Few things can match the fairy-tale like magic of practicing miniature photography with your own props. Bringing the world of the diminutive alive and portraying it in larger-than-life size is not just fun. It can be a serious medium of expression in its own right! Today, let’s learn a bit about how to shoot miniature photos and what you’ll need to get started.
What is Miniature Photography?
Miniature photography is not just about taking pictures of small subjects. Nor is it about using miniature camera gear! Instead, the core principle behind miniature photography is to tell stories and experiment with composition using miniatures, i.e., figurines and other small sculpted items.
More often than not, your figurines will share the frame with real-world objects in life-size, serving as props and scenery. This allows you to experiment with proportions and perspectives, creating surrealist, unique, and often humorous compositions.
What You Will Need to Create Miniature Photos
Like any other creative photography genre, miniature photography requires not just mastery of camera settings but also specialized gear. Make no mistake, and you can likely create some very nice results with the gear you already have. But taking miniature photos with equipment specifically suited for the job can make a huge difference!
Miniature Figures, Toys and Other Props
Nothing is more essential to successful miniature photography than having the right props for the job. Miniature photographers document all kinds of real-world objects, from tiny models and collectibles to elements of nature. With the entirety of the small world at your fingertips, photographing miniatures is really a test of your creative possibilities!
Try experimenting with whatever you may readily find lying around the house. There is no need, especially as a beginner, to make props a major part of your miniature photography expenses.
Put some thought into selecting your first miniature subject or subjects, but don’t be too picky. In fact, I would recommend you make a long list of potential candidates and explore your options deeply. From toy photography to taking pictures of prized collectibles (or old action figures from the local yard sale), you can never know quite where this hobby might take you!
Listen to our inspiring interview with Mitchel Wu, a creative and talented photographer who creates stories through toy photography.
For most kinds of miniature photos, you will likely have two sets of props. One will include the foreground elements, and another usually larger subjects to occupy the background. Like the cast of a feature film, the background and foreground play a different roles in your composition. Because of that, it’s a good idea to think not only of which kind of prop might look interesting to your eye but in what context as well!
If you can only invest in one item of new gear for miniature photography, make it close-up filters. They may not seem like much, but these simple and affordable filters can really open up worlds of possibilities for you.
A close-up filter acts like a pair of reading glasses to your camera lens, shifting its focus point closer toward you. This enables you to examine and explore miniature scenes without the need for expensive equipment.
A Macro Lens Can Make a Huge Difference
With that said, there’s no replacement for a real macro lens if you are planning to really get serious about miniature photography.
Macro lenses are highly specialized pieces of optical glass. Unlike conventional kits, they are designed to provide the maximum possible resolution at a very close range. They can also achieve much higher levels of magnification, allowing you to reproduce your subjects at larger-than-life scales.
Just like the equipment you are used to, macro lenses also come in grades of focal length. A wide-angle macro lens might be preferable for scenes with lots of miniature figures. Meanwhile, a macro lens with a higher focal length might be capable of higher magnification ratios.
Consider Bellows for Serious Work
If even that is not enough for your needs, you might be ready to start shooting with a bellows setup. Compared to mounting your optics directly to the lens mount, a bellows system allows for far greater control over depth of field and fine focus.
Of course, the flip side of such a setup is a very high startup cost. That makes bellows systems only really an option for those very enthusiastic or very experienced in macro and miniature photography – preferably both.
Don’t Forget Your Tripod!
In order to take exceptional miniature photography, you will need to keep camera settings under control to avoid unwanted shake and blur. Camera shake is especially important to mitigate as much of miniature photography is shot at a slow shutter speed, which exacerbates camera movements.
If you don’t have one already, I highly recommend investing in a good-quality tripod. Chosen well, it will easily outlast your camera! Tripods can also prove useful in any genre and environment, far beyond miniature photography alone.
