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This is a guide on how to take pictures indoors with no specialist lighting kit. I’m always asked how I take my photographs. Sadly, this guide isn’t how I take my photographs. I prefer to use flash photography. Flash photography isn’t a good start for beginners because it takes up room and costs more money. So with some basic kit, I’ll show you how to take clear photographs of your miniatures. 

What is a good photo?

We all love looking at pictures of painted models. A good photograph can really show off a paint job and present the miniature in the best possible way. So what makes a good photo? I would say a good photograph is one that is completely in focus, the colours are represented correctly, it’s well lit with no obscurring shadows and the picture clarity is pin sharp (no noise or grain).

What kind of photographic equipment do I need?

For this tutorial you will need a camera that is capable of adjusting the Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO and White Balance. Typically these cameras are DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or Bridge (a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR). You will also need a photographic grey card and a tripod. 

What are all these words you’re using?

Shutter Speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes. It can be really slow or really fast. A slow Shutter Speed lets in loads of light. A fast Shutter Speed doesn’t let in as much light. Shutter Speed is represented on the camera by numbers. 1 is 1 second. 1/60 is 1/60th of a second. There are a whole range of incremental steps. You can even leave the shutter open indefinitely if you set it to BULB and it’ll only close when you release the shutter button.

Aperture is the opening at the back of the lens that can change it’s opening diameter (think James Bond opening credits). It’s represented on the camera by a number, usually with an ‘f’ in front of the number. f3.5 is wide open, while f22 is a small hole. Just like Shutter Speed the Aperture is another way of controlling how much light gets into the camera. 

ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. It’s used by The International Organisation for Standardisation. They are based in Geneva, Switzerland and set international standards for manufacturing and engineering, one of which is film sensitivity in photography. Digital Cameras don’t use film anymore, instead of exposing film, it exposes a sensor. The ISO setting changes the sensitivity of the sensor. A low number like 100 will be crisp but will require a lot of light to expose the picture correctly. An ISO of 3000 will not require that much light to expose correctly however it will be extremely grainy. Try not to go over ISO400. The lower the better though.

White Balance button is a series of built in presets that allow you to change how the camera perceives colour temperature. Low-temperature lighting is progressively warmer (more red/yellow), while high-temperature lighting grows progressively colder (more blue). These built in presets allow you to select a White Balance that suits the light in your shooting environment. You can set it to Daylight, Tungsten Lights, Shade and lot more (depending on your camera).

Lets get started.

Set up: Set up a large piece of white paper and tape the top of it to the wall or a box to make a nice curve. If you only have one light, set it up behind and above the camera shining onto the subject, don’t get too close. If you have two lights, set them up at 45º degree angles in front of the subject. Try to pair lights. Use the same light bulbs/bedside lamps, painting lights etc. Don’t use fluorescent lights because they create a flicker and are unpredictable. You can leave the room’s main light on as well. The key is to just try and bath the subject in light evenly, so shadows cancel each other out. You don’t have to have the lights close at all. If you’re getting shadow to one side, you can use a piece of white card opposite your light source as a reflector to bounce the light onto the shadowed area. 

Mount your camera on a tripod and set it to Full Auto. It’s usually represented by a green rectangle. You’re probably thinking “what a lousy tutorial” but seriously this is to show you why you shouldn’t use Full Auto. Look through the view finder and half press and hold the shutter button. You should hear the lens move as it auto focusses, it might beep when it’s in focussed. Continue pressing the shutter button all the way down to take the picture. 

Ok, let’s see what we have here. I’ve actually overlaid some close ups and text over the photo. Ignore those for a second and just look at the Bio Titan. At the beginning I mentioned some criteria that I believe ‘makes a good picture’. Lets judge the above picture on those merits. 

Completely in focus: Sadly this photo isn’t totally in focus. As you can see from the close up the back leg it is blurry. This is to do with the depth of field. This picture would be described as having short depth of field because only the front objects are in focus. Open Apertures (such as f3.5) produce short depth of field, whilst closed Apertures (like f22) have longer depths of fields with everything in focus. 

The colours are represented correctly: This is another fail. Auto White Balance (AWB) has given us a really warm orangey white. This is partly to do with the lights I’m using and how the camera is seeing that. 

