Taking Digital Pictures
(what Iíve learned so far)
by Davy Stone

Digital cameras have several nice features to offer today's computer user, chief among which are price & convenience.  Sure, a digital camera might initially cost more than a generic point-and-shoot film-based camera, but unlike that film-based camera, your initial investment is all that is required to begin and continue taking pictures for a very long while.  Neither film nor developing is required, which is a big plus not only from a price standpoint, but also a convenience one Ė you can view your pictures immediately after you shoot them.

Unfortunately, price and convenience almost seem to eclipse quality as a key selling feature of these cameras.  Sure, digital cameras with superior quality exist, but the price on them isnít so customer-friendly. Honestly, have you ever overheard someone saying, "Oh yeah, Iím gonna go get one of those cheap digital cameras Ė they take such good quality pictures."  If, like me,  price is your big concern, you may be afraid that youíll never get great pictures of your action figures.

Well, last year my office bought a relatively cheap digital camera.  Now, one year, some advice, and much practice later, Iíve finally started feeling both satisfied and confident in the pictures Iím taking with it.  And now, I want to share what Iíve learned so far, so that others can benefit from my year of making mistakes.

MY Camera Overview (your brand and mileage may vary)

First, Iím going to give you a rundown of the key features my camera has.  I make no pretense of being a digital camera expert, and I have no idea how common any of these features are.  But, judging from the advice I got when I first started, several of these features will more than likely be available on your camera.  BUT MAKE SURE YOU READ YOUR CAMERAíS INSTRUCTION MANUAL SO THAT YOUíLL UNDERSTAND HOW IT DEALS WITH THESE FEATURES.  In no way do I intend to teach anyone how to use their cameras; I only hope to illuminate many of my mistakes.

For those interested, the brand name/model number of our camera Ė
Casio LCD Digital Camera QV-120.

Since I have an "autofocus" camera, this is probably the most important setting I've got.  As I understand it, this button switches the cameraís focus onto something either near (MACRO) or far (NORMAL).  Use MACRO when photographing anything close to the camera.  For me, this has included every clear close-up shot of an action figure Iíve taken.

NORMAL setting on

MACRO setting on

Resolution:  FINE/NORMAL
Although I'll admit Iíve taken a few good pictures in NORMAL mode, Iíve taken many better ones in FINE mode.  FINE mode on my camera (remember, yours may be different) produces pictures at 640 x 480 pixels, whereas NORMAL mode produces pictures at 320 x 240 pixels.  Although the FINE mode pictures have been too large for most of my uses, Iíve found that in the process of reducing the size of the picture, some very small dings or flaws in my figures are masked in the reduction.  If you take pictures in NORMAL mode, you wonít likely want to reduce your picture size, and you canít take advantage of this effect.

Wildcat pic -- lo res

Wildcat pic -- hi res
Maxima pic -- lo res Maxima pic -- hi res
Speedy pic -- lo res
Speedy pic -- hi res

Something you might notice from the examples above is that the pictures taken in Normal mode appear brighter than those taken in Fine mode.  Don't quite know why, and I suppose it could just be my camera, but for me this means I need even more light when I want to take the highest resolution pictures possible.

This is one Iíve really not had to worry about, mostly because the automatic sensors on my camera work fairly well and let me know when I need to change this setting.  But just so you know, this should be set on OPEN when taking pictures inside,  in order to allow as much light in as possible.  Outside, the CLOSED setting will help prevent wash-out and glare.  The picture of Wildcat at the right was taken at the same time as all those above, except the aperture was in the closed position and there just wasn't enough ambient light outside to compensate (a thunderstorm was rolling into town).

Light: +/-
Although this button is used for many things in various modes on my camera, while taking pictures it gently adjusts the amount of light entering the camera.  Iíve really just started using this feature, but so far Iíve found that itís easier to adjust the lighting manually than with this button, mostly because the way a picture seems lit through the LCD panel on my camera doesnít always match how it will appear once I have it on the computer.

LCD Panel
My camera has an LCD panel which can be used as both the viewfinder and as a playback screen.  The color quality isnít great, and the viewing angle isnít great, either.  Therefore, itís nice that I haveÖ

Camera-to-RCA-Plug Cord
This cord has been very useful by allowing me to view my pictures straight from the camera onto my TV.  The colors and lighting on a TV more closely resembles what they will look like on the computer screen.  And because Iím just viewing the pictures instead of uploading them to a computer, I get results much more quickly.

What Iíve Learned the Hard Way

For me, the hardest part of taking digital pictures has been getting the lighting right.  So much else really depends on that.  So far, almost every picture Iím happy with has been taken outside in the later part of the afternoon.  When I asked for advice on taking pictures, this was probably the most common answer, with good reason I've learned.  With a digital camera, lighting can be extremely touchy.  Outside, Iíve found it best to photograph the figures away from direct sunlight, which tends to wash out any light colors on the figures (see pic at right).  Late afternoon when the sun is out of direct line-of-sight with your location is a good time, as well as any "relatively cloudy but otherwise not to gloomy" day.

Indoors, things get a bit trickier.  The picture at left was taken indoors without enough light.  So far, my best pictures indoors have been achieved almost identically to the ones outdoors, albeit by using the natural sunlight from windows.  Set up your figures in an area which receives a LOT of sun.  I use my dining area, the same place we keep our houseplants.  This area is great for getting excellent sun, but unfortunately, because of the way the house is located, the lighting is best in the mornings, so during the winter I had to get up early on the weekends to take pictures (and I am not a morning person).

