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AK Interactive’s Still Water- review

 

So. AK Interactive’s Still Water.

This thing.

The AK Interactive webpage has the following to say about it (bold mine):

Still Water is a liquid crystalline product specially designed to reproduce the effect of clear still water on dioramas and vignettes. Still Water is self-leveling and capable of flowing over uneven surfaces; apply thin layers, no more than 3 mm at a time. If depth is desired, build up thin layers. When applied on non-porous surfaces, such as glass, this product can be lifted and cut to desired shape. High quality acrylic product.
This product can be tinted with acrylics offering many possibilities. No toxic

Let’s see. I did not try to eat it, so I can’t comment on toxicity. It does stay crystal clear after hardening, which is great, and according to the description. Let’s see how the other properties function.

Coming out of the bottle it is relatively thick, yet it flows very easily out of the tip; be careful not to flood the surface.

NOTE: my aim was not to recreate a large body of water, such as a stream, river or lake in a diorama setting. That will be the topic of a separate post. I wanted to depict stagnant pools of water, either collected on abandoned vehicles, or puddles on the ground. I took a look at this product through this lens, which obviously colors my perceptions of it, however, the points about its properties are valid in any settings.

 

I took out two dioramas: the STALKER one with the T-62, and the Zrinyi II. I wanted to add water to both, which was the main reason buying this product. The non-toxicity and water solubility was the selling point.

I added small puddles under road wheels, in crevices on the ground, on the surface of the T-62 wreck. The product came out thick -it kept the convex, bulging form of a liquid with very high surface tension; it did not spread easily, even when encouraged with a brush. This made it extremely difficult to apply in thin coats, as the instructions suggested; the product does not spread easy. I thought the self-levelling part comes when it cures.

After hardening, I found that it did not self-level in the was I was expecting it to. The surface was not level in most cases -only where the product was applied in a thick layer.

The importance of surface

The nature of the groundwork was also extremely important: for the Zrinyi I used actual soil/mud hardened with plaster. This surface was torn up by the product, as it shiveled (dried) out, the edges curling upwards, tearing the water product away from the surface.

Not ideal.

The T-62 diorama was done using only Tamiya textured material for ground mixed with pigments; it served as a much better basis for the water effect. The product could not peel off the surface while it was curing. Apparently you need a strong bond between the particles of the groundwork for the product to stick to, otherwise as it cures, it will shrink on its surface, and this will peel off the whole thing.

Lesson one learned.

Self-levelling

How about being self-levelling? (Also a big must.)

Well, not exactly self levelling. When fresh, the product behaves as a liquid with a high surface tension. It does not spread out, as a liquid resin would, but it forms smaller or bigger blobs, droplets, like a somewhat thick soup would. You can help spreading it with a brush, but it has its limits, since it does not “wet” the surface it touches easily (due to the high surface tension).

This is how it looks when fresh and after curing.

 

As the product cures it flattens out, but it also has the tendency to wrinkle, and to follow all the irregularities underneath – so at the end you get an uneven surface. It simply cures onto the surface underneath in an even thickness. Applying multiple layers will not solve this problem: you simply increase the thickness of the product, you do not even the surface out. I wanted to put puddles onto the mud guards and the splash guard (the spillway being blocked by detritus), but as you can see regardless of applying the product in several thin(ish) layers, it refused to form a nice, even surface over the model. The leaves and other surface irregularities show through even after four layers. It looks a bit like water in the process of being frozen…

Weirdly I found bubbles that were present within the cured product, even though there were none when I applied them -or at least none visible. The high surface tension means that if you manage to trap air inside, or worse yet, manage to foam it up, it will not be able to escape. So be warned.

Dilution

OK, so it does not spread well, even when helped with a brush. What happens if you use some water and a brush? (Genius idea, eh?) So apply a generous amount of product on the groundwork, and add some water (about 1/10th of volume). It did make the product easier to spread. It did not foam so easily. But come next day, and…

…this is what happens: it becomes milky. The surface kind of looks like if it was mud saturated with water (which is nice), but the effect is not perfect, and the milky discoloration is very much not welcome. This also underlines the issue of tinting. The manual says you can tint this product with acrylics, but there is a limit of how much you can add.

Mixing with inks/paints/pigments

Since it is water soluble, it is a quite simple matter of mixing inks or water-based paints into the product. I used chestnut ink by citadell, since it was brown -although not exactly mud-brown, as we can see. It is for experimenting, anyhow; I wanted to see what it does when mixed with color -and perhaps salvage the foggy water effect on the Zrinyi diorama. I also applied a few drops onto the base of a space marine figure to see how it looks as a puddle. Without any staining the water effects did not show up very well; it merely looked like if the ground was shinier in patches.

