I very much doubt I'm the only person here who has wanted to do this, and I'm hoping that some advice can be sought before I start on this project.

I have been a big fan of model building since I was a very small lad sitting in my parents garage under a 40w bulb painting Airfix models in the early hours of the morning.

Now, I plan to revive the hobby, and to get some photos while I'm at it.

I'd like to shoot these on film in black and white, and as I intend that the photos will be the finished article, I'm open to adjusting the way I build the models to make the photography easier or to produce a more realistic shot.

It's likely that I will print directly from the negatives so I'd prefer to work with in camera effects and just scan the negatives for archiving (or scan the prints depending on how they come out).

The shots will be taken on a Fujica ST705 (my film camera of choice for almost everything - it's a sheer workhorse), and will be shot either on Bergger Pancro 400, or Ilford HP5.

I remember reading about how makeup on older black and white films rarely matched up to the colours you would see in a natural setting (blue on lips to look like red on film etc), as on film those colours didn't necessarily look quite right.

The models will likely end up being repainted as display pieces once I'm done with them, so even if they need to be painted neon pink and orange to get a realistic effect, I am happy to do that.

My ideal outcome is to depict stormy scenes, and to use blue lighting and smoke to enhance the effect as well as strategic use of a flashgun to simulate lightning on clouds.

Given that I'm using pan-chromatic film and want to depict models of (mostly) WW2 aircraft, would painting them in normal green/brown/grey camo colours give a suitable reproduction on film, or would I be better changing the colours for something entirely different to produce a better illusion?

I'm open to trying different colours of paint and lighting if recommended, with the key aim that the photos will look as realistic as possible.

Any advice is greatly appreciated.

  • 1
    @mattdm Thats a fair point. I'll revise this question to one specific topic, and post others as and when.
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:14
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    @mattdm I'm not sure it is overly broad. I mean this site handles questions about photographic lighting and it is easy to imagine books on that topic. I think it just feels more broad because it is unusual and that makes it hard to figure out where to start. But in the end, it boils down to a question about representing color on black and white film.
    – user50888
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:24
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    @benrudgers To be fair, it is pretty broad as I'm flying blind on this one. I've never tried to mock up a scene like this before, and I don't have much info to go on. My main query is the issue of colour schemes as it's the hardest bit to test. If Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were members on the site, I reckon they could nail all my other queries in a few sentences.
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:29
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    "The models will likely end up being repainted as display pieces once I'm done with them" As an avid model maker, I'd say putting a whole second coat of paint on top of the initial coat for photography will give you such a thick amount of total paint that some detail will likely be lost on the model. I'd recommend against this. Stripping off the first coat without damage won't be possible. If you want the B/W photo to look like it's really a photo of the correct colors, why not paint it the correct colors? Movies are not meant to be hyper realistic. Dec 1, 2017 at 22:44
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    @ToddWilcox I used to work with a plastic safe paint stripper years ago which worked incredibly well in stripping off the bodies for 00 gauge locos which I was kit bashing, but I agree, the finish can be damaged when doing this. However, using acrylic paints can be of help as by using applications of first enamel thinners, washing the part then using isopropyl, you can get back to the bare plastic pretty well without any surface damage. Its looking like a moot point now though as it seems that I've overthought problem which doesn't exist....
    – Alex
    Dec 2, 2017 at 16:09

4 Answers 4


I would not worry overmuch about the color schemes.

Two reasons:

  • the emulsions you mention (Bergger and HP5+) are panchromatic, in both cases with rather decent color rendition
  • your scenes will be static, so if and when you decide to alter the color rendition you can do so with classical B&W filters (the classical sequence of light yellow, dark yellow, orange and red) without worrying about shutter speed

The reason movie stars in pre-war era used strange makeup were ortochromatic emulsions of low sensitivity. This made makeup more practical than filters for live action (filters eat up a lot of light) - and does not apply to static shots with current highly sensitive panchro emulsions.

In fact, since you are shooting 135mm film and speed is not an issue you might wish to consider slower film than ISO 400; your negatives will enlarge better. This is purely personal choice though, and HP5+ pushed to 800 in Rodinal will surely look different from the usual overly smooth Canikon digital stuff.

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    You know what, I hadn't considered filters at all!! Considering I have dozens of them, that should have been my first thought on it..
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:49

This is more of an extended comment than a deep answer.

  1. Particular camouflage are recognizable by their patterns. The human visual system recognizes patterns based on the spatial frequency of contrasts. Those contrasts may be tonal (e.g. light dark) or color (e.g. red green) or both.

  2. Depicting a camouflage pattern to be recognizable on black and white film requires that any significant color contrast appear in the image as a tonal contrast with the same spatial frequency.

