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Military Miniatures - Table Top Photography

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )



Inevitably there comes a time in the life of every military miniature collector when he looks at the snapshots of his favorite miniatures with a feeling that someone or something has not done right by his pride and joy. His magnificent model of General Custer looks like a dime store plastic. Thus, he starts looking for an inexpensive means of improving his photographic efforts.

At this point he encounters the genuine table top photographer, who is not a collector, but who uses military miniatures as the principal actors in the dramas he stages on the family tea table, or any large flat surface he can find unoccupied by his wife, his children or the family cat. If the military miniature collector has already gone into the field of dioramas, some phases of table top photography will be familiar. There is, however, one very fundamental difference : the diorama is made to be viewed by the human eye, which makes charitable allowances for imperfections. The table top setting is made to be viewed by the unrelenting eye of the camera lens which, not only makes no allowance for imperfections, but generally seems to take a fiendish delight in portraying them vividly.

You can usually tell a table top photographer by his look of quiet desperation. Fate seems to endow his miniature figures with all the perverse traits of humans. It takes hours to compose a table top that initially appeared to require only minutes. The genuine table top photographer has learned by exacting, exasperating experience that patience is not only a virtue, but an essential ingredient of his hobby.

There are, in general, three types of table top photographers: realists, unrealists or dealers in fantasy, and those in between who, for the lack of a more definitive description, might be called representationalists. The representationalist produces the fascinating designs and portrayals that make illustrations for such things as magazine articles, book jackets, book plates, letter heads, bill heads and the like.

The realist is frequently a student of history. His table top photography results from hours of research in dusty archives in search of a significant or hidden truth which will fire him with enthusiasm to portray it. He hopes the viewer will feel his emotional fire and share its warmth. The task of the realist isn't easy. It is a rare historic photograph that will serve as a model, and if the photo-graph is that good, why bother with a miniature of it? Usually, many photos are needed and, collectively, the story is only partially told. History, before the advent of photography, depended upon artists' drawings. Any historian who has ever checked such drawings against the recorded descriptions realizes that the "On-The-Scene" artists have already taken all the liberties the record will stand. To copy them would be fatal. The realist has no pictorial source material and must translate from the written word. Since for most battles there are innumerable conflicting accounts, this is no arm chair task.

For those gifted with imagination, fantasy offers more fun. All the illusions the realist must create are not required. On the other hand, to tell an essential and impportant truth through fantasy is more of a mental job than most persons care to tackle. The result is that much table top photography is a curious mixture of fantasy and realism. But whatever the approach, the table top photograph which does not convey to the viewer some mood or emotion is hardly worth the effort.

When skillfully done, table top photography can turn military miniatures into entrancing giants and, by experienced blending of lights and focus, diminish or eliminate some imperfections that are evident even to the untrained eye. When that happens, the military miniature collector, who hitherto has been feeling like a combat photographer for a lost cause, knows the exultation of victory and the feeling that table top photography is worth the effort.

It is not an accident that the common expression in photography is to "Shoot" a picture. The camera is your artillery piece and your table top composition your tar-get. A gun without a target usually winds up as a decoration on the village green. A camera without a target is equally as useless. So before I discuss the equipment needed for table top photography, consideration will be given to the target, which in this case will be military miniatures.

There are three essential elements of the target: the miniatures, the table top and the back drop. The latter separates your creation from the illusion-destroying reality of the conventional household objects which surround your table top.

Now we come to the secret of the successful table top photographers' art. By choice, he does not use a table top at all. All he wants of the table is to have the legs and the frame. On this he erects his stage, which may be one level, but usually, if representing the terrain of a military maneuver, it will rise and fall with the contours of the ground. Most interiors have some type of split levels. What the table top photographer wants is a generous supply of assorted sizes of light lumber and wire mesh. By choice, also, the table top photographer wants a table frame as wide as he can conveniently reach across and as long as his room permits. This is seldom enough room for his projects. Battle scenes are usually difficult to portray. In the Civil War, for example, an active fighting front might be as long as two or three miles. with the troop concentrations representing nearly as much again in depth. To portray even a significant fraction of this area in a rectangle about a yard wide and two yards long becomes an engineering feat of space defying illusion.

This is not the only problem. If you place enough men in the setting to even approximate the actual numbers, they will have to be extremely small. Then your final photographic print will have to be the size of a post office mural to have any emotional impact at all. The illusion must be created by the absolute minimum of figures in the smallest possible area; and you have set yourself a first class problem in table top logistics when you tackle this.

There are three divisions to your table top: the fore-ground, middle distance (or transition area) and the background. The standard military miniature size (21/8 inches tall) provides sturdy actors for your foregrounds, but in many instances you will want half-size figures for the middle area. You will find that "full formed" figures are not required in this area and that "flats," which are about an inch and a quarter tall, will work out very well. Smaller figures still may be required for the back-ground in some compositions.