With staining, it still formed an uneven, shiny surface after curing. (The first photo shows how it looks like fresh when applied.) I added three drops of ink – in retrospect it was too much. It might have given a more realistic result had I added only half a drop, instead of creating a chestnut colored slurry.

On the Zrinyi it may not have levelled the surface out, but on the bright side, it did look like fresh -and somewhat weird colored – mud. Success – I guess?

So what happens when I add pigments instead?

Well, it kind of looks as churned-up mud. The chestnut colored mud underneath even gives a slight color modification wherever the new mixture was thinner, giving it an actually quite pleasing looking mud effect. Overall, it looks like water-saturated, churned up mud that would suck you in if you stepped into it. I would call it success, although it was not the effect I was going for. (I wanted big puddles of brown water.)

Special effects

Let’s see if we can make radioactive sludge, lava or something similar out of this thing…

To make radioactive industrial waste, we just add a little bright, light green paint. Applied to the base of a few miniatures, the effect is actually quite nice, both applied thick (into the crevice of the base of the daemonhost), or thin – to the ground next to the boots of our Thousand Sons terminator. As an added effect I also put some more on top stained with a tiny bit of yellow ink. I have to say it is a pretty good effect.

The lava is a different matter. I added red ink to the product, and it formed a somewhat blood-looking pool at the foot of our Rubric Marine… so blood it is.

What happens if you prepare two different colors, and carefully blend them into each other? I can’t show the results, because I placed -rather carelessly- the instructions of the Armory Walker Bulldog I was building into the mix, but placing drops of the two colors next to each other to allow them to mix, resulted in, well, the two liquids mixing together completetly. I was hoping to create nice swirls and whatnot, but the liquid flows easily enough for it to mix completely.

 

Possible ways to use it

Well, small puddles on miniature bases were kind of successful. Without coloring it looks just shiny, somewhat inconspicuous. (It is difficult to see what the intended effect is if the product is not colored.) With some ink mixed in, even with a somewhat unrealistic color, it looks better -not as a puddle of water, but as a puddle of some sort of thick liquid. The issues with self-levelling are not as apparent in small scale.

If the base was suitable it produced a somewhat convincing effect, although it is visibly not level…  You need a flat surface to create large puddles to begin with. (The track-marks on the Zrinyi actually have somewhat convincing puddles.) Creating larger bodies of water were so far not successful, and neither was creating a smooth surface over an uneven base. One thing to note: once the product cures, you should stain the surrounding groundwork with a darker brownish color to represent the wet ground around the water.

You may be more successful applying the product to wet surfaces -although the groundwork, as we have seen- must be very well bonded, so you cannot apply it while the groundwork is still hardening. (It would make it simpler if you could just add the puddles at the same time as you build up the terrain.) As it is, if you pre-wet the surface, it might be possible to spread it more evenly.

Probably in dioramas, where you prepare a hard and even surface specifically for the water, it would work well (in a relatively thin layer) as the surface of a lake – we will see when I get around making a crashed Schwimmwagen diorama I have been planning a while now. For those ad hoc puddles I was trying to create it is less than perfect.

In short: it does not work as the non-water soluble resins do: these resins do not lose their volume during the curing process, and they do tend to float easily, with very little surface tension, which makes them very effective in creating level, smooth surfaces. This product does shrink while curing, and it merely forms an evenly distributed layer over the surface it is applied to- meaning that any irregularities below will show up on the surface. (The resins, on the other hand give off heat while curing, so they can actually melt the plastic if you apply it too thick, plus they are toxic as hell.)

Mixing in pigments, and applying it to an uneven surface will result in a very convincing, extremely wet-looking surface – just make sure you use multiple layers and multiple colors. For fresh mud, it is excellent. For bodies of water -not so much. 

Overall, it will not be the go-to solution for all your water needs, even though the non-toxicitiy and the ease of use makes it sound very attractive. It is absolutely true further experimentations will be required to master this product.

I think as with some other weathering products, the water solubility is its biggest weakness – the surface tension simply does not allow it to spread as easy. I found the liquid resin products (which are not water soluable) give  much better coverage, and they are actually self-levelling –  and as mentioned also highly toxic, and give out noxious fumes. Difficult choices.

