Get smart! Shooting from the lip 1

Part 1: Understanding smartphones for scale modelling

This post is an update to a older one about using mobile phones to document in box reviews and how we can get decent results without worrying unduly about things we just cannot control.

After some discussion on social media and the ongoing restructuring of my book to refocus (yes it's a pun, and yes, I put it there on purpose) on the rapidly evolving world of mobile device imaging, I decided it might be a useful thing to create a short(ish) tutorial on the pros and cons of smart phone photography.

Essentially, describe what we as modellers can hope for from a lump of styrene and a hand-held phone, and which smelly recesses of Louis Daguerre's darkroom we should avoid.

Get smart!

First things first (naturellement!). 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.

That's really all you need to know. . .

These rules and principles are covered in detail in my forthcoming book, and are essential titbits of knowledge that you need to consume and inwardly digest in order to make a good go of things. Otherwise it's just a couple of lucky shots with an expensive black box eh?

At this point in the shooting match, you can hang on desperately for the publication, or you can go a-googling for this essential info, (be aware that this might not be presented within the context of model making, but you get the idea).

Yeah but no but. . .

So, the first claim is that smart phones are, well, 'smart', and will take awesome images without the need for the user to know the gnarly sciency stuff or get their geek on with lights and tripods and other stuff.

Fact check - Untrue (well almost).

Nope, we still really need to be understanding and thinking about light and holding the smartphone camera thing as securely as possible too. The average smart phone camera is a slippery cove and designed for a millennial mass market which has but one desire: To take pictures of itself and its bizarrely attired chums in new and interesting locations (the pub), and maybe take pictures of the new and interesting location and its delights (obscure ale that probably tastes like badgers wee).

Ok, so maybe two.

Actually 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 art, marketing images to sell their cute cat-dog grooming and craft beer business (barman, there's a hair in my pint) and other assorted high quality visual stuff.

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 hapless trilby and pink tutu wearing manchildren are - fixed apertures and poor low light performance. Essentially the teeny sensors didn't work well in night clubs, firework shows and other places where millennials like to gather en-masse.

To be frank, being able to blur backgrounds to create cool Bokeh (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 area of focus and a way of controlling accurate white balance at the point of shooting to match our workroom or model bench light source.

. . .What you also need to know

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 weeny lens

  3. teeny weeny image sensor

  4. teeny weeny 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 unreality that is Googleworld to find out what an aperture is, then you'll already know that having adjustable versions of this control is vital to us.

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 lets us model photographers down.

They all, and I mean all, (even the posh ones with two or three lenses) have large fixed apertures of around f2 (small f number, big hole . . .). Designed primarily to let as much light in as possible and create flattering portrait opportunities, these big apertures work to maximise the light transmission of the tiny optics and tiny image recording sensor. Plus with the added algorithms and fancy digital manipulation, they can now work in ultra low level light conditions.

"Ooh its a bit blurry Reg"

Large aperture has another nasty surprise for us modellers, it also equals shallow area of focus (also called depth of field). Not much use of you've got a 1/32 Liberator on the bench.

But all is not lost. We can apply some basic camera knowledge and knowing that camera lens distance and position from the subject also controls the amount of area of focus, 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 a confused messy composition as we include more of the bench and the ugly stuff in the shot, and also suffer a loss of resolution as the sensor doesn't record sharp detail in objects farther away. (I feel a Father Ted moment coming on).

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. . .which brings me to the shooting space.

ISSUE FOUR: I dropped it, its buggered now

The main aim of using a smart phone during our modelling session is to quickly document the build process to impress our mates (and attract their withering sarcasm and sparkling wit, you know who you are you cheeky monkeys). Because we see this as a quick and largely automated process, it also means 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 its fraught with potential mishaps.

You know the score, its the old 'I'll take a proper photo later'. (what do you mean, 'proper'?).

There really is no need to apologise and a bit of thought and planning can tun that dodgy blurred and weird orangey looking thing into something approaching the real model.

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

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

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.

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).

So we need to get a nice big A3 (or bigger) sheet of white card and slip this over the cutting mat and modelling area of the bench. Allow it to curve up and over all the usual shrapnel at the back of the bench. In doing this we create an ad-hoc photographic 'scoop' and hide 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 know 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 create the illusion of corrosion and dereliction, we just want to document the build as painlessly as possible. The white also isolates the object and makes it easier to crop the image to focus on the detail.

