Taking pictures with DIY setups has been my protocol for the past few years I’ve been in toy hobbies, I finally felt that it was time for a decent upgrade.
I had written a previous article on my photography setup but with the recent additions to my photo kit, this post aims to write a more comprehensive guide and detailed setup explanation as to how I particularly do my LEGO toy photography (and also, 360 videos).
This will be a very lengthy post as I really want to explain certain things and be as informative as possible so thank you for your patience 🙂
I. Tools Overview
- Foldio2 Pop-up Photo Tent
- Desk light with 15W 6500K LED bulb
- Multi plug extension cord (with 2 USB ports)
- Foldio extra LED strip lights and power adapters
- Backdrop (included with Foldio 2)
- Foldio360 turntable
- Ring LED light (with LEGO-built tripod mount attachment)
- Tripod mount for Smartphone
- Smartphone for taking pictures. And another smartphone to control the Foldio360 *not in picture*
The key pieces to this setup is definitely the Foldio2 tent. I’ve been on the lookout for portable photo tents for a while that allows extra light to pass through it (most of what I found were flimsy fabric based ones and the really good ones were too pricy). Previously, I had used a DIY box photo booth but having a cat and an open box meant trouble (and lots of loose fur while taking pics).
1. Foldio2 15″ Pop-up Photo Tent
The Foldio2 tent is a 15 inch box and can fit most of my mechs making it an ideal size for me to use (if there was a 20″ model, I’d probably get one too for bigger builds). It comes with 2 LED strips with dimmers that goes up to 5700K White each (color temperature if you’re wondering what that 5700 value is). You can “attach” these to your Foldio via the double sided tape on the underside of the LED strips and I’ve added mine on the recommended spot, by a flap on the front upper side of the Foldio. From the picture, you can also see where the backdrop is clipped via a small strip with magnets, firmly locking the backdrop in place.
2. Desk light with 15W 6500K LED bulb
This desk lamp is actually to give some extra backlighting to the model, removing some rear shadows and making it easier in post to remove the model from the background. I’m using a 15W LED bulb here since it’s the strongest white bulb I have.
3. Multi plug extension cord (with 2 USB ports)
This is to power everything neatly and the 2 USB ports make it handy to keep the smartphones plugged in. Feel free to use any electrical extender though.
4. Foldio extra LED strip lights and power adapters
These extra Foldio LED strips replace my old 2 desk lamps that I position on the side. The nice thing about these is they also come with dimmers so I can control the lighting better. You can use any other light source for this but take note of the bulbs you buy. 5700-6500K LED or ask for Pure White LED bulbs. If you can get a lamp with a dimmer option, the better as you can get a strong 15W bulb and dim it down to your liking. If a lamp with dimmer isn’t an option, you can diffuse your light via other options as explained later.
5. Backdrop (included with Foldio 2)
The backdrops included with the Foldio2 comes in 4 colors (an off white, black, green, and light grey) and has a semi-felt texture to it so it doesn’t come out shiny or gleaming in the pictures. You can just purchase felt paper and cut it to shape or use cloth for this.
6. Foldio360 turntable
This is my most valuable 2016 addition to my photo setup and I’m loving it! The Foldio360 turntable is controlled via an app (both on iOS and Android) and allows you to control the turntable. You can read more about it on its product page but just to highlight what I love about it, having the ability to control the rotation direction and with 3 speed modes, this makes it a very convenient tool to have. I can also set it to rotate one whole rotation in either left or right, turn a specific angle in a specific direction, or turn indefinitely in a direction. Without the app, you can also have it rotate indefinitely but you cannot specify speed or direction (I think it’ll automatically rotate clockwise at 1x speed).
The app also allows you to take a 360 video and upload it to their platform where you can see other people uploading their 360 videos but you need to record with the app.
7. Ring LED light (with LEGO-built tripod mount attachment)
Bought this recently from a bazaar near where I live and it’s marketed specifically for taking better selfies (I’m not kidding). The product is called an “LED Artifact” and basically it’s a ring LED light that has a diffused case and surprisingly, 3 dim modes to choose from. Cost me around 15$ USD or 750 PHP. It has a clip attachment that is sized to fit most smartphones but the way it clips means the camera lens isn’t at the center of the ring so I made a brick-built connector to my tripod, allowing me to mount it
8. Tripod mount for Smartphone
Just any Smartphone mount to tripod will do. The one I have is a screw type which I find more sturdy that a spring lock type and makes securing/removing your phone easier.
9. Smartphone (or camera of choice)
Honestly, most smartphones nowadays have decent or even better camera lenses vs your digicams or SLRs. I’d recommend using the best camera you have and if you don’t have a decent one, invest in one before any of these things I’ve mentioned in my setup. Without a decent camera, you’ll have crappy pictures to work with even if you have the best photo setup. I personally use an ASUS Zenfone3 with Open Camera / default Camera app to take my photos but I was previously using an Apple iPhone 6+ (not S) and the pictures were good enough (now I use my iPhone to control the Foldio360). I’ll discuss the camera settings in more detail in separate section below.
