How I take photos for the minifig gallery
Want to know how the pictures in the minifig galleries are created? Read on to find out...
Since I started creating the minifigure galleries for the site back in January, many of you have asked how I take the photos and what equipment I use. This article attempts to explain my setup and techniques. I am by no means a photographic expert; my method isn't necessarily the best way and certainly isn't the only way to photograph them, but it's worked for me.
The following four things will help ensure successful LEGO photography:
- Good lighting. This is THE most important aspect needed to get a good photograph. If the lighting is bad, the resultant photo will be too. Multiple diffused light sources, or shooting outside on an overcast cloudy day help achieve this. I use multiple flash guns and a light tent, but you can use household lights.
- Plain background. This is not essential, but a clean white, consistently lit background makes post-processing the images, to get them on a white background, so much easier. I use a piece of white A4 card curved slightly to produce an 'infinite horizon'.
- Camera. Of course you need a decent camera but it doesn't have to be a big, expensive one. As long as it can focus close enough to fill the frame with a 'fig, has a 'normal' lens that doesn't distort the image, and allows some control over exposure and aperture, it'll do the job. A DSLR is my preferred tool but high-end compact cameras also fit the bill.
- Image post-processing software. You can get good results straight out of the camera, but a little tweaking on your computer will enable you to improve them significantly.
This the equipment that I use:
- Nikon D7000 DSLR. This is Nikon's latest top-end camera aimed at the serious photography enthusiast. It has a 16M pixel sensor and many features found on their professional models, but in a smaller, lighter body. One such feature is the ability to use the pop-up flash to trigger remote flashes. More on this later.
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens . This is a macro lens that focuses close to give 1:1 reproduction. That feature isn't needed for what we're doing here, but it's the highest quality optic I own and so produces the best results.
- Nikon SB-600 flash gun and Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight kit, which consists of two flash guns designed for close-up work and a host of flash accessories.
- Light tent, a 50cm one, purchased from eBay.
- Manfrotto tripod.
- Nikon ML-L3 remote control.
- Eye-Fi SD card.
- Photoshop Elements 8 software on a Windows 7 PC.
My minifig studio
So, here's all the kit set up. The multiple light sources on the sides and above help reduce shadows. I needed something to suspend the SB-600 flash from above, and naturally I made it from LEGO: a bridge made from the Studios girders supports it between my storage cabinets.
The top flash illuminates the inside of the tent, diffused by the top of it and so evenly lights the inside. The slightly shiny material of the tent helps scatter the light around.
The close-up flashes are set either side of the fig, and are fitted with diffusers.
An A4 sheet of card provides the backdrop. It's held in place with LEGO: see the photo below.
The tripod is not needed to get sharp photos, since the flash sees to that, but it's essential for ensuring every image is taken from the same place.
Here's the inside of the tent. The framework at the back, and the 1x2 panels at the front, hold the white card in place. The tiles and the 1x2 white plate in the centre is where the minifig is positioned.
The card has two small holes cut in it for the studs on the 1x2 plate to poke through. The relatively shallow angle of the card helps ensure that it's evenly illuminated from the flash above.
I set the camera up with the front of the lens about 40cm from the minifig and use a small aperture (usually f22) to ensure that everything is in focus. At this distance and with the 105mm focal length lens I use, the 'depth of field' -- the amount of the image in focus -- is quite small, about 2 to 3cm.
The camera and flashes handle the actual exposure, I leave all that on auto, although I do boost the output of the SB-600 by 1EV to ensure a bright background. The on-board camera flash is covered with an accessory from the close-up flash kit and is only used to trigger the three remotes.
Although shooting in RAW format captures unaltered images and allows the greatest post-processing flexibility, I shoot with JPG compression because it provides me the ability to use the Eye-Fi card and the convenience of smaller file sizes, while still producing acceptable results
Before taking the photo, I pose the minfig by straightening the arms, hands and legs, and centering the face and hair. I also try to make sure it's as clean as possible by giving it a quick dust with a brush.
