Diorama Photography

Diorama Photography
By Kenneth C. Hoffman

Youíve spent years in perfecting your diorama or railroad layout but the pictures you take do not do it justice. To your mindís eye the figures look real, the buildings are correctly scaled and the detail realistic. But the pictures you take make the building look like toys, the shrubbery like plastic and the mood unrealistic. Most difficult are layouts in N (160-1) or Z (220 - 1) scale or dioramas smaller than 87 - 1 scale.

There are three types of pictures you can take: showing the whole diorama, showing a perspective of the diorama without the intrusion of peripherals (room walls, etc.), and cropped close ups of the detail. The most realistic is the perspective shot which shows nothing but the diorama. In order to depict this properly, you must cut off some portion of the scene.

Assuming the diorama is on a table, position your camera on a sturdy tripod a few inches above the nearest corner so as not to include the sides of the diorama. Set the lens manually at the smallest F stop (which could be F11, F16 or F32). Set the camera at aperture priority (A) so that the exposure will be automatic. A point and shoot camera can be used but turn off the flash. Make sure the top of the picture in the finder includes only the background and none of the room walls. If a background is not a part of your diorama, buy a poster board in a sky blue and tack it behind the diorama as close as possible.

The flash on the camera is not a good source of light for this type of picture. The source is too wide and tall, the fall off is a dead give away and makes the diorama look false. What is needed is a point source of light. You may use the light from a slide projector (without a slide) or a 150 watt clear incandescent bulb. Place the source as far as possible from the diorama, ideally eight times the width of the diorama and about thirty degrees above the level surface and to the side. The photograph must be made in a shuttered dark room or at night so that the only source of light is the bulb. There will be enough scattered light in the room to light up the shadows sufficiently. If the bulb source is close to the wall or ceiling, cover the areas near the bulb with black cardboard so that there will be no reflected light from around the bulb.

The purpose of this configuration is to provide normal looking, sharp shadows in your diorama picture that will simulate sunshine. Set the camera color balance for incandescent light and later adjust the image file for a sunlight look. Additional light blue poster boards can be placed above near the ceiling and behind the diorama to reflect some blue tinted light into the shadows. Set the ISO at the smallest number (50 or 80 ISO) for the most detail. Auto focus may be used but manual focusing on an item one third the distance from the near edge of the diorama will ensure good focus throughout. Experiment with slightly different angles and foreground interest. The lower you can get to the diorama, the more realistic the picture. Overhead shots tend to look like shots taken from an airplane or helicopter while low angle shots simulate a raised but ground level perspective. A wide angle lens is preferred for the further object to appear far away (scale wise) while a normal lens focal length will compress the distance somewhat. Once your technique is down pat, future photographs of train layouts and diorama will be a cinch.

About the Author: A retired portrait and wedding photographer, I enjoy writing , how to articles, helpful articles on photography and many other subjects. My hobbies include quartet singing, shop, bicycling and photography. Please visit my web site at photoartbyken.com [Articles, Digital Art, Poetry, Original sheet music.]

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