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Photographing Scale Model Cars

“It’s not photography; you’re just playing with toys. And Photoshop.”  Well, it sure does look that way. This will either invite complete ridicule or slightly less than complete ridicule but it has been such a ton of fun to do that I could in fact not care less. And now I’m getting asked (and paid) to produce bespoke posters and prints so maybe I’m having the last laugh; who knows. Plenty will argue that unless you’re photographing a long exposure seascape at sunrise with the latest Nikon or hauling a massive zoom lens across the polar packs you’re not really an authentic photographer. But photographing diecast scale models has proved to be invaluable for practising composition, framing, lighting and processing, all of which are presumably essential to photography in any genre. To say nothing of demanding a little creativity, craft and invention, and that has made it far more stimulating to me than the usual travel and street stuff.

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1/24 Ford Mustang on a glass worktop covered in baking soda. Widescreen bars for a more ‘cinematic’ look.

There don’t seem to be many people out there doing this kind of work but one evening earlier this year my friends and I decided after a few drinks (I like beer!) to have a go at creating action stills and photorealistic scenes using some diecast models. We weren’t entirely successful.

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1/36 BMW. Tin foil for water.

We set up a makeshift studio with some lamps, blue background and tin foil wrapped around cardboard for reflectors. To soften the light and avoid shadows the lamps were covered in material from that sheath your laptop came wrapped in (told you it was makeshift). We used flour for snow and breadcrumbs for gravel.

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Lambo in the snow.
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A 8cm/3in TR6.

We started off with fairly easy shots, cars in the snow and in a blizzard; completely unoriginal but I figured I had to learn to walk before I fly. Sieved flour in front of a small fan created a blizzard effect. The Icelandic scenes in the background were taken from my trip earlier this year and added later in post. Headlights were added in post too and the shut lines were tightened up.

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Then we had a little more to drink (I like beer!) and decided to get a little sillier.

Alas we can’t go back to the 1980s, the greatest decade in the history of the entire Universe, so we tried to bring the 80s to us. We decided to ask the Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT) to turbo boost over the A-Team van.  We hung a 1/18 scale model of KITT over a model of the van and used several practical effects: an e-cigarette provided smoke, exhaust trails and dust clouds, a birthday cake sparkler gave us bullet impacts on KITT’s body, while oats became visible flying gravel. Each effect was shot separately and then blended together as desired using layers in Photoshop. A sky background was added from my archives.

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I cannot tell you how much fun this was to stage and shoot; the drink undoubtedly helped (I like beer!) but we felt like the kids from Super 8.

In the weeks thereafter, I gained some practice with a few more small projects involving vehicular acrobatics (guilty of some myself), such as crashing a car through some barrels (not my idea) and recreating the Astro Spiral Jump from a Bond film. I even got Airwolf to destroy a BMW (BMWs are great cars to wreck).  The road surface was merely a piece of cardboard that was sprayed black and had two strips of yellow electrical tape stuck down the middle.

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Look up the Airwolf theme…

Some friends showed the results to their friends and colleagues, and soon I was being asked to make bespoke posters for their kid’s bedrooms. The first was a race between two famous rally cars, the Subaru and Mitsubishi, both 1/36 scale models.

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Next came The Chase, where the client’s brief (or rather her son’s) was a car chase with police cars. Naturally. Each time I decided to make a mini project out of it, partly to practice the craft but also (in the chase sequence) to tell a story. The chase was a 43-image epic, not all of which were convincing, but I got to produce a decent selection for the client. And destroy another BMW (did I mention they’re great cars to wreck?).

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All 1/36 scale models.

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The set-ups didn’t take long at all, as long as the angles and scenes were thought out beforehand. And fishing line is great stuff. But the editing could take some time, with a few of the images requiring multiple layers, including the headlights, taillights, debris and sirens. For someone that hates sitting in front of a screen, that was a drag to say the least.

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The Race was a commission from a Formula One/Grand Prix enthusiast, and at first I was a little concerned at how small his models were (barely 10cm). But they had such surprisingly good details that I was able to make a few decent shots with them. Needless to say, more details give more freedom and demand less processing.

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Dropped in the Toronto skyline from my archives as a background.

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The American Muscle project involved larger, 1/18 scale collector models, with really good details and tighter shut lines. Since most collectors of the real cars seem to spend a lot of time tinkering with them in a garage I quickly constructed a scale garage in which to shoot them.

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I basically sprayed some cardboard with concrete texture paint and furnished the space with a makeshift black cardboard table and cupboard. I added springs from a couple of clothes pegs to act as suspension springs and a black drinking straw doubled for an exhaust pipe. Small prints of some of my photos from a car show acted as posters on the walls. A small window was cut out so that a lamp could shine through and illuminate the smoke from the vaping device.

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The client also wanted some action scenes (naturally) but without any damage to his cars (understandably). So, thinking that these were a throwback to 70s/80s action, I quickly knocked up a few balsa wood boxes out of cardboard and coffee stirrer sticks, the type that these cars would typically crash into or flip over on the TV shows. I stuck some thin wires into a couple of them and impaled a few bits of polystyrene onto them to act as spilling packaging. The fishing lines and wires were removed in post. And the cars remained in mint condition.

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I won’t get into the processing aspect of all of this since it’s beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that learning about using layers and focus stacking is pretty handy. I merely wanted to provide a window onto a different genre and perhaps encourage others to give it a try (and undoubtedly do better than me). And while this might all sound a bit arts and crafts-y and not enough gearhead-y, it’s no more than dressing a room before shooting a model or decorating a movie set prior to rolling cameras.  It’s all a means to the final end.

Anyway, I hope this gives you a few ideas or simply raises a smile. Remember that there aren’t many people doing this kind of photography (I could be wrong) so there’s still scope to be original, unlike the endless (yawn) galleries of landscapes at sunset. Cars are popular subjects; they may not be high art but the Fast and Furious and Transformers movies alone have made billions globally so there’s clearly an appetite for vehicular action (and carnage). And don’t underestimate the huge market for nostalgia; adults are telling me all the time that this takes them back to their childhood and that their kids love it. Plus it’s great fun to do; heck, even get your kids to help you.

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While the companies that make these models may enjoy the shiny, glistening still images of their products the people that actually buy them like action and play. Ultimately, finding ways to make a still scene look dynamic (especially when destroying a BMW) is surely going to help improve your photographic eye.

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And just to show it isn’t limited to vehicles here’s a friendly and cuddly alien model that someone recently asked me to shoot for them.

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A 25cm model. Both images pretty much as shot in camera with the practical smoke and light effects. The ‘corridor’ was made with drinking straws taped to cardboard walls. The Alien was sprayed with a glycerin/water mix to add sheen and moisture. In post I removed any obvious joints and added some saliva (dripping honey, actually!).

Well, I realise this is a ‘serious’ site for ‘serious’ photographers (eyes rolling). Well, best of luck with your seriousness (blowing a raspberry). To my usual haters, I wasn’t really here so take a pill and stay calm. See ya!

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