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Photographing Translucent Miniatures


Doug Sundseth
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In this thread, Reaperbryan mentioned that he was having trouble getting detail when photographing the translucent Bones figures. I made some suggestions there, but I decided to do a few experiments, and this thread is the result.

Principles: Transparent and translucent subjects are a bit tricky to photograph. There's an old adage* in photography that, "Light reveals; shadows define". Translucents under even light have almost no shadows, so there is no definition and thus no detail. In many ways this is similar to painting OSL or NMM. You need to put light where you need it for highlights without killing the shadows that provide the shapes you're trying to show.

Now, not being Reaper meeple, I don't have any of the Reaper Bones Translucents to shoot, so I decided to make do with a mostly unpainted D&D mini that I had around. For reference, this seems to have been washed with a couple of colors, which does enhance the appearance of the figure. The only post processing is cropping to remove dead space and an automatic lens correction to correct optical aberrations. Here are the results:

8293730666_320de9a343_o.jpg
D&D Miniatures Caller in Darkness



Technique:

1) Backdrop: A sheet of white seamless paper. In this case, it was an offcut from a full roll of seamless (like this), but it would have worked just fine with any white paper.

2) Fill light: Translucent and transparent subjects usually work well when backlit. In this case, I used a speedlight (Lumopro LP-160, if you care) aimed at the backdrop and snooted (black craft foam cylinder attached to the light) to keep most direct light off of the figures. The backlight shows the inherent colors of the figure well. The light was at 1/16 power, about 18" from the backdrop behind the figure, and camera right approximately level with the figure.

3) Key light: To get shape and detail, I added a second light pointed directly at the figure. This light was another LP-160, also at 1/16 power, about 9" from the figure, shooting through a Lumiquest LQ-III mini-softbox. (Much the same light could have been obtained by using translucent paper in front of the light, but the softbox makes things easy.) I tried several different positions, but ended up preferring camera left, level with the table, about midway between camera and subject. Note that different figures might look best with different key light positions. You would probably do well to move the key around to see what looks best for the figure you're shooting.

Note that none of the positions I chose were similar to the position of a pop-up flash. Pop-ups are almost directly on-axis with the lens, which results in very flat lighting, which is exactly the opposite of what we need.

4) Room light: I chose an aperture and shutter speed that killed the ambient completely. When the speedlights were not shooting, I got a nearly completely black frame even though there was standard dining room light directly over the subjects. This makes it easy to work and easy to control the lights that will actually be seen. For reference, I was shooting at ISO 400, 1/250 second, at F/16-ish after sunset.

Cheaper version: If you don't have a camera that can shoot fully manual and a suite of photographic lighting equipment, you can get much the same results with a point-and-shoot camera and a couple of desklamps. In that case, you'll probably want to shoot in a mostly dark room, set the lights in about the same configuration I used here, and use a much longer exposure. I chose to use a tripod here, though it really only gained me a consistent camera position, because the flash duration is so short. When shooting with much dimmer continuous lights (and trust me, all continuous lights are much dimmer than strobes), you will need to stabilize your camera, probably with a tripod. But definitely do not use a lightbox with very even lighting, or you'll get flat photos that don't show any detail.

Finally, here are a couple of BTS (Behind The Scenes) shots to help illustrate what I was using. You can see the two speedlights to left and right and the tripod in front of the table.

The first was shot with the same settings as the figures:
8293730278_854c7efa5b_c.jpg


The second shot shows the room with the camera adjusted to show the ambient light and the strobes turned off. (If the strobes were on, the center of the image would be completely blown out.) Here you can see the lights on either side of the figure and the tripod (sans camera) near the edge of the table at left:
8293730444_f6d3cbe735_c.jpg

* FWIW, I read it first from Rick Sammon, who might have even said it first. But he's been saying it for a long time, so it's now an old adage. ^_^

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