Wednesday, 29 May 2013

How exposure affects miniature photography

Before you can improve on your miniature photographing skills, it is crucial to get to grips with a basic concept i.e. exposure, which is a measure of how much light the camera's image sensor is exposed to during a shot. In simple terms - an underexposed shot is one that is too dark while an overexposed shot is one that is too bright. For a better understanding of exposure, you will have to explore all the elements involved - ISO, aperture and shutter speed - or the exposure triangle in short.  

Before I get to the more practical aspects of how to utilise the exposure triangle to get the shots that you want of your miniatures, let us first have a quick look, individually, at the three components of exposure as well as some basic theory of how they relate to one another.

Exposure Triangle in a nutshell
a) ISO is the sensitivity of camera sensor to light in which the higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive the camera sensor is to light so less light is required when taking the shot. Too high an ISO setting may introduce noise (grainy patterns) into your shots. General rule of thumb is to keep ISO as low as possible but the latest DSLR cameras are able to take good quality shots at high ISOs.

b) Aperture is an opening at the camera lens which controls how much light passes through to the camera sensor. While a bigger aperture size allows more light into the camera, the trade-off is a lower depth of field. Aperture size is measured in f-stops in which the larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening (this takes a bit of getting used to) so f4 is a larger aperture opening than f8.

c) Shutter speed controls the length of time light is allowed to hit the camera sensor. At high shutter speeds, less light is allowed into the camera but your shots won't be affected by shaky hands (something important to consider when you are taking shots with a dedicated macro lens). While a high shutter speed also allows you to freeze-motion-capture a fast moving object, this is not an important consideration when taking shots of stationary miniatures.

So how do they all tie together? Well, when you change any one component in the exposure triangle you will most likely need to amend one or both of the other components. For example, you have just taken a perfect shot at the correct exposure and then decided to increase the depth of field by using a smaller aperture opening. Now less light will hit the camera sensor (shot is underexposed). To regain the correct exposure, you will need to use either a slower shutter speed which increases the length of time that the light hits the sensor, or set a higher ISO to increase the sensor's sensitivity to light.

In general, when taking photographs of miniatures, I prefer a high depth of field so as to take in as much detail of the miniature(s) as possible. This means the lowest aperture size I can get away with before a lack of light becomes a hindrance. I also try not to set the shutter speed too low because although I use a tripod to take shots which can help mitigate against shaky hands, at a low enough shutter speed, the act of just pressing the shutter button itself can shake camera slightly and spoil your shot. This can be solved by using a camera trigger cable but I don't have one yet.  

Practical application of the Exposure Triangle
To show the effects of the exposure triangle when taking shots of miniatures, I decided to use two Word Bearers Anointed minis placed side-by-side but with one slightly behind the other. There was no editing done with any image software so the photos are WYSIWYG.

Shot 1: Shutter speed 1/500th of a second, Aperture at f4, ISO 400

Low depth of field at 1/500 - f4 - ISO 400
In my first shot, I used a low aperture setting of f4 which meant a very low depth of field, the effect of which is the blurred out miniature in the background, on the right.

Shot 2: Shutter speed 1/60th of a second, Aperture at f11, ISO 400

Better depth of field but still not good enough - 1/60 - f11 - ISO 400

To get a better depth of field I made use of an important concept in the exposure triangle i.e. reciprocal exposure. To keep it simple, reciprocity refers to the fact that shutter speed and aperture can be adjusted by the same amount in opposite directions to get the same exposure. In this case, I adjusted the shutter speed by three stops (one stop is a measure of light) from 1/500 to 1/60 while the aperture was also adjusted by three stops in the opposite direction from f4 to f11. (A quick search online should give you a chart showing various reciprocal exposure settings).

To explain further, I had reduced the shutter speed which allows more light into the sensor while lowering the aperture size (better depth of field) which reduces the amount of light that hits the sensor. End result is the same exposure as Shot 1 is maintained but at different shutter speed and aperture settings. Note that the ISO value is maintained at 400 so it is the constant variable here.

