Monday, 29 April 2013

Using a dedicated macro lens to photograph miniatures

Let's say you have decided to invest in an entry-level DSLR camera, or have gotten your hands on one for general photography purposes. In  a natural progression of the hobby for a miniature painter, the next dilemma is to pore over the pros and cons of opting for a dedicated macro lens to take photographs of your models. Do you really need such a lens for this hobby? Read on to find out ...

At last, Chaos had gotten their hands on a forbidden Standard Template Construct

Before we delve into detail on what a macro lens can offer, let's us take a step back. An entry-level DSLR let alone a dedicated macro lens is a huge commitment to undertake seeing that the miniature hobby will have already burned a huge hole in your wallet. If you are just starting out in the hobby, I would say NO to a DSLR/macro lens combo. It would be better to save the money - for miniatures, brushes and paints - and slowly built up your arsenal in this hobby. Moreover, in the early stages you will have yet to determine if you prefer the painting or gaming aspect (or both) of the hobby.

So why the all the fuss about DSLR? Well about a year back I borrowed an entry-level DSLR and took some comparison pictures (shown below). Although I had expected the obvious differences in quality, I was still taken aback by the results. While not state of the art, my 8 MP camera phone was still pretty ok with Schneider Kreuznach optics and ISO settings of up to 1600. But more than than, using the entry-level DSLR with just a standard non-macro lens already gave me so much more control over the actual act of taking photos - something that you have to experience to understand.

Comparison photos taken a year ago between my old LG Renoir camera phone (left) and the Nikon D60 (right)

Nowadays, you can find very reasonable performances from cameras in the latest smart phones and tablets as well as from budget compact system cameras (non-DSLR cameras). But if like me, you have more than a passing interest in photography and are putting in a lot of effort to improve your painting skills (I am, by far, not a good painter yet but I am working on it) - then investing in an entry-level DSLR will be a natural step forwards in this hobby. Not too long after that, the question of whether to use a dedicated macro lens is bound to become a serious consideration.

Differences between a standard kit lens and a dedicated macro lens
First up, I compared what the difference in focal length offers a photographer - the Tamron SP AF 90 mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 (an entry-level budget macro lens) versus the basic lens usually sold with the body of a Canon EOS i.e. the Canon EF-S 18-55mm which is a wide-angle to mid-telephoto zoom lens (see the two photos below for comparison). Bear in mind that my aim is to show the difference you would get from a dedicated macro lens over a standard kit lens for Canon's entry-level DSLRs.

An Ork Nobz captured using a Tamron 90 mm macro lens
Here the same miniature is captured by a Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens from the exact same position and at the highest zoom

Right off the bat, the Tamron macro len's 90 mm focal length gave it a greater telephoto capability than the Canon EF-S lens with 18-55 mm focal length (longer lens = more magnification). Both photos above were shot from the same location, using first the Tamron macro lens followed by the Canon's standard kit lens, at the same settings and at each lens's highest zoom setting. However, this does not mean the standard lens you have is useless because when you want to take huge panoramic shots of a huge 2,000 points army, then the Canon EF-S might be a better option . 
But to focus on the focal length of both lenses (pun not intended) is erroneous. There are certainly better and more expensive macro lenses with wider ranging focal lengths (from 55-300 mm). But the Tamron SP AF 90 mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 offers the beginner photographer a way into the world of macro photography by being among the lowest-priced macro lenses in the market.

I then proceeded to take focal length out of the equation by moving the camera with the Canon EF-S lens as close as I could to the miniature before taking the shot. From the results seen, you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the photo shot using a dedicated macro lens and on using the standard kit lens. Try to tell them apart before clicking on the photo above to see which is which.

Zoomed in - Photo taken using the Tamron macro lens
Zoomed in - Photo taken using the Canon standard kit lens

Only by zooming into the head of the Ork Nobz, you will start to see the differences between both photographs. You will notice that when zoomed in, the photo that resulted from using the Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens (standard kit lens) is slightly more blurred and has less definition to it. A dedicated macro lens like the Tamron SP AF 90 mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 offers true macro capabilities at 1:1 magnification. As defined by Digital Camera World magazine - a true macro lens is one that can capture frame-filling images of subjects that are the same size as the sensor itself.

I repeated my experimentation with a different model, this time a Word Bearers Chaos Cultist, and got the same results (see above). So all-in-all, the dedicated macro lens provided better results as was expected of it. No surprises there but a picture as they say is worth a thousand words.

Such detailed photographs have the added bonus of pushing you to improve your painting skills as all the flaws will be twice as visible to the naked eye. I have always had tremendous respect for the 'eavy Metal team, Golden Daemon and Slayer Sword winners as well as other talented painters all over the blogosphere; now more so when even at extreme closeups, their painted miniatures still look great. 

So do you need a dedicated macro lens to complement your DSLR camera when dealing with miniatures? Well, it wouldn't hurt - that's for sure. Can you work without one? Of course you can but once you go the way of a true macro lens you ain't zooming out.


  1. Nice investment you got there ;)

    1. I am pretty happy with the Tamron lens ... it was the most value for money lens I could find on the market.

  2. But the bad camera hides all of my mistakes! Hehe!

    Seriously, very nice. I should get a better camera myself at some point. I can't though, since my extra cash goes to my 40K addiction...

    1. It is indeed hard to resist getting those new 40K models. =) A better camera does come in useful sometimes ... for example after I posted the picture of the dying marine I realised that the armour was too monotone so I will need to touch up on that.

  3. Thanks for sharing man. Hey, if you ever decide to join a class please please give me a heads up ok. Would love to join :)

    1. Sure thing Khairul ... if I ever plan to attend any such classes I will be sure to let you know. For now though, I am putting my limited resources into learning how to paint better. My miniatures's skin tones and armour pieces (whether human or xenos) needs more layers and contrast, among the many negatives. I find myself rushing my painting just to get an army up. Will need to take a step back and start painting with more patience.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...