Get smarter! Shooting from the lip 2

Part 2: Workbench photos with a mobile phone

In this second post in the series, we'll look at light (groan, not again?), set up a quick, plain, unified space on our workspace and use a modelling lamp as a studio light. The aim is to take quick shots with a minimum of fuss, but also to make these shots look good and be of consistent quality.

Mobile photography - the poor relation?

Just because they are mobile shots and popular opinion suggests they are somehow not worthy, doesn't mean we should discount their value or dismiss as 'not real photography' and not take as much effort to produce a good image.

'We have the technology' etc. . . but. . .

Even the latest phones are a tad limited in control flexibility and need a bit of augmentation. 'You don't get nothing for free' as they say and the paid app I will use later in this series is called Camera +2. It is around $15.00 from the Apple App Store. Well worth it for the additional flexibility and control it provides when shooting.

Caveat: there are literally hundreds of camera Apps for Apple and Android devices, but the info here is about universal camera control.

Eyes down, look in

The average model bench can be a scene of creative disarray. So first thing is to have a bit of a tidy up and clean that phone lens with a soft cloth too.

All sorted? "Super, smashing, great".

In this post we'll walk through two steps for shooting on the bench to:

  • set up the space and control the position

  • modify the light to enhance the shot for social media use.

In part 3 we'll think about introducing a cheap ring light to augment or replace our bench light and recreate professional studio lighting effects on a budget.

In part 4 we'll look at moving away from the bench to use and control natural daylight with a bounce card.

Oi you! Yes, you behind the bike sheds! Stand still laddie!

I do keep banging on about this but we will need to understand and apply some photography 101. Being able to 'control' light, and understand its qualities are fundamental basics.

This is mobile photography so we aren't able to mechanically change focal lengths, apertures or the shutter like we can with a DSLR because the device wont let us. What we can change is light and the position of the light and phone relative to the model. So just to labour the point a bit:

  1. light moves in straight lines

  2. light is finite and for every unit of distance it travels it loses two thirds of its energy

  3. the position of the camera in relation to the model affects how much of the scene is in sharp focus.

How far light travels is controlled by a thing called the inverse square law (ISL). Relax it's not as head meltingly obscure as it sounds. In all of its overly technical glory, the inverse square law, as it applies to photography (it works for other stuff too like sound) – is an equation that relates the intensity of a light source to the illumination it produces at any given distance.

Here's how it works in practice - easy to see that we really need more than one light to fill in the dark bits.

What does that mean for our model photography? It means that doubling the light-to-subject distance reduces the light falling on the subject to one-quarter. Using 'ordinary bloke' logic, we might assume that doubling the distance of the light to the model would reduce the light by half. In actuality, doubling the distance reduces the power by 75% !

Why do we need to know this? Well it means we never have quite as much light as we think we have and that our modelling work light isn't putting out as much illumination as we think it does. This is because our eyes are wonderful at making the most of a scene and adapting to changing light quality and levels. In comparison, a camera (any camera) is a bit stupid and has a limited fixed range of sensitivities and light gathering ability.

To compensate for this we might think that a solution is to move the light closer to the model. But this down and dirty fix risks over-exposing the parts closest to the light (like egg number 1 in the image above).

To fix this properly, we need to make sure we have more light to start with, or are able to add another light source to cover the model and fill in the space around and behind it too.

Remember the ISL eggsample? The space behind the model will quickly run out of light and make our background look like a Marilyn Manson video.

Is it me or is it getting stuffy in here?

Next thing is to know is that light has a temperature value measured in the Kelvin scale. It's either 'warm' (low K number with colour values tending towards the red spectrum) or 'cool' (higher K number towards the blue end of the spectrum).

I cover this important aspect in detail in the book because it affects how we experience colour (ignoring colour vision defects which affect 8% of blokes) and how we can inadvertently modify the colour values on the model, giving rise to arguments about the right shade of RLM76 and that OD tank thingy looking a bit brown. . . "Don't give us none of your aggravation".

