Did you know that your smartphone can take amazing photos of your painted miniatures? Compact camera technology has come a long way! The image quality gap has narrowed between smartphones and cameras. Under proper conditions, images taken on smartphones are indistinguishable from consumer grade cameras. These include DSLR, compact bridge cameras, and mirrorless systems. So, what is the best camera for miniature photography today?
In this article, I show a comparison of images captured on a smartphone and a dedicated camera. There are a few important image quality differences between a smartphone or a camera. Read on to see a comparison between a smartphone and camera for miniatures and models.
Is getting a dedicated camera for miniature photography worth it?
It comes down to your budget. If your budget allows you to buy equipment to improve your photography, then by all means go for it. But, if you have a decent smartphone, you may be able to get away with your image quality already.
Here are 3 reasons why you should get a dedicated camera for miniature photography:
- Better resolution and color – A higher resolution camera will have a larger sensor that will capture more details and a wider color gamut.
- Control and versatility – A dedicated camera will provide you with manual control over shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. Manual settings always give you the ability to produce better images. Note that some smartphone apps may help you replicate these manual controls.
- Data rich image files – A camera will capture bigger image files that give you more creative opportunities and editing power. You’ll be able to produce professional quality photos of your miniatures with a camera.
Here are 3 reasons why you should NOT get a dedicated camera for miniature photography:
- Expense – Any new camera will be an extra cost to account for in your hobby budget.
- Social media posting only – A smartphone may be enough for the image quality you want for social media. But, there are limitations. Depending on the conditions where you take your photos, you’ll need good lighting.
- Technical challenge – To use a camera to its fullest potential, e.g., no automatic mode, you need a good amount of technical skill. Manual mode can help you create awesome images of your miniatures, but only if you know how to use them.
A dedicated camera isn’t necessary for creating good images of your painted models. At normal viewing distances with good lighting, you may be unable to distinguish images captured with a smartphone and camera. On the other hand, a camera is a more flexible photography tool.
Continue reading below to see comparisons between a smartphone and a camera.
The #1 reason why a camera is better than a smartphone is…
The most significant difference between a camera and a smartphone is the size of the sensor. In a camera, the sensor is much larger than the sensor in a smartphone. Sensor size affects how much light the camera collects when the shutter opens. A larger sensor gathers more light. This means your camera will produce better detail resolution, contrast, and more color.
A disadvantage of the larger sensor is the side-effect of having a shallower depth-of-field (DoF) for a given aperture. In other words, it will be harder for you to keep more of your model in-focus with a regular camera. A smartphone makes capturing the entire miniature in focus easier because of its deeper depth of field. You can read more about DoF here. Or, you can use “focus-stacking” to overcome issues with out-of-focus areas of your miniatures in a photo.
Five ways to take better pictures of miniatures and models
Here are 5 tips to improve your miniature photography with the camera you have:
- Change your perspective – Bring your camera lens down to the level of the model. Instead of shooting from your standing height, photograph your models from their perspective (usually a small distance from the ground).
- Avoid camera shake with a tripod or faster shutter – Use a tripod or faster shutter speed to avoid image blur from a shaky camera. Shooting handheld in bad light is a recipe for blurry photos.
- Mind your colors – When you take a photo, you may need to adjust your colors to account for the varied ambient light. Most cameras have automatic white balance settings you can adjust. Improve your photos by tweaking these white balance settings for better colors in your images.
- Compose your subject – Model composition affects how your viewers “read” your image. Consider using the rule-of-thirds to create better photos of your miniatures and models.
- Improve your light – Good lighting is everything in photography. Improve your lighting for miniature photography by using external artificial lights, like a ring light or photo light box.
Smartphone Vs Camera (The Setup)
Here are the results of miniature photography with an iPhone (11) and a camera (Sony A7 series) with a 40mm lens. Most of the conditions during this photoshoot I kept the same. There are differences, however, in how I setup the equipment due to the limits of what I own.
The idea is to show you how a smartphone can do 80-90% of the job of making great photos of miniatures when you have control over the lighting condition. Also, you can overcome some of the main limitations of a smartphone camera with post-processing software.
In the following images, I shoot miniature photos with the camera and smartphone attached to a tripod. The miniatures are lit with a daylight neutral LED ring light placed in front of the model. For a review of the Yesker Ring Light I’m using for this comparison, you can check out this article. The LimoStudio lightbox I’m using is reviewed in this mini photo booth article.
Results of Photographing Miniatures with a Smartphone or a Camera
I photographed all the miniatures with automatic settings in the smartphone (default) or the Sony camera (switched to automatic). All photos you see below are cropped for easier viewing on your screen (mobile or desktop). On the camera, you’re seeing the results of the RAW file converted quickly into JPEG format. The smartphone already outputs all its images as JPEGs. No color correction was applied. White balance was set to auto.
As you can see, it is fairly difficult to distinguish both images in terms of quality. I’m not sure which I like better. Perhaps the contrast and sharpness is better with the camera taken photo of the Infinity miniatures Jotum model. But, the colors seem to pop more from the Apple iPhone. It is possible that my iPhone automatically applies color corrections and other “enhancements” to the images.
