How to: Small Terrain Boards

Skyhigh did an excellent tutorial on how to make large boards (8’x8’) for gaming, but this tutorial is about how to make small terrain boards for mini photography (about 1’x1’). Since they’re short topics related to photography, I’ll also include some notes about making a lightbox and some tips on lighting.When I first started making terrain boards for mini photography, I thought I would need medium-sized boards (about 2’x2’) in order to get depth-of-field. While these boards worked reasonably well, I found that they were always in the way. I only have one room for painting in my apartment (which is where I also take the pictures), and four square feet of space for terrain storage was a luxury that I couldn’t afford. Since the boards often had hills and especially trees attached, stacking wasn’t really an option either.

As time went on and I took more pictures, I began to realize that I had made some mistakes in putting the terrain together: features that either weren’t needed for the photography or actually got in the way. I also realized that most of the board area never showed up in the photos and was essentially a waste. Since I eventually got tired of the basic grassland terrain board and wanted some variety, I decided that it was time to put these lessons to use with a new round of terrain boards. 

Lesson 1) while depth-of-field can be achieved by having a “deep” board, it is easier to just adjust the f-stop and focal distance of your camera to achieve the same effect. This means you can have smaller boards which are easier to store, cheaper to construct and take less time per board, giving you the chance to make a greater variety of terrain (or whatever else you want to use the time for).

Lesson 2) “standard”camera lenses have a rather small arc in front of them that contains the picture. The arc will change depending on the lens used (and can become large if you use a wide-angle lens, which you won’t for mini photography). My Nikon D60 18-55mm lens has a viewable arc of between about 29 degrees at maximum zoom and 76 degrees at minimum zoom. For mini photography, we will almost always be operating at near-max zoom, so that’s 29 degrees of viewable arc. By comparison, that’s about one-third of an “L” or right angle…that’s not a lot. Once again, this means you can have a smaller board since you will never see the stuff to either side of the mini (assuming you are at a “reasonable” focal distance of about 12” to 18”). Once cropping of the picture is done, the viewable angle may be as low as 5 degrees.  

Lesson 3) Economize! One board can be turned 90, 180 or even 270 degrees to get different views, which then gives you the equivalent of 2, 3 or 4 boards in one! This all depends on if there are static features that block line-of-sight as mentioned below…

Lesson 4) there are a variety of vertical angles you will be taking photos at. Some will be pictured at eye-level to the mini (or sometimes even below that); others will want a more top-down view…all depending on the features you want to show. The board must be constructed to be flexible enough to accommodate that. If you have fixed (i.e. glued-down) hills, buildings, trees or other features that block line-of-sight at eye-level, then your flexibility will be limited. 

Lesson 5) being able to see the back straight board edge ruins the illusion. Low-elevation features like rocks and such can be used to break up horizon lines. The back edge can also be subtly carved with a hot wire to make it rougher.

Lesson 6) there’s going to be a backdrop and it’s going to be right next to the back edge of the board. If the features that break up the horizon are too high they will cast shadows on the backdrop, again ruining the illusion. Trees and other moderate-height features need to either be at least several inches from the back edge to prevent shadows, or the frontal lighting is going to have to be turned down. Light from a point source diminishes as the square of the distance, so lighting at the backdrop will be much more reduced than lighting at the middle of the board. Try to have the back edge cut in a nice straight line so it fits together well with the backdrop.

Lesson 7) since mini photography is all close-up, any flaws in the terrain will show up as readily as flaws on the mini. The terrain will demand the same attention to detail as the mini does, and that will take more time. On the other hand, if the board comes out awesome it will really add to the picture…and you will be hailed by all as a painting/terrain GOD!!! (maybe) 

Lesson 8) there are two general styles of terrain: what you might call “continuous” and “discrete”. This is the difference between gently sloping hills and one-inch-high cliffs. Since we are going for realism on these boards (“continuous”), you might use something like plastercloth to make the ground gently rolling as well. If so, make sure to have the center of the board completely flat, as that is where the mini will be standing (assuming you’re designing the board to be flexible and rotate-able). 

Lesson 9) as discussed in my tutorial “Paints, lighting, cameras and colors”, you should consider making at least three different types of terrain, chosen for their difference in brightness: one light, one medium, and one dark. This allows you to easily brightness-match the mini to the terrain so that your exposures come out nice and even. Do research on different terrain types…there are dozens at least. Here are some examples:Light: arctic/snowy, cold weather, sandy desert, ash wastes.Medium: grassland (absolutely the standard board), alpine, arid, mountains, hills, rocky desert.Dark: exotic?, forests/jungles, swamp, volcanic.

