How to Photograph Miniatures: Depth of Field

This is the seventh in an on-going series of articles on photographing miniatures, in which we’ll learn how to keep your minis in focus, and also how to successfully photograph groups of miniatures. Much of what we will be discussing grows out o

f the previous article on exposure settings, so read that first if you haven’t already.

Some single minis may require greater depth of field. This was shot at f5.6, but you’ll notice that the scythe blade is out of focus as it points towards the front of the image field. A smaller aperture, such as f16, would have brought everything into clear focus.

First, let’s define a fairly basic term of photography. Depth of field refers to what you have in focus in your final image. Let’s say that you have three objects lined up–one 3 feet from your camera, the second at 6 feet, the third at 9 feet. You can choose to have just one object in focus–let’s say the middle one at 6 feet–leaving the other two out of focus. Or you can choose to have two or even all three in focus. The “depth” refers to whether your focus coverage is deep, covering all three objects, or shallow, covering just one. More accurately, it refers to what area of the “field” (area of your photograph) will be in focus, whether shallow or deep.

The important thing to grasp at this point is that the depth of field is your choice. You can choose what to keep in focus and what to leave in “soft focus;” all you need to know is how to accomplish what you want. (Soft focus is different from “blur,” which is caused by camera movement.)

Smaller Aperture = Greater Depth of Field

Our most basic rule on focus is this: the smaller your aperture, the more things will be in focus. To illustrate this, I have shot three minis on a playing grid using different apertures and shutter speeds. (See previous article regarding these terms.) For the sake of accentuating the differences, I deliberately violated the Rule of Thirds, which I’ll describe in a moment. (Click any picture for a larger view)

This was shot at f5.6

This was shot at f11

This was shot at f22

Photo 1 was shot at an aperture of f5.6. Notice that the wizard in the middle is in sharp focus, but the front and rear minis are not. Photo 2 was shot at f11, improving the front and rear minis, while Photo 3 was shot at f22, bringing all three into reasonably sharp focus. (You will notice that the front image is still not as sharp as it could be; I’ll discuss this under the Rule of Thirds.)

The basic principle here is this: the smaller the hole, the more focused (less scattered) the light beams will be that pass through it. This is precisely what you are doing when you squint your eyes to see a distant object more clearly. You are narrowing your eyelids in order to make the aperture smaller in your eye, thus focusing the light beams more narrowly into your retina. This is also the reason that high school students (back in my day, anyway) always make “pinhole cameras” out of an old shoebox–and it works! The little pin-sized aperture forces what little light enters the shoebox to be focused into a narrow beam, thus producing a focused image on the film–even without any form of lens over that little pinhole.

So here’s the practical application: if you are shooting a group of minis, or even a single mini that has some depth (such as a weapon sticking out toward the front), you will want to use the smallest aperture possible if you want to keep everything in focus.

How to Do This

In the last article, I bored you with a ton of technical stuff about how to attain correct exposure using manual settings on your camera, and here’s the reason why: you will need to force your camera to use the aperture setting that is most appropriate, and this will entail at least some degree of manual exposure settings.

My Nikon has a dial with numerous settings, including A, P, S, M, and other stuff. Your SLR undoubtedly has comparable options available. Below is what those things mean:

  • P = Program: camera sets aperture and shutter automatically

  • A = Aperture Priority: you choose the aperture, and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed

  • S = Shutter Priority: you choose the shutter speed, and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture

  • M = Manual: you set both shutter speed and aperture manually, and the camera divests itself of any responsibility for your results

You can use the Aperture Priority setting to force the camera to use a smaller aperture, such as f16 or f22, and take a test shot to see how it looks. If the exposure is wrong, you’ll need to switch to Manual and set both yourself. (Shutter Priority is useful when shooting sports, for example, where the fast shutter speed is more important than what aperture is used.)

Either way, you’ll discover that you’re probably shooting at a fairly slow shutter speed. My example shots were taken between 1/4 second and 1/30 second shutter speeds. I can keep the camera steady enough to shoot at 1/15 generally (1/8 if I haven’t been drinking Red Bull), but anything below that is going to come out blurred. Here are some things you can do to compensate for this problem.

Shooting at Slow Shutter Speeds

The first and best way to keep your images sharp is to use a tripod. I shot my sample series on a tripod, which allowed me to get exactly the same composition in each shot while fooling around with different apertures. It also, of course, allowed me to shoot at any shutter speed whatsoever; I could have gotten a nice sharp image at f32 if I’d felt so inclined, shooting with a shutter speed somewhere around a 1/2 second. You don’t need a mammoth tripod to accomplish this, and these days you can pick up a decent one for under 20 bucks. It’s a basic piece of photo equipment that you should have, so get one now and skip the following tricks.

If you’re just too cheap to spring for a tripod, you can cheat. One way of cheating is to set your camera to emulate a faster film speed. I generally have my Nikon set to emulate ASA 200 film, which was the basic Kodak color film speed back in the pre-digital days. This was a good, all-purpose film that offered reasonable light sensitivity and sharp detail. But you could also buy “faster” film, films with higher ASA ratings—400, 800, 1200. These were called “faster” films because they were more sensitive to light and allowed you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without changing the aperture. The trade-off was something called “grain,” a degradation of sharpness in the details of your image. Your digital SLR can imitate this, allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without changing your aperture–but you’ll hate the grainy results. I don’t recommend going above an ASA 400 emulation.

