How to Make Realistic Images of Miniatures

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A quick start guide to making images of miniature scenes.

Whether with toys, model railroad sets, war gaming miniatures, you name it, if you want realistic-looking image of miniature environments, this guide is for you.

Get Low

So you have a little plastic figure all set up and ready to be photographed in front of you. Imagine you were about to do a photo-shoot of a full-scale real person. How would you place that person within your camera’s frame? In most cases, you would shoot them straight on, not way above them. Do the same for your miniatures. Get on their level, even if it means you’re squatting or laying on the ground (this takes dedication folks!).

In the words of awesome mini photographer Mark Crummet:

“This picture is a perfect example to me of how Camera Position Matters.

Assuming these guys are supposed to be six feet tall, this picture was taken from a scale 10 feet in the air. Something happens when you shoot down on a subject- it looks smaller. The POV diminishes the subject. This is a common issue in the photography of miniatures, and gets to the root of what it is you’re trying to doing in the first place- are you taking pictures of small things, or are you trying to make small things look big? Are they in our world, or are we in theirs?

Imagine if this picture had been taken from a camera position five inches lower. The whole scale of the image flips. The viewer is now seeing these figures as regular sized humans rather than as toys. Suddenly the whole picture changes- these are not toys posed next to a dead squirrel; now it’s a picture of two guys standing over the carcass of a gigantic squirrel! To me, a much more interesting image.

I see so many photos of miniatures ruined by this thoughtless use of camera position, when a slight change could turn an ordinary picture of a small thing into a really thoughtful, interesting picture of a different world. Pictures of small things are boring; pictures of small things made big is way more interesting!”

Compare the above image, to the one below. The photographer didn’t quite shoot the subject straight on, but they did get lower and look how much more convincing it is.

Now here’s one where the photographer got up close with the mini and wa-la, much more realistic.

Blur!

Shallow depth of field is your best friend when it comes to photographing toys and miniatures. Having a narrow field of focus allows you to pick and choose where the viewer looks and what specifically they see. Learn more about depth of field here.

Red Car

With a less shallow depth of field in the above image, the sky, which is a piece of paper with roughly water-color painted blue streaks would appear as just that – a crudely painted crinkled paper, the sky would look more cut off and less like it recedes into the ground in the distance, the tree would look less full.

IMG_0375

This is the paper that forms the sky in the above image.

Depth of field allows for the transformation of these diorama-like scenes. It’s what makes the photo the final piece of art, rather than the scene itself.

Simple v. All the Things

This one all depends on your style and what you’re trying to depict. If you’re more of a minimalist, then you’ll want to choose what you include in your image carefully and with meaning and then choose your main subject matter as your point of focus.

Aftermath

If you like detailed, all in focus scenes, then those little details matter in a big way.

If you choose not to blur things out, not to pair your scene down, then you need to make sure to make or source realistic items to complete your scene for a realistic look.

Above are two images made with the same dollhouse doll. While both images are fairly simplistic, the top focuses on her facial features while the bottom shows her toes and the rough wood surface of a porch. A viewer is more likely to believe the second image is of a real full-scale scene because the details, when focused in on have some realism.

And Some Other Things:

  • Mind your scale. Non-mini materials or various scales together can be a dead giveaway that your image isn’t of a real scene. Choose dollhouse and model train layout accessories for things like gravel and grass.
    • But! Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to have small hints of your mini world.
  • Use a tripod and remote or self timer to make sure your camera is steady and stable.
  • If you have it in your tool box or have the budget, get a macro lens and a dslr camera! Otherwise use a macro or microscope mode on a point and shoot camera, or a clip on macro lens on your smart phone.
  • Use a desk lamp or studio light to illuminate your scene. Try to stay away from camera flashes. With your studio lights your aim is to emulate sun light or a room light, so choose the angle of your light accordingly.
    • If your scene is outdoors, use a single light source. There’s only one sun after all.

If you’re reading this post then you’ve most likely looked through mini photography shots before. You probably even have some favorites. Look through them again. (find  a list of artists to explore here)

How much of the background can you see in these images? What has the photographer left in focus and why do you think that is? What would make each of these images more realistic? What do you like and dislike about each image?

Study those images and then find more. The answer to the questions you ask yourself will inform your photography.


Want to learn more about photographing miniatures? Check out my 7 part series starting here.

Tell me all about your experience photographing miniatures and toys in a comment below. If I’ve left something out or you’ve tried some of the tips above I’d love to hear all about it.

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