Dusting it up -Vallejo wash and AK Interactive pencil

We talked about the issues of gear acquisition… I can’t help myself, apparently. (OK, chalk it up to natural curiousity; it is not as bad as if I bought the entire range of both products on a whim, right?) While I am still trying to finally apply some paint to the Markgraf, I can do smaller projects. (Seriously; getting time to do some airbrushing is impossible… and since smaller projects will end up at the stage where airbrushing is required, it is getting more and more impossible as models pile up on the “to be sprayed” pile.)

So I have Vallejo’s dust wash (which I was playing with before), and I bought an acrylic pencil by AK Interactive, to see how it compares to my “normal” acrylic pencils bought in an art store.

 

 

I have chosen two tanks from my shelf – it is actually quite good to keep working on older models (as I have done previously). This was Cromwell’s T29 and OKB’s UFO tank (Object 279).

What I did was to first apply the dust wash on the fenders and wheels, then adjusted the effect with a wet brush. This I did several times until I got a nice blend. Then I used the pencil (wet the tip, first), deposited some on the tank (only on a small area), then adjusted the effect with water. Sometimes I found it was better to make a “wash” in situ by adding a lot of water; sometimes I just feathered the edges to form a natural-looking dust deposit (on the sides of the fenders on the T29, for example.)

Here are the comparison photos -the before and after shots.

The dust did improve the look of the tank, but I found the Vallejo wash to be more useful in this regard. It made the stark contrast on the lower hull and the fenders much better looking.

The pencil has a very light color, which is not necessarily realistic (it looks like the tank drove through a cement factory), and it does produce tide marks when used with a lot of water (problem with water-based products; the high surface tension drags the pigments on the side), and overall does not cover the area as smooth as an oil paint-based (home made) dust would do. It did make some very nice dust streaks on the vertical surfaces, though.

A little bit browner, darker color might be better for dust, but overall, not bad.

 

 

Well, the photos definitely need some improvement (the new light box does not seem to be very good), for one.

 

Let me know what you think of the results.

Vallejo Model Wash – European dust 76.523, oiled earth 76.521

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Acrylic weathering products, while being very attractive due to not being hazardous, tend to have a big issue: surface tension. Solvent-based products, washes spread much better, and they do not leave “tide-marks” like water-based products do; therefore I was pretty interested in how Vallejo’s dust washes perform.

In short: very well.

(OK, you can stop reading the review if this is all what you wanted.)

I used the road wheels of an old Panther build I left unfinished (but will finish, I promise) to see how these washes perform on a complex surface. I simply applied them with an overloaded brush, and let them dry. It spread nicely, just like a solvent-based wash. (Perhaps Vallejo used a surfactant.) The results are nice: subtle, dusty look.

 

The second and third photo shows the difference between treated and untreated road wheels (one of the reason I chose this as a test-bed: to have a control group right next to the treatment group), and the last photo shows the differences between heavy application (1), light application (2, somewhat diluted with water), and nothing (3).

 

I also tried three consecutive, heavy applications with the following results

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It might be a good look for a vehicle in very dusty, dry environment, but probably not the best way to use it the product like this. The best way to use these washes is to form a subtle accumulation of dust in crevices, not flooding the surface with them. As a general rule: using more than one technique with a light touch to achieve a certain look will more likely create a realistic finish than using just one technique with a heavy hand. This means that these washes will not provide a single step solution for creating dusty-looking surfaces, I am afraid.

 

I also tried the washes on a piece of scenery a Witcher figure will be walking on, to see if they can be used on the groundwork for good effect. (The paint on the resin base is by no means finished; I was just testing some paints on it.) Regardless of the underlying paintwork, I think I can safely say that these washes can add a little more realism to the soil both in tone and in texture -see the above rule.

Overall, these washes are pretty neat; worth checking out.

AK Interactive Acrylic Primer – Dark yellow

 

Well, this thing gave me the hardest times for a long time… it just did not come out right out of the bottle. It is supposed to be a primer you can spray right out of the bottle, and even after extended shaking, it came out all runny and thin; hardly something you would like to have with a primer.

But last week I gave it another go. I shook the bejesus out of the bottle, and tried it again.

The results were quite satisfactory. Unlike the Vallejo primer, which forms a thin membrane of paint over the surface (kind of like the Mig Ammo paints), this goes on like “normal” acrlyics, more like a Tamiya paint, and dries absolutely flat. Both are great, it is only a matter of preference.