The grossest, most reprehensible form of cheating is this: move your camera farther back from your subject, then crop the image in PhotoShop. This will permit you to have a shallower depth of field, thus permitting you to use a wider aperture and faster shutter speed—but it’s cheesy beyond belief, and the results will be quite unsatisfying. So just don’t do it. Buy a tripod.

Rule of Thirds

I mentioned earlier that I cheated a bit when shooting the three example photos, and what I did was to violate the rule of thirds. This rule has many applications in photographic composition and techniques, but all we’re interested in is depth of field, so here’s how it applies to this article: focus your camera one-third (1/3) of the way into the image field, then set the aperture as small as possible. The result will be that everything, front to rear, is in focus.

In Photo 3, you’ll notice that the wizard and the horse are in sharp focus, but the overburdened henchman in the foreground is still a trifle fuzzy. This is because I focused on the middle of the field—on the wizard, who is standing at the 50-percent point. I should have focused halfway between the wizard and the henchman, thus focusing one-third of the way into the field. This would have brought all three minis into sharp focus at a smaller aperture.

When to Use Soft Focus

Finally, there might be times when you actually don’t want your entire field to be in focus, in which case you’ll be doing the opposite of all that we’ve been discussing, using a wider aperture (say around f5.6) and a faster shutter speed. Just remember this important factor: the wider your aperture, the more critical your focus. You can be a bit sloppy on where you focus when using a small aperture, but you won’t have that latitude when you open up the lens.

Nevertheless, there are times when that’s exactly what you’ll want to do. The most common example is when you have a cluttered, distracting background behind your mini. You’re shooting it on your painting table, and all around the mini are paint bottles and brushes and whatnot—stuff that you don’t want your viewer’s eye to focus on. You want to draw the viewer’s eye to the mini, so you will want to set it away from the other junk, then use a wider aperture to focus only on the mini.

You can also use this technique if you’re shooting a diorama, and you want to create some sort of dramatic mood in the image. For example, you want your fighter to be standing heroically amidst a scene of carnage, dead bodies strewn all around him. A shallow depth of field can accomplish this, keeping the hero in sharp focus while allowing his dead foes to drop into soft focus.


Just remember these two basic rules from this article and the previous one:

  1. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.

  2. Changing the aperture requires an equal change in the shutter speed–in the opposite direction.

Gregwa will be taking a break from this series for the summer months. This fall, we’ll consider how to use your computer to perfect your final image.  If you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments so that other readers can benefit from the answers!

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4 Responses to How to Photograph Miniatures: Depth of Field

  1. Alphastream says:

    Very helpful! Thanks!

  2. CptAlph says:

    Aw, we have to wait for fall to get the editing tips? 😥 Lovely guide, thank you!

    I’m certainly no pro, so I thought for sure my “cheapo” digital camera wasn’t going to cut it, but I was able to find and fiddle with all the shutter speed, light, and aperture settings per your suggestions, and managed to get some acceptable shots. I still couldn’t avoid images that seemed washed out in reddish tones.

    In Photoshop, I adjusted the color balance to -30 Cyan, +60 Blue, and adjusted +30 Brightness, +24 Contrast, and that seemed to make the images acceptable at least.

    I’ll be looking forward to your later articles! Thanks again.

    • gregwa says:

      Sorry for the delay on PhotoShop tips, but since you mentioned it, here’s a freebie: In Photoshop, use the “curves” tool to adjust for color correction AND for brightness. Also, bear in mind that the image is RGB, not CMYK–so I’m not sure how you are able to change both cyan (the C in CMYK) and the blue (B in RGB) at the same time. Should be one or the other, since cyan is a shade of blue.

      You’ll want to diminish the red (R in RGB) using the curves command, while also bumping up the blue a trifle. Green should not require any adjustment. That will bring the image closer to a true white balance. It’s done using the color pull-down menu in curves, which is set to RGB by default but offers each of the three individually.

      Incidentally, if you are able to adjust cyan and blue at the same time (which puzzles me), you’re neutralizing the changes if you move one up and one down–since both are types of blue.

      You can then brighten the overall image while you’re still in curves by switching back to the RGB setting in that pull-down, then sliding the MIDDLE point of the line upward (or downward, depending on your version of Photoshop) so that you have a smooth curve rather than a straight diagonal line. Just remember to switch back to RGB before adjusting the diagonal line–otherwise, you’ll be bumping up the mid-tones of only ONE color (blue, for example) but not for the other two colors.

      Heck, I might as well write the article now after posting all this. LOL! But hope it helps in the meantime.

  3. gregwa says:

    I need to add one caveat to the above post: some versions of Photoshop don’t have the “curves” command. Adobe offers a number of variants on Photoshop, such as “Photoshop Deluxe” and “Photoshop Elements.” Any Photoshop product with another word in the name is a scaled-down version of the major program, which nowadays is called “Photoshop CSS.” That’s the big powerhouse program which costs big bucks but is most definitely worth the expenditure.

    So if you’re using Photoshop Elements or some other scaled-down edition, it might not offer the curves menu. But you can probably still find a work-around using the basic concepts which I’ve illustrated above. (In my older version of Photoshop, the curves command is found under the “Image/Adjust” menus, or by pressing CTRL-M. The RGB, red, green, and blue choices in curves are called “channels” in that dialogue box.)

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