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Photography of Miniatures

by Tor N. Johnson

Figure against blue background Figure against black background Figure against white background

The three most common backgrounds AeroArt has used are black, blue, and a white/black gradient. The former two backgrounds are simple enough to create and can be achieved with satin cloth and a roll of blue paper respectively.

The gradient background we have used for most of the images in this book is a somewhat more specialized item. Although a similar effect can be achieved solely with creative lighting, we’ve preferred to use a painted gradient which must be specially ordered from a photo supply house.

Over the years we have been asked how we take our photographs and what equipment is best for the photography of military miniatures. Although we transitioned into using several pieces of professional photography equipment, taking decent photographs of miniatures requires neither the newest nor most expensive equipment on the market. For instance, many of the large images displayed in History in Miniature: The AeroArt St. Petersburg Collection were taken using equipment manufactured during the 1940s. There are three primary challenges that generally must be faced when shooting a collection of military miniatures: background, lighting, and getting the figure in focus.

The background is possibly the simplest and most often overlooked aspect of photographing miniatures. We have found that a relatively plain background works best for figures as it does not compete with the beauty of the soldier. A large sheet of paper will usually suffice. This can be procured from a craft supply store or purchased in a roll from a photo supply store. An alternative to paper is a piece of fabric. Many of our magazine advertisements were shot using a black satin or velvet background. Be sure to remove the dust particles from the background because every speck will appear far more prominently in the picture than it appears in life.

Lighting can be the simplest or hardest challenge. If skies are clear, consider using the sun. It is bright and doesn’t cost a nickel. Forget about using a flash that is built into your camera as it will almost certainly wash out the colors of any figure. A separate flash will yield more usable results, but if you can get away without a flash you may be happier with the results. If you must use a flash, try not to have the flash pointed directly at the figure. An easy method to improve the quality of the light from a camera’s flash is to point the unit at a piece of white paper and bounce the light off the paper and onto the soldier. Light reflected off a white surface will yield far softer light than directly pointing the flash at the figure.

The third challenge in photographing military miniatures is focus. Most cameras cannot focus close enough to get a sharp image at close-range. A few modern digital cameras have lenses designed for close-up focus. Most film-based point-and-shoots do not. To focus at close range, two commonly available options are: a lens specially designed for close-up work known as a macro lens or diopter filters attached to the front of a lens. (There are a few other methods I am not mentioning, but they are pretty exotic.) If your camera supports interchangeable lenses, invest in a real macro lens. This is the solution we have chosen, and it yields the best results by far. If your camera has one lens that cannot be removed, attach a diopter(s) (sometimes called a close-up filter) to the front of the lens. This will enable your lens to focus at very close range.

Example of flash and depth of field scenarios

The flash used in these pictures is equipped with a swivel head that enables bouncing the light off another surface to soften the light. In this particular case, the flash has a small white card built in for this purpose. A white paper or card will work equally well. Depth of field can be one of the most challenging aspects of photographing figures. On the left is an image where depth of field is inadequate (in this case the aperture is wide open at F/3.2) whereas on the right the figure is in focus due to use of a smaller aperture (F/22).

There is also a second consideration in getting a photograph of a miniature in focus. This is the depth of field, which, essentially, is how much of the entire figure is in focus. For our purposes here, at a given distance, depth of field is controlled by an iris inside the lens called the aperture. Not all cameras allow the user to manually control the aperture, but if yours does, then set the aperture at a minimum of F/16 or higher. Most of the images for this book were taken with an aperture of F/22 or F/32.

The Equipment AeroArt Uses

35mm Film SLR 4x5 Large Format Camera

The two cameras pictured above are both film cameras used in miniature photography. The topmost unit is a 35mm SLR. This was one of four cameras used by AeroArt between 1998 and 2002. The 35mm cameras were replaced by a digital SLR in 2002.

The venerable 4x5 press camera the standard used by reporters for almost 60 years. This particular model was manufactured in the 1940’s. We use this camera in the creation of particularly large images such as the full-page plates shown in History In Miniature: The St. Petersburg Collection.

Just as the rise of the Internet altered the way we sell figures, the rise of digital photography revolutionized the way we take pictures of The AeroArt St. Petersburg Collection®. Our early photographic efforts often involved obtaining pictures from the soldier makers in Russia or contracting with outside photographers here in the United States. As one can imagine, the costs and time required for this methodology limited the number of figures we photographed.

In 1998 we started to do our photography in-house. The equipment we started with was an older 35mm Nikon SLR camera with a macro lens. From then until 2002, 35mm slide film and a Nikon 105mm macro lens were our standard equipment. While the equipment produced results of adequate quality, the process was relatively labor and material intensive as film had to be developed, scanned, and color corrected. This prompted our shift to a Nikon D1x digital camera. Nikon’s new D1x camera had the advantage of utilizing all of Nikon’s old lenses that were originally designed for film work. The D1x is still in service at AeroArt at the time of writing and about ninety-five percent of this book’s images were shot with this camera. In 2004, the D1x was supplemented by a Nikon D70.

For the largest images in History In Miniature: The St. Petersburg Collection we turned to a somewhat more esoteric camera system. The large format camera is one of the oldest of all camera designs (primarily developed in the nineteenth century). Each picture is recorded on a piece of film 4 inches by 5 inches (a truly massive amount of space compared to the 24mm x 36mm of normal 35mm film). The newest of these cameras we use is a Speed Graphic made in 1947. This type of camera can be seen held in the hands of news reporters prior to the 1960s. Sturdy and reliable, it has proved to be an excellent camera for the relatively close-up work required for military miniature photography.

What is a Macro Lens?

A macro lens is a lens that allows the photographer to focus on objects are close range. This is vital if small objects are being photographed. To fill the picture with a miniature, the average focal distance with a 90mm macro lens is generally less than 2 feet. A few zoom lenses can accomplish this feat but the quality will be no match to a good macro lens. For further reading on macro lenses we suggest visiting Photo.net.

 

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