Shot 3: Shutter speed 1/30th of a second, Aperture at f16, ISO 400

Much better depth of field at 1/30 - f16 - ISO 400

While the depth of field on Shot 2 was much better, it was still not good enough as the miniature behind was still a bit blurry. Using the reciprocity rules, I increased depth of field and compensated with a lower shutter speed. But the shutter speed was so low that any slight vibrations of the camera would have resulted in a blurry picture. So a better solution if you do not have a tripod-camera cable trigger combo would be to take the shot at a shutter speed of 1/60. To get a better depth of field at even lower aperture settings, we will have to change the one thing kept constant so far - ISO. 

Shot 4: Shutter speed 1/60th of a second, Aperture at f22, ISO 1600 

Required depth of field at 1/60 - f22 - ISO 1600

Using the settings of Shot 2 as the base to work from, the aperture was set as low as the lighting conditions allowed which was f22. As I wanted to maintain the shutter speed at 1/60 that meant I had to change the ISO. Under the reciprocity rules, I set the ISO at 1600 to ensure that the exposure stayed the same as (or at least close to) all the other shots so far. Now the differences in the depth of field might not be substantial enough to necessitate reducing aperture settings to as low as f22 but that's a judgement call the photographer will have to take depending on the way the minis are set up.

Next up for macro photography: Achieving the perfect black background in your shots

Friday, 24 May 2013

Salvaging sanity from a moment of madness

In my previous attempt at painting up a Kingdom Death miniature, a bad chalky and powdery white undercoat meant that subsequent paint layers were a challenge to lay on smoothly. While the final result was better than I expected, it was still not what I was aiming for. With that weighing on my mind, a moment of madness saw me taking a hobby knife to the second Kingdom Death miniature that I was painting - the Pinup Saviour - in order to scrape away the undercoat as well as initial layers of skin tone I had applied up to that point. Try not to wince when checking out the following photo.

Early stages of the butchery done with my hobby knife

It started harmlessly enough with me thinking that I could smooth out the rough paint texture by lightly and carefully scraping the hobby knife over the painted areas. Soon enough, some frustrated flicks of the hobby knife saw even the white undercoat paint coming off thus displaying the plastic beneath. The madness soon took over as I found myself using the hobby knife to take out nearly all the paint from the miniature. I tried to salvage the situation by painting a light undercoat comprising a mixture of Chaos Black and Skull White (see below) but it just didn't feel right.

Even more damage to the Pinup Savior

Pleading ignorance wasn't an option as more seasoned hobbyists had advised putting the miniatures in a Dettol-Water mixture to remove the paint without damaging details. But at that moment of uber craziness, it never crossed my mind to use the antiseptic disinfectant. After a lot of hands-on-the-head moments, a semblance of sanity prevailed and out came the Dettol. I decided to put another early work-in-progress miniature of Gandalf into the mixture as it also had a badly applied undercoat.

Gandalf the Grey has a case of chalky and powdery white undercoat
Both the Pinup Saviour and Gandalf were dumped into a mixture of Dettol and Water

Luckily enough, I stumbled across a very good guide on using cleaning products to strip paint from a miniature on an online forum. As Gandalf only had a light coating of Skull White spray, it took just a few hours of soaking in the mixture before some scrubbing with an old toothbrush removed all the white undercoat. In comparison, the Pinup Saviour needed to be soaked overnight to remove about 95% of the paint. Some stubborn paint layers embedded into small crevices could not be removed. Sadly, some scratch marks were obvious due to my butchery with the hobby knife.

White undercoat removed easily using the Dettol-Water mixture
With most of the paint removed, the Pinup Saviour did not escape unscathed with her left hand breaking off the main body

So with paint successfully removed from both miniatures, the next task was to find an alternative primer/undercoat spray. While I think the Citadel Skull White spray-can is still perfectly usable for miniatures painted to table-top quality, or even beyond especially when applied in very light coats, I have found results too varied especially in the hot and humid weather where I am at.

That being said, the Citadel Chaos Black spray-can is still by far the best black undercoat spray I have used to date. But if I am going for a lighter undercoat, I now mostly use the Tamiya Fine Surface Primer (Light Gray).

