How to Photograph Miniatures: Camera Adjustments for Light

Notice the tonalities in the white card (background) in these two photos. This one is too "warm;" it has too much red.

You will discover, as we go along on this series, that color balance is immensely important in photographing your miniatures. Back in the day, I used to photograph art and antiques for a living, and I have a set of photographic lamps in my garage which were a necessary part of that work. The reason was that film was designed to react to specific light frequencies. (“Film” was this stuff that you used to put inside cameras once upon a time.) If one used regular daylight film (the stuff that 90 percent of everyone on earth used), the colors would come out all wrong–and wrong colors in a catalog of priceless paintings made people angry. So one used tungsten film with tungsten lights (and sometimes special filters over the lens) in order to get correct colors–and I’m very serious about how important correct color is with these things. My clients would hold my transparencies (sort of like slides, only much bigger) next to the paintings and carefully compare how accurate my colors were.

This one has been color corrected to bring the white to a true white. When the whites are true white, the other colors should fall into their correct range in the spectrum.

Well, digital has changed this–to some extent. That is, correct color is still very important, but now one does not need to use tungsten lights to attain them. Any decent SLR digital camera these days allows you to set it for whatever light source you’re using. This is generally a very simple push of a couple buttons, nothing the least bit challenging to do–yet immensely important to do.

The reason is that different types of light produce different color spectrums. Daylight produces the broadest spectrum, covering (literally) every color in the rainbow. Incandescent lights, by contrast, have a much narrower spectrum, drawn from the red end of the rainbow. Fluorescent lights (yuck) have a narrower spectrum still, drawn from the middle yellow-green range.

If you just mindlessly point and shoot under incandescent lights, your images will come out far too warm. (“Warm” refers to red tones, while “cool” refers to blue tones. “Barf” refers to fluorescent light.) That means that the images of your mini will be too red, and all the colors will be wrong–making color correction much more difficult (if not impossible) in PhotoShop. However, you have control over the way your digital camera responds to the particular light spectrum that you’re using.

This control is known as “white balance.” Please remember this term, as we’ll be using it a good deal while addressing color correction issues. In layman’s terms, white balance simply refers to a correct balance of light frequencies required to gain a pure white—white being, as you know, an even mixture of all colors in the spectrum. If your image has a true white, the other colors in the spectrum will be pretty close to real-life accurate.

 How to Balance Your Whites

So the first step in attaining accurate colors in your image is to force your camera to record the colors accurately in the first place. This will be accomplished using the menus on your SLR camera. I don’t know what kind of camera you have, so I will simply use my own for illustration purposes.

My Nikon has a main menu, off of which is a choice called “White Balance.” I simply select that, then choose my light source from available options: Auto (which presumably makes some sort of electronic guess); Incandescent; Fluorescent; Direct Sunlight; Flash; etc. Off of this menu, I have more choices: I can fine-tune the balance from -3 through 0 to +3. We will address all these choices at another time.

Our goal at this point is simply to understand how to make our original image as color correct as possible. This will make any later adjustments very easy in PhotoShop or some other imaging program. And, as you can see, the process of doing so is very simple: just tell your camera what kind of light you’re using, then get busy snapping the shots.

As I said in the first article of this series, SLR cameras are not at all intimidating to use–once you know the basics of operating them.

If you read the first article in this series, you will know that incandescent lamps provide an easy and efficient light source for shooting minis. Now you know how to tell your camera that you’re using incandescent lights, and you’re ready to try some practice shots.

Next article will discuss shooting under natural daylight, and a future article will teach you how to analyze and correct the colors in your resulting images.

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