How to Photograph Minis: Artificial Lighting

This is the third in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures. For the rest of the series, click the “Article Series” link on the menu bar.  In this article, we’ll consider how to use artificial lights to illuminate your subject.


Swivel style hobby lamps, like the one you probably use for painting, work great. Dust is optional.

 The first and most important consideration when doing miniature photography (once you’re using an SLR, that is–see article 1) is how you will light your subject. If you have spent many hours painting the mini, you will want your photos to accurately portray the colors and the numerous little details–but this can be immensely frustrating or even impossible if your lighting is wrong. So before we begin clicking the shutter, we must first decide how to illuminate the scene. There are two basic types of illumination:  

  • Natural light (daylight)
  • Artificial light

Natural light is easier in one way–you don’t have to set up anything, for example, since the sun is already in position–yet it brings its own challenges, so we’ll start with artificial lighting in this article. The beauty of artificial lights is that you have easy control over lamp positioning and brightness–plus you don’t have to wait for a sunny day. There are several different types of artificial light that we can use, and we’ll address them in reverse order, from worst to best. (Refer to the previous article if you are not familiar with “white balance.”) 

Camera Flash 

Shooting your mini with a flash creates so many problems that you really should find another alternative. It blasts the figure with a merciless explosion of light which washes away all the color, and it creates looming shadows that produce a very ugly photo. If you must use flash, then you must also bounce it–and this means that you will need to use a separate flash attachment on your camera, not the little flash that’s built into it. You will need to bounce the light off the ceiling or a nearby wall so that the light which hits your mini is diffused and softened–and the wall is the most likely option, since the ceiling is too far away. If you don’t know how to bounce your flash, don’t use your flash.Bouncing may also introduce some strange colorations into your photo, because the light bouncing off the ceiling or wall will pick up the color of the ceiling or wall. This is not likely to be a problem if you bounce off a white ceiling, but it will become a problem if you bounce off chartreuse walls. (There is another flash alternative, using a white card to bounce off, but we’ll discuss this when we address daylight photography.) 

Fluorescent Lights 

Fluorescent lights produce a ghastly green hue. Plus they flicker (though your conscious mind may not notice it, your eyes do) and they contain mercury and old ones buzz annoyingly and the government is trying to force us to buy them. So don’t. If all you have available is fluorescent, then wait for the next article on using daylight. The effort involved in color correcting from fluorescent is simply not worth it. 

Tungsten Lights 

Tungsten bulbs are a specialty light source designed to produce correct white balance with film–tungsten film, that is. This is no longer a major issue with digital cameras, however, so my suspicion is that tungsten lights will one day become archaic. If you don’t own any (and you probably don’t), leave it that way. On the other hand, if you do own tungsten lights, you can still use them to photograph your minis–just remember to set your camera white balance to “tungsten” (see previous two articles). 

Incandescent Lamps 

When Benoit asked me to write this series, I immediately assumed that regular household lamps would never suffice for accurate white balance. This was because I was still thinking in terms of old-style film cameras; when I started playing around using my digital, I was delighted to discover that household lamps work perfectly well–provided, of course, that you set your camera’s white balance to “incandescent.” 

Now, when I refer to “regular household lamps,” I really mean regular hobby-type lamps: gooseneck reading lamps, clamp-on shop lamps, scissor-style swivel lamps–any type of lamp that will focus the light and permit you to aim it where you want it. I found that two 60-watt bulbs in gooseneck lamps provided enough light to get respectable photos. 

I also tried using those “daylight” bulbs vs. the basic incandescent frosted type, and did get marginally better color control. If you don’t mind spending the extra on daylight bulbs, I’d recommend them–but they’re not essential. 

Finally, you need more than one lamp–two is sufficient for a subject this small, set at 45-degree angles from your mini. 

 Next article: using daylight.

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4 Responses to How to Photograph Minis: Artificial Lighting

  1. Alphastream says:

    I really dig the series! There are so many bad minis pictures out there and peeps need to read this series. Have you posted about this on the WotC minis forums?

    On flourescents, isn’t the lumens/warmth a big part of it? The “daylight” series here is really bad, but when you get the right lumens I can’t see a difference between incandescent and compact flourescent light. I don’t see a difference for my minis either. (I just had to check what I used last, actually). Similarly, I am curious if you do really like “daylight” bulbs for incandescent, since those seem to be so shockingly white in a sort of sterile way. I find I get a lot of reflection/shiny if I have a daylight bulb of any sort. This being different from natural daylight (the sun) which I like using. Then again, until now I have not played with my camera settings for the type of light.

  2. Gregwa says:

    Thanks very much for the great feedback. I’ve not tried playing around with lumens on fluorescent bulbs, so I cannot say for sure if there is a more “color neutral” alternative. The issue is really the color balance (warm vs. cool) in the fluoro bulbs.

    This is also the issue with the “sterile” feel of the daylight bulbs. The reason they feel sterile is that they have a lot of blue light added. Most lightbulbs of any type produce very little blue light.

    I’ll be addressing this in more depth in a future article, because understanding the blue light issues is important. The basic take-away point is this: your camera is nearly blind to blue light, so most of your images will come out too warm (too much red). Anything you can do to compensate for this will help. That’s why your daylight shots are noticeably better: because the sun offers LOADS of blue light which cannot be imitated by any man-made light source that I know of. Fluoro bulbs produce next to zero blue light; the daylight incandescent ones are slightly beefed up in blue.

  3. White_Guy says:

    Just curious, I started playing around with a ring-flash. It creates interesting effects for portrait photography and it gives softer shadows. I didn’t use any setting adjustments on it but it didn’t do too badly when shooting minis as well.

    • Gregwa says:

      A ring flash is a fairly specialized piece of equipment, which I’m assuming most of our readers don’t own. I don’t even own one, and so did not experiment with it. I would have suspected that it would still wash out the details, but if it gives good results, that’s all that matters! Camera settings are important for getting correct color balance, but you can simplify that by using a white card behind the mini for test shots.

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