Lesson 10) materials: for game boards (i.e. terrain by volume) I use good-quality but cheaper materials like Woodland Scenics flock. For mini photography boards, I use more expensive but higher quality (in my opinion) Gale Force 9 flock. GF9 tends to be more colorful, diverse and visually interesting which is necessary for a varied selection of terrain. Though I’ve seen some real rocks used to good effect, I tend to use Woodland Scenics rock molds with W.S. hydrocal. These rocks look terrific if properly colored. 

Lesson 11) even though I was unhappy with how the first couple of grassland boards came out (mainly because of the LOS-blocking hills I put in), the boards ended up being useful. I decided to increase the depth-of-field and terrain variation by putting one of these boards at the back of the setup, and having a flat grassland board perched on top and to the front of it. I guess the lesson here is that you can sometimes recycle.

Most of the normal stuff like methods, tools and materials like foam has already been covered in Skyhigh’s tutorial, Building a Large Terrain Board so I won’t repeat it here. The same goes for the need to plan the layout…doubly so, in fact, as you will need to make sure that the board looks good and has good LOS from multiple angles. 

Lightboxes: The purpose of a lightbox is to diffuse the point-source lamps into almost walls of light. Glare tends to come from point sources, so you want to get rid of them. The construction of a lightbox is simple: get some 1” square wooden dowels from Lowe’s or Home Depot and decide how wide/deep/high the box will need to be. Since our terrain boards are only about 12” wide, the box only needs a little extra for wiggle room…maybe 14” to 18”. The same goes for height and depth. Cut the dowels to the appropriate length and nail the pieces together. You will only need to make 2 square frames for the sides, 2 crossbeams for the back, and one for the top front. Next, you will need some sort of diffusing material to cover the sides and top with (the back will have a cardboard backing for the backdrop). There is a university art store near me, so I was easily able to get large sheets of vellum for this. I cut the vellum to the appropriate size (window size plus ½” overlap on the beam edges) and duct-taped it down. Voilà, you’re done.

Finally, I have three more lighting tips for your minis: 

1)       With the lightbox constructed, you will obviously have three light sources: one on each side and one overhead. You will also need a frontal light source. Since the front of the lightbox is open, the lamp that you use for frontal lighting will need to be diffused using something you can wrap around the lampshade itself. I use finely-threaded white fabric or sometimes cheesecloth. The optimal position for this lamp is right near the camera, pointed at the mini. In this way, it lights the scene along the camera’s line-of-sight (which is the most important direction, since the camera is what’s recording everything). I keep some extra fabric available for draping in case the frontal source is too bright. I also have a static rack for all my lamps, so they are always set the same…that’s optional, though. Each lamp should be using full-spectrum daylight bulbs, as discussed in my other tutorial.

2)       Because of metering and exposure compensation (again, discussed in the other tutorial), it almost doesn’t matter how light or dark the scene is…well, ok, too bright is bad because of glare, and too dark could introduce noise into the picture, but those are fairly extreme. The most important thing is to have BALANCED lighting! If it’s balanced, metering, exposure compensation and post-processing can be used to make the pic as light or dark as you want, and no part of the photo will be too dark or washed out. By contrast, if one direction is too brightly lit compared to the others then one of two things will happen: either that direction will be washed out while the others look normal, or that direction will look normal while the others are too dark. Since only part of the picture is wonky, there’s almost no way to fix it without disturbing the other parts. 

3)       The only thing I’ve found that can fix bad lighting in part of a picture is a circular polarizing lens. This is an attachment that screws on the front of your camera, and looks like a filter. Light is actually the vibration of electric charges, which emit electromagnetic fields that travel through space and vibrate electric charges (electrons) in your eyes or in the camera’s sensors. There are several directions/ways in which charges can vibrate, and the EM waves sent out vibrate in the same directions. A circular polarizing filter only allows light through that vibrates in one of these ways, and absorbs the others. By rotating the filter on the front of the camera, you can select which direction you want to let through. In a practical sense, this allows you to kill glare or bright spots on specific parts of the picture/mini without affecting the rest. This is an invaluable tool that is not often mentioned, and I highly recommend getting one. Circular polarizers will automatically reduce the lighting by an exposure step or two, but this can easily be fixed by dialing up the exposure compensation. They are also accused of adding a slight-to-moderate blue cast to pictures for almost all brands…the only one I’ve heard of that is supposed to be truly colorless is the one made by Nikon. 

Notice the differences in the examples below: with the polarizer turned 0 degrees (i.e. oriented up/down), there is a lot of glare on the upper surfaces. When turned 90 degrees (right/left), the upper glare disappears but is replaced by glare on some of the side surfaces (especially the left side). Finally, notice the glare on the left shoulder and lower left arm. This remains constant no matter how the polarizer is turned because it is glare that is direct “backscatter” along the LOS of the camera…it is composed of equal parts up/down and side-to-side glare and can’t be eliminated. Notice how the lighting remains constant on the rest of the mini in both photos, and notice how the hexbase lighting changes with rotation.

Once again, I hope you got something out of this.
Now get painting!!!