Get smart!

Smartphones for scale model photography

This post is an update to an archived post about using mobile phones to document in-box reviews, and how we can get acceptable results without worrying unduly about things we cannot control.

After some discussion on social media, and the ongoing restructuring of my book to refocus on the rapidly evolving world of mobile device imaging, I decided it might be a useful thing to create a short tutorial on the pros and cons of smart phone photography.

Essentially, to describe what we as modellers can hope for from a lump of styrene and a hand-held phone.

First things first. Smart phones, or other mobile devices that have a built-in digital camera conform to the same rules of light and photographic principles as any other camera.

Understanding these rules and principles really are essential to becoming a competent creative photographer, and they are covered in detail in my forthcoming book. Skipping this in the hope that technology and all its glorious auto settings will knock out some stunning images is risky at best. In reality, it's only ever going to be just a couple of lucky shots with an expensive black box.


Let's have a look at some misconceptions about the average smartphone and what they can do.

The first one is that smart phones are, well, 'smart', and will take awesome images without the need for the user to know the gnarly science stuff.

Fact check - Untrue (well almost).

No, we do really need to understand how light works. To apply the solid camera skills possibly learned from using a film or DSLR camera, we need to be holding that smartphone camera thing as steadily and securely as possible. The average smart phone is a slippery wee thing, and designed for a hipster millennial mass market which has but one desire: To take funky pictures of itself and its bizarrely attired chums in new and 'interesting' locations (the pub/edge of a cliff/crocodile enclosure). It probably doesn't matter too much if the pics are slightly blurry as this is 'edgy' and anyway, there's an Instagram filter to be applied too.

The boffins at the Telecommunications Research Establishment Cupertino recently cottoned on to the fact that more and more people (we'll call them 'creatives') are using these devices to create marketing images to sell their cute catdog grooming and craft beer business (barman, there's a miniature Schnauzer in my pint) and other assorted high quality visual stuff via a blog. . .

So the egg-heads have had to pull their fingers out, sharpen their zero-gravity propelling pencil and address some of the basic limitations - which for our permanently excited trilby and pink tutu wearing manchildren are - fixed apertures and poor low light performance. Essentially, the small camera sensors didn't work well in night clubs, firework shows and other places where millennials like to gather en-masse. Which means fixed large apertures and a variable electronic shutter to match. Which is fab for blurry backgrounds and party lights.

To be frank, being able to blur backgrounds to create cool 'Bokeh' (coloured light spots which have to be circular to show the quality of the lens - yawn) and shoot in near darkness, are not big on the list for us scale-modelling Don McCullins.

No, what we need are small apertures to maximise the depth of field (DoF - the area in focus), and a way of controlling accurate white balance at the point of shooting to match our chosen light source. There are some nifty third party apps around now which go along way to solving these issues. We'll look at these in depth in the book.

Let's visit the basic limitations of a smart phone camera and see what we can do to side step these and make it work for scale model photography.

  1. limited aperture

  2. teeny lens

  3. tiny image sensor

  4. svelte slippery body

  5. dodgy digital zoom.

ISSUES ONE, TWO and THREE: aperture, lens and sensor

If you've been paying attention or wandered off into the altered reality that is Googleworld to find out what an aperture is, then you'll already know that having adjustable versions of this control is vital.

Adjustable because we need to get as much of that tiny plastic thing in sharp focus as we can. From nose to tail and wing tip to wingtip. And this is where the smart phone can let us down.

They all, (even the posh ones with two or three lenses) have large fixed apertures of around f2 (small f number = big hole). These fixed apertures are designed primarily to let as much light in as possible, and create flattering portrait opportunities while having fun. These big apertures work to maximise the light transmission of the tiny optics and make the most of the tiny image recording sensor's capability to capture and convert that light into a pixellated image.

"Ooh, its a bit blurry Reginald"

Large aperture has a nasty surprise for us modellers, it equals shallow depth of field. Not much use of we've got a 1/32 Liberator on the workbench.

But all is not lost. We can apply some basic photography knowledge here, and understanding that the distance and position of the camera lens from the subject also controls DoF, we can move our shooting position away from the model to increase the apparent area of sharpness. Result! (well almost).

The downside of moving away is the potential for a confused, messy image composition as we include more of the surrounding bench and ugly stuff in the shot. We also suffer a loss of resolution (detail) as the tiny sensor doesn't record sharp detail in objects farther away because that small lens has relatively poor optical resolving powers.