Use Light Evenly Where Possible
If shooting outdoors, you likely will not have much control over the lighting of your miniature scenes. Working in the studio, however, opens up significant possibilities in terms of expression and composition. You can use a light tent to evenly coat your subjects in light. A flashgun may come in handy, too, even outdoors.
Because your subjects are diminutive in scale, you do not need to actually employ complex studio lighting for this. You can easily repurpose the lamps you may already have at home – the more, the merrier!
For reflective material, you can reuse white paper, small mirrors, and fabrics. Tracing paper and baking sheets work well if you want to use semi-translucent walls for your light tent like the above.
Best Camera Settings for Photographing the Miniature World
Let’s now go over some of the essential techniques that can help you realize your miniature photography ideas from scratch. The following will include both essential camera settings as well as some ideas on composition and narrative theory, so be sure to take notes!
As you know, nothing beats proper command over your gear. In that spirit, let’s go over the most crucial camera settings that you need to master to find success in miniature photography!
As mentioned above, miniature photographers frequently make use of slower shutter speed settings. You can certainly afford to: your subjects are fixed and posed in advance, after all.
A slow shutter speed lets you draw in more light, allowing for solid exposures even in tricky indoor environments without the need for (much) artificial lighting. However, going slow is not all there is to it in the realm of shooting miniatures. A relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250s and up can effectively be used to attain maximum sharpness, which can otherwise be hard to find when you’re pushing your lens to the edge of the envelope at very close working distances.
Remember to also intelligently match the shutter speed with your aperture setting, particularly when using manual settings. A large aperture might call for a faster shutter speed and vice versa.
By far, the most crucial setting to get right in miniature photography is your aperture. With just the lens diaphragm, you have a few important variables at your fingertips all at once. These include depth of field, which affects not only the sensation of scale in your scene but also the extent of your focus range. On top of that, the aperture also gives you great control over exposure.
Remember that depth of field naturally gets thinner at closer working distances, all else being equal. Unless you already have experience in other fields of macro photography, you might therefore find that it is much easier to achieve very thin DOF (for better or for worse) in miniature photography than what you’re used to.
Because of that, it is often sensible to set a small aperture for ease of focus. Because of the shallow depth, a small aperture is also useful when you’re not looking for strong bokeh. At less-than-favorable lighting conditions, this might necessitate stabilizing your camera on a tripod, as described above, to prevent blurry images.
Macro shots are inherently about reaping hidden detail out of small and normally hard-to-see subjects. Scale models can be truly fascinating when exposed in this way. That is why you should be trying your best to preserve their natural detail. Set your ISO as low as you can afford to in order to preserve maximum levels of detail and minimize noise.
Automatic and Manual Focus Control
I highly suggest practicing miniature photography and similar macro shots with full manual controls. Only with fully manual exposure and particularly using manual focus can you exploit the full possibilities of selective focus at shallow depth, for instance.
Where exactly you place your focus point can completely change the mood and feel of your final photo. This is because the depth of field decreases so drastically whilst shooting tiny models up close. This is where using a mirrorless camera can come in handy. The EVF allows focus peaking, for example, for accurately determining which areas will be in focus in your final image.
Think about selective focus in a cinematic sense, with your miniature props as the actors. Do you want to emphasize expression (or the illusion of such expression) by bringing out the faces? Or maybe a carefully placed, creatively chosen prop can serve as the literal front and center of your composition – like the curled leaf ‘sea’ above!
With mini models, you truly are in the director’s chair. Think about what you want to bring out most, then figure out how you can use focus (and the properties of shallow depth of field) to express it.
How to Find the Best Composition for Photographing Miniatures
All this talk of creative photography direction and expression naturally directs us to the topic of composition. More than any other part of the process, this is of course an entirely abstract and subjective affair. However, none of that is to say that good miniature photography composition can’t be learned and practiced!
The contrary is true if anything!
