Miniatures have taken the world by storm. And why wouldn’t they? The internet allows the spread of their tiny glory to miniacs all over the world. But they have a hugely amazing history, dating back to ancient Egypt, if not further, and I think that history needs to be explored.
A quick start guide to making images of miniature scenes.
Whether with toys, model railroad sets, war gaming miniatures, you name it, if you want realistic-looking image of miniature environments, this guide is for you.
So you have a little plastic figure all set up and ready to be photographed in front of you. Imagine you were about to do a photo-shoot of a full-scale real person. How would you place that person within your camera’s frame? In most cases, you would shoot them straight on, not way above them. Do the same for your miniatures. Get on their level, even if it means you’re squatting or laying on the ground (this takes dedication folks!).
In the words of awesome mini photographer Mark Crummet:
“This picture is a perfect example to me of how Camera Position Matters.
Assuming these guys are supposed to be six feet tall, this picture was taken from a scale 10 feet in the air. Something happens when you shoot down on a subject- it looks smaller. The POV diminishes the subject. This is a common issue in the photography of miniatures, and gets to the root of what it is you’re trying to doing in the first place- are you taking pictures of small things, or are you trying to make small things look big? Are they in our world, or are we in theirs?
Imagine if this picture had been taken from a camera position five inches lower. The whole scale of the image flips. The viewer is now seeing these figures as regular sized humans rather than as toys. Suddenly the whole picture changes- these are not toys posed next to a dead squirrel; now it’s a picture of two guys standing over the carcass of a gigantic squirrel! To me, a much more interesting image.
I see so many photos of miniatures ruined by this thoughtless use of camera position, when a slight change could turn an ordinary picture of a small thing into a really thoughtful, interesting picture of a different world. Pictures of small things are boring; pictures of small things made big is way more interesting!”
Compare the above image, to the one below. The photographer didn’t quite shoot the subject straight on, but they did get lower and look how much more convincing it is.
Now here’s one where the photographer got up close with the mini and wa-la, much more realistic.
Shallow depth of field is your best friend when it comes to photographing toys and miniatures. Having a narrow field of focus allows you to pick and choose where the viewer looks and what specifically they see. Learn more about depth of field here.
With a less shallow depth of field in the above image, the sky, which is a piece of paper with roughly water-color painted blue streaks would appear as just that – a crudely painted crinkled paper, the sky would look more cut off and less like it recedes into the ground in the distance, the tree would look less full.
This is the paper that forms the sky in the above image.
Depth of field allows for the transformation of these diorama-like scenes. It’s what makes the photo the final piece of art, rather than the scene itself.
Simple v. All the Things
This one all depends on your style and what you’re trying to depict. If you’re more of a minimalist, then you’ll want to choose what you include in your image carefully and with meaning and then choose your main subject matter as your point of focus.
If you like detailed, all in focus scenes, then those little details matter in a big way.
If you choose not to blur things out, not to pair your scene down, then you need to make sure to make or source realistic items to complete your scene for a realistic look.
Above are two images made with the same dollhouse doll. While both images are fairly simplistic, the top focuses on her facial features while the bottom shows her toes and the rough wood surface of a porch. A viewer is more likely to believe the second image is of a real full-scale scene because the details, when focused in on have some realism.
And Some Other Things:
Mind your scale. Non-mini materials or various scales together can be a dead giveaway that your image isn’t of a real scene. Choose dollhouse and model train layout accessories for things like gravel and grass.
But! Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to have small hints of your mini world.
Use a tripod and remote or self timer to make sure your camera is steady and stable.
If you have it in your tool box or have the budget, get a macro lens and a dslr camera! Otherwise use a macro or microscope mode on a point and shoot camera, or a clip on macro lens on your smart phone.
Use a desk lamp or studio light to illuminate your scene. Try to stay away from camera flashes. With your studio lights your aim is to emulate sun light or a room light, so choose the angle of your light accordingly.