Of course we can crop the image to remove the unwanted edges and that dried up paintbrush we forgot to take out of the shot.

ISSUE FOUR: "I dropped it, it's done for!"

The main aim of using a smart phone during our modelling session is to quickly document the build process to impress our real/virtual friends (and probably attract their withering sarcasm and sparkling wit, you know who you are you cheeky monkeys).

Because we see mobile phones as instantaneous devices we also think of a phone image as a quick and largely automated process. It often results in a hasty shot grabbed while the PE is detaching itself for the fourth time, or while the decals curl up in the water bowl... not a happy scene. Plus it's fraught with the potential for accident and mishaps.

You know the score, its the old "I'll take a proper photo later", self effacing online model forum excuse (what do you mean, 'proper'?).

There really is no need to apologise for the apparent lack of quality, and hurrying to shoot the model before it self-combusts is a recipe for disaster and disappointment. A bit of thought and planning can turn that dodgy blurred and weird orange looking 'snap' into something approaching the real model.

I keep saying this, but the single most important thing in photography is not the camera kit or the fact that it cost the equivalent of a small car. . . (show-off and more fool you), but it is the ability of the lens to transmit light and the quality of the light illuminating the subject. Smartphones come with very small lenses, so we have to work harder to get this right.

The second single most important thing is thinking about setting up.

ISSUE FIVE: Compose (don't decompose)

The cutting mat may be right under our noses, but it is far from ideal as an ad hoc studio back drop. In fact quite apart from it being a bit messy and covered in a distracting grid pattern, its also green (blue or even black) and will bounce and spill its colour onto our model, further confusing that poor smartphone's image sensor which doesn't see all colour equally in the first place and can be a bit biased towards green, blue or red. . .(remember they are primarily made for facial recognition social imagery where colour fidelity isn't such an issue).

Breathe, there is no rush here. That freshly turned out 190 isn't going to turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of 12. Relax, free your mind and clear away, or at least move out of shot, all the ephemera, paint and other things which pose a risk to your model, camera and sanity. Its pretty obvious there's been some light glueing and sanding going on and we don't need to labour the point with scattered accoutrements.

Start to think about telling a story with your shots. Here's a very basic example where I've ignored my own advice and used the cutting mat to include the basic components of the Barracuda resin set to provide a very basic narrative of where I'm at with the build. The resin is in its element so to speak.

The cutting mate ad-hoc studio is far from ideal, and we really should think about how we can clean up and give our viewer a fighting chance of seeing the thing in isolation to remove visual clutter and focus (pun intended) on the main event.

So we can easily do this by getting a nice big A3 (or larger) sheet of white card and slipping this over the cutting mat and modelling area of the bench.

Allow it to curve up and over all the usual bench shrapnel at the back of the workspace. In doing this we are creating an ad-hoc photographic 'scoop' and hiding the rows of paint bottles, our incredible collection of weathering powders, trepanning tool and the Harder & Steenbeck nonchalantly left just in shot to say 'hey dudes, I do airbrushing' (settle down at the back).

Why white? well we are not really being creative here, unlike the Cutlass header shot, and rather than trying to tell a visual story like the hapless Chance-Vought and the conte pencils artfully arranged to tell a story of what was used to create the finish, we just want to document the build as cleanly as possible. The white also isolates the object and makes it easier to crop the image to focus on the detail for upload to social media.

As I said earlier, the detail of how to do this is in my forthcoming book, and there just isn't room here to get into white balance, colour choice and light set up.

"Lights, camera, action! Rrrroll-em!"

Err hang on there, old chap, have you got enough light.?

That single model lamp we use for model making probably isn't going to do the job and will cast deep shadows and can make odd coloured things look a bit weird.

Ideally, we need a stable daylight rated LED light source. By 'daylight' I mean the rated to the Kelvin scale value of 5600K. These bulbs are common now and getting one to fit your existing light fitting is easy. Of course you may already have a decent LED work lamp so were good to go here as long as there is enough light to illuminate all of the object.

In the next thrilling instalment, I'll add a step by step photo tutorial on setting up, shooting on the bench and very basic post shoot editing detail.

Kia kaha, be well, be kind and don't look at the sun.


Wellington - September 2021

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