II. Basic Photography Concepts
When taking photos of your own LEGO models, we need to factor a few things to really get the optimal lighting setup. But before we even talk about the actual setup, we need to go over some basic photography concepts to help us understand the reason for the placement and uses of our tools. Some things to consider would be the softness/harshness of light, the presence and elimination of shadows, image focus, quality, and clarity, and making sure your image is as good as it can be prior to any post editing.
A photography professor once told me that there’s no saving a badly taken photo in post-editing.
The amount of light plays a huge part in photography and will greatly affect image quality and capture speed. The core concept behind photography has not changed since the transition from traditional cameras to digital. Images are captured via the travel of light into camera lenses which is then recorded as data. More light = more information into the lenses = faster data recording. Less light = less information going into the lenses = slow data recording (as the shutter needs to stay open longer to let more light come into the lens). The latter isn’t a big issue with a tripod for still subjects but capturing video requires stronger lighting since a series of photos (24 frames per second) makes a video so your camera needs to take photos at high shutter speeds essentially.
TL;DR: have adequate lighting or else have really bad photos.
I also need to mention that LEGO bricks rarely (or never?) come in matte finish meaning most LEGO pieces will be reflective of light, making it harder to photograph compared to other toys with softer surfaces. Most toy photography setups will opt for a diffused or soft lighting setup versus a direct lighting or hard lighting. With soft lighting, the distribution of light would be more even across the subject and would make shadows softer. Personally, the prime reason why you’d want to use soft lighting for LEGO is that if you use hard lighting, you’ll end up with a lot of gloss, making it hard to distinguish the shapes on your model.
TL;DR: soft lighting works best -most of the time- for LEGO unless you need to go hard lighting for a specific reason (like setting a mood or tone).
Extra URLs for further reading:
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HARD LIGHT VS SOFT LIGHT IN PHOTOGRAPHY
Some other things that I’d like to mention:
- Move your camera nearer, don’t zoom as much as possible.
- Make sure to turn off all other light sources when you’re setting up your photo lights
III. Placement and Setup
My setup isn’t really that much different as compared to my old DIY box setup. The big difference is how the Foldio2 tent is made of a translucent material that allows light from outside the tent to pass through diffused and that I also have a lamp that illuminates the background from behind the Foldio2 tent.
In my current setup, I’m having the light enter the photo tent as strong and diffused as possible. The rear lamp is directly pointed at the center of the rear wall, having to pass through the Foldio2 translucent wall and the backdrop. The side LED strips (each @5700K max brightness) are positioned outside the side walls to diffuse the light further. The top front LED strips are dimmed appropriately so they aren’t too harsh (why I love these Foldio LED strips). I then have an additional front light (ring LED) to remove the front shadows slightly.
As you can notice, I’m trying to soften the lighting as much as possible by using diffusers that’s available to me and my setup. For photos, I tend to dim down the LEDs as needed and for videos, I tend to max all of them out.
My old setup when I first acquired the Foldio2 was lacking in lighting. The two 3W side lamps had to pass through the translucent walls of the Foldio2 and was too weak already. I also lacked front lighting (the two LED strips at the top front flap would give lots of overhead shadows but not really front lighting). The addition of the Ring LED fixes that issue.
My most ideal setup though would be to eventually ditch the photo tent and just go for a large backdrop (something like a 2 meter x 1.5 meter cloth) and would allow me to take photos of bigger builds. To still get the soft lighting setup, I’d have to rely on bouncing the light from lamps to scatter/diffuse the light more evenly. Styrofoam boards, aluminum foil reflectors, studio quality deflectors, translucent white umbrellas, or even just a cheese cloth would allow me to diffuse lights from lamps so there’s really a number of ways to diffuse hard light.
IV. Camera Settings
Below are the settings I use for both photo and video:
Take note that these are based on the lighting setup I use and you might have to adjust it to suit your own lighting setup. You’d also need to take note of the model you’re taking a photo of (for darker subjects, I tend to take a 2nd photo that’s slightly over exposed or is slightly lighter so if I need to balance out a dark photo, I have something to work with).
App: Open Camera – set to Manual
- Brightness +0.83 EV
- Unlock Exposure
- Unlock Focus – check where you’re focusing by tapping the screen
- HDR: Off
App: Default Camera – set to Manual
- Brightness +0.3 to +1.0 EV depending on model
- White Balance: Auto (I could set it to 5700K based on the Foldio LEDs)
- ISO: Auto
- Shutter Speed: 1/40
- Autofocus – check where you’re focusing by tapping the screen
- HDR: Off
App: Open Camera (I don’t use the default camera app to take videos since I’ve gotten overall results from the Open Camera app)
- +.83 EV
- Lock Exposure
- Lock Focus
Aside from these, you’d want to take photos/videos in the maximum quality your camera allows you to (check Megapixels as well as Image Quality. For videos, I use Full HD). The better you can take your photos and the better the file quality (bigger size), the more data you can work with. You can always compress later on but enlarging a photo will always lead to a loss.
For those interested in LEGO mech building, I put out an eBook over at Amazon Kindle a while back called Mech Wars Instructional Primer. If you’re looking for a resource that could help you start or even improve your mech building skills, you might find this eBook useful