Photography • How-To It’s a Small World

Create epic scenes in miniature.

Crinkled scraps of foil and sprigs of fresh rosemary aren’t typically considered essential gear for great pics. But then, these are not typical times.

Quarantine may have hindered our plans, but it has also provided a unique creative challenge to see just how far we can go when we’re stuck inside with lots of time and limited resources. After all, why simply daydream of places when you can scour your pantry for supplies to create and photograph your own miniature adventures at home—no face mask or hand sanitizer required?

Miniature photography forces you to see objects around you in an entirely new way. Sure, a roll of aluminum or pot of herbs on the windowsill might not, at first glance, spark wonder. But with a clever shift in perspective and the right framing, basic materials like these transform into glistening ocean waves, thick forests, and more—creating delightfully mind-bending tiny tableaus, complete with itsy-bitsy folks on thrilling, calming, or curious adventures.

Photographer David Gilliver, who is based in Glasgow, Scotland, has been honing his eye and talent for these unconventional dioramas for nearly two decades in his “Little People” series.

In David Gilliver’s “Little People” series, miniature figures interact with the larger world in humorous ways.

“I think because the work is figurative in nature, it is immediately visually accessible and engaging,” he says. “My work can sometimes appear to be a little like a one-liner—fun and amusing—but the figurines can also be used to powerful effect, providing a commentary on all kinds of subjects with serious messages, too.”

For Las Vegas-based photographer Al Baker, the leap into miniature photography was inspired by a recent Instagram challenge created by travel photographer Erin Sullivan. With his own trips canceled, Baker has been recreating favorite locations from his past or envisioning new ones. He’s found the process surprisingly nostalgic. “When I was growing up, I was playing with action figures and toy cars like every other kid, but what I found most fun was making little streets and buildings out of cardboard boxes so it felt more like the ‘real world.’”

Before creating his scenes, Baker researches photos of the location online, looking for elements that inspire him.

The coolest part about miniature photography is anyone can do it.

“An expensive camera is definitely not a necessity for making work like this,” Gilliver says. “An active imagination is the most important ingredient by a long shot.”

Here are some of their suggestions for world-building on a super-small scale.

Inspiration Is Everywhere

There are myriad ways to approach a wee scene. While Gilliver often starts with a particular prop or set of figures that inspires his imagination, Baker’s scenes are frequently connected to real-world places.

“My process usually consists of random locations popping in my head then researching them,” says Baker. “I’ll look for photos online and focus on every element that inspires me. For example, I wanted to do something close to my childhood home and thought of all the times I went to the Everglades—a perfect canoe/kayaking location. I remembered the swampy tunnels with trees coming out of the water and the stunning sunsets Florida always had to offer.”

Gather Supplies

To bring your scene to life, you’ll need some resourceful thinking; getting weird with conventional items is a major part of this process.

When it came time for Baker to recreate those Everglades, for example, he turned to his fridge. “My neighbor grows microgreens for the local restaurants here and always gives me random things to try: bags of different sprouts and greens to sprinkle in salads, or make with dinner. So when looking at the swampy trees in the photos, I immediately thought of greens he delivered a few days before.”

Some fresh parsley, foil, and a lamp set the scene for Baker's Everglades recreation.

Here’s a starter list of easy-to-source stuff that translates well to the medium:

  • Water: aluminum soil, plastic wrap, plastic grocery bags
  • Canyons/mountains: crumpled wrapping paper, construction paper, paper bags
  • Sand for beaches or dunes: almond flour, pancake mix
  • Snow: baking soda, baking powder, flour
  • Rocks: actual rocks, walnuts
  • Trees: rosemary, sprouts
  • Docks/walkways: Popsicle sticks
  • The sun: floor or desk lamp that is easily repositioned

You’ll also need a background. This could be as simple as hanging a bed sheet, or you can get more creative by designing a background out of colored cardstock.

“When I’m making a cloudy-sky backdrop, I’ll use a glue stick to attach cotton balls to a sheet of blue cardstock,” says Gilliver. “It really is that simple.”

For clouds, Gilliver glues cotton balls or tissue to blue backdrops.

Casting Call

If you want to include tiny humans in your macro masterpiece, Gilliver recommends searching Amazon. “There are quite a few manufacturers who produce great scale figurines; my favorite manufacturer is Preiser.” If your local hobby shop is open, you can likely find a selection there, too.

For an even greater challenge, consider eschewing a human touch altogether. “I’ve seen people use chess pieces, Lego figures, Hot Wheels, or even salt and pepper shakers as their main subject and it works,” says Baker. “Or you can try not using anything and let the landscape do the talking.”

Make Room

Once you have your supplies, it’s time to experiment with the best way for them to work together in a scene. The main things to remember here are to give the scene some space and be willing to experiment.

A plastic shopping bag backed with blue card stock creates the blue-tinges glacier walls in Baker’s photo. Aluminum foil and Styrofoam blocks supply the rest of the illusion.

The distance between the foreground Styrofoam elements and the background creates the essential depth of field needed to make a scene feel larger than life.

When setting up the shot, Baker focuses his camera on the figurine as sharply as possible, then places objects in the foreground close to the camera. He builds the background farther from the camera. “The blurry foreground and background makes it seem like you’re really there on location taking a travel photo,” explains Baker. “The blurred effect also gets rid of the fine lines, so aluminum foil becomes a mind-blowing, water-like surface.”

Know Your Gear

Although both Gilliver and Baker shoot with pro-level equipment, having a high-end camera isn’t required. They do, however, recommend a wide-aperture lens to get the shallow depth of field needed to throw the background out of focus.

“I find that any lens with an f-stop of 4 or below works best for what I’m looking for,” Baker says. “I also found that using a circular polarizer helps with popping the colors, which overall makes it easier during post-processing.”

That said, both Baker and Gilliver stress that your phone’s camera can also get the job done. “Just let your imagination do the work,” Baker says.

The other piece of equipment they consider required: a tripod.

“It’s nearly impossible to stay still enough to manually focus on the mini figure while holding the camera—if you breathe, you’re out of focus,” Baker says. “I’d say my tripod is the most important part of the process. It also makes it much easier to play around with the lighting.”

Gillver agrees. “I nearly always use a tripod. I find it helps me to consider the framing of the shot better when viewing it in live view on the back of my camera,” he says.

Remember that experimentation is part of the process. “I normally change things around a good few times before settling on what I think looks best, then test out a few camera angles,” Gilliver says. “Tweezers and glue will come in handy, as it can get a little bit fiddly sometimes.”

Don’t Forget to Clean Up

A little digital magic can go a long way.

“I always shoot in RAW format before uploading my image files into Adobe Lightroom for editing,” Gilliver says. “The main adjustments that I make are cropping, saturation, and contrast. Because I use a macro lens, even a speck of dust that appears in my final shot can look huge, so I also use the spot-removal tool for removing anything like this from the image.”

Perfect Your Skills

If you want to dig deeper, Gilliver has just completed an extensive how-to manual on miniature photography, which you can purchase here.

You can see more of Gilliver’s work on Instagram and Facebook. You can also follow Baker on Instagram.

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