Homebrew model photography: a subjective guide to unprofessional practice

Started by Dizzyfugu, January 02, 2023, 06:10:24 AM

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I have been asked on several occasions but never found the time to show how I take "my" model pictures. Well, here's a look behind the scenes in two stages,  it might be a guideline (or inspiration) for other hobby photographers.
I got my first "instructions" from a relatively old model building book of French origin by Daniel Puiboube (not certain about international title, in German it was called "Plastikmodelle. Bauen, Bemalen, Sammeln"), which I found in my local library when I was at school. Beyond covering many different model buillding topics - rather superficially but with sound basics - it also provided tips for dioramas (esp. their scenic conception, not just their hardware aspects), lighting and model photography. This was a very good starting point, and this VF- picture here was/is the oldest model picture based on these instructions I was able to find; it's so old that it was still taken on film and later scanned from a photo paper hardcopy. The model was shot with simple reading lamps in front of a home-made space background, plus some rather crude editing...

Macross +++ 1:100 Stonewell/Bellcom VF-1A Super Valkyrie - aircraft "(1)23" of SVF-203, on board of ARMD-5, Higher Earth Orbit, 2007 (Kitbashing)
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

This was just an experiment, though, but when I got a digital camera many years later, I remembered this experiment and the book, and tried to make a better second attempt. This led to "Stage 1".
Here's a view at a typical early setup for a "home shooting", also for a small VF-1 kit as shown above. The place was in this case the kitchen, but any table with a vertical and even wall behind it would do, too. I have always used (and still use) simple pocket cameras with an optical zoom and a macro program for small objects/close-ups. No flash lights (never use it!), instead the artificial lighting was and is quite relevant.

"Hell's kitchen" or: what to do with an oven if not for cooking ;)
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

1) A fixed background light.
In this case, and hidden behind the file drawer which acts as a glare barrier for the camera, is a 150 Watt halogen light from the DIY market. It produces a bright, white and rather diffuse light, but in many cases a weaker light source (In my early attempts I used a 50 Watt Halogen reading lamp which shines from above onto the background) will suffice. The background will definitively need some lighting, though, and sometimes this extra light behind the model will blend out shadows on the background, too.
In the meantime, however, I upgraded my ligft equipment (see below).

2) A nice background poster.
Be creative! Just make sure that both perspective and scale are O.K., and if in doubt rather use a bigger background which fills area around the kit on the picture, and more distance to the model might create an appreciable blurring effect, depending on the camera's focus.
I typically use DIN A3 color printouts, and simply tape them to the wall. Just make sure that this background carrier is even and vertical (best is to use tape on all 4 egdes!), because the background light easily reveals ripples and curves. For a few large models I had pictures printed out as 70x50 cm posters, but found out later that you can alternatively glue two A3 formats together. what already yields a 60x45cm background; the seam is hardly recognizable in the photos.
Additionally, always check for reflections from the other light sources, therefore better use shallow angles for the lights on both background and model, pointing away from the camera, or block the light with a glare barrier.

3) A reflector for counter-lighting.
A valuable tool and light trick. This is simple white cardboard on a self-made wooden frame. In many cases you can use this device to indirectly light up the dark side of a kit, esp. when more than a single light source would be needed but the combined light would just be too much, create reflexes/highlights or look totally unrealistic. Instead, cast back the main light with such a white panel, it looks very natural!
You can also use it to indirectly put light onto the whole kit, using a strong, pointed light source directly onto this reflector and have its light reflected onto the kit. It creates a warm and soft effect, much less bright but still illuminating the whole kit.
The whole thing is also handy as a glare blocker.

4) A tripod.
One thing I really recommend for macro pictures. You can easily build such a device by yourself, but buying one does not cost the world and it makes photo shooting easy and professional.
I initially used a small telescopic device which allows free camera positioning, and you will need it for crisp pictures in the makro mode of the camera and its slow shutter speeds! However, with more experience I invested into a bigger tripod (see below)

5) One or two main light sources for the model.
I initially used 50 Watt Halogen lamps, for their clean and concentrated light. When positioning this subject lights, check the background picture, the light should come from similar directions, otherwise the picture can look wacky!
Depending on the overall light level and perspective, I used two of these lamps from left and right, or one fixed spot (like here in the picture) and another one in free hand to light certain areas, e. g. from above. Finding a good light compromise this way is a delicate work, and I normally make picture series with slightly varying light conditions, chosing the best results for fine tuning and eventual publishing.

6) A highlighter
In this case a 20 Watt halogen reading lamp with a snake mount - I frequently use it free-hand to illuminate dark areas on a kit when the directional fixed light #5 casts too much shadows.

In the meantime things have evolved dramatically, even though the basic setup is still the same. One of the things I have learned: you can NEVER have enough diffuse/indirect light, and that you definitively need cold light/daylight lamps for proper and clear scenic pictures. Therefore I am using now three dedicated photography lamps (IIRC 50 W each) which not only provide proper daylight, they also feature LED lamps that do not generate much heat. They came in an affordable set, complete with flexible tripod mounts and soft lampshades/reflectors, so that they can be folded down for transport or storage in a bag.

