Basic Diorama Construction and Staging Models for Photography

Models, images and text Copyright © 2004 by Matt Swan

       So you have built this great model and now you want to show it off. Setting a scene for the models display can add so much to it and even help tell a story. Whether you are setting up for display on your shelf, at a show or for photography aimed at magazine or website use the following tips may be of service to you. First thing youíll need is a plan or at least some general idea of what kind of diorama base you want to construct as far as season and general look. For the first time around donít get too crazy, keep it simple so success is not out of reach. As you get better at this you can get more complex. Itís very much like building the model, the more you do it, the better you get. At this point the plan can be general, specifics will come to you as material is gathered. Okay, let us talk about some basic materials. Diorama building does not have to be expensive and the ability to scrounge will definitely help hold the cost down.

       Figures are a handy item to have around. A good percentage of the models on the market in all scales come with various figures, some seated for use to crew an aircraft, some standing and occasionally youíll get a good action figure. I am fond of 1/48 scale so will focus most of my attention here. When you get these figures even if you donít foresee a need for them you should at least establish a box to store them in. I have come to a point where I actually seek these figures out and have found several sources of supply for figures by themselves. Hasegawa offers a nice set of 1/48 injection molded figures, Airwaves has a beautiful line of white metal figures and Verlinden maintains a diverse selection of resin cast figures. Andrea Figures has some really nice stuff as do Copper State, Des Kits, Diverse Images, Preiser and the list goes on and on. Building models of aircraft is all well and good but we should never forget the folk who flew and maintained these pieces of equipment.
       Figures can be used ďas isĒ or can be cut apart and repositioned for specific needs. If you need to crew an aircraft in flight you may find that all you really need is a bust and can cut that figure in half but donít throw away those spare legs! You never know when they may come in handy for the next project. Here are a few of the guys I keep around for display and photo-op purposes Ö

You can click on the above image to view a larger picture

       Figures are really nice to have and so are some pieces of heavier equipment like airfield dispersement carts or vehicles. Like the figures these occasionally come with kits, especially Monogram who gives us a nice little airfield tractor in some kits or a Kettenkraftrad in some of the Luftwaffe kits. More common are the bomb carts and extra armament with kits. There seems to be a widely varied and readily accessible selection of 1/72 scale equipment but 1/48 always seemed to be hard to find. Once I started to look in earnest though I found many wonderful little pieces, some somewhat pricey and others quite reasonable. Obvious pieces are the Bandai armor kits that usually come with some nice figures and then there are the Renwal, later Revell automotive kits in 1/48. Automotive you say? Yes. These can add some nice flavor to any setting, a 1930s or 1940s era sedan or sports car parked next to a Spit or a 109 looks pretty cool. There is a 1940 Ford sedan kit that can be painted as a US Army staff car or a 1934 Cadillac that doubles as a German staff car Ė nice little touches and not very expensive. Other manufactures of vehicles include but are not limited to Corgi, Hart, Tarmac, Propaganda, Gas-O-Line, Sol, Verlinden and Tamiya. The photo to the right shows some of the vehicles that I like to use for various settings and the one below shows some of the common kits in the vehicle and figure departments. One that is very useful for aircraft displays is the Bandai Flak 18 88mm anti aircraft gun. Seems like a natural for being around an airfield, wouldn't you say?
        I like to use larger vehicles in the background to give some size reference to the feature model and the various figures that are used for the display. For larger aircraft like the B-17, B-24, Fw-200 or He-111 the vehicles can be moved in closer and maybe positioned under a wing or at a cargo door. Dispersal equipment like the fuel recovery carts or bomb carts lend a feel of activity to the scene. Click here to take a look in the back of that halftrack. I keep some nifty stuff in here like some Jerry Cans collected from several different kits, 55 gallon drums from various sources painted in different colors with US and German markings, some large crates, tool boxes, planking made from Evergreen styrene strips and rifles Ė all useful to drop around a site to show activity and add color to the scene.

Base Materials
        There are lots of different materials that are suitable for use as diorama bases and I donít think a single one of them suggests they be used in this manner. I like to build large diorama bases that give me lots of flexibility for web site photography so I usually start with a poster frame from a discount department store like Wal Mart or K-Mart. These are inexpensive ($15 - $20) and provide me with a good stiff base combined with a framed area. Another option could be a sheet of 3/8-inch plywood and some wood trim to frame it with from a building supply company. For smaller display bases you could use an 8-inch by 10-inch picture frame or a wooden plaque like those used for awards presentation. One day while shopping the local discount arts and craft store I found a large selection of various shaped mirrors intended as doll bases ($5.00 each) and picked up a few for aircraft display. These have two immediate applications: one, they can be used ďas isĒ to display the underside of your model and hopefully reduce the amount of handling your fans may instigate or, two, used as a base for further decoration as we will cover a little later on. The specific features I am looking for in all these items is a solid, fairly inflexible base material that will provide me with a surface I can spread glue onto and may also include a frame around the edge.
        This next photo is of a poster frame base under construction.