In basic terms we need to set our camera's light temperature sensitivity as close as possible to the temperature of the emitted source. This is white balance (WB) in action and easier said than done with a smart phone. It's something which we can really only control either in photo editing after the shot is taken, or by downloading an after-market photo app which has a WB feature in its shooting menu.

Your Android phone may have these shooting controls, I don't have access to an Android device so cannot comment, but I understand many Samsung phones have a Pro mode which allows you to access white balance, shutter speeds (effectively controlling exposure) and other live controls. The principles here are the same.

Is that really what Dark Earth and Dark Green look like?

Here's an example of how colour value can radically change under varying light sources:

1. flourescent - a dental ring light

2. Incandescent - an old household 60W tungsten light bulb

3. LED. - a daylight rated bulb (closest to the pigment colour).

I say! Steady on there, someone might lose an eye

So let's get back to the job at hand - using the modelling bench to take in-progress shots for social media. Here's my modelling workspace - quite tidy for once, but still a bit cluttered and small. Lots going on and a story to be told - a story of a demented modeller at his labours, creating two small-scale icons of aerial warfare while a modern day trainer lurks in the background. What was I thinking? (there's a Beaufighter just out of shot).

Setting the scene - We all know we make models, its a teeny bit obvious and we don't need to labour the point by including the kitchen sink drama and the extensive paint collection in all of our posts (yes you know who you are, show off), so first thing is to clear the decks and plan out our photography beforehand to roughly coincide with the building/making process.

There's no rush, really there isn't.

Ok, so this may sound a tad dramatic and just a bit controlling, but make a rough plan of where you want to document the build in basic steps. This adds to the production process, and creates a sense of achievement too. (I am incredibly unorganised, have a million ideas spinning around my noggin and cannot concentrate for more than 10 mins).

1. Next: make an ad-hoc studio scoop backdrop. Two sheets of A3 copier paper or heavier weight art paper taped together if its available. 80gsm copier can be a bit see through, so double this up to make it opaque and stop that cutting mat or bench colour showing through if thicker stuff isn't available.

This is a simple way to isolate the model from the confused background. You can use blue if you are intent on copying the pro-modeller effect, but white is clean and acts as a bounce to spread our light around more.

Notice the curve? This is the scoop.

2. Compose yourself: As I said in an earlier post, the detail of how to compose a shot to tell a story and document the model is in my forthcoming book and there just isn't room here to get into this, but the main rule is to avoid shooting everything you can see on the bench in the mad hope that the image will cover everything and be sharp, or going in super close to capture the grin on the pilot's face.

It wont work

While they may boast 14 megapixies, the pixie dust actually doesn't work that well, because the lens is tiny and the sensor is tiny, so enlarging the image just spreads the pixels out and creates a low resolution image. Big, good quality glass and a decent sized sensor which is not overcrowded with lots of small pixels is still king. For now.

So get closer? Well not really no. Due to the fixed lens aperture (hole to let light in), our phones don't work well when placed close to small things (unless you like macro photography in which case let's talk).

Of course, the urge is to get close to the model because we are used to working with miniature detail but in doing so, we drastically reduce the area in sharp focus (known as depth of field or DoF). The limited DoF gets squeezed smaller as we move the lens towards the model because of the physics of how light passes through a lens.

Here's how this reduction in depth of field works as we reduce the physical focal length by moving the phone closer to the Spitfire (sorry 190 fans, we'll use the Wurger in next weeks session) to try and capture the detail (The Spitfire image is unedited for white balance and shot under my single modelling enlarger lamp, we'll come to colour balance next).

In shot 1 we are mostly in focus if a bit soft at the tail. A bit far away though. . .

In shot 2 we've got closer and the far wing tip and tail are soft.

In shot 3 the only bits in total sharpness are the wheel wells and the wing centre section.

So physically moving closer to the model reduces the DoF and pushes the front and back of the model out of focus. We can also see there isn't enough light here too!

To fix this DoF issue, experiment to find the optimum distance of phone to model with your camera model to maximise the area in sharp focus. In my set up the iPhone 12 mini is happiest around 18-25cm away from the model.

