Taking Photos of your Models
(an introduction)

There has been some discussion recently on taking model photos. It really isn't as simple as it initially seems. One would think that all that has to be done is to place the model in front of the camera and then trip the shutter. Unfortunately, there are a host of variables that come into play. These range from equipment to placement to photographer knowledge. The purpose of this section is to help you to take better photos.

We'll start with the camera. Model photos can be taken by just about any SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera as well as several of the smaller 'pocket' cameras and by many digital cameras. There are two key features that are paramount in having the right camera: Close Focusing and Depth of Field.


The first is the camera's ability to close focus. Many cameras that have a fixed lens are incapable of focusing any closer than 5 or 6 feet from the subject. If photographing a 1/72 Hurricane, this means a teeny image on your film. Generally, an inexpensive camera, either film or digital is not the answer. You are going to have to spend money to get the quality and features that you need. There is no other option. In the film world, just about any SLR with interchangeable lenses will have lenses that will focus closely enough. Some of these lenses are listed as having 'macro' capabilities and these work just fine as long as you can get a clear image of your subject. As with anything new, try before you buy is a good watchword.


In addition to being able to get close to the subject you need a lens that has good depth of field. This is the amount of the subject in front of and behind the listing on your lens that will be in focus. Your depth of field is determined by several factors. One is the millimeter size of your lens. The other is the maximum f-stop of the lens or camera.

Generally, the lower the millimeter size of your lens (and the standard is 50mm), the greater the depth of field you can get from it. Most model photographers will use a 35mm or 50mm lens for their photos. (As an aside,  When you hear of a 35mm camera, it refers to the size of the film it can use, not the lens.)

The f-stop is a number that determines how large or small the opening of the lens iris is when taking a photo. The lower the number, the more wide open the iris is and the more light that is let in to the film. Conversely, the higher the f number, the more closed the iris is and the less light that is let in. When you let in a lot of light in a hurry, only those items that are close to the distance measured on the lens are in focus. If you have your lens set at 10 feet to photograph something and have the f-stop setting at a low number of say, 2.8, then only the parts of the image close to 10 feet will be in focus. Things at perhaps 11 feet from camera or 9 feet from the camera may start to be out of focus and the image gets fuzzier the farther and closer you get from the camera.

On the other hand, if you have your f-stop set at f22 and your subject is 10 feet away, you will probably have everything behind the subject out to infinity in focus and everything down to perhaps just a couple of feet away from the camera in focus. This is because it is taking longer for the light to come in through the lens. Several lenses have depth of field indicators on them that help determine how much of the view in in focus.


This brings into the equation, the relationship between f-stop and shutter speed. Generally speaking, you can manipulate either of them to get basically the same results. A photo taken at 1/500 shutter speed and f/8 f-stop can also be shot at 1/250 and f/11 to get the same exposure. The benefit of the first setting is faster shutter speed means that moving subject, like race cars will probably be in focus. The benefit of the second  is that you will have greater depth of field so more of the subject or areas fore and aft of it will be in focus. When it comes to models, you want your f-stop as large as possible, which means your shutter speed will be quite slow. This generally means you cannot hand hold your camera and must use a tripod or other steady support.


This is yet another part of the formula for photography. (Didn't know there was so much to it, did you?) Film also comes in various speeds. These are known as the ASA rating. The larger the ASA or film speed, the faster the film accepts light. So you'd think that 800ASA film would be perfect. Maybe. The downside of fast film is that it is much more grainy than slower film. The less grainy a film is the more sharp and clear the image. Most model photographers I know use the slowest film they can buy. For prints that is usually ASA 100 and for transparencies ASA 25 or 50. Quality film also comes into play here. Cheap film generally produces inferior results, so for your models, spend a bit more for the Kodak or Fuji film.


Digital cameras work basically the same as film cameras. They use the same language for shutter speed, f/stop and film speed. However, most digitals don't look the same as SLRs. Certainly there is no film. Digital cameras use a bank of detectors as what gathers the light. The more detectors (which relates to pixels), the larger the image and the higher the resolution of those images. There will be more on this a bit later.

On most quality digitals, you can treat all the controls just like those on an SLR. You can set shutter speed, f/stop and adjust ASA settings. The ASA setting determines how much the detectors enhance the incoming light.  The higher the ASA setting on a digital, the more noise you allow on the image. This noise appears as white and black specs on your final image, much like the noise you see on older TVs when you tune it to an empty channel, though not quite as much! For model pictures, it is again best to use the lowest ASA setting you have.

Shutter speed and f/stop work just the same as with a film camera. Often with a zoom lens on your digital, the f/stop will change as you zoom. This is normal and several film lenses do the same thing.