Overall, I really like this primer now. The only downside is that the bottle is designed in a way that makes it difficult to see the bottom; it is hard to tell if the paint is mixed up correctly.
So all I can say is that you have to shake it, shake it, and shake it some more before using, and with this thought I will leave you with a relevant video clip.

 

 

 

 

Vallejo Acrylic Polyurethane Surface Primer – German panzer grey

Since the post about the gear acquisition syndrome I thought I might as well make a more conscious effort to write short reviews of the stuff I bought. (There are a few, but they were never the main focus. Nor will they become the focus, but I might as well write about them in a more organized manner.) I do not intend to write long reviews; just my impressions with a couple of photos included. (If you have products you want to have reviewed, just contact me.)

Let me know if this idea works…

 

So. Vallejo Primer.

What can I say? It’s great. So far I had no issues with it; it works like a charm. It is a thick liquid, which can be applied straight from the bottle by brush or airbrush -a big plus, in my mind. Simple, no chance of mucking up the dilution, which is a great plus. (It matters a lot, especially with primers.)

It forms a really tight gripping surface on the model for paint to stick on, and can be used for pre-shading in one step. Several colors are available; I only have this one. The German Grey can be used as “scale black” in many cases, by the way. I also use it as a chipping color when I don’t feel like adding rust browns to the model; if you use the hairspray technique with it, the results are pretty convincing.

It dries quickly, but you really should wait a day before applying further coats of paint.

See examples from this blog: FV4005, Turtle, T-55AM, Straussler. FT-17.

In short: recommended.

Agitating -paint

Well, I am making a slow progress with the Nautilus and with the Panthers I am building, but need some time to take photos and whatnot.

 

Meanwhile a useful tip for the paint jars.

 

As we know, paint settles, and it is quite difficult to properly mix it. So people use agitators.

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No, not this guy. Other type of agitators. Normally stainess steel balls, dropped into the paint jar. You shake the jar, and the ball mixes your paint. (Professional advice: you can buy nail polish shakers for peanuts on aliexpress, so you don’t even have to do it by hand.)

This can be an issue since even stainless steel can actually rust in acrylic paints -it happened to me before. (I guess it is a matter of how good the steel is.) Regardless I found a solution: lava beads.

 

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They come in different sizes, they are tough, they do not flake, splinter or rust. The perfect solution for agitating your paint.

 

(Another great option is using an electric milk frother.)

Making rust p.5. Rust colored pigments/actual rust

I’ve done a couple of experiments/tutorials on how to do rust, and left the easiest to the last: you can use rust you can buy as pigments.

Previous parts:

Part 1 Life color’s liquid rust

Part 2 using rust
Part 3 the sponge method

Rust -iron oxide- comes in different colors; in fact it is used very widely as cheap pigments in a lot of applications from food coloring to arts and makeup.

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You can buy these pigments (essentially powdered iron oxide) online. They can be mixed with each other, or with other pigments; they can be added to paints, and, if you’re brave enough, they can be airbrushed mixed with some sort of carrier or varnish/paint. If you mix them with paint or varnish, they will obviously stick to the surface; if you only mix them with a carrier (like white spirit, alcohol, even water) nothing will hold them onto the surface, so they will be quite easy to remove.

The method is simple: once you primed the surface with a dark primer (preference), you dab your brush into clear, matte varnish, dab it onto a paper towel to remove the excess, dab the brush into the iron oxide powder, dab the whole thing into a paper towel again, and now you have a brush loaded with a varnish/rust mixture you can use to gently deposit onto the model. You need to do it in several layers, and slowly build up the effect you are going for. You should start with the darker rust colors, and only use the bright reds/yellows sparingly; just check photos of rusted equipment for reference. (Come to think of it, you can go the other way around as well; just keep in mind that the bright rust colors tend to be somewhat sparse, limited to thin metals, edges and protrusions.) The surface you get this way will be suitable for depicting a very, very rusty metal surface: the metal plates of a derelict, burned-out vehicle, for example. (If you are going for mild, light rust, painting is your best bet.) Obviously there is always going to be a combination of rust effects that will bring you the best, more realistic results.

These pigments can be used suspended in white spirit or other carrier solutions as washes as well; they form a thin film on matte surfaces behaving more like filters, and they run into crevices on glossy surfaces behaving like traditional washes.

The colors can be further modulated using oil washes and paints; a dark wash will obviously darken the overall hues, and tie the different rust colors together.

The T-62 is a good example of the results.

