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How to shoot model toy photography that looks like real life

firefighter model toy photography
(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

Originally my inspiration came from my love of formula one, I took a photo of a couple of F1 model cars I had. I really enjoyed the process of trying to make something small in scale look life-size, and to add an element of movement and action was the main goal. After that I had an  image in my head of what I would love to do next, and that's where this picture came from.  

I built the set from scratch, mainly from balsa wood and plasterboard. It was then painted and weathered. I picked up the figures on eBay for quite cheap, and again these were painted and weathered. This was all a lengthy process, but the more details I added the better the final result became. 

After building the set I shot a few test shots on my camera phone, but I wasn't happy with the results so it was a case of trying new setups and positions until I was pleased with what the image would look like. Taking test shots on a phone is a lot quicker than setting up all your gear! 

(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

The next challenge was trying to find a camera angle and focal length that gave the model a sense of scale. I found that shooting low down, with an upwards tilt, gave the things some scale, while using a slightly longer focal length pulled the background forward, resulting in a larger looking scene.

The lighting was quite simple: I had an off camera flash diffused with crepe paper for the window, and then the light on a mobile phone for other highlights.

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Step-by-step guide to shooting model toys

(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

01) Source good props

To keep everything as authentic as possible I try to pick up extra accessories for the models, and then use the same paint and weathering across all the items to tie everything together.

(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

02) Getting set up

You’ll need to shoot on a tripod, as not only will it give you a steady shot but you'll also be able to shoot using a trigger. This enables you to stay near the models and concentrate on moving them around the scene. Try to keep your camera on a level similar to the scene or a touch lower.

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(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

03) Bring in some smoke

For the explosion, a smoke machine was set up behind the broken door. I also had a hand pump that I kept filling with cement dust and ballast to simulate debris. A lesson learned here is to always check your camera settings, as I could have used a faster shutter speed to capture more debris coming through the door. 

(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

04) Use an off-camera flash

This firefighter image shows a setup using the same set as the SWAT image. Again a smoke machine was used for the practical effect, and the lighting is the same, but I used a diffused flash through the window on the left. 

(Image credit: Chris Kennedy)

05) Lighting

The lighting consisted of a pair of Neewer table top lights, one with a blue gel attached to give a brilliant teal glow. The other was placed behind the broken door with an orange gel to replicate the explosion flare. And for a little extra light, a handheld torch was placed out of frame in front of the figure. 

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