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Photography, Cameras, and Lighting

Started by finescalerr, December 01, 2017, 05:57:14 PM

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This topic continues from "Any Suggestions on New Camera" in General Forums (http://www.finescalerr.com/smf/index.php?topic=2823.0).

Helmut asked about lighting. That's a huge topic because all photography is based on capturing light and how you use light. So let's start with the most basic use of lighting for models: Taking photos of a single model or a small diorama. That would include product shots, photos of our completed structures or vehicles, and "general purpose" diorama photos.

The first thing to consider is the background because that can ruin any photo. When we shoot an HO scale jeep, for example, we usually don't want the house across the street or a French poodle in the background. "Non-backgrounds" are easy. If your model is very small, you might be able to use an 8.5x11 inch sheet of white paper. If your model is bigger, go to an art or craft store and get a roll of white paper. I think a common width is about 3 feet or one meter. That will work for most models up to about 1:32 scale. You'll need a wider roll for longer or larger scale models.

Start with a place to shoot. Put a table next to a sliding glass door or wall, tape the end of the paper to the wall or door, and curve the paper from the wall to the table so, from the side it looks like a quarter circle. That will get rid of any "horizon" and, in the image, make your model seem to "float" over a pure white background.

The easiest way to get good lighting is to shoot outdoors. If you want a Chuck Doan style photo, shoot in full sun. Keep in mind, though, the direction in which the shadows fall can help or ruin the photo. If you can, shoot so the sun hits the model at an angle of about 10 or 2 on a clock face, with the shadows falling toward the camera.

It's less dramatic but more accurate to shoot in full shade or under a fully overcast sky. That reduces contrast, shows every detail, and eliminates worrying about the direction from which your light comes.

Of course, it might be 120 degrees outside, or raining, or dark, or the wind may be blowing at about 200 miles per hour so you may find it slightly more convenient to shoot indoors. The background and table instructions remain the same. Now comes the hassle of indoor lighting.

First thing: NEVER allow light from a window into the room where you're shooting or you'll end up with an absolute mess of wrong colors. Use only one kind of light: Incandescent or fluorescent or LED. I'm going assume you have no specialized lighting at all and that you're too lazy or impatient to build what they call a "light box" for shooting models.

In general, the easiest way to get even lighting would be to use bright fluorescent lights over the model. Digital cameras and photo software adjust to the color temperature of various bulbs; film didn't and made things hard. If you can't shoot under fluorescent lights, find some decent incandescent lamps, ideally those high intensity lamps we use on our workbenches. Again, the brighter the better. On each lamp, tape some tissue paper (not Kleenex or toilet paper, but the kind they wrap clothes in) over the reflector's exterior so it loosely covers the bulb. You will need a least two such lamps and maybe three. Regular table lamps from the living room might be usable but, frankly, they're really a pain to work with because the light goes all over the place. Make sure your lights are identical, have the same kind of bulbs and are of the same brightness, otherwise you'll have color problems. Those big, heavy portable shop lights work well, by the way, but they get really hot and might even set your tissue paper on fire.

Set up the lights as in my sketch. Put the camera on a tripod, focus, and shoot. If you use an SLR with a light meter, bring it right up to the model or the palm of your hand or a neutral gray piece of paper or cardboard to get your exposure reading. I don't want to explain how to use an SLR now. Besides, most of us probably will use a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. Especially if you use a smartphone, focus on several different spots to ensure one works. And unless you are going for a special effect, back off to a point where you're likely to get the whole model in focus. Finally use whatever controls your point-and-shoot camera or smartphone has to expose on the model, not the white background. (If it exposes on the background your model will look like you airbrushed it with Grimy Black paint!)

We also need to mention reflectors ... next time.

If I forgot something or if you have questions, let me know.

Lawton Maner

     Think of photography as painting with light.  Practice is the best teacher.   
     One of the beauties of digital photography is the "instant gratification" factor.  You can see the result of your setup immediately.  No need to wait a week for the pictures to come back.  In a matter of minutes you can try a number of poses from the mundane to the outlandish and experiment quickly to achieve your goal. 
     A second camera might be a good idea during the early stages of your learning curve to take visual notes of lighting setups and to augment your mental notes.  Nothing is worse then getting that dramatic shot and then not remembering how you did it.


Lawton's phrase, "painting with light", brings up the topic of reflectors. It may sound as though we're about to get into some boring, technical stuff. Nope.

My drawing above shows an optional lamp on the left side. It directs light onto the part of the model with the most shadow. (The light on the right picks up the angled "front" of the model and its position leaves the left wall in shade.) If you only have two lights, or if a third makes that shaded side too bright, put a reflector there instead. It will bring out just enough light to show detail but still give the impression of shadow. The front of the locomotive in the accompanying photo shows what a reflector can do. Without the reflector the smokebox front was nearly black.

Use reflectors whenever you need to reduce contrast (bring out detail in the shadows). Adjust the amount of light they provide by moving them closer or farther away and by changing the angle from side to side or up and down, or both.

