Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tutorial: Budget Miniature Photography, My tools and costs

Miniature photography is a major aspect of hobby blogging. After all, how can you show off your great models to best effect without taking some decent pictures. Stahly's Tale of Painters had a great article on miniature photography. Unfortunately, a similar setup is out of the price range and space constraints for many hobbyists. In this multi-part series I will show my set-up and what I have learned so far. This first part will show the tools I use. In part 2 I will show some experiments with different lighting.

Like many people, I am running on a fairly tight budget just now. As such, I needed a way to take pictures with the minimum cost and with the least amount of space used. The picture above shows the setup I use for taking pictures.

Light box
I got the idea for making this little light box from Corvus miniatures. There, he uses an aquarium and foil to get light from many angles. I replicated this design using an old toaster box lined with aluminum foil. I recently modified it so I can fold it up for storage. There is foil on the sides and bottom that do a great job of reflecting light. The aluminum foil is just held on with scotch tape. I have a bulldog clip on there that I used to hold the backgrounds sometimes. I usually rest the camera on the table in front of the model when taking pictures or hold it at different angles. This setup took about 30 minutes to make.
Cost: $0.50 of aluminum foil and tape
From everything I have read, a light is one of the essential tools for taking decent pictures. The lamp I have is a basic one from Ikea. I also bought some daylight, full spectrum light bulbs to reduce the yellow or blue look from light bulbs that are not full spectrum. The lamp and bulbs are also used whenever I paint or model. I have found that a single light with the light box gets a decent result.
Cost: $15 for lamp, $5 for daylight bulb
A nice background really helps to add to the professional finish of the pictures. Corvus miniatures also has some great free backgrounds that I use. My pictures so far have been taken with backgrounds printed using my home inkjet printer. It is a little grainy, but it works alright. I recently got some backgrounds professionally printed. They are a bit glossy, so I have not perfected using them yet.
Cost: $0.50 for ink, $0.50/background at a printers
I am sure that a nice camera makes a big difference. Digital SLR cameras give you lots of options and fine control over your pictures. Unfortunately they are also the same cost as a months rent... I have a five year old, five megapixel Canon camera that I use for my pictures. It was out of date when I bought it and it is definitely on its last legs. It is a Canon Powershot A530. It works. The batteries drain in about 10 pictures though, so it needs replacing soon. As the batteries are so bad, I don't have time to play with settings and just shoot pictures on auto or indoor setting mode, with macro and no flash. I have found this camera takes decent pictures with vibrant colours. Honestly though, if you need to buy a new camera, buy something more modern with rechargeable batteries!
Cost: Used on $32
The camera. Has survived four international vacations, being dropped, frozen, and abused for five years.
Total cost new: $53
Total cost for me: $3 (backgrounds)
This setup is cheap and effective. The lighting is not perfect but you can play around with the pictures, lighting, and angles to get decent results. A professional photo booth, lighting, macro lenses, and dSLR cameras will undoubtedly get better results in the right hands. Taking more time with my lighting and timers would also help. This setup works perfectly fine for an amateur on a budget who is not really interested in photography.

With that said, here are some pictures I have taken with this setup.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where I explore the difference that different lighting conditions will make to your pictures. If you have any questions, please feel free to post in the comments section.


  1. "I recently got some backgrounds professionally printed. They are a bit glossy, so I have not perfected using them yet" - try a very light misting of krylon matte spray on them. I had the same problem but it worked nicely. I must stress though: VERY LIGHT MISTING and as with minis don't spray if the humidity is too high.

  2. I think your pictures are excellent mate, and it just goes to show that you DONT need fancy kit.

    I keep working on my pics, I've taught photography and use a DSLR and my pics are no better than yours.

    The key, always is light. And not always more lint, but the right light and the right camera setting for that light.

    Good post :)

  3. Zab-I was thinking about trying that. I have Testors Matte and when the weather clears up I will give it a try.

    Karitas-Thanks. The next part will explore the effects of lighting. I took pictures of the same model under about 10 different light conditions. It should come up tomorrow afternoon.

  4. I really love the setup, I was curious about where you got the backgrounds, and now I have them printed :D!

    I have been using a lightbox for a few months to great effect, but the right camera is definitely important. I use a Fujifilm FinePix S5700 for most of my photography, but when my batteries are dead (which is often) I just pull out my iphone, and the difference in quality as massive and depressing.


    iPhone :(

    Oddly, outside of the lightbox, the iPhone tends to take pretty decent pictures of minis:

  5. Ian-I find the same results with my ipod camera (much lower resolution pictures though). The camera pictures was taken with the ipod. It can't seem to adjust to the light or something.

  6. Yeah, I'm considering trying an app that gives me more control (like Camera+), but the point and shoot i use, i just pop it into macro and i get pictures that, honestly, make minis look better than they look on the table, lol. I just need to get better about keeping the thing charged (well that and get some of those new NiCad batteries that hold their charge longer while idle).

  7. Cameron, thanks so much for an excellent post. I copied your backgrounds a while ago (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery), making my own from a piece of artists mounting board and spraying it with some cheap grey and black spray paint. So it's great that you've linked to the Corvus Miniatures site. I think your set up looks fantastic - practical, portable and very economical. I love your blog, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the next instalment.

  8. Thanks Sidney. The backgrounds on Corvus are really good. Glad you like the blog.

  9. Looks easy, and cheap! Thanks for the ideas, I might just steal them... =D

  10. Easy and cheap was the goal. Definitely give it a try.

  11. Hi Cameron!

    I'm including your tutorials, beginning with this one, to a tutorial database I'm doing. You can see yours here:

    As you can see, your name and direct link to your tutorial is greatly visible at the top of the tutorial, but if you don't like your tuts to be posted there, just tell me, ok?

    Bye and thanks for your great tutorials!

  12. Hello, thank you for the reference to my site! I'm happy you like the backdrops and spread the word. In the near future (hopefully with a month) there will be a new version of the backdrops available, more colors, higher resolution.

    I think an inkjet printer is best for printnig the backdrops, a laserjet print might look better but then you get a glossy effect, probably the thing you experienced.

    Thanks again,

    Gerrie aka Corvus

  13. Great tutorial about making an affordable and practical photography set up. It took me a long time scrawling over the web to find how people were taking great close ups of minis with so much colour. This helps consolidate this information and make it readily available to all. Great work.


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