  3. Representing a color contrast as a tonal contrast in a way that the human visual system interprets as intended is why chocolate syrup might be used to represent blood in a black and white gangster film. The tonal contrast of chocolate syrup is higher than the tonal contrast of blood in ordinary scenes. This higher tonal contrast is used to mimic the high color contrast of red blood.

  4. This project is far more art than science. Getting tonal contrasts to represent color contrasts in a way that you want will probably require "sketch" photographs. Mocking up paint schemes on paper and shooting digitally might be a useful technique. Or it might not be so I'll stop giving advice.

  • Thats a good call on the spatial frequency. My best guess then would be that I need to find two suitable colours which appear suitably different when lit with my chosen colour of lighting. Painting a few onto paper and test shooting on digital is a good shout too. I might paint a spitfire in harlequin colours and try different lights on it to see what works.
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:31
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    @Alex you could use grey paint instead.
    – user50888
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:34
  • I'd pondered grey paint, but would need to find a suitable light colour to make it look convincing as normal camo colours. The added issue is when modelling real world machines, the colours often have to be scaled with the model and might need different shades of grey mixing for the task to make the camo look realistic. If I can find some off the shelf colours that work well, I can reproduce the same colour scheme without having to record all my mixing experiments.
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 18:43
  • @Alex Maybe starting with off the shelf color paints and then lightening and darkening them might be a good way to go. Essentially starting with the color and adjusting the tone.
    – user50888
    Dec 1, 2017 at 19:01
  • It's a good call. I'll dig out my old paint box and assuming they are still usable and haven't turned into discs of pigment, I'll try out some swatches this weekend.
    – Alex
    Dec 1, 2017 at 19:03

As you likely know, many popular makeup brands were spinoffs owned by famous black & white cine makeup artist such as Max Factor. These men and women specialize in makeup that dovetailed in with the orthochromatic (red insensitive) film of that era. The introduction of panchromatic film and the changeover from carbon arc to tungsten illumination reduced the need for specialized makeup.

What I am suggesting is, you will not need to apply specialized paint colors if you use panchromatic film. However, you will likely benefit if you study the effects of the color filters used in conjunction will black & white film. We are taking about yellow filters to improve monochromatic rendering, red filters to up the contrast, green filters to lower contrast, etc.

Bottom line, I think color filters will be your answer. Also, have you considered using color negative film? You can scan these negatives, bring them in to a good photo editor, manipulate the colors and hues to your heart’s content and then convert to black & white. Additionally, you can output color images as well. You might think of doing this project using a digital camera!

  • Did not know about Max Factor, glad you mentioned it :) Dec 1, 2017 at 20:08
  • I had no idea about Max Factor! I'm glad I asked this now as it seems I was getting two bits of info mixed up, and I also had no clue on the effect of colour filters on black and white shots. I will stick with panchromatic film, and try some different colour filters out and see what results I get, and will paint the model in scale colours with some weathering. This is a good point to start from, thank you.
    – Alex
    Dec 6, 2017 at 16:37

My ideal outcome is to depict stormy scenes, and to use blue lighting and smoke to enhance the effect as well as strategic use of a flashgun to simulate lightning on clouds.

You seem to have a pretty good idea of how the final image should look. If you're trying to figure out how different colors will map to gray tones, I think your best bet is to do some testing. As a model builder, you probably already own (or already plan to buy) an array of different paint colors. One thing you could do is to use those colors to create your own color chart, and then photograph it with the film you intend to use. You'll spend a few bucks on the film and processing, but for that small investment you'll end up with an accurate record of how your film records the actual paint colors that you're using. If you devote the whole roll to this project, make a number of exposures at different light levels and exposure settings, and keep careful notes about each frame so that you can reproduce each tone in your charts.

You don't have to stop there -- try painting samples onto actual model planes. Companies like Revell make simple, inexpensive models that snap together easily. Painting bands of your candidate colors across the wings and other areas and then photographing them with your intended background, lighting setup, etc., will let you see exactly how each color will look under the conditions you plan to create.

I'm open to trying different colours of paint and lighting if recommended, with the key aim that the photos will look as realistic as possible.

It seems odd that you'd choose black and white to create a look that's as realistic as possible. I get that you're trying to recreate the look of photos from WWII, but IMO the fact that those photos are in black and white doesn't heighten their realism. When I see black and white photos that have been professionally colorized, they have an immediacy that's so different from the historical look of vintage B&W photos. You might want to consider painting your models with historically accurate colors and then shooting both in black and white and in color and see which one works better. We've all seen a zillion black and white WWII photos; you've got an opportunity to create scenes that are in some ways more realistic than what your audience is used to seeing.

(Don't get me wrong -- I like black and white a lot, and I don't mean to detract from your idea.)


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