

After all that waffle I’d better credit my trainer and mentor Mike Lester of Mike Lester Photography in Garforth.

If all goes to plan and certain goals are met the next time I write about my photography the models might be a bit different.

This last photo is one of Mike took but its something to aspire to be able to do



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