Back in action, more or less, here on the northern edge of East Lansing , Michigan today, a bright, sunny, breezy day of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The Grand Duchess and Young Master have just arrived back from half an hour or so at the swimming pool for a break from our slow progress through unpacking some of our stuff, repacking what we don't need right now, and deciding which boxes simply to leave sealed up until we move from here into a house once our former home in Bloomington, Illinois sells, and we have the funds necessary for serious house shopping and a down payment.
The apartment community -- apparently the word "complex" is no longer in vogue -- is right along the edge of East Lansing and rural Bath Township, so it is very quiet here. Just other young families and professional types, who keep themselves to themselves and seem to turn in by 9pm each evening, which is fine by me. Both the Grand Duchess and I have remarked to each other several times how absolutely quiet it is here after dark. We aren't even aware of the other residents here coming and going to work, which is kind of nice. So, with the exception of not having space to set up my toy soldiers and wargaming table for now, it could be much worse. It's actually not bad, all things considered, and we are only about 25 minutes, by car or bus, from the Michigan State University campus, so I really cannot in good conscience, complain.
The Best Mid-18th Century Figures
There was a question posed recently over on The Miniatures Page by a guy asking about which ones might be the most suitable figures to use for a SYW-era French army operating in the European Theater of that particular conflict. Here are my thoughts, which will come as no surprise to those of you who drop by the Grand Duchy of Stollen blog routinely.
RSM95 figures in a heartbeat! Economical, nice size (marketed as "True 30mm" back in the days when Steve Hezzlewood designed and sold them as Pax Britannica), and not too much excessive detail to paint but just the right amount, so your finished figures look like actual fighting men from the mid-1700s rather than brightly painted clothes pins.
Then, there are Minden Miniatures, Fife & Drum, and Crann Tara Miniatures, all of which are sculpted by the same person, Richard Ansell. Although a bit more expensive, these delightfully well-sculpted 1/56 figures are remarkably similar in height and proportion to those by RSM95, meaning the four lines work well together. And, you can supplement the more limited RSM range with numerous command, personality, and specialty figures from Minden, F&D, and CT. For my money, these four ranges are THE ONES to use for mid-18th century European tabletop warfare given how well they work together. You can see many photographic examples of this here if you dig around a bit in the Grand Duchy of Stollen archives.
Now that I think about it, though, the RSM95 and Minden ranges can also be augmented rather nicely by figures from the 28mm Eureka range and, in some instances, the Jackdaw and Suren (Willie) ranges too. RSM95 are by far the least pricy these days for those of us in North America. But even if you are budget-minded, there is no reason why you can't add some special command figures or other special vignettes of a few figures each now and then, using the more expensive figures from Minden/Fife&Drum, Crann Tara, Eureka, Jackdaw, and/or Willie as and when the mood strikes you.
So, that's my tuppence on the issue of figures. There are lots of other serviceable ranges out there that are period appropriate for the mid-18th century, but those I've mentioned strike me as the best available.
"Just how large IS the Grand Duchy of Stollen collection?"
One of you regular visitors -- Steve, I think -- inquired a few days ago how large my armies have become since I began working to approximate the orders of battle laid out for the Battle of Sittangbad in Young and Lawford's Charge! Or How to Play War Games (1967) way back in late July or early August of 2006 shortly after the Grand Duchess and I returned home from our honeymoon tent camping tour around the Upper Midwest.
The short answer is not that huge by many standards. By my reckoning -- and remember, everything is still packed carefully away in Styrofoam peanut filled plastic tubs which were then packed into moving boxes and padded with loads of packing paper by the packers, so I cannot give you a precise answer at the moment -- maybe a dozen large units of infantry that range in strength from 32-80 figures, six or perhaps seven units of cavalry at 30 figures apiece, and six or seven two-gun batteries of cannon and crew plus a slew of mounted officers mounted singly and quite a few vignettes of two-four figures. That's my best guess, but there might be a few additional units and special one-offs that have escaped my attention this afternoon.
For the last few years, I've concentrated less on the fighting end of things and more of the various rear echelon you-know-whats, assembling and painting a rather extensive supply and pontoon train, consisting of many carts, wagons, horse teams, oxen, mules, and associated human personnel along with small two-company battalions of pontoniers and pioneers, and some sutleresses. At some point, I also added a large group of frolicking aristocrats enjoying a picnic and attended to by their servants, which are produced by Jackdaw. I've also got a string quartet from, if memory serves me correctly, Eureka, and a number of other bits and pieces that strike me as suitable peripheral scenery for a mid-18th century set-up.
Once I manage to dig them out, there are enough unpainted figures for a few more infantry units, a regiment or two of cavalry, and some other vignette-y type stuff like the Lutheran pastor I purchased from Black Hussar Miniatures a year ago, who will attempt to save the Naughty Lola and her associated 'business ladies' (by Suren/Willie) from an unchaste life. And then, of course, it seems like there are all sorts of new goodies that regularly appear from Minden/Fife&Drum, which will need to be added to the collection at some point. So, while there are other historical periods that interest me, I'll stick with the mid-18th century, in a semi-fictitious sense, for the foreseeable future. While my actual games are few and far between, my painting, collecting, and assembly of fighting units, vignettes, and various related bits bring me great pleasure.