Normally, however, background figures and scenery may be paintings or photographs, depending upon the type of background used. An artist's painting or a photo-graphic enlargement can be the backdrop and portray the exact scene desired. Even more effective is the use of a large ground glass, which can be ordered through any photographic store. Using this as a background, you can, by rear projection of a color slide, create the specific terrain desired. This is more complicated than other methods since it requires a separate exposure for fore-ground and background, but it is the technique used by TV and the movies to make what "ain't" look real. For all its complications, it is cheaper than hiring a professional scenery painter every time you want a new set. For semi-realism and fantasy, a neutral background of a plain substance such as paper, wood, masonite or similar material will do. By variations in the textures, the pat-terns or the lighting, these backgrounds can be made to harmonize with the foreground effect. A particularly pleasing effect can be obtained by what is called differential focusing or throwing out of focus all except the central figures.

At this point you must recognize the limitations of your miniatures. While the size is reduced, the relative weight and other physical characteristics of the materials do not change. The easiest way to convince yourself is to try to make a miniature waterfall look like a real one by using real water. There are those who claim it can be done, but if you have any other use for a considerable amount of time and money, you will end up with a more willing substitute and leave water to the kitchen sink.

Fortunately, problems of scale and perspective can be overcome to a large extent by the selection of your camera viewpoint and your lighting emphasis. These technical controls will be discussed later.

Composition determines the ultimate value of your target. A sound course in artistic appreciation is the best preparation but, in lieu thereof, it can be learned by your own observation and analysis at the local museum of art, with perhaps an assist by an elementary book on the subject from the local public library. Grouping is extremely important. What looks like a mass of soldiers on the table top may turn out on the negative to have sizable areas of uninspiring emptiness. On the other hand, too tight a massing will blend essential action into an indistinguishable tangle of arms and legs.

Fortunately for table top photography, closeup pictures make foreground objects appear relatively larger. The danger, however, is that they may be not only larger, but distorted. It is equally important that when a figure is shown, the entire figure is in focus and that an arm or leg too near the camera is not blurred. While it is essential that your composition be correct at lens level, and not at your eye level, you must remember that with reflex cameras the image is reversed, and you must always keep in mind whether your figure is right-handed or left-handed. Observe too, which limb, if raised, obscures the least if a choice is available.

Action is a powerful factor in creating an emotion, but some of the powerful flow of movement is lost when action is frozen, reduced, and copied in miniature. When this reproduction is again copied and changed from three dimensions to one, you are thankful if any illusion of the original remains.

For test shots, a polaroid camera is a great advantage. In spite of much experience, patient arrangements and checking, and critical observation, only a trial photo-graph will reveal hidden flaws. A polaroid camera will do it quickly and is entirely adequate for discovering deficiencies. To see a print of your creation a minute after you have finished it is a thrill in itself.

Equipment for table top photography can be comparatively simple and inexpensive, or complex and correspondingly expensive. The camera is the artillery piece and the film its ammunition. Light and lens determine speed or velocity. A camera which will provide ground glass focusing is essential. The single or twin reflex may be used for some shots, but for real closeups the ground glass is a must. Many cameras are made so the film roll back can be removed and an adapter back for ground glass inserted, as well as an adapter for cut film. Viewing through the top lens of a reflex camera will not show the effect achieved by manipulation of the diaphram on the lower lens. The effects from these different depths of focus may make or break a picture.

A modern sturdy tripod is also essential and it should have a central column so that the legs do not have to be moved to adjust height. On top of the column should be a 90-degree tilting head, and the tripod should be sufficiently weighted to eliminate any danger of accidental upset. Frequently, when the desired angle for your "battle" has been obtained by adjusting the tripod, the upright lines in the picture on the ground glass will appear to be converging. In some cases this illusion of perspective will be an advantage, but in most cases it is better eliminated.

The table top photographer who wishes to make the investment will have an advantage in using a Studio View camera with a long extension bellows, rise-fall adjustments, swing tilt and a reversible back. With this equipment, distortions can be corrected, and desired composition attained. The 4x5 size is very practical for table top photography, and the cost of even a new Studio View camera in this size will not be too much strain on the serious hobbyist's budget. These cameras use individual cut film in film holders. One shot can be taken and processed for study, corrections made, and then the final shots taken. Since one scene may represent scores of hours of research, procurement of target items, composition and technical arrangements, this single shot approach is highly recommended. This is especially true if color is being shot. Although it represents more work, better results can be obtained by shooting your color on a 4x5 film and then reducing it to 35mm. or 2x2. In the copying you can crop and eliminate some undesirable sections, and you can also vary your color emphasis to get the most pleasing results. Enlargements from 4x5 black and white present no special problems.

