Photographing models part 2. Lenses and other alternatives

In the previous post we discussed the cameras and basic settings; we did not cover anything in great detail, but I hope it was enough to provide some help on what you need to focus on when learning and practising photography. (Again, these posts are more of a “do as I say don’t do as I do”, rather than me talking as an expert.)

So we now have the cameras covered; let’s talk about lenses and other options.

“Macro mode”

This is an option on virtually all cameras, not just DSLRs. What this mode means is simply a preset set of values of aperture/shutter speed/ISO that is deemed to be optimal of getting the best close-up shots using the optics of the camera; that’s it. It does not change anything in the lens itself. For larger models (I mean scale models, not camera models), it is a perfectly usable option. Any kit lens (18-55mm) can normally do closeups that are good enough for a 1/35 tank. But that is where the usefulness ends; for true macro shots it will not suffice. If you want to zoom into smaller details, like a 1/35 (or 1/72) scale face, you will find that you need something extra.

Front Lenses


These lenses screw onto the front of the lens, like a filter. The good news is that bridge cameras and certain compacts can mount them, too, giving you some extra flexibility that you would expect from a more expensive DSLR setup. (You can find telephoto and wide-angle attachments as well.) These lenses are normally quite cheap, and produce acceptable results. (I took these sunflower photos using a 10X front lens and the D3300 Nikon with the kit lens mounted.) They come in sets, and are stackable to increase magnification; I tend to use them if I can’t be bothered to change the lenses, or if I don’t want to bring a heavy macro around for a hike. (They do affect image quality negatively, but for scale model photos to be published online they are perfectly fine. Amusingly though they do turn your camera short-sighted; you will lose the ability for infinite focus…) The real drawback is that the edges of the photos are not going to be as sharp as the center of the photo – most of the time it’s not noticeable, but if you want to photograph a big, flat thing (stamp collection), you will see the issues with sharpness.

Bellows and extension tubes

These sit between the objective and the body of the camera, lengthening the distance between the sensor and the optical elements. This allows a closer focus than the normal minimum focusing distance of the lens, making the subject larger -essentially turning the lens itself into a macro objective. The tubes are sold in sets allowing the length to be adjusted incrementally, while the bellow -obviously- does the same thing in a gradual fashion; the principle is the same.

There are problems with this solution, though. One problem, the most important one, is that less light reaches the sensor; and in photography light is everything. You always want to maximise the amount of light you have; this is such a big issue in microscopy, for example, that they use immersion oils between the optical elements and the subject to get every little photons possible onto the sensor (or photo-multiplier tube, but this is a different topic altogether).

When photographing scale models you are in complete control of the lightning so the question of light is less severe, but you still want to have as much of it as you can. (This is a more serious issue for other types of macro photography; especially if you are working outside trying to chase down small insects.) The bigger issue is for us that normally neither the extension tubes nor the bellows have any electrical components that can transfer signals from the camera body to the lens, rendering the lens into a full manual one. Again, if you are happy to fiddle with the settings in full manual it’s not such an issue, but it does get old real fast. It’s good to learn to use the camera in full manual, but you really want to simplify taking photos as much as you can. Especially if you decide to expand your vistas and go on photographing wildlife- while a tank model will wait for you to find the appropriate settings, a spider might get bored and go off somewhere else if you can’t get the shot in seconds.

Bellows and tubes costs more than front lenses; and they cost significantly more if they can transfer electronic signals to the lens. I found that these high-end versions actually cost as much as the cheaper, second-hand dedicated macro lenses, even though they do have the severe disadvantage of taking light away from the sensor. Since they seem to cost about the same as a superior solution, I never really bothered with them. There is no shame in buying a second-hand lens. (Just make sure it’s not scratched, there is no dust -or mould- in it, and the motors work properly. My Tamron, unfortunately, only works in manual focusing mode, because the focusing motor does not function.)

Inverted lenses

There is a budget option to turn any lens into a macro objective. This is an interesting solution, but not very practical in my opinion. (Again: let’s simplify things as best as we can.)

Dedicated macro objective

Well, this is the real deal. A lens that produces closeups, and can also be used as a portrait objective. True macros have a reproduction ratio of 1:1- meaning that a 20 mm long object will be 20 mm long on the sensor. (Here’s a good tutorial on macros that is worth reading.) Several companies put the word “macro” on their objectives without them being “true” macros only giving you a 1:2 magnification. These are decent enough objectives but not true macros (but they may perfectly suit your needs nevertheless). True macro or not, objectives are -obviously- not cheap (my dream objective costs about 300 GBP and it’s not even expensive as lenses go), but they produce the best results. (Here’s a good guide on choosing one.) I use a 90mm Tamron objective; it can be very useful in wildlife photography as well. The 90mm focal length allow you to be suitably far from your subject, so bees and other critters don’t feel like you’re invading their personal space. (Which is a mutually advantageous thing, believe me, especially when we’re talking about bees.) The quality is simply incredible.


Macro objectives are not the perfect solution for all, though; with larger models you will find that you can’t fit everything into the frame, and the depth of field will be an issue, too. Be prepared to use a combination of lenses: sometimes a kit objective with a small aperture and a tripod will be enough. When you need to focus on the small details, you will need to break out the front lenses or the macro objective.

If the constant discussion about it was not enough to hammer this point home, using higher magnifications you will notice that your depth of field reduces significantly. (Now you learned something you can use with portrait photos as well: set the aperture large, and you will blur the background of your subject by deliberately by decreasing the depth of field. This will focus the attention on your subject efficiently.) However for us, it is a bad thing since only a small portion of your model will be in focus. If you work with microscopes this problem will be even greater; take a look at this micrograph I took of some human cells back in the days when I was working in as a researcher: at 63X magnification even a wafer-thin edge of a coverslip is not in complete focus.

You can go around the problem by simply taking a photo from further away in the largest possible resolution and then crop the photo (this is how digital “zoom” works, by the way). This is a perfectly valid solution; you may even use a telephoto lens to zoom onto you model. Telephoto lenses compress the perspective which will be visible on the photo, but the entire model may fit into their depth of field, which is a definite plus.

You can also decrease the aperture (and use a tripod to steady the camera) to increase the depth of field as much as possible, or, if you absolutely must have the largest possible depth of field, you can do some image stacking. It’s possible to do manually in Photoshop, but there are programs freely available. (I probably should make a short post about this.)

So here are some examples of the same model using different methods (tried to do overall shots and closeup shots as well).  Everything else remains the same; the camera needed to be re-positioned as the focal point changes with different setups.

Depth of field (wide aperture vs small aperture)

Mobile phone camera (Huawei P10 light)

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm) zoomed in

D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 4X front lens


D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 10x front lens


D3300 kit lens (18-55mm)+ 2x, 4x, 6x, 10x front lens stacked


D3300 telephoto lens (55-200mm)  – I had to stand about 2 meters from the tank…


D3300 Tamron 90mm macro lens

Overall it can be safely summarised that if you don’t want to zoom into the model, even a phone camera does reasonably well; however you do need a bit more serious equipment if you are interested in showing off small details. Even though the detail and quality is significantly better when using a dedicated macro objective, for the purpose of scale models it’s a definite overkill; the extra quality you get comes for a very steep price.

The next -and last post- will be about lighting and basic studio settings… keep tuned in.


2 thoughts on “Photographing models part 2. Lenses and other alternatives”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s