2A. Technique - now is a good time to talk about camera technique. Ideally, we should get a small tripod for a smart phone (places like K-Mart and IKEA are useful) and use the timer function so we are 'hands off' and shake free. These add clutter and slow the whole show down to a crawl and we might as well stop and set up our studio space away from the desk. That's not the aim here. So a firm two handed grip is good. Keep your elbows in and close to the body to minimise waving the phone around. And if you can, sit down to steady yourself further.

A tripod (or solid hand held technique) is the single biggest improvement apart from light quality that we can make to the clarity and sharpness of our phone images. The options below are budget things. Ordinarily I would say keep away from cheap and cheerful as it will let you down, but we are infrequent users and not reliant on our gear for a living. I have the desk clip holder from K-Mart and its quite useful but is prone to moving out of position. There are more expensive options such as the 'Gorilla Pod' multi positionable flexible mini tripod which can be wrapped around things.

3. Zoom! Don't digitally zoom in to frame that shot.

Smart phones invariably use digital zoom to electronically 'enlarge' the pixels in the image and this built-in trickery produces jagged fuzzy detail in our images. It's best to shoot from a set distance using the standard optical magnification or zoom setting of 1x with good, even light to make sure the whole model is uniformly covered.

Avoid going below 1x to 0.5x or 0.7x as this is wide angle and while appearing to be visibly sharper, and allowing more of the model into the shot, will distort its proportions.

Physically move back and if it's a bit of a grunty kit (think HK Lancaster isn't fitting in one shot here) get more background paper taped together to cover the background shrapnel.

We can then selectively crop the image in the cameras built in edit function. It's not ideal but it preserves clarity and as much depth of field (DoF) as possible within the phone's limits.

The next trick we can incorporate is to fix the focus point in the iPhone camera. We can tap on the screen to activate the focus point and use this to place the point of focus around the middle of the subject.

Why? well DoF means that around 1/3 of the scene in front of this point is in focus and 2/3rds behind, so fixing the focal point at a mid point means we can pick a spot to maximise the amount of the model in sharp focus.

Here's three examples:

The yellow box focus box doesn't show up too well here:

Shot 1 the camera has auto focused on the leading edge which makes the rest of the model behind this point out of focus.

Shot 2 is a user focus locked on the rear which throws the foreground out of focus.

Shot 3 is my user focus lock just forward of the wheels and gives us the best area of sharpness.

Also notice it has a sun symbol slider we can use that to make some basic brightness adjustments in the shot. One key thing to know about digital images: If we overexpose there is no digital information captured so we cannot fix the image in an editing app, so under exposing is always preferable if in doubt about light conditions.

4. Lights, camera, rrrroll-em!

Err hang on chaps, are you sure you have enough light?

That average single model lamp we use for model making with the standard bulb really isn't going to do the job and will cast deep shadows and make coloured things look a bit unwell. My model lamp is an old medical dental florescent ring light. It looks fine to my eyes and gives nice contrast when sticking and painting things. But for photography it is horrible, and will give digital images a sickly green orange cast.

So to fix this I have a small portable LED lamp which i also use in my studio shots. It's a cheap IKEA unit and can be quickly brought in to provide a light source which my iPhone is happy with. Compare shot 3 here with shot 3 in the sequence above.

Looking better? I actually prefer the second image with the bulb box in shot as its angle works better with the light direction and reflectivity of the paper.

The bulb is a replacement for the standard IKEA bulb and is a Panasonic LED bulb 850 lumens and has a 150 degree spread of light so is directionally controllable. Similar ones are available in any superstore and rated at 'daylight' 5600 Kelvin. Go for a 'cool' one.

For a quick first shot, we can see these basic light, position and a good camera holding technique give a real improvement in the image.

In the next thrilling instalment we'll look at some basic editing tips in the iPhone to brighten the image for social media use, colour correct white balance and improve contrast. We don't need expensive software to do this.

Kia kaha, go well, be kind.

Anthony, June 2021

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