Choice of film brand is a personal matter. There are many good ones on the market. Since you have no movement to contend with, emulsion speed is not a factor and slower films can be used. Unless you intend your photo-graphs solely for publication, you do not need a very high contrast film. The important thing is to match your developer to your film for the most pleasing results. Once you find the combination, stick to it.

Books could be, and have been, written solely on lighting for photography. Military miniature collectors planning to add table top photography to their skills should study a good book on the subject, along with other photographic texts which may be found at any photo-graphic supply store. Since the subjects will wait patiently for your exposure, there is no need for flash equipment and all the lighting needs can be met with flood and spot lights. The minimum lights needed are two flood lights and one baby spot light. If you are going to work in color you will want more equipment, particularly a voltage meter and voltage regulator to keep your lights constant, since a growing America is outdistancing its power lines, and 115 volts home current will vary some-times as low as 105 or as high as 125 volts. To conserve the life of your flood lights, a control box that cuts them to half voltage while making changes or set adjustments is well worth its cost. It is important too, not to "cook" your set, as some of your miniature props may not stand up under prolonged heat. Number 1 type flood lights are large enough.

One flood light can do many things if you supplement it with various reflecting surfaces such as mirrors, ply-board covered with crinkled aluminum foil, or white blotting paper. The lights themselves can be diffused even by a handkerchief, placed safely in front of the light, or the light may be "bounced" from walls or ceiling. Re-member the word photograph means literally "light writing," or as the more poetic call it "painting with light". Each milliphot light unit of illumination on your target is like a drop of paint. Whether you photograph in color or not, your military miniatures and sets should be finished in natural color. Modern panchromatic film reveals true colors by intermediate tones of gray even in mono-chrome prints, and false colors are very noticeable. There are two methods of emphasizing or de-emphasizing colors. One is to put filters on the lights and the other a filter on the camera lens. Since you use only one lens and usually several lights for blending purposes, light filters will serve you well, but lens filters are often essential. A polaroid screen for your lens is highly useful since many objects of war are polished metals that frequently cast distracting reflections. A good booklet on the use of filters is recommended for study.

In simulated night battle photography, greater realism is achieved if the lights are more in proportion to the size of the figures. A model railroad transformer, which will furnish 6, 12, 18 and 24 volts and has a rheostat control so the lights can be dimmed, is very valuable. Lights as small as a grain of wheat can be purchased at most Model Shops and when placed in the setting provide some highly damatic effects. Cellophane can be used to cover these little bulbs, since they do not run hot, and as all types of colors obtained.

Once you have a composition and lighting effect that looks appealing on the ground glass, you want the equipment to translate the photrons into foot candles of light. This is done by an exposure meter from which the various shutter speeds and diaphram combinations can be deter-mined. In table top work, where you make the diaphram part of your distance control, let the speed be what it may since it makes little difference to you whether the exposure is one-fifth of a second, five seconds or five minutes. A quality exposure meter is essential and you will never regret the investment. Be sure it will measure both reflected and incident light. The objects you are photographing sometimes are hard to measure, because the reflection varies appreciably. Hence for critical color work, you should obtain a neutral test card from your photo supply store. One side of the card is gray and reflects 18% of the light shed on it. You can read the light reflected from it directly from your meter. In dim illumination you can use the white side of the card which reflects 99%. Then divide your meter reading by five. In general, the ratio of meter readings between your major floodlights and your spot light or side flood light should not be more than 4 to 1, and preferably 3 to 1. In addition to this check, readings should be taken of the darkest section where you want some detail to show and the brightest spot where you want some detail that is not "burned" out. This ratio should be in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 to 1. The overall picture can be light or dark, but the ratio within it must stay within bounds.

In World War II, artillery experts worked out a target shattering system called "TOT" or time-on-target where-by, after innumerable calculations at a given instant, someone pushed the signal and from scores of cannon, projectiles sped toward the target to arrive and detonate simultaneously. By the time you have made and checked all the technical adjustments, you sometimes wish that when you pressed the camera cable there would be one soul satisfying explosion. Instead you push the button and then cut the lights. You stand there stunned in the silence of the gloom wondering what, if anything, you have on the film to compensate for your hours of work and anticipation.

In artillery, in spite of all calculations the one sure means of a hit is to bracket your target. You shoot over, then under, then left, then right and finally you are on it. It is well worth your time and effort to calculate your exposure and then bracket your target. One shot on calculation, another one stop above, and another one stop below it, and one of the three latent images on your films should have the makings of what you saw when you dreamed up the idea many moons before.