Photographing models part 3. – small studios

So now we have the camera chosen, and the lenses sorted out; what else is needed for taking photos of your models?

First,

Studio setting

Getting a dedicated light box is not really expensive any more. You can get a collapsible light box with two/three light sources for less than £30.

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The bare minimum should be two light sources; the white sides of the box diffuse the lights a bit, making the illumination less harsh, softening the shadows. (If you can install it, a third, overhead light source would not be a bad idea, either.) You don’t actually need a box; if you fabricate a diffuser you can put in front of your light sources, it works fine as well.

Background

The background -normally- should be something neutral, which does not take away the attention of the viewer, and which allows for the most visibility of the object in the foreground. Used to use the colored cloths that came with my photo-box: black (not ideal, too dark), blue (OKish, but darker than should be), and red (not ideal, weird). These are admittedly less than ideal solutions, but on occasion they are the better alternative (lightly colored parts show up better against a dark background). The best option I found was to use colored papers from craft stores (but real velvet works well, too -something I will need to spend some money on). You can get them in many different colors: you would ideally need to buy a few that would allow you to choose the most optimal one depending on the model in question. White is an OK choice although the contrast can be too stark. Light grey is a better option; however it always depends on your subject. A white-washed tank, for example, might be better photographed against a bit darker background. (After all, the whole point of the white-wash was to blend the tank into the light background.) Make sure you don’t pick strong colors -again, I say this with the understanding that a lof of my photos were taken using precisely these colors. (As I said before I am an unashamed hypocrite.) If you gently bend the paper you can make the background and foreground blend seamlessly. If you photograph sprues, I found that the cloth background was better than the paper- it eliminated the dark shadows under the sprues.

Lighting

Choosing a light source is also an important as we mentioned it in the first post when we talked about white balance.

Sun

Taking photos under natural light is one option; however you will need to wait for the perfect conditions (slightly overcast sky, soft lights) which is not always an option. You should avoid direct sunshine: it makes the contrast really high between shadows and light areas. (Unless you are photographing spacecraft where a stark contrast is actually quite realistic.) The best times are usually early afternoon, with the sun covered by a reasonably thin cloud cover which diffuses its light.

Artificial light sources

The easiest artificial lighting source is a lamp. Or more, to be exact, as you need more than one light sources to avoid deep shadows and uneven lightning. Normal desk-lights are good enough (if you set the white balance of your camera -see below), but the best option is to use bulbs that mimic the sun’s light (sunlight/natural light bulbs). The setup should be something similar that is used in studios; at least two lights (a so-called “main” and a “fill”), 45 degrees from the subject.

Flash

Most cameras have built-in flashes but these are absolutely useless when it comes to macro photography; they are simply too far from the object, and they are not designed with macro photography in mind. (The camera/lens itself casts a shadow on the object, for one. They also are too strong for close-up work.)

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Another option is to use flashguns separated from your camera (we’re talking about expensive DSLRs with multiple expensive flashguns) similarly set up as the LED lights on the above photo; keep in mind that you definitely will need to use diffusers with them. This solution is not very economical as proper flashguns can cost £100 minimum (each), and you’d need at least three of these. (And they need to be remotely triggered, so you need the shoes holding the flashguns and a remote control, too.) Here’s a pretty good article on studio photography; it applies to scale models as well. (I guess a model is a model…) The flashguns are set up similarly to the lamps we discussed before -for obvious reasons.

If you do a lot of macro photography, you can get a ring-flash that goes around the objective, providing appropriate lighting for the objects photographed, but these things are costly. I mean really costly. There is a cheaper alternative with LED lights -these are not flashguns, but they do provide extra light for your photographs, so they might be a viable option. One good thing they have going for them is that you can see your subject much better, so focusing is easier, since the LEDs are on all the time. They do eat up batteries, though. If you choose to buy one of these units, they will come very handy if you decide to go outside and start photographing insects and other small critters.

A tripod is also a useful thing (and again, an expensive one if you want something that is stable); and if you really want to go all-out a macro focusing rail also comes handy; but with a decent camera set up properly, and some proper light sources, you should be doing fine. It really is just a matter of practice from now on (and time you’re willing to spend with photographing).
 
I hope these posts helped to start with macro photography; I do believe it’s one of the most interesting aspects of photography, so I encourage anyone to experiment with it. In no time you will be trying to take portraits of jumping spiders I bet…

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

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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.

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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

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

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

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

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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.