I have observed experienced painters using the undercoat/primer spray-can in two ways i.e. either applying an extremely light "dusty" coating of the undercoat/ primer - sometimes just one to two passes of the spray can on each side of the miniature, OR applying a light even layer of primer/undercoat which involves perhaps up to five passes or more. I decided to go the middle path of somewhere in-between.Which of the two (or three) methods above gives you the best results?

Gandalf primed with the Tamiya Fine Surface Primer
Kingdom Death Pinup Saviour primed with the Tamiya Fine Surface Primer

Lessons learned from this undercoating/primer mishap:
1.Spending more time prepping a miniature is always a good thing, even to the extent of going back with your hobby knife to remove mould lines that become evident after an initial light primer coat.
2. Never underestimate the importance of a good undercoat or layer of primer. Your future layers of paint will thank you for it.
3. When you are itching to slash and butcher your mini with a hobby knife, take a deep breath and step away. After a short time away from your mini, you would be able to think more clearly.

That's my misadventure for the week. Hopefully the hobby gods are treating you more kindly.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Word Bearers at Golden Kris 2013

Yesterday, I took part in my first ever miniature painting competition and it was a real eye opener to be there in person to observe the beautifully painted works of many very talented painters. I was a bit hesitant to take part in the latest installment of Legio M'sia's Golden Kris but I have local hobbyists like Khairul, Iqbal, Alvin and Goh to thank, who in their own way helped embolden me to participate even though I felt my minis were not good enough. Encouraging words from bloggers like Jay, Prof Chaos, Sister Lucy, LordAK, Deathkorps, Snake88 (and others) were also always a boost to morale.

My cultists came in third in the unit category but I couldn't be happier

Meanwhile, it was as if my Word Bearers Chaos Cultists were dumbfounded that they had survived charging a fusillade of bolter fire to reach enemy lines and the surprised/shocked/stupid expression they had on their faces pretty much summed up how I must have looked while getting up to accept my third placing for the unit category. In fact, when pictures were being taken I was stuck between smiling and being shocked so I must have looked like a right idiot with a silly grimace on my face.

Looks like the Golden Daemon but only cooler in my opinion

The trophy was a cool looking sculpture done up by a local Malaysian artist, Jarold Ng. Thanks are also in order for the Legio members who had to fund the commission of this nice piece and for organising the event where miniatures painters like myself can be a part of.

Word Bearers Chaos Cultists that went to Golden Kris 2013

My two other Word Bearers pieces i.e. Dark Apostle and Helbrute didn't stand a chance in the event and rightly so. I managed to snap a few pictures of the event with my LG camera phone - it started working again after getting dropped to the floor but for some reason only saved photos to my SIM card which meant I could take only a few photos. My apologies for the less than stellar picture quality but I will post the link to the official photo gallery once they have it up on their site.

Selected pictures of the works of other entrants at Golden Kris 2013

Large Model Category - Bad Moonz Ork Battlewagon
Large Model Category - Night Lords Heldrake
Large Model Category - Khorne Daemon
Large Model Category - Red Scorpion Dreadnought
Duel Category - Khorne Bloodletter versus Raven Guard
Duel Category -Ultramarine versus Ork Nobz
Unit Category - Wood Elves
Single Model Category - Daemon
Single Model Category - Dark Eldar
Single Model Category - Non-GW mini

There were many more wonderfully painted miniatures on display and the photos you see above are just a small portion of the competition pieces on display. And as promised check out this space for the link to the official photos once they go online. (Link to official photos: To be updated later) Meanwhile, here is the link to the official blog post of the event.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker [Completed]

After nearly two years since I first started painting miniatures, I finally plucked up enough courage to finish painting the Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker miniature which also doubles up as a proxy for a Horus Heresy Word Bearers character called Cyrene Valantion. This miniature marks my second attempt at painting a female figure and its a small step towards emulating a painter whose work I really like: Jen Haley. I am still a long way off from such standards but I am determined to get there.

Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker aka Cyrene Valantion
Didn't really get the belly dancer getup near her loin cloth but oh well
Does her attire qualify as a +5 armour?
Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker (side view, right)
View of the Pinup White Speaker minus her fur cloak
If you could kindly take your eyes off her rear assets, you will notice that grass is dying along her wake
The devil wears Prada ... would you just look at those high heels!
Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker (side view, left)

Bad undercoat means this model wasn't all she could be
This miniature didn't really get off to the best of starts because my lack of experience in using the Citadel Skull White spray resulted in the initial undercoat being powdery and chalky. Sadly enough, the same occurred for the Kingdom Death Pinup Saviour model that I am painting for my diorama. Since then, I have gotten some info on how best to use the Skull White spray so hopefully future minis won't get off to an inauspicious start. An alternative would be to use the Tamiya primer but the only Tamiya shop in the country didn't have any in stock which sucked.

Pinup White Speaker with her fur cloak
The Kingdom Death Pinup White Speaker actually had a fur cloak which attached to her back. But as I am still undecided as to whether to glue it on, I put some blue tack on the collar, stuck it on the miniature and took some pictures to show how she looks with the cloak on her back.

Applied some wet blending techniques on the inside of the cloak
Did some dry brushing on the outside of her cloak, a painting technique which for some reason I almost never use

Getting inspiration to paint her red hair
Now, natural red hair isn't a shocking Blood Red colour, rather it's more of a ginger hue. I checked out some famous Hollywood actresses sporting red hair (whether natural or not) in order to get some inspiration for painting a more natural looking red hair.

Clockwise from the upper left hand corner - Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Christina Hendricks and Emma Stone
Close-up of the Pinup White Speaker's hair

Burning black smoke
Meanwhile for the burning black smoke on the miniature's left hand, I used this beautiful photograph (see below) taken by a photographer and posted on this site. While I may have overdone the burning part when I should be emphasising the black smoke, I decided to leave it be for now.

Black smoke resulting from burning tyres
Close-up of the burning black smoke on the Pinup White Speaker's hand

Thanks for checking out my finished Kingdom Death mini. Please feel free to comment if you think there are parts of the mini that need improving. Any advice for this noob painter is most welcome.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Seeking inspiration from Hollywood and Mother Nature's palette

After spending months working my Black Legion / Word Bearers army (with not much progress to boot), I am literally running on empty and have been left hankering for more variety in my miniature painting projects. Having always fancied a go at painting fantasy-based miniatures, I decided the time was right for me to start painting my diorama involving the Lord of the Rings Dragon and the Kingdom Death Pinup Saviour miniatures - that has a working title of "A Marilyn Monroe Moment".

Marilyn in the iconic white dress from the film 'Seven Year Itch', 1955
An iconic Hollywood image - re-envisioned in a fantasy setting

Work on the Kingdom Death Pinup Saviour is still in the very early stages and all I have done is to begin work on the skin tone. Painting on the miniature has gotten off to a rough start because priming it with Skull White spray caused a powdery (as opposed to a smooth) layer to adhere to the mini. I will need to shop for a Tamiya Gray Primer as it should be better for minis with more flesh showing.

Very early stages on the skin tone

Work on the Dragon is even further back in the progress timeline with its basecoat yet to be finished. While it might seem silly to seek a different challenge in my projects and still paint red - more so when I have just finished painting some Word Bearers - the reds for the dragon will eventually be much brighter and warmer than the dull-red of Lorgar's warriors.   

Work on the dragon's basecoat is ongoing

While trying to find the best possible colour scheme for the red dragon, I decided to see what Mother Nature had to offer. In particular, two animals caught my eye namely the Scleropages legendrei (red arowana fish) and the naja pallida (red spitting cobra). Both their red scales looked very beautiful and will be the inspirational foundation from which to paint the dragon.

Scleropages legendrei
Naja pallida

Meanwhile, I decided to also continue working on the Word Bearers without neglecting the creative diversity that I sought. That meant resuming work on Cyrene Valantion which is actually a Kingdom Death White Speaker Pinup miniature. One of the reasons I stopped was because I unhappy with way the mini was turning out. But I decided to suck it up and proceeded to repaint the skin and fix my earlier mistakes. While it still needs more shadows and highlights, the skin tone is now looking much better than my earlier attempt. Other parts of this mini is still at the basecoat stage.