It’s well lit with no obscurring shadows: The subject is too dark. It’s really difficult to make out details. It has underexposed the subject because it didn’t want to over expose the background. It’s trying to work out the correct exposure of the whole picture so it’s compromising. 

The picture clarity is pin sharp: This isn’t bad actually, the camera must have selected a low ISO number so we’re not getting any grain/noise. if you’re getting noise or grain try bringing your light source closer.

Full Auto was rubbish, let’s take back control and set the camera to Manual. It’s usually the M on the dial on the top. On the display you can see lots of information. At the top of the screen from left to right we have Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. The large M on the left is to remind you you’re in Manual. The -2..1..0..1..+2 is the exposure meter. AWB is Auto White Balance.  We don’t need to worry about the icons (spot metering, shot count, battery, file size etc). 

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The first thing I want to fix is the depth of field so everything is in focus. So I set the aperture to a smaller hole (high number) f22. I’ve set the ISO to 400 which is nice and low. Anything under this is good. I then watch the exposure meter (-2..1..0..1..+2). I change the shutter speed setting until the cursor is on 0 for a perfect exposure. Because the Aperture is really small and not much light is getting into the camera the shutter speed needs to be open for longer to expose the sensor correctly. If the ISO was 100 and not 400 the shutter speed would have to be open for even longer. As you can see the Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are intrinsically linked.

The downside to this is the long shutter speed. If we were holding the camera the picture would be blurry because of all the camera shake. We’re ok though because we’re using a tripod. Generally speaking if you’re shooting handheld the rule of thumb is nothing slower than 1/60th of a second. You won’t get camera shake with that but you will have to open your aperture or make your ISO higher. 

Turn the camera’s timer on. The reason why you should use a timer with a long shutter speed is because pressing the button even on a tripod can move the camera. Even the slightest jolt can create a camera shake blur. The timer eliminates that. 

Right, lets see how the Manual settings have come out. The good news is we’ve fixed the depth of field and the whole subject is in focus. We’ve also got a good exposure on the subject and the details are well lit and with our ISO no higher than 400 we still have good clarity with no grain.

Our whites aren’t white though, so now we have to fix the White Balance. For this I’m going to share a professional tip. Custom White Balance.

Remember in the list of ‘items you will need’, I mentioned a grey card. Well here it is. I bought this one on eBay for £8. The reason we need a grey card is to trick the camera. Cameras aren’t great at seeing white, they compensate the white and it looks grey. Look at any photos you’ve taken of snow, I bet the snow is grey. The grey card will also sort out the colour temp.

Keepint the Manual settings the same from earlier take another photograph, this time of the grey card. 

Press your camera’s menu button and find the Custom WB option and select it. 

Set the last picture you took of the grey card as the WB data. Press OK.

Return to the main screen and then go into your White Balance Presets (It’s the button labelled WB) and select Custom. 

We are now ready to take another picture of the Bio-Titan. 

Would you look at the difference! The picture is totally transformed. We now have a picture that meets all the criteria I listed earlier. It’s fully in focus, the colours are perfectly represented, there are no shadows obscuring the picture and it has good clarity. 

I didn’t use any specialist lights, just a couple of bedside table lamps and the room’s light. I made sure the lamps weren’t too close creating shadows and were quite high up. Your shutter speed will vary depending on how much light you can get. It might be slower if you only have one light source. The important thing is not to worry about buying daylight bulbs, photo light boxes, diffusers or filters. You just need an inexpensive grey card and you can use what ever lights you like. 

You also might want to over exposure on the exposure metre a click or two if your white is a touch grey still. Taking a photo then changing the aperture or shutter speed a click, then taking another Photo and repeating this several times is called bracketing. When you view your pictures on a computer you will have several to choose from from slightly under exposed through to slightly over exposed. 

The camera to take the pictures of the Hierophant is an entry level DSLR. It’s a Canon 500D with an 18-55mm kit lens. I don’t think you can buy it new anymore, but I see it second hand for around £220 with lens. The camera I used to take photos of me using the 500D is a Canon 7D with a 24mm prime lens. When I’m shooting flash photography I use my 7D with a 60mm macro prime lens. 

Remember, spending more money doesn’t mean better photos. It just means more options and settings. Which will be wasted without knowledge. 

If enough people ask I might do a smart phone / point and shot camera guide which focuses more on post production using cheap/free image software. 

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