Some people have advised me not to use florescent or halogen lights because they flicker, which can cause your lighting to be unreliable, but so far Iíve actually had decent results under florescents, although the best of those results have been under several dozen lights.  I've also achieved neat effects using black lights, which can help to create a nighttime effect.  While using the blacklights, I still had to have several other lights on in the room to have enough light to be able to see.

Also, make sure that you are conscious of your own shadow, as well as the shadows of anyone else in the area.  I had a strange problem once while taking photos of Star Trek characters.  I took all my pictures with seemingly identical lighting conditions, and yet some came out clear while others came out very dark and gritty.  What I finally realized was that my roommate Chip was walking around behind me and casting a slight shadow over my work area.  Because we had so much ambient light in the room, the shadow was almost imperceptible to our eyes.  It took some time (and the equivalent of one wasted role of film) before we realized that he was the cause of the darkness in my photos.  Watch for similar situations caused by passing clouds, especially if you're taking pictures indoors.

Selay -- lower light inside

Selay -- more light inside
(w/ bright open windows)

Selay -- outside in the shade

Keep that camera still!
By all means, use a tripod if you have access to one; but if you donít, you may want to find something else to use as a substitute.  Over time, I have collected a few small boxes which are just the right height to help me prop up my camera and keep it still.

Always verify your settings
I canít tell you the number of times Iíve filled up the camera's memory, and then when looking at the pictures on the TV, found that Iíd taken them all on NORMAL instead of MACRO.  Youíll save yourself a lot of pain, effort and heartache if youíll just verify your camera's settings before each picture.  In the picture at the right, I was trying to show what my jungle-style diorama looks like from above, but I forgot to change the focus from MACRO to NORMAL.  Duh!

Take your time
Take the time to make sure all the details are the way you want them to be.  If you just plop your figure on the table without taking your time to deliberately place him, you might just take a picture of a figureís bad side.  Or you might cover up the details youíre most proud of.  Or you might even cast the entire figure in shadow.  In the end, youíre pictures will turn out better and you won't have to reshoot if you're careful to get all the details right the first time.

One such detail to be careful of is lighting glare.  Digital photography requires a lot of light.  Some of the backgrounds I use in my dioramas, such as the Gotham City Bank and the Gotham City Police Department box, are a bit shinier than Iíd like.  Therefore, I have to really be careful where I place light sources in relation to them.  Iíve taken several pictures which contained the glow of an extremely bright hurricane lamp reflecting in the bank door.  In the picture on the left, the GCPD box reflected way too much light, although upon closer inspection, the glare occurred exactly on a street lamp -- neat, yes, but completely accidental.

Sure, glare might not completely ruin the picture, but it can hide details and it does somewhat destroy the illusion that youíre diorama is a little world all in itself.  If you can avoid reflections of the real world in your photos, they will look all the better.

Photograph your figures, not your house
OK, this isn't really specific to digital photography, but it is something I've come to appreciate because of it.  Since I've had the ability to experiment with countless different setups, I've decided my figures just look much better when I leave my house out of the picture.  While many of us display our figures on bookshelves (or on computers, or on tables, etc.), photographs of figures on bookshelves (or on computers, or on tables, etc.) just aren't always the best way to showcase a figure.  The extra clutter around the figures often competes with and takes away from the center of attention.   Instead of just taking the picture on the shelf, try to photograph the figure in a diorama.  If you can't build a diorama, take the picture in front of a fairly plain, non-patterned, non-detailed background.

Fill the frame with the FIGURE, not the background
I know that youíve spend a lot of time building that diorama, but if youíre taking a picture to showcase a new custom youíve just completed, then let the diorama be the background, not the focus.  Otherwise youíll end up with pictures of a lot of stuff, and oh yeah, you might notice that thereís an action figure somewhere in it, as well.  Because my camera doesn't have any sort of zoom feature, I have to get in very close to the figure to completely fill the frame.

And even if you are taking pictures of your diorama itself, donít worry if you cut off a bit of the edges Ė itíll look better than having part of your kitchen show up in the background.  In fact, a diorama is going to work best if you cannot see where it begins or ends.  One final note about photographing dioramas:  if you have to get farther away to photograph the whole thing, remember to check your MACRO/NORMAL setting to see which will work better at the new distance.

picture of diorama with bits of messy kitchen visible in background / table in foreground
same picture cropped to remove messy kitchen

Donít be afraid to ask questions
When taking pictures of VERY small objects, I found that my camera just couldnít focus tightly enough.  And unfortunately my camera did not have a ZOOM function.  But thankfully I have several wonderful resources available to me -- namely, the members of the customizing listserv -- and someone there gave me the solution: use a magnifying glass to tighten the focus.  Logistically, itís not easy to do if youíre only one person with two hands trying to account for all the glare and lighting problems, but it honestly worked really well, with just some effort.  And I definitely think the effort was worth it.  That's a very innovative idea I would never had thought of had I not asked.

Take billions of pictures
My final advice is just to experiment.  Take as many pictures in as many different set ups as possible.  And while you're doing it, learn from your experiences.  Notice what you like and what you don't.  One of my favorite features of the digital camera is the fact that there is no film to be developed.  You can take as many pictures as you want, upload them all to your computer, and then start again. I'll all but guarantee that if you practice and pay attention to what works and what doesn't, you're pictures will improve.  After all, mine did.