This post will be somewhat long, but hopefully useful. I’m trying to cover a lot of things from equipment to settings; I do hope it will be clear and easy to understand regardless. I try to mention the basics and provide links for further reading; this series is meant to be an introduction to key concepts rather than a comprehensive tutorial.
As a disclaimer: this is how it should be done; it does not necessarily mean my own photos are the epitomes of perfection.
Photographing models is essentially studio macro photography. You can do it cheap, even with a reasonably good phone camera, or you can go the whole nine yards, and use a DSLR with a dedicated macro lens -or choose an option in between.
Macro photography is is an incredibly interesting branch of photography, and not just when it comes to plastic. It is essentially the photography of small objects. (Shameless self promotion: I run a blog on macro photos, too.)
Painting and photographing models
There’s also a related issue to mention which is less technical, more philosophical. The camera sees things differently when it comes to macro photography. Tiny irregularities, mistakes stand out incredibly well on a photo- simply because the camera’s point of view is much closer to the model than you eyes’. While you look at the model as if you were looking at it from a distance (one reason for factoring in the scale effect when painting the model), the camera “looks” at it as if you were standing right next to it. The level of detail, the weathering, everything will look different. This can be used to your advantage: you can take photos of the model during the build and check for problems; issues with seams, uneven brushstrokes, etc.. Things that you hardly notice when you look at the model, will stand out like a sore thumb.
It also affects how much weathering you want to do. There’s always a question of how much is too much, but apart from personal taste, it’s worth keeping in mind that your model will look different on a photo than in real life thanks to the above mentioned effect. To put it strongly you can either build for the camera or for the eye. The camera essentially brings the observer close to the model- therefore subtle weathering, which is hardly noticeable when looking at the model with the naked eye, will stand out more, and weathering that you thought looked great and natural on the model when you looked at it, will look over-done.
(My Churchill Gun Carrier is a good example of it. It does not look anything special with the naked eye; just a green piece of resin. When you look at the photos, it looks pleasingly weathered and dusty. The effects are subtle, but visible.)
There are several options to capture the light coming from your model. You can use film cameras (not suggested, but certainly possible), or you can choose from the wide range of digital cameras. In some respect it does not really matter which one you choose (within a range, of course); but it’s important to be aware that DPI does not really matter when choosing an option. Same with megapixels (which is the common unit for smartphone/DSLR resolution). There is more to a camera than just the resolution: the sensor and the optics are the two fundamental things that will determine the quality of the photos.
Smart phone cameras
Smartphones caused a revolution in photography; now everyone and their aunt are taking photos like mad. Newer models of phones are equipped with cameras of remarkable quality; for photos destined to be published on the web these cameras might be just enough. Keep in mind, though: a 12 megapixel phone camera is not going to take better photos than a 9 megapixel DSLR; just the opposite. A phone camera’s sensor is fraction of the size of a decent DSLR’s; the optics is also going to be severely limited by the very small optical parts. A DSLR will have larger sensor, better optics; it will always come out with better quality photos. Same with compact and bridge cameras: optics and sensor size matters. A lot. As I said, for web-only publication it might not matter that much, but the difference is always going to be visible. Sometimes when I can’t be bothered to set everything up, I snap in-progress photos using my phone, but it is a less-than-perfect solution, and it’s quite obvious which photos were taken with my phone and which were taken by the DSLR I use. (If I had space to have a permanent photo corner, I would not be tempted to use the smartphone at all.)
Compact cameras/Bridge cameras
These cameras are perfectly capable of taking good quality photos of models. The sensors are smaller than the DSLR sensors, the optics are usually not that good quality as a £1000+ Nikkor lens’, but the question is: do you really need that good of a lens for this job? (You might, but most of us do not.) For the laymen (meaning: us) these cameras will be perfectly suitable. You can set the most important things yourself: iso/shutter speed/aperture/white balance, and they can shoot RAW. They also normally have a dedicated macro setting (which really is just an aperture/shutter speed setting that was deemed to be “optimal” for macro), and can do most of the jobs you need.
“Real macro” -meaning 1:1 image production- might be out of their league, but you rarely need that large magnification. Bridge cameras (and some compacts) can mount front lenses, which can bring you to this realm, though.
Well, these are the “serious” cameras. Expensive, interchangeable lenses, large sensors. There are different classes within the DSLR world, of course: medium format, full-frame, APS, etc. based on the sensor size. If you decide to invest in a DSLR, you probably should read up on these; for our purposes it’s enough to say that the smaller sensor DSLRs -like the Nikon D3300 I use-, are cheaper and smaller, and are perfectly enough for our purposes. (Not to mention the lenses are cheaper, too.) If you have limited resources it’s better to spend on the objectives than on the camera body. If the glass is good quality it does not matter much if the photo was taken using a D3300 or a D5.