Decorative Materials
        There are several places you can look for decorative materials to create your diorama. The first place you should explore is you own back yard. Take a look for small twigs that could be used as dead trees or fallen branches, sand, gravel, small rocks or pebbles Ė all of these will come in very handy as you begin construction. Next time you are at the local department store take a walk through the pet goods aisle, look at the gravel that is used for fish tanks. That stuff makes for some descent sized rocks when you look at it from a scale perspective. Now lets go to your favorite hobby shop. Once you are done drooling over the plastic walk over to the train section Ė lots of useful stuff over there such as turf and ground material, various types of trees from the complete, ready to attach pieces to the assemble and decorate kits Ė all good stuff. For 1/48 scale when we are in the train department we want to look at ďOĒ scale material. It will generally range from 1/43 to 1/48 and when we are talking trees Ė that variance really is moot.

        One last thing not to forget, we need something to hold all these goodies down to the base. For this a large bottle of white glue like kids use in school is perfect. Also a useful item is a hot glue gun. You can buy these at your local home building supply dealer or at any good fabric shop. They are usually a little cheaper at the fabric shops Ė go figure! Oh yeah, you might want to pick up a cheap 1 and Ĺ inch paint brush like would be used for basic house painting. Get a cheap one because when we are done with it, itíll be really screwed up.
        If you are planning on doing a Winter scene youíll need to stop by the kitchen and raid your wifeís box of baking soda. This makes good snow and unlike powdered sugar, wonít draw ants.

Putting it all together
        I am working on a poster frame sized diorama base but all the principles are the same for a smaller, single aircraft display. I like this size for photography because I can place stuff in different areas and get multiple scenes from a single base. Part of the turf has already been laid and now Iíll be finishing it. You may find it helpful to draw some demarcation lines on your base material with a marker to delineate a road or major change of materials.
        I begin by pouring a goodly puddle of white glue into the area that Iíll be working on then spreading it fairly evenly with a large paint brush (see picture below left). Once I have an even coat of glue I sprinkle a few patches of light or dark sand or earth to create some uneven appearance to the final product (see picture below right). A heavy layer of green turf or sand depending on whether I am making a road, path, beach or meadow setting follows this.

        If you want to place plants, rocks or other permanent pieces over this area youíll need to let the glue dry for a day then shake the excess off (be sure to recover this for use next time). I am placing plants and rocks on the areas I completed previously so will move right into that. This is done with the hot glue gun. I simply place a spot of hot glue then press some railroad plant material into the glue. A tree is placed off in one corner and now some rocks (fish tank gravel) are glued down in different locations with pinches of earth or turf sprinkled over them while the glue is still hot. Now I want some tall grass. Here is where we can finish off that paintbrush if we choose to. In the past I have airbrushed old house paintbrush bristles with green paint then cut them off for tall grass. Iím feeling kind of lazy today so will use pre-colored railroad grass but the application is identical. First I cut a small bundle of grass or bristles off, about a half to three quarters of an inch long. While holding this small bundle pinched between my fingers I place a small glob of hot glue. Quickly (that glue cools fast) I set down the glue gun, grab a pinch of earth and sprinkle it onto the glob of glue then press the bundle of grass into the glue. Now I take the tip of my finger and dab at the top of the bundle causing it to open a bit and look like a naturally growing clump of grass. A couple of pieces are really long but not to worry, Iíll come back with some scissors and trim them later. All that needs to be done now is to shake the excess material off, collect a few odd strings of hot glue that are hanging on like spider webs and place a model for display. Below left is this base completed and to the right is another diorama base constructed on plywood with strips of wood trim to form a frame.

You may click on the above images to view larger pictures

        If you are working with a smaller base you can now place this on your shelf for permanent display. This base Iíve just finished is a little too big for that. In the shot below I have placed an ICM Spitfire. I could have taken a picture of this sitting on the shelf or I could set it up with some guys and equipment to create a much more interesting photo. The left shot is an overview but the right hand shot is how she looks once cropped for web posting Ė pretty neat, huh? The two pictures at the beginning of this feature are shot on these bases and you can see these same backgrounds show up throughout my work.

You may click on the above images to view larger pictures

        And now just a few notes on taking your pictures. Whether you use a digital camera or a film camera the rules are the same. If you have an ďF-StopĒ control set it for ďinfinityĒ or the highest number possible. This will give you a good depth of field meaning just about everything you want in the shot will have a good level of focus to it. Use lots of light. I have four different daylight lamps set up for the pictures you see in this feature. You donít have to go buy expensive photography lamps. Use regular house table lamps but go buy some daylight bulbs rather than the standard soft white light bulb. There is hardly a difference in price but you get less color corruption with the daylight bulbs. And lastly, use a tripod or monopod if at all possible. You may think you have a steady hand but the camera will show you otherwise. When actually take the picture try to have your subject fill the screen as much as possible. For processing pictures for web posting I use Photo Adobe (thatís just my preference; there are plenty of other pieces of software out there that will get the job done) and try to keep the largest images around 800 to 850 pixels wide and no more than 625 pixels in height.
        These are all basic tips for shooting interesting, eye catching photos of your models on the ground or for shelf display. Iíll save taking pictures of in-flight aircraft for another day.

Allied Aircraft     Axis Aircraft     Civilian Aircraft     Helicopters     Home Page

Post War Jets     Links Page     Odd Stuff     Tools & Tips