As I said earlier, the detail of how to do this is in my forthcoming book and there just isn't room in your concentration span here to get into white balance, colour choice and light set up (I can hear you yawning).

Lights, camera, rrrroll-em!

Err hang on there, chap, make sure you have enough light. That single model lamp we use for model making with the iffy bulb really isn't going to do the job and will cast deep shadows and make coloured things look a bit sickly.

Ideally, we need a daylight rated LED light source which is stable and cool. By 'daylight' I mean the Kelvin scale rating of 5600K. These bulbs are common now and getting one to fit your 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.

If we were talking about a studio set up here for a shot with a DSLR, then we'd already be thinking about a couple of lamps of equal rating to create a pool of light and a third 'key' light with a higher output to highlight and 'model' the model ('modelling' light is moving the lamps around to create shape, form and contrast between highlights and shadow areas, not getting your kit off for 'tasteful' art shots).

Moving on up

Ideally we should move away from the model bench to avoid mishap and spoiling the workflow too, and I often find a good place is the kitchen table near to a window with good natural light.

Just because were are shooting with a smart phone doesn't mean we can ignore this approach, but in a trade off against time, effort and the importance of the shot (maybe it's just a detail shot to prove to the folks in Twitter-ville that we are still breathing and know how to wield a pair of sprue cutters) we can use natural light and a bounce card reflector to fill in shadows. Bounce card you say? Yes a bit of old cardboard box or better still, polystyrene packing sheet with some crumpled up and flattened out aluminium (or aluminum for all you colonials) foil spray mounted onto it.

Have a few of these in different sizes made up they are easy to prop up, lightweight and won't destroy anything if they topple over. I seal the edges with gaffer tape to stop the poly bits getting everywhere. I also use BBQ skewers poked into the back to act as props. Huge cheap improvement in light quality, and all with the aid of some crumpled kitchen foil spray mounted to a bit of polystyrene packing.

Crumple the foil and then smooth out but retain some texture to act as a diffuser and bounce light in different directions, we dont want a mirror effect.

Experiment with the matt side and shiny side too. White card also works.

The shot can be further enhanced in the phone's basic image editing controls by pushing the white point and highlights sliders up a little and balancing this with the shadow and contrast slider.

Get to know our phone camera controls to see how some simple tweaks can improve our shots quickly and easily. This one above is pretty much shot as is with the brightness slider in the iPhone pushed a bit to clean up the white paper and shadows. Nothing fancy or difficult.

Also. . .We don't need to get all arts and crafts with the spray mount (evil stuff) if we just want to experiment, and a crumpled sheet of foil will do. Attaching the foil to a sheet of poly just makes it easier to manipulate and prop up while we get the reflected light and camera angle just right.

The reason for not using artificial light in this very basic shoot is that smart phones (even the most expensive ones with three lenses) tend to work best in natural light scenarios and their little brains are wired to predominantly take shots with natural daylight. Of course they have multi settings and can adapt to a wide range of artificial light scenarios but natural is best and free.

We might notice that the image resolution above is a bit soft, showing some grain or texture. This is partly due to the poor resolution performance of an older phone camera (not everyone has the latest Samsung Galaxy rocket-ship) and also being a hand held trial shot to illustrate the basic process of bouncing light. Plus the actual cockpit is around 3 times actual size in the shot, so all in all it's not too abysmal and can be improved upon with a bit of camera holding technique and practice. Always practice.

And that’s all there is to it. We can use more than one bounce card to fill in shadows.

Obviously as with all photographic techniques, there's a world of techniques and variables and various types of bounce cards and reflectors can be used to modify light. Different surface textures will diffuse light and scatter it to soften shadows while a gold reflector will warm up the subject. Gold is good for portraits, not so good for a scale models and will modify the camouflage colours.

Things called cutters which are essentially black card can also be used to reduce and absorb too much light and create shadows or high contrast shots. All this and more is covered in detail in my book.

Here’s the F1M2 airframe and lower wing in the trial fit stage as another before and after example. In this case I took the model off the bench and used the natural available light from a kitchen window around midday, white card scoop only in first shot shows shadows are a problem with a contrasty shot.

In the shot below I just put the bounce card in front of the model and filled in the shadows. It's not difficult and quick once you understand that light travels in straight lines.

Think snooker or pool ball trajectories.

Remember to keep the phone at a reasonable distance from the subject to maximise depth of field and support it as firmly as possible to maximise sharpness.

If you want to get serious about using your phone and experiment further, you might want to invest in a little tripod.

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.

Anthony, May 2021

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