Unlike photographing a mini to show the painting technique, colour selection, or even the details of the model, when doing an environmental shot the objective is to portray something about the model through their environment or story. We will be using a couple of case studies to illustrate key points of this process.
As a preliminary disclosure, this is using "hot lights" for these case studies. That means there are no flashes, and all shots were taken with a tripod at iso 400, f8-f11, shutter speeds were around 1/13th of a second. The lights I use are inexpensive LED panels that provide more flexibility, but desk lamps or household lights can easily accomplish the same effect.
To begin, you need to start with either a model, or the environment, or set, that you can provide. For instance, if you have no swampy terrain, then you probably shouldn't start with a Swamp Terror or Gators. If you have lots of terrain, then you can pick a model first and compose the set around it.
Case Study 1:
In this case I really like the pose of Watts from the Black 13th, and can imagine him skulking around at night to accomplish some black op in Llael.
With Watts selected, I can then start building a set that portrays it being an alley in Llael, at night, in the Iron Kingdoms.
The Alley (Fig 1):
An Alley is pretty much 2 buildings close together. So I got 2 buildings, and angled them so I couldn't see down the alley since I don't want to deal with a background in this shot. I added a couple of crates to make it look industrial.
There's one very distinct aspect of light at night - There is no sun. With that in mind, the moon is usually low on the horizon at dusk, giving us a low angle of light. Also, since it's night, I can have more sources of light come from artificial sources, like houses or street lamps. This opens up rim lights as a possibility, and high angled key lights from above. Now I know not everyone has boom lighting stands, so consider using a desk lamp - the kind with springs and a clamp that allows you to get over top of the model - or something similar.
Lighting (Fig 2):
Remembering what we referred to as a "Key" light in Part 1, your key light will usually be less than 90 degrees from the angle of the camera. Our lights that we placed behind the model, (>90 degrees), are called rim lights, since they will add contrast and highlight the edges of the model. Lastly we will adjust the whitebalance in the camera to be subtly blueish, and lower the saturation a little to simulate the night time conditions.
Now that we have an alley, I decided to pop in a small unit of Stormsmiths just for fun with their cobblestone bases.
Case Study 2:
For this case study, I wanted to give Watts more of an epic pose with his jacket blowing in the wind. For this shot, we're going to see more principles for set staging.
Your set, will always contain 3 things: a Subject, a Staging area and a Background.
In this case, it's Watts. Looking dramatic and windblown, with his coat drawn back to bull his magelock pistol. Where's the wind coming from?
The Staging Area:
The Wind could be shown in an environment of windblown stuff flying through the air. I'm a little inclined to make it less catastrophic and more epic, so let's put him up high where he's exposed to the wind, like on top of a tower. So now we have a model, on top of a tower. How high is the tower?
To show the height of the tower, we have to think of what's behind it, and the angle of the camera. Positioning the camera a little lower than the eyeline of the model, will give it the right perspective. Now what's behind the tower should be skyline. You can create a skyline with black bristol board cut to resemble a city skyline, or many other ways. I have a couple of buildings, so I placed them far enough away to be out of focus, and a piece of blue fabric (bristol board would do in a pinch) to create the sky.
Now the tower doesn't look very high yet, since the buildings are about the same height, so let's put it a little higher by bumping the tower up on a box.
That's better, epic stormy sky, with a skyline.
Now, since you've got your layers in place, you can switch out the stage, the background or the model to create new moods and environments.
If you involve more than one model, remember to consider the focal plane when arranging your models. With Nemo and the Thunderhead for example, I want their faces to be in line, perpendicular to the camera's angle. This line is where the depth of field (depth of area in focus) starts, stops or it is somewhere in the middle. If your models are not aligned to this line, then you will have one in focus, while the other is soft.
If you're having trouble seeing your background, remember that lighting is all about balance and quality, not quantity. I have a background light setup behind a building in these shots, or off to the side that brings up the backgrounds. To see the balance more clearly, turn off the room lights, and switch on and off the lights you're using to see what each one is doing.
If you end up trying some shots, feel free to post them below. If you have any questions, Shoot me a message and I can help troubleshoot your shots.