If your scene is outdoors, use a single light source. There’s only one sun after all.
If you’re reading this post then you’ve most likely looked through mini photography shots before. You probably even have some favorites. Look through them again.
How much of the background can you see in these images? What has the photographer left in focus and why do you think that is? What would make each of these images more realistic? What do you like and dislike about each image?
Study those images and then find more. The answer to the questions you ask yourself will inform your photography.
Tell me all about your experience photographing miniatures and toys in a comment below. If I’ve left something out or you’ve tried some of the tips above I’d love to hear all about it.
There are so many toys old and new that coincide with model train scales. If you’re into that sort of thing, here’s a list of toys, by brand, and the scales they can be used with. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the post for a variety of scale comparison images.
*I haven’t provided links, considering most would simply be to ebay search results. If you’re looking for a specific piece and having trouble finding it, let me know and I’ll do my best to help you out.
(bought out by Hasbro in 1998)
My Pretty Dollhouse (1980s & 1990s)
(I mistakenly refer to this in 2 of the images below as ‘My Dream Dollhouse’)
Houses = grandiose HO scale or diminutive O scale
1980s Furniture & Figures (originally called li’l House Wonderfull)= fairly precisely O scale, although a few pieces, like the bed pictured below run a bit small
1990s Furniture & Figures = chunky, in between HO & O scale
Micro Machines (1980s to present day)
Star Wars Figures = precisely HO scale
Cars = chunky, in between N and HO scale
Sets = roughly HO scale, occasionally on the slightly small side
Spaceships = tiny, I’d venture to say smaller than Z scale, but they vary in size
Pound Puppies (1990s)
Sets = chunky O scale
Animals = a scale in their own, as they’re all made to lie flat, they’d be roughly O scale if in a more realistic position
Disney Lockets (1990s)
Figures = fairly precisely O scale
Playsets = between HO and O scale, but likely unusable in any sort of set
(bought by Mattel in 1998)
Polly Pockets, Mighty Max & Disney Tiny Collection (1990s)
Houses & Buildings = roughly HO scale
Inset Furniture & Figures = chunky, in between HO & O scale
Hot Wheels & Matchbox (still in production)
Cars = large HO scale. Seated HO scale figures, Polly Pockets, etc. can fit in these cars with opening doors, or convertible tops, however the car is a bit wide for HO scale roadways.
Beach Babies (1990s)
These could go by another name as I’m not sure what brand they fall under.
Houses = pretty precisely HO scale
Accessories = vary between HO and O scale, some are slim and perfect for sets, others are pretty chunky
Babies = a very large, disfigured O scale
Good Luck Minis (present day)
Animals = many are HO scale, although all the animals in the packs are roughly the same size, making a bunny the size of a shark, whereas the shark would be maybe Z scale, the bunny would be larger than O scale. The mid-size animals, i.e. horses, cows, tigers, etc. fall within HO scale.
My Mini MixieQ (present day)
Furniture = chunky HO or short O scale
Figures = really short, chunky HO, not very compatible with other modeling items
Room Boxes = large O scale
Tonka Tiny (present day)
Various vehicles in mystery packs = Z to N scale depending on the vehicle
Board Game Figures (i.e. Risk – vintage and present day)
There’s a surprising amount of consistency in figures made as part of board games. The majority of these are 1:72 scale. HO scale is 1:87, so a bit smaller, making these figures I’d say a large HO, and too small for an O scale set. However, it’s a good place to go if you want a lot of military figures. See a complete list of games here: http://www.plasticsoldierreview.com/ShowFeature.aspx?id=72.
In these images, the graph paper – 1 square = 1/4 and inch wide (6.35mm), the cutting mat – 1 square = 1/2 an inch (12.7mm).
And just a couple examples of misc objects posed together – as a miniature photographer, and not a train hobbyist, I don’t have full set layouts with these items to show you, but hopefully what’s here will give you some sort of an idea. If there’s something in an image above you’d like to see next to something, let me know.
