The Basics of Scale Photography for Fun and Profit

Any amateur photographer who reads National Geographic (or, for that matter, Time) has probably drooled a little at the thought of doing a shoot in some exotic location: the Sahara, an ice floe, even underwater. What many of them never stop to think about is that many of these photos, particularly those used in advertising, are 90% fake.

Why Not Shoot Everything in Real Life?

The reason for this is perfectly simple and practical. Typically, some creative officer at an ad agency will come up with an idea; the photographer’s job is only to execute it. Of course, creativity ideally knows no bounds, but unless you’re James Cameron, the execution always has to fit into some given budget and timeframe.

So, if the brief calls for a short video of a new BMW driving along a mountain pass in a blizzard, it’s not always possible to wait for winter and fly a car to wherever the weather is suitable just to get some snaps. CGI may be an option, but producing a good quality, high-resolution image in this way may turn out to be almost as expensive. Mistakes happen even when photoshopping still images, and it’s generally far easier to blame the freelance photographer for this than have anyone in-house take responsibility.

In any case, getting complex effects like swirling particles to look realistic in software is not an easy trick. You might, of course, think that the best of all options would be to hire a snowblower and a collection of fans, and try to green-screen the background. This might work, but would require a large crew and plenty of trial and error, all of which adds to the total expense.

Go Small or Go Home

In surprisingly many cases, the best balance of cost, practicality and results turns out to be using scale models. Getting this right requires incredible patience, attention to detail and ingenuity, meaning that scale photography is as much a specialist job as capturing wildlife on film.

Even hobbyist photographers can learn the basics, though. If you’re the kind of person who likes to give his imagination free rein, this will give you the opportunity to shoot scenes you would never be able to see in person, or even create your own fantasy universes.

Equipment You’ll Need

Since a good model might have to be constructed over the course of several days, a cat and kid-free workspace is essential. As far as the actual camera goes, most compacts and even cellphones have a macro feature…but the depth of field, which becomes very important when shooting from only centimeters away, will probably not be all you can hope for.

Luckily, for static models, movement is not an issue, so you can happily play around with aperture and shutter settings. Most scale photos are taken at an ISO of 200 or even 100 for the crispest picture possible, which is useful when using a camera with a small sensor (smaller sensors produce a wider depth of field).

As for the lens, it is possible to capture decent images with an all-purpose zoom lens that can go from 20 to about 130mm. The best results, however, are achieved with dedicated macro lenses of perhaps 100mm focal length. There are alternatives, such as screw-on magnifiers or extension tubes, but these don’t offer one of the main advantages of true macro lenses: the ability to use very small f-stops. This, again, enables a wider depth of field. The most obvious giveaway that a photo is of a scale model rather than a real-world scene is usually how much of it is in focus – although, of course, no camera in the world can make a Lego figurine look like a real person.

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