Friday, 19 September 2008

LEGO Photography 101 - Week 2

Week Two: LIGHT.

It cannot be stressed enough to the importance light has to photography. Photo = Light, in the Greek. Forget about your subject, it is just a coincidence in the scene of Light you are capturing. If you photograph LEGO in a dark and dank basement, then this week's lecture is for you. Today I'm going to touch on the importance of light to photographing LEGO models, and how you can harness it sufficiently to aid in giving you great LEGO photographs.

Firstly we must consider the application for which the photographs are destined. Taking shots of your LEGO creations must display as much detail as possible, true colours, and depth. This week I'll only touch on the first and second. Detail is very key, the photos need to look nice but foremost must provide a full capture of the model. With this knowledge in hand we can determine the type of light which will best suit us. Direct light is out. Much too harsh, and creates distinct and deep shadows. You need diffuse light, or in layman's terms, a large light source. What qualifies as a large light source? A cloudy day, a light tent or light box, window light (and this is specific, so wait), or reflected light.
An overcast day is the easiest as it requires very little work from you, however, you're really dependent on the weather. If you want to take this route - remember that the heavier the overcast the less shadow you will have. You'll also probably end up with dull colours that must be punched up in post-editing.
A light tent or a light box is about as fancy as you can get. You'll need a cardboard box, a box cutter, some box tape, and some form of half-opaque/half-transparent paper (e.g.: tissue, wax, parchment, etc.). Then go here and follow the instructions. This should cost you next to nothing. From here, you can take a direct light source, like an off camera flash, a lamp, or direct sun and make it into a diffuse source by shining it through the semi-transparent paper. The all white interior will also help bounce around stray light and reduce directional shadows. For the purposes of LEGO photography, the more lights the better - however, watch that you avoid mixing different types of lights and I'll get into this latter in the post (WHITE BALANCE).
Lastly we come to window light. When referred to as a photographic light source, it means specifically diffuse light from a window - not direct sun. So you'll need an overcast day, or a window facing North (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) or South (for those in the Southern Hemisphere) - this position will avoid direct sun all year round. Additionally with this light source you must make use of a reflector to bounce back light and reduce shadows. Ideally you place your model at the far side of a window (from yourself), so imagine: (you)--window--(model). Then get the reflector right beside you pointing at the model, and get it as close as possible to the model - if it isn't in your way it isn't close enough. More on reflectors to come.
With options 1 and 3, you will need a backdrop. White bristol board will do excellently, depending on the size of your model, larger SHIP size creations might require a bedspread. Curve your backdrop, from a vertical surface to a horizontal one, to eliminate the background. Use the matte side of the board, you'll want to avoid the possible problems glare might pose with the glossy side. White is best. Once you are comfortable shooting on white, begin experimenting with different colours, darker drops help with darker models, and coloured drops can spark visual contrast (Tim Z, Spook, is good with this). However, avoid coloured backdrops until you understand White Balance. If you are using something larger than bristol board, look for something with a fine texture: bed sheets are good, bath towels bad - get the idea?
Reflectors can be had just as easily. They MUST be white, for the intents and purposes of photographing LEGO. Foam core, canvas boards, bristol board, illustration board, white cardboard, you see where I'm going. As mentioned above, if you are using a reflector, it must be VERY, VERY close. Light falls off very quickly from them, and an extra 10cm can make or break your shadows.
White Balance. O muse, help me through this one. Some of you are aware that different light has different colour casts to it, even though its 'white'. Our eyes to a pretty good job of auto adjusting and we don't notice it all that much. However, take a photo with a daylight white balance with incandescent bulbs and you'll understand how important this is. White Balance is all about getting neutral whites, without any colour cast. Cameras are able to adjust to specific temperatures of colour to neutralize whites, but only one at a time. What this means is that if you start mixing daylight with lightbulbs, incandescent with flourescent, you aren't going to be able to fix your colour cast without some intense and impressive photoshop maneuvering. So don't. Flash = Daylight. For more info on Colour Temperature see wikipedia: [link]. Do yourself a favour, stick to one light colour, set your camera accordingly, and be merry.

Okay, I've done all you said, but my photos are all grey!

18% grey. What? Okay, here's the deal. Computers level tone from 0 (black) to 255 (white) with 8-bit colour. Value #128 is also known as 18% grey. Camera light meters read scenes and expose to achieve an average of 18% grey, because generally this works. Experiment: shoot a white piece of paper (as the only thing in frame) on your camera's auto setting with ample light, and it will still come out grey. So when you photograph with a white backdrop your camera wants to make that 18% grey. Solutions? Either in manual exposure, or with exposure compensation you can 'overexpose' (by your cameras meter) until you actually get a proper exposure. Alternatively, if you can lock your exposure (as in, set it on something and then keep it set the same even while photographing something entirely different), make a large wall of dark grey bricks and give it ample light, then fill your frame with it and take an exposure reading. Dark grey is probably fairly close to 18% grey. Try it, and shift either way until your exposure is proper.
Note that if you are using a dark backdrop, like black per se, your camera will try and overexpose to make that black grey. Learn to know what you camera is doing and act accordingly.

