About a month ago I said that I would start a thread for basic miniatures photography. I took a few photos that night, but they've languished on my camera and phone until the last couple of days. At any rate, here we go.
The first thing to know about photographing miniatures is that it isn't really all that difficult. They don't move, you have complete control over the light, and they're small enough that backgrounds are easy.
For this first post, I've taken a pictures of a couple of subjects in the simplest way I know how. (Later posts will address more complex subjects, but let's start out without adding any complexity.)
The miniatures photos here were taken with my cellphone using undiffused desk lamps in a couple of minutes. There's nothing required that you can't do with things you almost certainly already own.
The biggest mistakes people commonly make are busy backgrounds, strange white balance, under- or over-exposed photos, and unfocused images, We'll address those one at a time:
1. Rather than shooting a picture on your desktop with bottles of paint, partially painted miniatures, rinse water, and a half-full can of Mountain Dew in the background, use a simple sheet of paper for the background. Put the bottom on the table and curve the top up to form a backdrop. To a photographer, this is a "seamless backdrop", but we only need paper the size of printer paper (letter or A4) for most subjects.
2. For white balance, there are several things that contribute to problems. First, if you are using lights of different colors, you'll end up with colors that can't be corrected either by your camera or in post-processing. Until you know exactly what you're planning to do, make sure all your lights are a single type. After that, you should still use lights of a single type unless you're trying to do something very clever.
3. If you have your camera set for incandescent lights and you're using fluorescent lights to illuminate the subject, you'll get a fairly nasty greenish-blue color cast. Similar problems will occur with other mismatched lighting and camera setting combinations. To start with, I'd recommend using automatic white balance. Which brings us to:
4. Your camera determines the color of the scene lighting by the color of the photons that hit its sensor. If you have a colored background, many of those photons will be the color of that background, which can confuse the camera's tiny little mind. Use a neutral background.
5. Your camera can adjust for nearly any light level you can read in. The amount of light, other than that, doesn't matter all that much (except for how steady you have to hold the camera, which will discuss in a bit). What does matter is that the light be relatively even. Since miniatures are ... miniature ... you don't need large lights to get decent quality light. Desk lamps placed close to the subject work just fine. But the light needs to hit the side nearest the camera and you want light on both sides of the subject, so use two lights, one to either side of the line between the camera and the subject, and put them in close. Don't use a light box unless you know exactly why you're doing it. ("Because I read somewhere that it works" is not sufficient reason.)
6. Depending on the camera, you can use an automatic exposure, use an automatic exposure with compensation, or use a manual exposure. Any of those can work, but automatic exposure requires the least work, so we'll do that this time.
7. But -- your camera determines what exposure to use again by looking at the average brightness of everything it sees in the scene. If you have a dark background, the camera will think the scene has very low light levels, so it will expose for longer. If you have a light background, for the same reason, it will expose for less time. Since you want a Goldilocks exposure, you want a medium color in the background. And since we want a neutral background (see 4 above), that means a medium gray. Use a medium gray background.
8. Your camera is pretty good at pulling an accurate focus, but if you work at it, you can fool it. Cameras focus on hard lines; if your background has hard lines (or lots of stuff with sharp details), your camera might decide the background is the real subject and focus there. Use a background with no strong patterns. Plain, monochrome paper or something with diffuse mottling (like some of the Hangar 18 photo backgrounds) works fine for this.
9. Your camera has a minimum focal range. If you can't pull focus, move the camera back and crop out the extra background in post-processing. You aren't going to want to post all 16 million pixels anyway.
10. If the camera is shaking when you press the shutter release, you'll get motion blur. This can look like poor focus (which is why it's here), but the fix is to make sure the camera isn't moving. Use a tripod or set the camera on something steady. A bag of uncooked rice works pretty well as a shooting rest.
11. Finally, with a deep subject, it can be impossible to hold focus through the depth of the figure. You'll see this most often with figures that are holding swords away from their bodies, but it can happen with most figures. This is a physics problem for which the only simple fix is limiting the depth of the subject. Turn the figure so that its deepest distance is perpendicular to the camera.
Which all sounds really complicated. So what does it look like?
Camera on a tripod, gray paper background, and two lights close to the subject.
Now, this was a really quick shoot, and there are things I would do slightly differently (mostly raise the right light to avoid the shadow on the paper), but for instructional purposes,I think it's adequate.
And if you want to see other shots taken in much the same way, check out Heisler's article on the Genghis Con 2014 miniatures contest. The only difference there was that rather than using OTTlites, I used desk lamps with GE Reveal bulbs and I used my DSLR rather than a cell phone.
ETA: Reveal bulbs were not really a very good choice. Their Color Rendering Index (CRI) is low and their color temp is pretty close to regular incandescents (which have a very high CRI).