We build LEGO to please ourselves, but a large part of the online community is about sharing creations. Ideas, themes, techniques have all spread thanks to the many sites setup to provide a forum for LEGO builders around the world. At the heart of these are images. A collection of pixels which to us, translate into another collection of blocks. Because of this, the quality of photographs has become so important.
These articles won't tell you how to start from scratch with a camera set on AUTO, one desk lamp, and a piece of letter sized white printer paper. No. I'm going to assume that most of you can figure out the basics, control your camera, make a half decent backdrop and provide enough light. I'm going to take you into the woods, into the thick underbrush - I'm going to give guidance into how to turn the mediocre into the great.
The easiest way to get okay, neutral, no complaints photographs of your LEGO creations is to build a lightbox. A cardboard box with the sides and tops cut out and paned with tissue or wax paper. A lightbox provides diffuse even lighting, and is the first step past those direct-flash, dark basement photos that we all started with. Many LEGO photography guides would end with the suggestion that you build a lightbox, but I'm starting with it. Build it, take some shots, and get over it. Break it up, and recycle it. It's a start, but it's boring.
However, the lightbox teaches us some lessons. What do those big tissue paned windows do? To know this, you have to understand shadows.
LESSON ONE: Light.
Standing outside during the day when the sun is up fairly high and there are no/little clouds, your shadow will have a very sharp edge. Standing outside in overcast weather, if you can even find your shadow it will have a very gradual edge. These examples represent Spectral and Diffuse light sources. A spectral light source is very small; the sun is all its glory is about the size of your thumbnail from earth, as such it casts a very sharp shadow. A diffuse light source is very big; on an overcast day the sun hits the clouds, which then become the light source - and they fill the entire sky (Sky > Thumbnail), this casts a very gradual shadow that fades out.
Which one is best for LEGO? Depends on what look you want. Diffuse light is going to even out all the edges and be less noticeable, Spectral light is going to give small highlights and accentuate any edge it comes across. So chosing between the two is up to you, what I will talk about is how to create both in an artificial fashion.
You're going to need some nice lights. Either a high powered desk-type-lamp, or a flash. Naturally, this lightsource is fairly small and will get smaller the further away you put it. So creating spectral light is fairly easy. To create diffuse light, you're going to need some sort of screen. Something like those panes of tissue from the light box. So however you want, make some sort of frame - the bigger the better, but don't make it akward to use, cardboard, wood, LEGO, whatever you make it out of is up to you. Then, fill the inside with a layer of tissue paper or something of the like. Now when you put this between your light source and your LEGO model, it becomes the lightsource and is much larger than the lamp/flash it self. The closer this screen is to the model, the bigger a lightsource it becomes. Make sure your lamp is lighting up the entire screen too, if not, move the lamp further away. This may seem counter-intuitive, as I've just told you that the further away it is the smaller it is, but the size of the lightsource has nothing to do with how large of a cast it gives.
Now that you know about light size and what it does, we move onto light direction. This is very dependant on the angles of your creation. If you have a spaceship, with a very big side that is full of greebles and you want to draw attention to those greebles, what do you do? The eye is attracted to contrast, so you want to see both highlight and shadow on them. Therefore, lighting them from the front probably isn't going to work, when you can't see a shadow on them it will just make them look flat. If you want to show texture, you have to rake the light across it. Beware. This will accentuate all texture. So while we may think that a wall of bricks is smooth, really there are small cracks between each brick and raking the light across will bring these right out.
So we can make the conclusion then that lighting more directly at a wall of bricks will better hide these cracks and make it appear smoother.