In either case, the smartphone can do the job of taking nice miniature photos!
When I took a photo of the Infinity Miniatures “Cutter” TAG model, the results were similar. The iPhone created an image with much higher color saturation. I could have pushed the colors in the camera photograph with software like Lightroom, or free apps like Google’s Snapseed.
You can the differences between the smartphone and camera much better after I zoomed into the photos. The camera produces a much higher resolution image. Even cropped, everything looks a lot more crisp and detailed in the photo taken with the Sony camera. Whereas the iPhone photo was blurry and the colors lost some of their depth.
What About Depth of Field Between the Camera and Smartphone?
As mentioned earlier, the sensor size of a camera affects the depth of field (DoF). Depth of field is the distance between the farthest and closest point in your image that appear relatively sharp.
There is an inverse relationship between sensor size and depth of field. As camera sensor size increases, the depth of field decreases (less of your subject stays in-focus). As the size of the camera sensor decreases, the depth of field increases (more of the subject will be in-focus). You can see the effect of this relationship in the images below using the full-frame Sony camera and my iPhone.
Comparing depth of field (DoF)
At first glance, you may not notice the shallower depth of field in the image captured with the full frame Sony camera, as compared with the smartphone. But, if you look more closely, you’ll find that indeed more of the miniature is out of focus in the camera-taken image. With the smartphone, it is easier to keep more of your subject in-focus when photographing with automatic settings.
To keep more of your subject in-focus with a regular camera with a relatively larger sensor, you would have to stop down or close your aperture (increase your f-stop number). To compensate for the loss of light entering your camera (which affects the brightness of your image), you would then need to slow your shutter or increase your ISO.
The “exposure triangle” describes the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. For more about how to shoot better photos using the exposure triangle and manual settings on your camera, check out this article.
When is a Camera Really Better than a Smartphone?
A camera truly shines when photographing miniatures in an uncontrolled environment. When you’re away from your home studio or lightbox, perhaps at a gaming convention or a local game store, and want to photograph miniatures, a camera will be MUCH better than a smartphone. This is because the lighting conditions won’t be as good. In poor ambient lighting conditions, a smartphone will suffer.
In a short test, I photographed Lysander, an Imperial Fist Space Marine model, using my iPhone and full-frame Sony camera.
Although the focal lengths (e.g., the lens) were different, I did the best I could to use the same angle and perspective. I cropped the images (not too much) to also give them a similar composition. The lighting for this photoshoot was the typical overhead room lights you may find around your home or in a game store/club where you might play Warhammer 40k or other tabletop wargames.
Magnifying a smartphone or camera image reveals stark differences
As you can see, the camera produced a much brighter, cleaner image using automatic settings, than compared with the iPhone. The smartphone camera did a really good job capturing details, but there’s less sharpness overall, a bit of grainy noise, and less color vibrancy. You’ll also notice the background feels a bit more hazy in the smartphone image. The shallower depth of the field of the camera taken photo helps make the miniature “pop” or standout in the photograph.
When you zoom into the photos taken on either the smartphone or camera, you can really see the differences. The photo taken with the smartphone is blurry and darker than the Sony camera photograph. The contrast and color in the camera taken image really holds up when you magnify the picture. Of course, a part of this discrepancy is due to the much higher resolution capabilities of the full-frame sensor in the camera.
Cost-Benefit Considerations of a Smartphone Vs a Camera
You don’t need an expensive full-frame professional camera to see improvements in image quality compared with a smartphone. Although for my test I used a high end camera (it’s what I have for work), any regular dedicated camera system can do a better job than a smartphone with a small sensor.
The cost for cameras has dropped a lot, whilst modern smartphones have become relatively much more expensive. Although the image quality gap between smartphones and normal consumer cameras has narrowed, a dedicated camera will always give you better photos under more shooting conditions.
It’s up to you with how much you want to spend. There are pros and cons of cameras like with any tool. At the end of the day, if you have the budget for a dedicated camera for photographing miniatures, you’ll find a lot of flexibility in where you can photograph the models (e.g., outside, inside, game stores, anywhere), and more creative possibilities when editing higher resolution images.
Bonus Tip: Improve Your Light for Better Miniature Photos
The easiest things you can do to take better pictures of your miniatures is to use good light. For example, using a good ring light placed in front of the model can immediately improve your miniature photography. A high quality LED light with high CRI (more about this here) will help you produce great miniature photos with your smartphone or your camera.
Is a camera really better than a smartphone for photographing miniatures? The answer depends on what you want to do with the photos you take. If you’re looking to get the absolute best image quality of your miniatures that you spent all that hard work painting, then a camera will always be a good tool to learn and use.
But, if you want decent (even professional) looking photos for instagram or other social media sharing, then a smartphone might be all you need. I love photography and it’s why I have a dedicated camera, which gives me all sorts of creative opportunities beyond photographing miniatures. When it comes to deciding if a camera is worth buying and learning how to use properly, it will depend on your personal goals for the hobby.
I hope this article gave you some insights into the differences and similarities between dedicated camera and a smartphone for photographing miniatures and models.
Until next time, happy mini painting and picture taking!