There's not much to say about the actual photo-taking. Once I've set everything up as above it's just a case of positioning the 'fig in the right place and pressing the shutter. Actually, I don't press the shutter release button; I use a remote control to trigger the shutter release, thereby reducing camera shake. I used to use the 1x2 studs to stand the figure on, but it was a nuisance getting it joined properly and standing up straight, so now I just stand it in front of the studs, and use them as a means of aligning the figure.
I try to get the shot as directlty 'head-on' as possible and I use the gap between the legs to determine if I've successfully accomplished this: if I can see the sides of the legs, it's not head-on. I also like to take the picture from about minifig-head height so you can look them in the eye. The height of the tripod is set to ensure this and to keep the pictures consistent.
One thing I try to avoid is too much reflection, particularly from the curved head, although my setup is prone to this due to the side flashes. The only way to do this is to take a shot and check. If the flashes are reflecting off the head I tilt the minifig torso down a bit.
I use an Eye-Fi SD card to transfer the images to the computer, which is a real time saver. As soon as the picture is taken it transmits it to my PC via Wi-Fi so I can check it almost immediately and don't need to keep transferring the SD card from camera to PC and back again.
This is a picture straight out of the camera. Note that the background is evenly lit. You can see a slight shadow either side of the minifig, caused by the side flashes, and also a soft shadow under the figure caused by the top flash.
Now I will explain the post-processing I do in Photoshop Elements. Elements is the cheap, cut-down version of Photoshop, but has enough features to make it suitable for use here. I cannot claim any credit for this method, as it was bluemoose who taught me how to do it.
1. Crop the image
Images from the camera are 4928 by 3264 pixels in size and the wrong orientation, so the first thing I do is crop them to a 3:2 ratio, to 1880x2820 px. I actually use Thumbs Plus to do this, rather than Elements, because it has some neat features allowing the specification of the exact pixel size (aspect ratio) to which to crop, which is useful for consistency when doing loads of photos, as I am. So, once cropped, I load it into Elements:
2. Set white balance
To ensure accurate colour rendition it's important to set the white balance correctly, and I use the Levels tool to do this:
I click on the grey dropper, then on a area of the image that is known to be white. In this case it is the white card background:
The resultant image is as shown below. The images out of the camera have a very slight red colour cast, which you can just about notice if you compare it with the above image.
3. Isolate the background
Next I turn the background white. This is done with Elements' selection tools and the levels tool again. First I select the magic wand tool:
I have the tolerance of the tool set to 5, which is a relatively strict tolerance, but due to the evenness of the white background, it still selects most of it, as you can see from the dotted areas. Using anything over 5 can cause problems with minifigs with white parts as they can get selected too.
The rest of the background can be added to the selection by holding the 'ctrl' button while clicking on unselected parts of it until most of it is captured.
I then use the rectangular marquee tool to draw squares over the last few areas, while holding down the ctrl key, to get the entire background captured.
Here the entire background has been selected:
4. Make the background white
Using the levels tool again, this time I click on the white dropper and then on the slightly darker 'shadowy' area to the side of the figure:
Here's the result. Notice how the black bar on the histogram has moved right, i.e. to white.
5. Make the colours pop
Next, I inverse the selection, so that the minifig itself is selected:
Using the levels tool again you can see that the far right of the histogram is flat, which is undesirable as it means the full range of levels is not being used, so I slide the small white arrow over until it meets the histogram graph.
The histogram before adjustment, and the white arrow positioned at the end of the graph:
Here's the result. This particular fig hasn't benefitted as much from this step as those with brighter colours but you can just about see that the mid-tones, greys and greens look more vibrant.
6. Remove dust spots
However well I clean the figure before photographing it, I always notice specks of dust and fluff all over them (like on her legs above), so the final stage is to remove them with the spot healing brush. I simply dab over them until they are all gone.
So, here it is, the finished article.
I save it at its full resolution and then use Thumbs Plus to resize (and now, stamp with the Brickset logo) a batch of them for presentation in the gallery.
The total post processing takes about 4-5 minutes per image, in fact much longer than taking the photos themselves. But as you can see it turns a mediocore image into an excellent one.
So, that's how I do it. Hopefully you can take some of my methods and apply it to your own photography. If you have any comments or questions, or suggestions on how I can improve my methods, do please get in touch. I'd also love to hear if you've been able to make use of this information, and see your photos!