Here are two current setups, from my recent K-1300 build and its respective photo session, together with the outcome after picture selection and editing. I normally use a main lamp directly from above to light up the whole scene and the two other lamps to focus with one from one side on the model and direct indirect light behind it, illuminating the background with the other (and at the same time "hide" shadows which the model might cast wehn it placed close to the backgorund poster!).
Sometimes I also employ an addtional handheld LED lamp (not pictured, also with a 50 W LED daylight lamp), either for direct light (beware of reflections, esp. on the canopy!), or I direct the light into one of the reflectors for additionmal indirect illumination. Much trail and error involved.
The model is typically placed on a base which sits on a raised platform, so that I can adjust the background (taped to the former white counter-lighting reflector) and the camera's "eye level". Perspective is very important for a convincing model picture, at least when you want a natural, scenic impression. Typical "Model Magazine Shots" from above work well, too, e.g. on a neutral, rounded-out background, but this looks IMHO quite boring and rather shows the model ...as a model.  ;) Something like this on white:

Macross +++ 1:100 Stonewell/Bellcom VF-1J+ (Block 4 Update) Valkyrie; "ZA 248" of the U.N.S. Air Force SVFT-685 "Gyrfalcons" aggressor squadron; New Edwards Air Base, Eden; 2027 (modified ARII kit)
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

However, I normally try to provide four of these view in my project descritions as a final entry, even though rather on a diorama base than on neutral material like cardboard. FAR148 recently posted something about this here: https://www.whatifmodellers.com/index.php?topic=51144.0

Upgraded photo booth setup
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

1:72 Kaman K-1300 'K-Cobra'; 'HB-HKX', operated by Heliswiss AG for Helog Aerial Services; based at Ainring (Upper Bavaria/Germany), summer 2005 (What-if/modified Fujimi kit)
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

Another setup with the same model: a flight scene, with the K-1300 mounted on its display holder, a 4mm steel wire. The camera tripod is pretty low and further away, so that the perspective matches with the background and the impression of a hovering helicopter. The holder was later edited away.

Upgraded photo booth setup
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

1:72 Kaman K-1300 'K-Cobra'; 'HB-HKX', operated by Heliswiss AG for Helog Aerial Services; based at Ainring (Upper Bavaria/Germany), summer 2005 (What-if/modified Fujimi kit)
by Dizzyfugu, on Flickr

Model photography is no rocket science, but it takes IMHO some practice and also a suitable photo editing software (I use a combination of XnView [good overall adjustments of brightness/contrast and color intensities], GIMP [photoshopping] and the FlickR online picture editor [final fine-tuning]). However, the scenic shots are the foundation for anything that follows: sh!t in = sh!t out. But IMHO good results can already be achieved with relatively simple and unexpensive means.

Good luck!

P.S.: This post might be updated from time to time,


A masterclass in model photography!!   Clear, succinct and accurate in all details.    As an occasional photographer  of items for insurance purposes  myself  I am very impressed.
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you....."
It  means that you read  the instruction sheet


Perfect! Just what I wanted to know. Now to photograph some backgrounds!
" Somewhere, between half true, and completely crazy, is a rainbow of nice colours "
Tophe the Wise


Hope it helps, and glad to help ( abit), too. And I am curious what might show up on this ramshakle basis?  :mellow:


Thank you!! Awesome tutorial!  :wub:

Could a moderator PLEEEEEEEAAAASE stick this thread somewhere where even a perfect dork like myself easily can recover it?
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!


You're welcome, I updated the post slightly and might do so in the future, too.


Super tutorial Thomas, thankyou  :thumbsup:

Quote from: Pellson on January 02, 2023, 04:24:31 PMCould a moderator PLEEEEEEEAAAASE stick this thread somewhere where even a perfect dork like myself easily can recover it?

I can certainly pin it, probably in the Tips, Tools & Techniques section of the board. Just want to check that Thomas is ok with that ?

Decals my @r$e!


Decals my @r$e!


Thank you for moving this!  :lol:
Also added a link above to FAR148's recent post about model photography on a neutral cardboard base/background, a very useful addition.


"Sticks and stones may break some bones but a 3.57's gonna blow your damn head off!!"


Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

Old Wombat

Has a life outside of What-If & wishes it would stop interfering!

"The purpose of all War is Peace" - St. Augustine

veritas ad mortus veritas est

The Rat

I see that you're using Gimp. I just downloaded it this morning, wondering if you could recommend any good tutorials on how to use it. Something a five year-old could understand. If I can't figure it out, I'll ask around the neighbourhood for a five year-old.   ;D   Mostly thinking of it for making decals.
"My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives." Hedley Lamarr, Blazing Saddles

Pineapple is a great pizza topping. Fight me.


If you want to create decals, I'd rather recommend a different type of program. GIMP (or MS Paint) are good to manipulate bitmaps, like photo files. However, when you want to design things like flags, roundels or stencils, you better use a program that is based on vector graphics and the respective file formats (I use a vintage but robust Corel Draw package; MS Powerpoint is actually based on vector graphics, too, and offers a lot of options for home-brew decals!). The benefit of vector graphics: you create an "open", scalable basis consisting of curves, independent from a bitmap's resolution which you might want to modify. This basis offers much better quality and detail control, and from a vector graphic you can then export a bitmap at a sufficient resolution for printing (which is 300dpi and more - bitmaps are normally only at 1:1 screen resolution of 96dpi, unless you set them up accordingly, but you do have no chance of enlarging them without visible quality losses!). "MS Paint if enough" is not an option and IMHO unprofessional.

I won't provide tutorials, though, because I am not a trainer and can hardly convey what I learnt-by-doing with the software packages I tried/used over the years, sorry.