Photographing models part 1. Cameras and settings

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. I’ll try to list all the viable options so you can make a decision easier. 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.) Things that you learn by taking photos of your placid and immobile models will enable you to take some pretty cool photos of the less than placid and definitely not immobile wildlife living in your backyard.

 

Painting and photographing models

There’s also a related issue to mention which is less technical, and 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 from hand-length will look over-done.

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(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.)

Cameras

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 is true to a lesser degree 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, and I snap in-progress photos using my phone. This 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.) That said, the photos taken by phone cameras are not horrible at all.

Compact cameras and 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 objective’s, 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: you and I) these cameras will be perfectly suitable. You can set the most important things yourself: ISO/shutter speed/aperture/white balance, and they can also shoot RAW. (Most photographers shoot in RAW format, because even though these images are gargantuan in size they offer the best option for post processing; they also do not lose information like JPEGs do. I use RAW for almost all my photos, except when I photograph scale models… JPEG is perfectly suitable for web-publishing.) These cameras 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.

Bridge cameras, as the name suggests, are a transition between compact and DSLR. They give you almost as much flexibility and almost as good quality as DSLRs, but they are smaller and easier to use. They normally have one monstrous zoom lens that can give you a wide-field photo as well as a 300X telephoto option (for which you’d need to spend at least a grand in DSLR lenses to achieve), and can take front lenses (discussed in the next post) to give you even more flexibility. To be perfectly honest I’m jealous of the 300X zoom on the Fuji bridge camera my wife has; my paltry 200mm telephoto cannot hold a candle to its sheer magnification. (However the image quality is vastly superior.) When I took a photo of the last supermoon with my fancy D3300 (OK, it’s not fancy as far as DSLRs go, but it is fancy as far as this comparison goes), 200mm lens and a tripod, and then switched to the 300X zoom held in hand, it was infinitely easier to take a great-looking photo of the moon using the Fuji. I managed to shoot a great photo without fiddling with the settings – whereas it took me several tries to find an aperture setting where the bright moon did not oversaturate the photo on the Nikon. I honestly can say that a bridge camera is perfectly good for most amateur photographers like myself; I just had a DSLR fetish I needed to satisfy.

“Real macro” -meaning 1:1 image production- might be out of the league of these cameras, but you rarely need magnification that large. As mentioned bridge cameras (and some compacts) can mount front lenses, which can bring you to this realm, though.

Mirrorless/DSLR

Well, these are the “serious” cameras. Expensive pieces of equipment, 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 (and most) purposes. (Not to mention the lenses are cheaper, too.) Don’t forget, bigger is not always better; you actually have to carry that camera around, so you need to consider your needs real carefully before you blow your money on medium format body.

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 -see in the next post. (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. I do often wish I had a mirrorless when sightseeing and doing touristy things.

(Tip for choosing cameras: Pentax cameras in general are very much compatible to all K-mount lenses produced from 1975 onward… 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.)

Camera settings

These settings can be changed in most cameras -even in some of the smartphone models.

Aperture/shutter speed/ISO

exposure

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 here’s the catch: 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, obviously.) Photographing small subjects you will need learn 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 essentially 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 if you don’t adjust the shutter speed and ISO. It also effects, as we discussed, the depth of field: if the aperture is small, it will allow very little light in, requiring longer exposure, but the depth of field will be larger; if the aperture is small, it will allow more light in, with a shorter exposure, but the depth of field will be small. It goes from a large number (small aperture) to a small (large aperture).

aperture-trio

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 change the value at any time. The low ISO setting will give you nice, crisp photos, for the price of lower sensitivity, so you will need more light for those photos. Higher ISOs give you more sensitivity, but the photos will be grainier, noisier.

Depth of field

As we discussed, 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 and a timer may be 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, especially when taking photos of small objects. 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 gives you the best compromise (relatively large depth of field, and you can still hold the camera in hand), 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), but then again; it may be the price you pay in macro photography.

White balance

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, too.)

incand-3500-5500-color-temp-comparison

Normally your brain corrects for this effect, and you will see colors similarly under different sources of illumination regardless of the light source’s color temperature. However 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-sources. (If you paint miniatures in the evening it’s a good idea to use it in your desk light as well… it can be really disappointing to see your previous night’s work in the daylight.) The other thing you can do to account for the different sources of illumination is to set your camera’s white balance.

Most digital cameras you can set the white balance to automatic, which works well in most cases. If there is some funkiness going on with the colors (for example you have a couple of different types of light sources that confuses the camera), 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 and effort, so it’s always better just to take the photo right at the getgo.