Make them yourself by crumpling up some aluminum foil, flattening it out again, and gluing to to a piece of cardboard, plastic, or wood. Some reflectors can be very small, only a couple of inches square, some as large as two or three feet, square or rectangular, with the foil's shiny or dull side facing out. You might make one or two without crumpling the foil; whatever works best for the photo. Most often the crumpled, dull side out foil works best.

If the reflector puts more light on the subject than you want, a "white card" will be more subtle and sometimes very effective. It is exactly what the name implies; a rigid white rectangle. A piece of styrene or art board is perfect.

That's it.



Just in: https://www.dpreview.com/news/9542136107/thingyfy-launches-pinhole-pro-s-the-widest-modern-professional-pinhole-lens-ever

For those with interchangeable lens SLR or mirrorless cameras, a startup company called Thingyfy offers a pinhole lens for model photography. They soon will introduce two others, an 11mm ultra wide angle and a 37mm wide angle.

The products may be more than most of us might use, especially in light of what smartphone cameras can do, but it's possible one or two would find them of interest. They do away with the need for image stacking because one shot puts everything in focus.

Also: https://www.dpreview.com/photography/1471294251/before-and-after-shooting-raw-with-the-iphone-x

Shooting images in the RAW format is by far the best way to end up with the best possible photograph. RAW files contain every bit of data your sensor collects but have no processing. JPEG images go through a lot of processing before you see them. RAW files on a smartphone are about 3x bigger (10 megabytes vs. 3 megabytes) than JPEGs and you must process them with photo software. The link above gives all the detail. If I were using my iPhone to shoot photos for publication I would never shoot JPEGs and, when I shoot with my SLR, I always shoot RAW.

RAW is important to those who want to use a smartphone, as I have described in this thread, to create publication quality images.


P.S.: Given the lack of response to this topic I would guess photographing miniatures is pretty far down our list of priorities!

Greg Hile

While I do have to admit that creating the subjects of miniature photography is a little higher on the list than photographing them, I also had no idea that I could shoot in RAW on an iPhone or iPad. I've really gotta start paying more attention!

The pinhole lens also looks pretty sweet ...

Ray Dunakin

I haven't had anything to contribute to the discussion but I have enjoyed following it.
Visit my website to see pics of the rugged and rocky In-ko-pah Railroad!

Ray Dunakin's World


very interesting  - have learnt a lot


Hey Russ.  I've been reading along.  So keep up the good information.

Its a learning experience.

Why isn't there mouse-flavored cat food?
George Carlin


If anyone wants to know how to light dioramas and layouts, let me know and I'll explain. The attached photo is an example of what you can do with two or three lights and a couple of reflectors. I built the temporary diorama specifically for the photo. (Yes, one or two new dioramas for every issue, then clean off the table and store the trees, track, dirt, ground cover, and rocks. Building and setting up the lights took an entire day!)

My friend, Jerry Kits, modified, painted, and weathered the PSC 2-cylinder Shay and produced the rolling stock for his company, Foothill Model Works.



Okay so what do you need in the way of lighting??  Say my area is going to 30" deep x 8' long.

Why isn't there mouse-flavored cat food?
George Carlin


At the very least you would need a couple of shop lights with halogen bulbs, two or three reflectors, and a long roll of backdrop paper if you want to create the kind of lighting in my two diorama photos. If you have a third light, aim it at the ceiling (if it is white) so the ambient light reflects back down at your layout. As for the other two lights, one illuminates the backdrop and the other becomes the sun; aim it at your layout. That's the abridged version of what to do. -- Russ

Bill Gill

Russ, Lighting advice will be very helpful. I do 'ok' outside with natural light, but not so much inside.
I also have a question about your earlier post about saving images as raw files. I understand that a raw image saves all the original, uncompressed information when a photo is taken, but in order to edit/manipulate that image you have to convert it to some other kind of file first, yes? So doesn't doing that compress/degrade the image?
Also, I read that .jpg files compress the image more each time they get edited, but - if I read correctly - a .png image does not do that. If raw is the best file to shoot, what is best to save an image? (I know...my lack of knowledge here is huge).


I will write up the layout lighting explanation soon. It's basically the same as shooting a model so the diagram I drew would apply.

RAW files are just a database of all the information your camera records. Saving a RAW file as a TIFF does not degrade anything. Only file formats that compress an image (like JPEG, MP4 videos, or MP3 audio) compress information by throwing out what they think you don't need. Yes, they keep compressing the image every time you save them.

Editing a TIFF, BMP or other uncompressed image does not degrade it.

The steps to use are: 1.) Shoot RAW. 2.) Save as TIFF. 3.) Mess with image. 4.) Save as a TIFF with a different name in case you decide to start over again and don't want to go through the conversion again.

Save the finished TIFF image as a JPEG if you want to post it online. Always keep the finished TIFF as your archival image.


Bill Gill

Thanks, Russ. I always messed with a copy rather than the original image, but wasn't sure what format(s) were best for saving the original.

I get the basic theory of setting up lights- whether to create diffuse overall lighting, or single source with hard shadows, having only a single shadow direction if have shadows, using reflectors to lighten overly dark shadows... but it's the application of the idea where i go astray, getting hotspots and or dark spots. I'm looking forward to your further enlightenment on the subject.