Many cameras, both digital and film have the ability to operate in both manual and automatic modes. When photographing models, you can use automatic if you wish, though in many cases, the camera will go for the highest shutter speed to ensure an in-focus image, when you really want a large f-stop. If your camera can be used in 'aperture priority' mode of automatic, then by all means use it. The aperture is the opening of the lens and is the same as f/stop. In this mode, you set the f/stop where you want it and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed for that setting. Many cameras also have a 'shutter priority' mode and this does the opposite. You select the shutter speed and the camera alters the f/stop to fit. Shutter priority is not normally used with photographing models.


Lighting is key to a good shot. The best way to get great lighting is to photograph your model outside on a day with hazy sun. This means no harsh shadows, no large contrast between light and dark (many digitals don't work well with a lot of contrast), and no need to take up space in the house with extra lighting. However, not all people can take pictures outside, so must shoot indoors.

When shooting indoors, you have two options. One is to take the pictures in the brightest room of the house when the sun in shining in it. Upside is no need for a flash. Downside is that the lighting will take on the hues of the items in the room. If you have a lot of natural wood in the room, you image will have a sort of brownish tinge. If you have violet wallpaper, you'll get some of that in your image as well.


The other option is to use an alternate lighting source. The first one that comes to mind is a flash. Flashes are great and work well in many respects. However, the placement of the flash becomes very important. If you mount it on your camera, you will get large shadows directly behind the way your are shooting. For some angles of the model, this will produce some rather unwanted results. Again, you want to use the highest f/stop you can. Flashes will have a chart showing you what f/stop to use depending on the distance of your subject. Some cameras will automatically set the proper flash setting. Flashes can also be connected to your camera by a long cord. This allows you to move the flash out of the direct line of the lens. This gives you greater flexibility. With several flashes mounted around the subject, your pictures improve even more. However, these sorts of arrangements can get quite expensive and are beyond the scope of this article. One other thing, if your subject is quite large, it may be that your flash is not able to cover the entire model. Rather than spending the bucks on a bigger flash, take the model outdoors to photograph it. I have found this to be particularly true if modeling ships, as their size and shape is not usually good for indoor flash photography.


You can also use regular incandescent bulbs in reflectors for a lighting source. If you do that, you can set up a 'studio' for as little as $30. Simply by cheap, clamp-on reflectors and 150-200 watt bulbs. Now these bulbs are usually much greater wattage that recommended by the reflector makers so you need to keep them operating for a minimal time each use. I have mine all hooked into a power strip and turn them on and off at the same time. If using film, you need to get film that is made for indoor lighting or you'll get odd color shifts in it. For digitals, there is usually a 'white balance' that can be adjusted for indoor lighting. Often on a quality digital, this is an automatic feature.


OK, so let us say that you have decided to go the indoor route. Here is how to do the set-up. First of all, you need a space. A card table works quite well as does any other table of similar size. Next, you need something to set your model on. You could just set it on the table, but you really want a background for it. I recommend a sheet of poster board. This can be set flat and curved up in the back. You may have to tape the back part to the wall with temporary tape to keep it from sliding down. When you get your poster board, you need to get a neutral color. Don't ever use red, yellow, white, black, purple, etc. These bright or intense colors all look cool to start with, but detract from your model by causing the viewers eye to be attracted more the background. The best colors I have found are blues or medium to light grey color. These will generally not clash with your model.

Another alternative is to make a tarmac if you are doing aircraft models. This will give it a natural setting for your plane. You can also buy photo backgrounds from a train shop if you want to get even more realistic. If you want to buy tarmac pieces, I believe that Verlinden does several. I have used a piece of cardboard sprayed with 'concrete' paint from Badger and then had the sections put in with a pencil. Cheap, easy and it does the job.

Now you have a base for your pictures. Head to the hardware store and buy three cheap, clamp on reflectors and three 150-200 watt bulbs. If you can't find them, then get three-way bulbs. The middle wattage is what what you'll get when you screw them into the reflectors. The next thing is that you need to find things to clamp these reflectors to. If you don't have anything that will work, you may want to consider desk lamps with long necks rather than the clamp on reflectors. They will do the job just as well.

You will need a tripod for your camera. These can be found at any place that sells photo equipment. You probably already have one in the house somewhere. As a final step, I raised the height of the photo area by putting it on a box. That way I don't have to stoop or bend down all the time when taking photos.


Well, there you have it. A primer on taking model photos. You can see what is needed and what is not. You can also see that you don't have to spend megabucks on a small 'studio' in which to take photos. For web work, I highly recommend a digital camera. It may cost a bit more than an equivalent film camera, but it produces images that are clear and crisp. You also don't have to worry about losses to poor development and poor scanning. Best of all, if the picture is too dark, you can use your photo processing software to brighten it up and otherwise fix the image.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me about it. I can't promise to answer every e-mail, but I do read them all.

Scott Van Aken

Part II: Digital Cameras