This is probably not the first review on “the best lens for…” you are reading (I do hope!). I deliberately omit technical detail, as these can be found elsewhere, including on the respective manufacturer´ web sites (they know their lens better than anyone). Here are real world shooting examples, that will navigate you in choosing the best lens that fits your vision of how your collection should look like. I chose 5 lenses to take photos of my 1:43 scale models for this review — Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS Macro, Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM, Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM ART, Canon 16-35mm f/4L USM and Canon 70-200 IS USm 2.8L.
Firstly, we will be shooting relatively small scale models (most 1:43 scale models are between 6 and 10 cm long), so expect that on the photos you may see much more detail than when you actually hold and look at the model. This means you imminently will see defects (defects in parts alignment, paint inaccuracies, asymmetries, etc.). One way to limit this sense of imperfection is to size images small enough not to show the defects and big enough to represent the model. It is easy to resize the images. Typical size that works good for me for web page photos of scale models is 1200pix x 1200pix (max). Here is the original shot of a very detailed 1:43 Tatra T97 scale model by Matrix, and resized photos of the same model inside it.
If you look at the photo at 100% zoom (1:1 actual size), you will notice that the model size corresponds to a 1:8-12 (roughly) now, and many defects are now visible. All these details you can not see when you hold the model. Hence, you may like to resize and to work on details improvement with the Spot Healing Brush tool in Adobe Photoshop. Good introduction and explanation how it is used by photographers you can find here. Last section of this post also discusses it’s particular uses.
Constant (strobe light, in photography terms) illuminations is coming from a led source glued on the top of a generic shooting box (costs USD 15) I purchased from eBay. For this exercise, I am also using a Profoto A1 (the round one) on-camera flash light. Light is all set!
Regarding the background, plain white one is preferable for most of the models, but the very dark and black models may be underexposed. Simply change your background, or shoot against other objects in the background, or post-process your photo. You can also decide to change to a black (grey) background.
Here is an example photo of a “black cat on a white wall” (1:43 Renault 5 Turbo from Spark in black color on a white background), resized original and post-processed image.
I am using Canon 5DS (50MPix) for all the shoots and lenses, as this is what I use as general purpose camera. You can use camera bodies with less megapixels count, in fact all cameras above 6,3 MPix will do the job. I doubt any lesser megapixel DSLR will be easy to find these days anyway.
The aperture & the depth of field
Theory: Aperture values correspond to the area (square) of the blend of the lens. A) For instance, aperture of 1 (expressed as f/1) corresponds to a small blend surface, meaning the lens aperture is wide-open. When the blend is wide-open, the camera needs less time to expose for the photograph (in case all other parameters remain the same). Less time translates into higher speed of the shutter, and higher shutter speed translates into focus more concentrated in one plane (field of focus is restricted). B) Aperture size of 10 (f/10) means greater blend surface (of 10), and a smaller aperture size. Smaller aperture size requires more time for a correct exposure, thus shutter speed is slower, i.e. more time is required for the shutter to stay open in order to produce correct exposure. This translates into extended field of focus, i..e objects in front and on the back of the focus are in focus as well.
Practically: Case A (Look smaller), (for instance, f1 to f3,5 from a shooting distance of circa 30 cm) will make parts of your scale model if in different planes to blur and actually the model will look smaller (what it is in reality). By blurring part of the objects in the frame we make the scene look like a miniature. Ken Rockwell has a good explanation on how the mechanics work. Blurring part of the objects is nice, but probably not the best option (i.e. I like it, but most people don´t) when we shoot a scale model against a uniform background. See an example of blurred parts of a scale model here. Case B (All in) – as in most of the cases we will use a clean background, we would like the whole scale model to remain in focus. To do so we use apertures between f/4,5 and 6 (and further), depending on the position of the model, amount of light, angle of view. See an examples where complete model is in focus. You can play around with positioning the model in different planes against the camera lens and see the difference. It is easy and only takes some practice, yes.
Word on lenses: Different lenses can produce (by the means of their design) different minimum aperture values. Values between 1 and 3 (f/1 to f/2.8, for example) usually are properties of the quickest and very expensive lenses. Do I need one? Most likely, for that exact property – the speed, you don´t need them. In 99% of the cases you will not use aperture values of less than 4 (f/4). Why may I need them? The only reason is that the design of their blend is superior and the blur produced by such lens is much more pleasant to the eye that from the lens that cost $50. But that is all the advantage they have when shooting scale models. If you have any of the Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS Macro, Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM or the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM ART lens – use them. If you only have Canon 16-35mm f/4L USM, or slower lens, this will produce perfect results as well. Here are examples from the four lenses:
Shooting one model
The ideal case: Use white or black uniform background and ensure the entire model and its parts are in focus. To do so, use at least 2 light sources (or the box I showed earlier) and a on-camera flash. Make the flash light ambient by covering it with sheet of paper or textile, and/or by pointing it to a different location (not exactly pointing the flash to the scale model). Aperture of 8 (f/8) or higher for a well lit scale model will be a good start. Experiment and practice!
Ideal variation: Use aperture of 4 (f/4) and below to focus on one part of the model and blur the rest of it. Your brain knows that the scale model is a small object, so when blurring part of it, you are actually telling your brain the opposite. Trick it! These kind of pictures have some beauty as well.
Here are examples from the four lenses:
Shooting group of models
The ideal case: As the models can not be places in one plane (typically) you may need to use higher aperture values to include them in the focus area. Start with aperture value of (f/8) and experiment. The more models you out in different planes, the greater aperture values you will need to put them all in focus.
Ideal variation: Putting only one model in focus and blur the rest can be very nice as well! It isolates the model from the rest. You will need lower aperture values for this. Start with blend size of 4 (f/4), focus on the target model and experiment how much blur you want on the rest of the models. This will isolate the model in focus from the rest which will remain blurred.
Here are examples from various lenses:
Playing with light
Accentuating car scale model details with light is fun! Grab a small torch and start experimenting by pointing the light at different model details, for instance, illuminate the inner details of the model, or see what happens if you hide a bright light source behind the model.
Post-processing: A photo that magnifies the actual object you are shooting requires some improvements. To make it look pleasant you may need to adjust the exposure, re-work the colors, the contrast, erase some parts of the photo, frame the objects in the desired position, and remove imperfections that result from the magnification itself, such as dust particles. Dust particles are hard to see with naked eye, but are easy to spot on a magnified scale model. Use Adobe Photoshop (or similar application) to doctor your photos. Here are examples:
This article is on development and more content will be added till it reaches its complete and comprehensive level. Let me know if you want to see particular topics in more detail. Thank you!