Building and Using a Makeshift Lightbox
Speaking of our friend Der Alte Fritz, I was asked by him via a comment on this blog a few days ago, after the last couple of pictures of those recently completed Minden pioneers, about a tutorial on creating a quick 'n' dirty lightbox for photographing miniatures. Here is what I suggest, and there is a photograph of my old lightbox, from December 2014, below so you get some idea of what the end product looks like. Feel free to play around and experiment with the exact dimensions to get something that works best for you. Anyway, here we go:
Six sheets of 1/4"white foamcore board
18"-24" sheet or heavy craft paper in mid- to light blue or putty green
3-4 "daylight" lightbulbs
3-4 articulated desk lamps
A digital camera with a macro setting, a zoom feature, and a timer
A small tripod for the camera.
1) Using the masking tape to hold everything together, assemble the foamcore board into a hollow cube. One side of the cube should be open,enabling you to place your seamless blue or green background and finished figures inside the lightbox. See the photograph below for some idea of how the finished product might appear in use.
2) Replace the normal "green" or florescent lightbulbs in your three or four desk lamps with daylight bulbs -- available from any large DIY store like Lowe's here in the U.S. -- so that your camera produces truer colors.
3) Place you neutral blue or green seamless background into the lightbox.
4) The trick here is to eliminate shadows and bounce as much diffused light as possible onto your models. So, aim your three or four desk onto the top and sides of your lightbox to diffuse (soften) the light and do away with any and all shadows. You want the inside of your lightbox filled with light. Do not aim any lights directly onto your models, which will cause glare and blitz certain figure details. Remember to disable your camera's flash function. Use only the diffused light from your three-four desk lamps.
5) Place the figures you want to photograph onto your seamless background. You might shift your three-four light sources around a bit, at this point, to reflect as much light as possible onto your subject. Remember, you also want to eliminate as much shadow as possible.
6) Attach your small tripod to your camera and set it up about 5"-7" from your figures. You might not always need to use your macro setting (and some of what I have read online says not to depend on it) but if you do, engage the macro setting if necessary at this point to bring everything into focus. If your camera enables you to adjust your depth of field by manipulating its f-stop settings (read the manual closely), do that so EVERYTHING within the frame is in clear focus before you shoot the picture (I don't always do so myself when using my tiny Sony Cybershot). You'll need to experiment a bit to find the best distances, settings, etc. depending on your particular brand/model of camera and its specific features.
7) Zoom in as much as possible, so your figures fill the frame.
8) Set your timer for ten seconds, press the shutter, take your hand away, and wait for the camera to snap the picture before touching it again. This eliminates camera shake since very few people can hold the camera still enough with their bare hands for this kind of photography. Certainly, we coffee drinkers cannot! I also like to make minor adjustments to the camera between shots and take three or four pictures of the same subject to get at least one good shot that I can use.
9) Experiment, experiment, experiment to find what works best for you. These are just suggestions to get you started on the road to improved blog photography.
Editing the Photographs of Your Models
In Photoshop or Photoshop Elements (I use a version of the latter, Photoshop Elements 7 I think, which is easier for my addled brain to comprehend and use), do the following to edit your raw photographs:
1) Import and highlight the photograph you want to edit.
2) Go to 'Enhance' along the pull-down bar at the top left of your computer screen.
3) Choose 'Auto Smart Fix'
4) Next, choose 'Auto Sharpen'
5) Choose 'Adjust Lighting' and go for a setting between 10-20, depending on how bright the original raw photograph is. Print publications seems to darken electronically transmitted photos dramatically, and you cannot always depend on the editor(s) to adjust things before the publication goes to print (not a problem though with Battlegames or the current Miniature Wargames, by the way, whose editor takes great pains to ensure quality photographs accompany quality writing), so I prefer to make my pictures really bright for the most part.
6) Then, chose 'Adjust Color Cast' to fix any strange shades of color that might have crept in early during the pre-editing process.
7) Finally, 'Crop' your photograph, so that any superfluous clutter, of one sort or another, is removed, and your figures are front and center in big, bold, beautiful color within the center of your picture.
8) Save your edited photograph(s) as a JPEG file(s), and post to your blog, website, or share with the publisher of the book or magazine to which you are contributing.
There! That's the quick and dirty approach to producing reasonably good photographs of your own figures. You can read more about this fascinating process in Henry Hyde's The Wargaming Compendium, and there is lots else to learn and try when it comes to miniature photography, but these points will help get you started along the road to improved photography results. Without doubt, I have much more to learn myself, but if you go all the way back to late 2006 when I first began adding photographs of my figures to the Grand Duchy of Stollen blog, it becomes clear that my photography skills have improved ten-fold during the last nine years. Still room for improvement, of course, but the journey is more than half of the fun.