WIP - Kingdom Death White Speaker Pinup, my proxy for Cyrene

My approach to both the Pinup Saviour and Dragon will be to start with the mid-tones first and then work towards shadows and highlights from there. It is a bit different than the usual base-to-midtones-then-to-highlights approach that is usually recommended by Games Workshop for beginners. Starting with the mid-tone actually lets me have more control over the application of shadows and highlights. Thanks for checking out my progress on the diorama and I hope to post more updates soon, especially pictures of a completed Cyrene Valantion.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Using a Flow Enhancer on Citadel Acrylic Paints

Part and parcel of trying improve one's painting skills involves a better understanding of the medium that miniature painters work with. Most painters I know work with acrylic paints and I am no different. So while I was trying to solve two issues that have been plaguing me - (a) dried-up paints and (b) getting acrylic paint to reach every small nook and cranny of a miniature - I came across a potential solution to both my problems (i.e. a flow enhancer) and decided to try it out.

Acrylic medium - flow enhancer

While at an art supply shop, I happened to come across the Daler-Rowney flow enhancer, which was described by its label as a colourless liquid that is added to acrylic paints to reduce its viscosity and improve its flow. To someone fairly new to the hobby, that didn't really tell me much. But a little online research shows that a flow enhancer can also function as a clear painting medium in which to thin paints as well as break up the surface tension of the paint - two characteristics which I felt would help solve my problems. While meant to be used with System 3 & Cryla acrylic colours, the Daler-Rowney flow enhancer seems to work fine with both the new and old Citadel paints.

Problem 1: New Citadel metallic paints drying up to a thick and gooey texture

Bad luck with the new Citadel paints which became unusable in less than a month after being opened for the first time

So far, three out of four new Citadel metallic paints that I bought have become unusable in less than a month after being opened for the first time. The paint's texture became a semi-dry, thick and gooey paste after a while. I am baffled as to why this is happening (could be just plain bad luck) as I have used the old paints for about a year-and-a-half without any of them going dry on me. So apart from buying a new pot of paint every time one dried, I had to find another solution, cue the flow enhancer.

Trimmings on the left shows basecoat of Scorched Brown:Runelord Brass mix; Trimmings on the right shows the Runelord Brass paint that was "fixed" by the flow enhancer and then applied on top of the basecoat 

In desperation, I added the flow enhancer into the pot of semi-dried up paint and shook it vigorously. While the flow enhancer did not completely restore to paint to its original consistency and texture, it did, however, change the viscosity of the paint to the extent that made it usable again. There were still some gooey lumps here and there but the paint could now be taken up by a brush and applied smoothly to a miniature (see pic above). Previously, in its semi-dried up state, the paint wouldn't even stick to the brush. So that was one problem solved.

Problem 2: Surface tension causing paints to not reach certain areas of a miniature 

To break up the monotony of having to paint my Chaos Space Marine Black Legion/Word Bearers alliance army, I have decided to resume work on my diorama involving a Kingdom Death miniature (the Pinup Saviour) and a Lord of the Rings Dragon. One problem I encountered while applying the basecoat for the dragon was that the paints were not reaching into certain parts of the miniature, as can be seen from the immediate picture below.

Note the white undercoat showing through a thin layer of a red basecoat

To enable the paint to get into the nook and cranny of the dragon, I had to break up the surface tension of the paint, so cue again the flow enhancer. Mixing just a little bit of the acrylic medium into the paint (on the palette) allowed it to flow more smoothly and cover entire areas of the body without any white undercoat showing through (see picture below). 

After many thin coats of Scab Red - the final few coats contained paint mixed with the flow enhancer

I have only just started using the flow enhancer and to date there have been no adverse effects on the Citadel acrylic paints. I loved it because it has saved me money from having to buy new pots of paint as well as help me in my painting.

There are many other things which a flow enhancer can help in terms of painting techniques. Among the uses of the flow enhancers that has been touted online include being a medium that keeps paint workable for longer periods (for wet blending purposes); for creating ink washes and for help in fine detail work, just to name a few. I hope to try these techniques that use the flow enhancer and share my experience with you in later posts.

If you know of any acrylic medium or additives that can do a better job of fixing dried-up paints please do share.

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