How To Photograph Miniatures: The Camera

For the next few months, we’ll be periodically presenting a series on how to photograph miniatures.  While we’re aware that this subject does not apply to a lot of gamers, we feel that some of you will find the series very useful.  Our hope is that, even if photographing miniatures and dioramas isn’t something you’re interested in now, that you’ll at least consider it in the future.

A standard SLR camera

Photographing miniatures may seem daunting at first, but once you understand a few basics of digital photography, it is actually a very easy process–and fun, even. We will offer a series of articles on how to take out the frustration and put in the fun of mini photography, covering elements of lighting, color control, focus, PhotoShop manipulation, and so forth.

However, before we begin, let’s address the most important piece of equipment: your camera. Here’s the short answer:

You will want a decent single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.

SLR vs. Rangefinder

There are two basic ways of viewing your subject with a camera: rangefinder, and SLR. Both cameras, of course, have a lens which is used to take the photograph, but a rangefinder also has a second lens, usually a small aperture which you peer through to see what you’re shooting. With a rangefinder, you’re looking through one lens while the camera is shooting the image with another lens.

The single-lens reflex, on the other hand, has only the one big lens which the camera uses to capture the image. When you peer into the viewfinder, a series of mirrors inside the camera reflect light from the subject through the lens and up to your eye. When you click the shutter, one of those mirrors flips up so that the light will travel to the “film” (whatever digital processors are used inside the camera instead of film) rather than to your eye. This “flipping-up” process is the “reflex” part of SLR.

The advantage of SLR vs. rangefinder is that, when you peer through the viewfinder, you are seeing exactly what the camera will see when you click the shutter. If you’re shooting a landscape, where your subject is a significant distance from your camera, the rangefinder shows you almost the same thing that the camera will see. But when you’re photographing a tiny miniature that’s just a few inches from the lens, then the rangefinder’s viewing lens is going to be way off from what the camera lens captures.

Point and Shoot Cameras

Most folks don’t want to spend the extra money on an SLR, and many are also intimidated by how complicated they seem. After all, you can change the lens on an SLR! That notion by itself awakens fears of limitless future expense buying fancy lenses and filters and flash attachments and doodads galore. And then there are all those mind-boggling settings to worry about. Much easier (and cheaper) just to get that little Sony and press the button. Let the gadget do the thinking.

Of course, the basic premise of this thinking is faulty. One can easily find an SLR for a few hundred bucks, and many point ‘n’ shoots actually cost more. Furthermore, all SLRs these days offer a no-brainer point ‘n’ shoot setting where all you do is … well, point and shoot. You don’t even have to focus anymore. The beauty is that, as you learn how to use the SLR, you will have a whole world of control over your images that is not available with a point ‘n’ shoot.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want to photograph your minis, you cannot hope to do it with a point ‘n’ shoot. You’re going to want an SLR someday anyway, so don’t waste your money–start out with a decent SLR to begin with.

 Pixel Count

These days, just about any SLR will offer a large enough image with sufficient detail to capture your mini, so the pixel-count numbers are essentially irrelevant. Don’t get sucked in by big numbers; this is where many people waste lots of money that never pays back. Stick to the name brands — Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Sony — and you’ll do well with whatever you get. Provided it’s an SLR, that is.

 Camera Settings

Another feature of an SLR is that you will be able to control a wide variety of elements when you click the shutter. One important element is the type of light that you’re using. Are you shooting your mini in direct sunlight? Then you’ll want to set the camera for “daylight.” Using table lamps? No problem, just set it for “incandescent.”

This will also come into play in dealing with getting things in focus. With an SLR, you’ll be able to take full control over depth of field issues. There are a myriad such things that will affect your images, so it will be easier to address them by subject in future articles.

That’s enough for now. Basic take-away point: use an SLR.

Next article: How to Light Your Mini.

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One Response to How To Photograph Miniatures: The Camera

  1. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series – this is something that I’ve been thinking about since I’m trying to get back into a regular painting schedule.

    Looks like I should have picked up an SLR when I was in Tokyo in October… Oh well, my brother is a camera nut so I guess I can always borrow his.

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