And some detail shots…
So that’s that. Do you know of any small-scale toys that would work with model railroading scale sets? Let me know in a comment below. And as always, if you have ideas for a future post, or something you’d like to know more about anonymously fill out the survey or just leave a comment below.
I recently decided to make my own HO scale traffic and rail road crossing lights. For the purpose of my photos, I don’t need the expensive ones available that allow you to set timers for the change of the lights etc. I did want mine to be able to light up though, for my Headlights series. So, I set out to make my own.
Want to follow along? You’ll need: 2mm in diameter acrylic rhinestones, fine grit sand paper or nail file, tweezers, super glue, thin cardboard or matboard, black hobby paint, thin gauge jewelry wire, small paint brush, black coffee stirrer straw
How to Make HO Scale Traffic Lights
gather the materials listed above
paint the an area of your cardboard black
cut a 6mm x 14mm rectangle from the painted cardboard
sand the foil backing off each acrylic rhinestone you plan to use
mark the placing of the 3 lights on your cut cardboard with pencil
‘drill’ 3 holes in the marked locations to place the colored rhinestones on top of
place a drop of superglue in each hole and attach the rhinestones
paint the sides and back of your cut cardboard
cut 3 pieces of a black coffee stirrer – cut the stirrer in half lengthwise (through the hole) then cut pieces 2.5mm long
round one end of each of the 2.5mm coffee stirrer pieces
glue the coffee stirrer pieces over each rhinestone to create a ‘hood’
twist a length of thin jewelry wire to create a line that the traffic signals will hang from over the road
cut a 1 inch piece of thin jewelry wire and make it into a tiny hook/circle to connect to the traffic signal and hang from the line
attach the wire hook to your traffic signal with super glue
place a micro led behind the finished light to let the light shine through each rhinestone
How to make HO Scale Rail Road Crossing Lights
Gather the materials listed above, and follow along with the images in the gallery below. The original idea was to have a video tutorial for this one as well, but there were some technical difficulties…so screenshots it is.
Cut a 2.5 x 2.5 cm square from a piece of non-corrugated, compressed cardboard or matboard.
Draw a line from one corner, to the corner opposite on the cut square – creating an ‘x.’
Draw a line perpendicular in each corner measuring a 1/2 cm in length.
Connect the ends of each of the 1/2 cm lines to the end of the line in the opposite corner – creating an ‘x’ that is a 1/2 cm wide (see the first image below).
Cut out the space around the ‘x’ (see images 2 and 3). This is your Railroad Crossing sign.
Use glue to attach the sign to a black coffee stirrer. Leave about 1 cm of the coffee stirrer sticking out above the sign.
Sketch out the backing for your railroad crossing lights. Each circle should be 1 cm in diameter. leave them connected in the center. (see images 4 & 5).
Cut out the circles and attach to the coffee stirrer, directly below the ‘x’ with glue. (see images 4, 5 & 6)
Cut a piece of cardboard 1/2 x 7 cm. This will be the traffic stop.
Glue the 7 cm long piece of cardboard to your coffee stirrer, about 1 cm below your circles. If you would like this arm to move, rather than remain down, use a pin to poke through the coffee stirrer and into the arm, to make it movable. I suggest using a sewing pin, then cutting it down to size with wire cutters once it’s been poked through.
Let the glue dry a bit, then paint the ‘x’ and arm white, and the circles, black.
Once dry, add red lines to the traffic stop arm (see image 11).
‘Drill’ holes in your circles with the point of an exacto knife.
Gather 2, 2 or 3 mm red acrylic rhinestones.
Use fine grit sandpaper or a nail file to sand off the foil backing of the rhinestones.
Use superglue to attach the rhinestones over the holes you drilled in the circles (see image 13.)
Cut a coffee stirrer in half and cut 2, 3 mm long pieces.
Round the edges of one side of each 3 mm piece.
Glue the flat side of the piece above each rhinestone to create a hood of sorts.