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Create a world in miniature

Shooting macro landscapes for macro people

Should tiny people be restricted to equally petite landscapes? We think not. This project is all about the minute. We’re using a macro lens to find out what tiny model people get up to when they’re put in real-world situations, resulting in some unusual close-up landscapes. 

For this fun-filled project you’ll need to find some miniature figures. We’ve found that OO-gauge model railway figures are well suited as they are very detailed and fit in ‘ordinary’ scenarios. As they are designed to inhabit model villages it is easy to find figures posed as though they’re carrying out everyday tasks, such as a suited man with a briefcase or some fun-sized photographers. 

This is the ideal project for creative photographers who are into arts and crafts. Creating a landscape for the your figures is only limited by your imagination. We’ve had a go at everything from mashed potato hills to a muddy construction site. 

If you need further convincing, take a look at the work of macro-world photographers Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle. They have made a name for themselves by placing toys carrying out everyday activities in a world of giant food.

For our walkthrough shots overleaf we set up a scene indoors, but as this image shows, shooting outdoors in natural light can be equally effective. Here’s how it’s done...

Step-by-step: Get down to their level

1. Macro lens

As the figures are so small you will need to shoot with a macro lens. You could improvise with different lenses and crop in, but you will then lose lots of detail.

2. Narrow aperture

You want a shallow depth of field to blur the background, but at this range, f/2.8 will blur out most of the scene. We’ve shot at f/18 and still got a shallow depth of field. 

3. Head height

Get low down and level with your scene as this creates the illusion that the toys are the same size as the viewer. It helps to shoot on a table or a ledge off the ground. 

4. Precise focusing

Autofocus isn’t ideal, as the focus point may not sit where you want it. Instead, attach your camera to a tripod, and use Live View to focus manually for greater precision. 

Step-by-step: Setting the scene

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1. Find some figures

Model figures are easy to find online: search for ‘model railway miniatures’. Be aware of the scale of the models when looking. We’ve used 00 gauge, which are about 15mm tall. Smaller figures aren’t detailed enough.

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2. Scout the location

Finding the right location can be difficult as there are many things that can destroy the illusion, such as grass. The best spots have clear ground to stand the figures on and neutral backgrounds to blur. You can also create your own bizarre landscape using food, such as the mashed potato here. 

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3. Dig yourself a hole

Sculpt the location to suit your scene. Use a small teaspoon or fine knife to modify the landscape to fit, such as digging a small hole to position a road worker or farmer in, as if they’d dug it themselves. This is especially important if you’re creating your own scene and shooting indoors. 

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4. Blue-sky thinking

Make sure your background isn’t too obvious. Shooting towards the sky is often the best backdrop for realism. If you cannot get a clear background, use a piece of material such as blue T-shirt, or some coloured paper. Position this far enough back to be completely blurred to a flat colour. 

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5. Make a stand

Many figures come with small transparent stands. If yours don’t, like our photographers, we can place them into a soft surface such as mud or mash. If you’re shooting on solid ground, cut out a piece of clear plastic, then stick the figures’ feet to the plastic with glue or even Blu-Tack. 

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6. Lights, camera, action

Natural light will work for this project, though artificial lighting is more controllable. Indoors, a desk lamp is ideal for most still-life shoots, and can act as a sun if it’s fitted with a tungsten bulb. This can also be done with a flash and a gold reflector face. Outdoors you can use torches. 

Take it further - more creative ideas

Food glorious food

One of the most creative backgrounds is a landscape sculpted out of food. We’ve made this scene out of mashed potato, using broccoli and blue decorating gel to act as trees and rivers. It was shot inside, lit by a tungsten lamp. 

Real world

Look for a landscape that can be manipulated into a tiny scene. Dirt looks plain enough to make a good background for any scale. It’s also soft enough to stand figures in and dig holes for your models to work away on. 

Real people

For more challenging compositions, play with perspective. Have your miniatures interact with real people – here our model is photographing a passing pedestrian. This will require a smaller aperture to ensure the real people are visible.

This feature was originally published in Digital Camera Magazine, to subscribe, click here