I hope that all wasn't too much to take. If you're lost, read through it again, slower around the parts that confuse you and use google to do some more research. Once you get your head around it, it isn't hard and you'll wonder how you managed to conjure up half-decent shots before. Next week I'm going to move on to the taking of the photos, shutter speeds, apertures and tripods galore!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

LEGO Photography 101 - Week 1

With this post, I'm going to start a series named "LEGO Photography 101". The objective of this series is to provide in-depth tips on how one should best photograph their LEGO creations. As Lukas helped to explain, photography is VITAL function of presenting your creations online, and the best photography will give the model the best response it can get.
How hard is it to achieve great photographs? Not very. There is a little bit of work involved, but as you're spending the time to build your models in the first place, a little effort for photography isn't much to ask for. How expensive is it? You probably have all you need already.
In order to provide in-depth tips, I am doing this as a series and each week (hopefully) I'll post an article relating to only one part of the process. There are many guides available at most forums that are all-in-one stop shops, so if you're completely lost on LEGO photography you may want to use one of those as your main education and treat this as additional help. 

Week 1 : Is my camera good enough?

With the digital revolution well established, the choice of camera has become an even more complicated process than before. Back in the glory days of film, a camera was only as good as the film put in it. This is probably why film cameras have a longer life span than digital, there was just much less to them. This also presented you with a very large selection of results depending on the type of film you may have used. With digital many users are prone to taking the pictures straight from the camera and doing nothing to them. While they may view this along the same lines as not editing prints they got from film, one must consider that your digital camera only has one sensor and the number of ways that sensor can capture colours differently is severely limited. I can't imagine using the same film all the time, therefore I can't imagine not doing some sort of processing to my digital images!
Anyways, getting back on topic, with the limitation the above mentioned one must be careful when purchasing a digital camera. Your first big decision will be between a Point & Shoot or a DSLR. You're not training to become professionals, so a Point & Shoot will do the average LEGO builder fine, therefore, I'm going to focus first on the Point & Shoots and then touch base a little with DSLRs later on.
With a point and shoot you have one lens, so you better make sure you've got good quality optics! It all really depends on what else you may be using the camera for but consider the following: large zooms will not give you as sharp photos as smaller zooms, there will just be more glass in there; watch for "optical zoom" and "digital zoom", the former means that the lens is actually moving to zoom in and the latter means that the camera is just cropping the image - the former is thus much preferable, digital zoom is a cheap gimmick best avoided.
For photographing LEGO there are some key features you want: Exposure Compensation and White Balance. Aside from those, you won't NEED any other controls. Many Point & Shoots might not have specific White Balance Control, but will have different shooting modes (indoors, outdoors, night, snow, etc.) that are set with different white balances - if your camera has these, experiment and see which one gives you the most neutral whites when photographing your LEGO models. Don't get carried away with Megapixels, and don't choose one camera over another because it has more. The actual image sensor on a Point & Shoot is much smaller than 35mm film and it is the size of the sensor that matter more than how many Megapixels you have. 6 will do fine. Anything more, and your just trying to see how many people you can cram into a phonebooth. Bad idea. You're just going to end up with more noise/grain.
Marco is an excellent feature present on many Point & Shoots and will allow you to get very close to your Model when the feature is activated. KNOW how close your camera can get to its subject while remaining in-focus, and don't exceed those limitations.
With all that said, most Point & Shoots will work fine as long as you know how to use them and are doing so properly. Always read your manual! It will provide good camera specific information that you need to understand.

Now I'll touch a little on DSLRs. If you're interested in photography aside from snapshots of your LEGO models, you may want to look into one. However, if you are unfamiliar with how to take a photograph manually then I would recommend you purchase a used 35mm film SLR and learn the basics from there. 35mm film and equipment can be had very cheap, and older equipment is very reliable! The less electronics, the longer it will probably last - I have cameras from the 1920s in perfect working order. Some people like to think film is more expensive than digital but they ignore the low cost of older and used SLR bodies and the high cost of DSLRs that will probably be in need of replacement much quicker.
Regardless, if you know about exposure and manual controls, and have access to a DSLR you can take very good photos of your LEGO models! More control over image taking will result in you being able to respond to different situations much easier. You will have access to Exposure Compensation as well as Manual Exposure and proper White Balance controls. If you are shooting your models on Manual, make sure your aperture is set to a relatively high f/stop to make sure all of your model is in-focus. It depends on the model's size, your focal length, and how close you are, but you don't want to be shooting any more open then f/5.6.
Many of the things I said about Point & Shoots applies here too. Sensor size is much more important than Megapixels. DSLRs are slowly becoming fitted with Full-Frame sensors, which is fancy terminology for saying they're finally the same size as 35mm film. Most DSLRs still have APS sized sensors, so again 6mp will do just fine. Don't overspend for features you may never need or use. 
When choosing a brand, know that they will all perform splendidly. Don't listen to anybody saying one is better than another, they're speaking out of their rectum. Consider if you have any old lenses, if/how they can work with a modern DSLR, the selection of lenses the company offers (will they suit your needs?), compatible flashes, what type of memory card (all mostly CF), but MOST importantly - how does it feel in your hand? Go to the store or find a buddy with one and feel them out.

That ends Week 1 of LEGO Photography 101. With all luck I'll move on to our next topic next week which will be the shooting environment!