Some photographers choose to use LEGO minifigs to tell complex stories in long photo series. Others explore how a simple and unassuming household item, like a glue stick, can take on countless faces and roles purely by playing with lighting and framing.
The point is that you can use composition to do just about anything. That’s true even if all you have is a phone camera, a desk lamp, some figurines from old tabletop games, and basic materials from the craft store.
Read up on some compositional theory, especially in the fields of portraiture and macro photography. The lessons from these fields are especially transferable and useful for better photos of miniature scenes.
Then, experiment with posing and placing your miniatures and see how this affects your results in conjunction with different camera settings. Soon enough, you will surely develop a sense of what makes not only a correct exposure but a convincing composition, too!
Tips and Ideas for Creating Miniature Photography
Here are five tips for capturing stunning miniature photos.
1. Put Some Careful Thought Into Designing Your Home Studio
Your miniature photography is only ever going to be as successful as the environment allows it to be.
Do take some time to consciously envision how you want your home photo studio to look. What kind of miniature shots are you looking to create, and what will they require? What type and configuration of lighting, for example, will suffice for your compositional ideas?
Answer these questions for yourself, and you will be one huge step closer to realizing your creative goals!
2. Use Storyboards for Scenes and Composition
It’s always better to have a concise idea of what you’re trying to do as opposed to a vague one. That is definitely a mantra worth practicing in miniature photography as well – which is why I do suggest storyboarding any ideas you might have for miniature scenes, composition, posing, et cetera.
These can be rough drafts with bullet points, detailed sketches with illustrated steps, or anything in between. It’s all up to you! What matters is that you set up your studio and equipment already conscious of what you’re planning to create today. This greatly increases your chances of success while reducing superfluous effort and stress!
3. Think Cinematically
I mentioned this before, but miniature photography really lends itself to a cinematic approach to composition and storytelling. Imagine some of your favorite scenes from film or TV. How could you re-enact these – or the ideas or feelings they express – using miniatures?
Try to think of everything from casting and dressing up your props to camera angles and mood. In short: see yourself as the director of your own mini-sized studio production!
4. Feel Free to Experiment With Stop-Motion Techniques
You might already be aware that most stop-motion videography and cinematography are made using small miniatures. This means that, with the miniature photography setup you already have, there is nothing stopping you from adding a little stop-motion spice to your work!
If you’ve ever at all expressed an interest in the genre of stop-motion animation, miniature photography is one of the best springboards to get yourself started with basic techniques.
5. For Crafty Shutterbugs: DIY Tiny Figures
If you color yourself particularly inventive and good with your hands, nothing elevates your creative expression further than the ability to make your own miniature photography props. Sure, store-bought, scavenged, and carefully collected figurines can also make for excellent subjects. Some of you may even prefer the vibe these lend to your images.
However, those with very specific creative visions will likely be more satisfied with something tailor-made for the requirements of the shot. If this sounds a tad daunting to you, you can start small to get a taste of the DIY philosophy. For example, try making easy, abstract ‘landscapes’ for your smaller figurines to inhabit by cutting, forming, and painting pieces of cardboard or paper.
Expressing Yourself With Creative Miniature Photography
One of the greatest things about miniature photography is how it allows the photographer to go beyond the bounds of the usual environments most of us are used to shooting in.
Photography is inherently about using a representation of real life – a capture of real objects – to produce creative work. Miniature photography doesn’t change that formula, but it does allow you to do things you otherwise might not be able to do.
A shot of construction workers exploring a deep underground dig might not be the easiest thing to capture in ‘true life size’. But with the help of some miniatures, a few hand-crafted backdrops, props, and smart camerawork, it’s more than possible!
That is the picture I want you to take away from this exploration of miniature photography – it’s potential as a creative tool to get the kinds of shots that would otherwise be impossible for you to execute.
Now, go out and practice some of what you’ve learned! Don’t worry too much about creating complex, cinematic scenes right away, but familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of miniature photos bit by bit. Have fun shooting!