You can also use light direction to accent the edge of a creation. Say you make a spaceship with a striking shape, and you want to make an image that shows it very well. You need some way of drawing the eye to the edge. Again, contrast is the answer. The simplest way is to wisely chose your backdrop (light model, dark backdrop; dark model, light backdrop) to contrast your creation. But this lesson is about light. But how do you light an edge? Backlight it. Have your light source strike the back of the model and it will create a 'halo' or rimlight around the model. Note that the "back" of the model is all relative to how it is posed in the photo, and doesn't always mean that the light will be directly across from the camera. It can come from the side and still strike the back of the ship, so long as the back is turned to the side. Here is an example. You can see that the side facing away from us is outlined ever so slightly (note that this type of backlight also lights up the transparent bricks, making them resemble windows more). Now, obviously you have to have more than one lightsource when backlighting, because it's only lighting the side you don't see. But having more than one light source doesn't mean you need more than one lamp/flash. And this brings us into the next topic for today.
Contrast. The difference between two things. In this case I want to talk about the contrast between your lighted side and your shadow side. Lets pretend we're talking about a cube with one of the coners pointed right at us, so we see just two faces of it. You put your light on one side, and it only lights that one side; so while you've got very nice detail on the light side, you can't make out the other side at all. What you need is a fill light. You still want a shadow side, but you want to be able to see it too. The main thing about fill is that you shouldn't notice it. This is why you generally don't want to use another light that might cast a second shadow. What you need is a reflector. I use a giant piece of white foam core, or sometimes white matte board. All a reflector does is reflect light from your main light back onto the model. This will lower the contrast between your light and shadow sides, but will maintain them as light/shadow. The closer the reflector is, the more light it will bounce back and the lower the contrast. If you're in a room with a lot of ambient light that is 'filling in' your shadows and you want more contrast, get a big black board and use it instead of a reflector - this will block the ambient light without bouncing back much of your main light.
Now you know how to use a two light set up. Main light and fill. Which brings us back briefly to direction. You don't always have to light the side that is most facing you. You can make it the shadow side and light the side you see less of. Example. This can be a little more dramatic than simply lighting the most visible side.
The final topic for light is to add a third light. This one can also be called a backlight, but isn't the same as the one mentioned previously. The third light is lighting the backdrop. Usually, unless you've got some sort of diorama, you want to seperate your model from the backdrop. The best way is to get the model quite a distance infront of it, so that the backdrop falls out of focus. Another way is to light it. Say you're photographing against a white backdrop, but because of how you're lighting it's coming out darker, looking a little muddy and boring. You want it to dissappear. So, put a light on it, make sure to cover it all, and make it a bright light. You want to overexpose it from the main model, so that it becomes the brightest white. Here is an example, and while it isn't LEGO, or even a very good shot, the backdrop is pure white - so you don't even think about it. You can also use a backlight for more dramatic purposes. If you're photographing on a darker background, you can create a spot of light behind your model that will draw the eye. I'll point to this shot as an example. Now, this might be hard to do with a desk lamp, as you need to turn your light into a spot light. But all you need to do is use some black paper (the thicker the better) to make a cone and stick it on your light. You're making the light cast smaller, a spot light as opposed to a flood light. Alternatively, a small flashlight could work here, but might bring up some issues I'll address in the conclusion.
Now you know the three light setup. You can go where ever from here. Try using small reflectors to bring more light to certain areas, try making them out of foil, try out different contrast ratios (even try a silhouette), vary between spectral and diffuse light and work out what works better where. I'll end on a more complicated note. You should all know about White Balance as a camera setting. All lightsources have a colour cast, and white balance sorts out the colour of light your using and makes it white. Naturally, you can only balance for one colour of light at a time. So if you use a tungsten desk lamp (yellow/orange) and balance for it, but then put an LED flashlight for a backlight, it's going to look blue. And if you then balance for the blue light, you main light will look yellow. Unless you want this look, all your lights have to be the same colour. This can be faked of course. If you need to make a blue light yellow, just stick something yellow and transparent infront of it. Obviously this won't be completely accurate, but it gets closer. All that said, the colour of light makes no difference to a black and white image. Something rarely explored with LEGO photography.