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What Kind of Camera Should I Use to Photograph my Models? Try your Smartphone (overview)

I get this photography question a lot.

You want to photograph your miniatures in the best light possible. The first instinct for many is to grab the closest object that has a camera attached to it; this is usually a smartphone, e.g., iphone.

And, this is actually the perfect response.

…but, the pictures are grainy.

Read on.

Yes, take that photo with your camera phone. Smart phones today are fantastic tools for taking photographs.

Several years ago camera phones were still improving their game for capturing images–photos came out horrible. They sucked.

But, that has all changed.

Your first choice for miniature photography could be your smart phone.

If it’s all you own, and you don’t want to spend more money, it’s true.

I know that some of the more pro-photogs out there will disagree.

“You need a DSLR–“

My response: not really. If you have a smartphone model sold in the past 3 years, then realize that you have nearly all the tech to photograph a model well.

Fair warning, your photo won’t be something you can blow-up into a banner sized poster for your wall. I mean, you could, but there’ll be some problems that I won’t get into here.

But, for a blog, an instagram or Facebook post, using your smartphone is great!

untitled shoot-9770
Did you know that your iPhone or Android phone uses sensor technology made by big camera companies, like Nikon or Sony?

Smartphones have all the technology needed for great miniature photos.

I know smartphones can take great pictures. Just look at all of the selfies posted on social media! Despite being “unprofessional”, these are good examples of portraiture done within camera phones. Bright, sharp, and colorful photos are everywhere nowadays, all taken with a smart phone. I’ve seen professional-looking wedding photos taken with an iphone.

Miniature photography is simply portraiture photography on a smaller scale.

Companies like Games Workshop, Privateer Press, and Corvus Belli show incredible photos of painted models from their line-up. Granted, these models are painted by incredible artists and there’s high-production value in their photo shoots. That is, they spend a lot of money on marketing.

But, you don’t want to spend a lot of money. This is a hobby after all.

How do I capture great miniature photos with a smart phone?

It’s about Light. Improve your lighting setup. For painting miniatures, I use these lights (here), which could also be use for photography. 

Nemo (Privateer Press)
Mini in bad light

Taking a great photo of a miniature with a smartphone requires lots of quality light. All of the professional photos of miniatures that you admired were taken with great lighting.

The reason more expensive cameras are expensive is because they are simply more sensitive to light. These professional cameras are more light-sensitive because of one big factor: sensor size.

When light enters the lens of any digital camera, the glass focuses the light onto a sensor. The sensor (which might have been film in the analog days) sends the information it collects to a computer processor that kicks out the digital photo.

A bigger sensor means a camera can collect more light. But, in poor light, even the most expensive cameras with huge sensors will struggle to produce a good image.

Smart phones have very tiny sensors. They can’t collect a lot of external light.

Poor light is the problem for the smartphone photographer.

What do I mean with poor light?

I don’t mean just light that isn’t bright enough.

Poor light is either lighting that is 1) too dim, or 2) too strong.

Light that is too dim will produce grainy images, because the camera, in this case a smartphone, will try to compensate by increasing the exposure gain. Increased exposure gain is similar to increasing the volume of your radio; not only do you get more signal of what you want to listen to, but you also get more static noise. The same for images. The grain is the noise.

Light that is too strong will make “hot spots” on your miniature. The typical example is the use of flash. Flash will direct bright light in one direction at your model. It kills color. It kills contrast.

Strong, directional light is destructive for miniature photography.

Using light that is too strong can be worse than using light that is dim.

Kaya the Moonhunter (Privateer Press)
Kaya the Moonhunter stands in moonlight that is too strong….do your minis look like this in photos?

What can I do to improve my lighting?

There are two simple ways to improve your lighting so you can effectively take great photos with your camera phone.

  1. Get a light box. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It can even be home made. A light box is a way to control the amount and quality of light that hits your model. The great thing about light boxes is that you can setup backdrops of different colors and patterns to add a different atmospheric dimension to your miniature photograph. Personally, I tend to go with simple backgrounds, all black or white.
  2. Stabilize your smartphone. This can be done with a tripod or other device that holds your phone steady for you. What this allows you to do is allow your camera phone use a slower shutter speed (depending on your phone, shutter-speed can be manually changed through native or third-party applications). A slower shutter speed means that the sensor in your camera phone is exposed to more light. Stabilizing your camera with a tripod prevents the fuzzy image that results from movement.
  3. Improve the source of lights (suggested bulbs or lamps). You could spend a lot of money on just bulbs, flashes, or constant lighting setups. There are so many options. But, if you are aware of the principles laid out above, you could probably get away with very little additional lighting equipment, and still get great images from your smart phone camera.

Put #1 and #2 together and your smart phone becomes your most cost-effective tool for photographing miniatures. Some light box kits come with tripods for smart phones.

There are many options I recommend for light boxes and tripods for smart phone photography of miniatures:

The light box kit I currently use ($40) is great for my general studio photography. It has greatly improved the quality of my photos (see here or here)! 

untitled shoot-9767
My setup

Okay, I took my photos. They look better, but still don’t look great.

There’s some post-processing work required to push digital images taken straight out-of-the-camera (OOC). I won’t go into too much depth here, because everyone does it differently. Post-processing software, such as Adobe Lightroom, are industry standard for processing photos for professional results.

untitled shoot-9764
Starcraft Hydralisk  – taking photos of a fully assembled, unpainted work-in-progress miniature

There are free photo editing options.

Google Snapseed, for example, is freely available on almost every desktop or mobile platform. I’ve used it extensively in the past with great results.

The two major items that you will likely want to learn how to adjust after you’ve taken your photo include:

  • Exposure – how bright the overall image will be. Although this should be done with your improved lighting setup (e.g., your light box), subtle changes in exposure can help improve the quality of the image. Changing too exposure with software can introduce unwanted noise or grain.
  • Color temperature – this is the overall warmth or coolness of the light that is on your photo, hence, your model. You want the colors on your model to accurately represent the color of the paint you applied. If the light quality from your light box or other setup isn’t perfectly neutral  (this is hard to achieve even with professional equipment), it will cast a weird feel over your entire photo. Most applications will have sliders that allow you to manipulate the temperature or tint of your image. There’s science to this, but for you or me, use your eyes and change the temperature until you feel colors look good
    • Hint: If you know there’s a white or gray color on your model or backdrop, you can use this is as an indicator of color accuracy. For example, make the color temperature such that white paint, well, looks white).

Of course, a more expensive camera, such as a DSLR or the emerging mirrorless cameras, can produce higher resolution photos with greater contrast and color rendition. A topic for another time!


If you found this article helpful and enjoyed the photos, please let me know!

I’m always opens to new suggestions for topics on photography and miniatures.

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