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Sat Sep 1, 2012, 11:42 PM


Building photographic sets

For a couple days now I've been playing around with building and photographing scenes in miniature. This is very different from building dioramas or model railroad layouts. (My late father was an avid model railroader.)

When building a diorama or a model railroad layout the finished result must look good to the human eye from any angle. When building a miniature photographic set the finished result must look good to the camera from one, and only one specific angle. Human eyes have depth perception, and even small movements of the head will cause the elements of the scene to shift around relative to each other. The still camera has no depth perception, and once the shutter is clicked, the elements of the scene will never move again.

A second difference is that the diorama and model railroad layout can be viewed, and are often photographed, from high above. The miniature photographic set, however, will only ever been seen through the camera, which, ideally, is located at scale eye level. Instead of standing with your eye three feet above the tabletop layout, (which places you as much as 200 or 300 scale feet above the ground!) the camera will be located with the center of the lens an inch or less above "ground level". If you would take a picture of a particular car from, say, ten feet away, the camera lens must be ten scale feet from the model. That could be as much a 2-1/2 inches in O-scale, or as little as 1-3/8 inches in HO scale. This means that the camera body itself is below ground level, which means that the photographic set is more like a theatrical stage, with a drop off at the front edge to make room for the camera, and with the subject being only an inch or two from the front edge of the stage.

Scale eye level for O-scale Lionel Trains is 1-1/4 inches. For S-scale Hot Wheels cars or American Flyer trains, eye level is 15/16ths of an inch. For standard HO-scale model trains eye level is 11/16ths of an inch.

In a railroad layout or diorama, to convince the eye that there is a hill in the distance, the hill must be a hill and it must be distant, but to convince the camera in a miniature photo set the "distant hill" might be a flat cutout a few inches behind the subject of the photograph. On the model railroad layout a building must be a building, but on a photo set a "building" might be a single partial wall, or possibly two walls forming a corner. On a railroad layout a tree is a tree, but on the photo set what we see of the tree might be a single twig taped to a wooden dowel that is C-clamped to the table just out of frame.

In addition, a railroad layout or diorama has to be permanent, or at least relatively permanent and stable. The photo set only has to last long enough to snap the picture. On a layout real dirt used as dirt needs to be glued down and sealed. In a photo set, loose dirt can be loose dirt that's swept off and put back in the jar for the next shoot. In a layout roads and sidwalks are often made of plaster, or other permanent materials. In a photo set a 3/4-inch square of gray matte board or heavy card stock makes a fine sidewalk section, and it doesn't even need to be glued in place.

Here's an experiment with a photo of a brick wall glued to foamcore. The piece of wall is 3-1/2 by 5 inches, although less than 2 inches of height of the wall actually show in final picture. There is a lot of room for improvement where the wall meets the road (gray construction paper). There needs to be some kind of foundation, and some loose dirt and gravel to give the ground some texture. But this is just a preliminary experiment.

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Reply Building photographic sets (Original post)
Speck Tater Sep 2012 OP
bluedigger Sep 2012 #1
Speck Tater Sep 2012 #2
Celebration Sep 2012 #3
Speck Tater Sep 2012 #4
Speck Tater Sep 2012 #5

Response to Speck Tater (Original post)

Sun Sep 2, 2012, 09:58 AM

1. Great discussion.

I used to build a lot of car and tank models, and love model train dioramas. I really like the idea of photographing them at scale.

And it takes a special person to expose their toy Maverick to the intertubes. Where did you get that?

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Response to bluedigger (Reply #1)

Sun Sep 2, 2012, 12:19 PM

2. Thanks.


I picked up the toy Maverick at a garage sale around the corner for five cents, along with about a dozen other assorted vehicles. I got them specifically for experimenting with photographing scale models.

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Response to Speck Tater (Original post)

Sun Sep 2, 2012, 04:43 PM

3. This is too cool!

I mean, this isn't my kind of photography at all, but I love the concept! It looks like it could be a lot of fun. And good job with the photo, too.

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Response to Celebration (Reply #3)

Sun Sep 2, 2012, 07:07 PM

4. Thanks. Yes, it's a fun little diversion from "regular" photography. nt


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Response to Speck Tater (Original post)

Mon Sep 3, 2012, 10:43 PM

5. More experiments


I'm still trying to get "eye level" right. . The closer the real camera is to the scale model equivalent of eye level (which is around an inch off the ground at this scale) the more real the picture will look. Otherwise it looks like Godzilla snapped the picture from the top of a nearby building.

When you look at a scene the horizon is at eye level, regardless of whether you point the camera up or down. So if you are standing on the ground taking a picture of a car with the horizon in the distance, the horizon hits the car exactly where you eye would hit the car if you walked right up to it. If your eye level is three inches above the roof of the car then the horizon in the background better be three inches above the roof of the car or it doesn't look right

If you climb up on a ladder and look down at the car, however, your new eye level is at the top of the ladder. So if you are now 5 feet above the top of the car then the horizon better be five feet above the top the car, (and probably not even in the picture frame). The purple car on the lower right looks wrong because it's taken from four or five scale feet above the car, looking down, yet the horizon is just barely above the roof line of the car, which screams "fake!".

Even the first picture, which is almost right, has the horizon too low. That's why it doesn't quite fool the eye. The horizon should be just a bit above the roof of the cars in that picture.

I also need to work on the exposure, brightness and contrast of the backdrop pictures. If the foreground is sharp but the background is faded and washed out, that gives it away as fake too.

And, of course, the whole thing from front to back needs to be in focus, and up so close that requires focus stacking. The pictures required from 10 to 15 separate exposures at different focus points all combined into a single picture with Helicon Focus focus stacking software.

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