The real advantage of a DSLR is the high quality and the flexibility; you have a lot of options to produce macro photos. (Not all of them are expensive.)
Mirrorless cameras are essentially the same category as the DSLRs. Large, high quality sensors, interchangeable lens, amazing quality. They are smaller and lighter (no bulky prisms and whatnot), but they are considerably more expensive, and you don’t have as wide range of lenses available for them as for the DSLRs.
(Tip for choosing cameras: Pentax cameras in general are very much compatible to all K-mount lenses produced from 1975 onwards… this opens up a very cheap source of high quality glass; the only downside is that most if it will only work in manual mode.)
These settings can be changed in most cameras -even in some of the smartphone models.
This is the trinity of macro photography (or any photography, really, but they are especially important when it comes to macro). If you want to delve into macro photography, learn the phrase: depth of field. You want as much of it as possible; but the larger your magnification, the smaller it gets… so you need to tweak your photos a bit. (This issue of inverse relationship between magnification and depth of field is exaggerated even more with microscopy, by the way.) You will need to juggle with the amount of light you have (with closeups it’s smaller than normal), and the the depth of field.
Aperture is simply put the opening between the lens and the sensor. (It works precisely like the pupils in your eyes.) Its size can be adjusted, and this is how you control how much light should hit the sensor. This, obviously, have ramifications: allow too much light in and your photo will be overexposed. Allow too little, and it will be underexposed. It also effects, as we discussed, the depth of field. It goes from a large number (small aperture) to a small (large aperture).
Shutter speed: as the name implies, it is the amount of time the sensor is exposed to the light. If the aperture is large, the speed will be high, since you need to expose the sensor for a shorter amount of time with more light, and vica versa. If it is too low, you will need something to hold the camera stable- a tripod, ideally.
Playing around with these two settings you can achieve different effects: choosing a large aperture and fast shutter speed allows you to “freeze” motion (for example droplets of a water fountain, the cliche of photography students), or you can make it look “smooth” if you choose a small aperture and longer exposure.
ISO: describes the sensitivity of the sensor. In the film era, you chose films with certain ISOs for certain tasks: ISO100 was perfect for outdoor photos, 200 was normally chosen for darker, indoor photos. With digital cameras you can choose the value at any time. The low ISO setting will give you nice, crisp photos, for the price of lower sensitivity. Higher ISOs give you more sensitivity, but the photos will be grainier, noisier.
If the aperture is wide (small number), the depth of field will be small, but you allow a lot of light to the sensor (and use faster shutter speeds and lower ISO); conversely, if you set the aperture small (large number), you maximise the depth of field -but this means you decrease the amount of light hitting the sensor, so you need to increase the shutter speed, and the ISO (sensitivity) of the sensor. The more you decrease the shutter speed, the more stable you need the camera to be (tripod with a timer is necessary), and the more you increase the ISO, the more noise you introduce to your photos, and they will look grainy… so it’s a balancing act. You want to hit the ideal combination of these three factors. There are good calculators available which can help you choosing the right settings. Normally shooting at aperture f/10-11 in aperture priority mode solves most of the problems, but this is not an absolute rule. At large magnifications apertures f/22 can be used when necessary to increase the depth of field -but this will increase the shutter speed dramatically. (Aperture priority mode means you set the aperture manually, and the camera chooses the shutter speed.) ISO should not go over 400 because the photos become visibly noisy (grainy).
Most light sources will modify the color of the object they illuminate, unless you are using special studio lights. (Please see this article for a very good explanation.) Incandescent, neon, LED, etc lights all have their own temperatures, that is to say, colors (just think of the sodium lights on the streets; they stain everything yellow; this -to a lesser extent- is true for most other light sources).
Normally your brain corrects for this, and you will see colors similarly under different sources of illumination regardless of the light source’s color temperature, but these differences will show up on your photos, so you must account for them. The best is to get a “natural light” bulb for your light-source. (If you paint in the evening it’s a good idea to use it in your desk light as well.) The other thing you can do is to set your camera’s white balance.
Most digital cameras you can set the white balance to automatic, which works OK in most cases. If there is some funkiness going on with the colors, you can use a white sheet to set the camera to your own lighting conditions. Your camera will adjust the photos it takes based on the white color you “show” it. (It’s quite important to set it properly in order to reproduce the colors faithfully.) If you shoot in RAW (that is you save your photos in RAW format), you can adjust the white balance later in an appropriate software (Photoshop, for example); however it takes time, so it’s better just to take the photo right.