There is a decided letdown if at this point you have to wrap up your film holders and take them to your nearest photo finisher. Neither the equipment nor the skill required to develop your own film is complicated. A developing outfit including a contact printer is very inexpensive and you can see the results of your handiwork in a half-hour after you have taken the picture. The home kits for developing color films require only patience and the ability to follow faithfully simple directions. Nothing quite matches the thrill of seeing your battle in full color emerge on film. A word of warning to the novice when he does his first color film; after development and you hang the film up to dry, it looks as if it is spoiled. It is a dull dirty reddish color on one side, and a pallid dull blue on the other. Don't throw it away; let it dry until morning and you will think it is beautiful.

Maybe you are starting to think the equipment rep-resents more than you want to spend on table top photography. While photography is, in itself, a hobby and the proper tools have much to do with the final product, there are many improvisations that can be made. A simple camera, floor lamps and a card table make a start. The idea and its staging still make the picture.

For focusing a roll film camera, the back can be taken off and a piece of ground glass (obtained inexpensively from any large photographic supply house) can be cut to fit in the film plane. Even tissue paper may be used, if ground glass is not available. With today's fast films and the most inexpensive camera, the lens can be stopped down enough to give a picture that is sharp from its foreground to its backdrop. Supplementary lens adaptors, which are inexpensive, enable the fitting of close up lenses to most inexpensive cameras. By making accurate distance measurements and using the tables that come with such lenses, even ground glass focusing can be eliminated, although this is not recommended.

There are many books at your photographic supply store suggesting hundreds of adaptations which convert simple cameras for more complex operations, they show how to construct and improvise tripods, lens shades, lights and controls, and darkrooms. For example, the ball and socket for a camera can be purchased separately and inexpensively and fitted to any weighted object such as an old flat iron. Then you will have a table top tripod for next to nothing.

A diffusion screen for a light in a metal reflector can be made by using two spring type paper clips and two wire coat hangers which are bolted to the springs. A piece of tracing cloth is cut so that no light will pass around it when it is about six inches in front of the reflector. The clip handles will angle the wire frame out-ward and hold the cloth tight, yet far enough away to eliminate fire danger.

Lens shades can be made from almost any pliable substance such as paper, press-board, leather or metal. A common kitchen funnel can have its snout cut off and fitted to a lens adaptor for use as a sun shade. Sunshades, incidentally, are very useful to keep stray light out of the lens in table top work.

Where there's a will there's a way. The first thing to do when your interest is aroused in table top photography is to visit your nearest photographic store and buy several of the good books and pamphlets on photographic copying which is the basis of table top photography. While there, inquire when and where the nearest camera club has a meeting. Attend the meeting; photographers are fellow hobbyists and you will be welcome even without an introduction. And you may be sure that among the members you will find someone who can tell you exactly how to adapt whatever photographic equipment you have, or what you have to buy to get started, no matter if your pocketbook is fat or lean at the moment.

When your photographic problems are solved, you will still be studying your target problems. Each battle scene will provide a new problem in the texture of your figures and props. You will become acutely conscious of the grain of materials, whether metals, wood or plastics, and how each one photographs. You will study colors with an intensity you never believed possible, and discover nothing is truly black or white. You will see color in the shadow and highlight. You will learn to see the almost imperceptible change in a shadow made by the addition of a faint wisp of reflected light. You will learn how a few properly placed soldiers can suggest an entire company, and you will learn the various positions for these models best to simulate action. You will learn the angle and the amount of light needed to emphasize or de-emphasize a particular feature of a model, and how the individual model is best blended with the mass. Most of this will be by trial and error, since every new setting you create will have its own special problems.

The field of military miniatures is so vast that you will do well to specialize as quickly as possible. By taking one era and the soldiers and costumes of that era, you become familiar more quickly with the problems of form and color peculiar to the models. Models from one scene fit into parts of another and this naturally helps to con-serve your hobby budget. Should you select the American Civil War, for example, you will soon discover you are not alone; there are several thousands or maybe tens of thousands of other hobbyists interested in the same period, and you realize that the Civil War is far from over. This has a decided advantage because more models and more props are available on the market, and you can buy rather than build most of the miniatures you need.

There are many eras for you to explore: the ancient world, medieval period, Napoleonic wars, and many others. Even the United States, which is a peaceful nation, has averaged a war or engagement of some type every ten years during its military history. All in all, the field is full of opportunities for the table top photographer. If you are just starting on photography, remember it is a very complex hobby, if you intend to graduate from the snapshot stage. You will have to study not one, but many text books, or learn the hard way. But once you have combined collecting military miniatures with photography you will have enough of a hobby to last several lifetimes.



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