Image copyright Matthew Albanese | @matthewalbanese | facebook.com/strangeworlds1

Martian deserts, spectacular storms, underwater reefs and volcanic eruptions. Welcome to the amazing worlds of Matthew Albanese, where everything is far from what it seems.

A New York-based, internationally exhibited photographer and artist, Matthew is a master of illusion. Using nothing but found objects, household items, forced perspective and some other old-school special effects, he builds and photographs impossibly lifelike miniature sets that inspire wonder and disbelief.

It’s hard to decide what’s more amazing – how real each scene looks, or the fact that every part of it has been meticulously constructed.

Check out our interview with Matthew, and some of his stunning images, below and decide for yourself.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

How and why did you come to do what you do – building and photographing miniatures? 

It was a perfect pairing of my lifelong fascination with visual effects miniatures in film and TV with my bachelor’s degree in photography earned at Purchase College. 

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

What do you set out to achieve in your images?   

This new age of "fake news", climate change and scientific “hoaxes” has driven me to turn my camera onto worlds that demonstrate the sublime power of Mother Nature along with the destructive nature of humanity. I achieve this this by sometimes appropriating and manipulating well known works of art that celebrate nature or the human drive to expand and consume. 

My current work is inspired by the natural sciences. Fossil records, physics of light, patterns of growth and astronomy are just a few of the things I use to define hidden moments of interconnection in this vastly beautiful and sometimes frightening world.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

Tell us a bit about your process. What inspires you? How long does it take to transform an idea into finished image? 

I keep a notebook with all of my ideas for future projects with notes, collected images from the web, song lyrics, poetry, news stories, favourite artwork, etc. I can be inspired by almost anything and everything. I let my day to day experiences in life lead me.

I truly believe the universe speaks to us in ways that aren't always so obvious: meeting someone new, a new job, a story told, a place I pass every day on my way to work. There is no way to predict when or how it will happen but when it does, it’s like being slapped the face. I go back into my notebook and it just leaps off the page and I know it’s time to make it.

Each photograph ends up being inspired by a multitude of sources. I collect as many examples of the environments I want to create. I then pick and choose the specific details I want to incorporate into the scene. It can take months to build a set and maybe two to three weeks to shoot it, depending on its complexity. 

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

How does your background in fashion photography influence your work? 

Well I think I learned the basics of tabletop photography working in the fashion industry. I also developed what I call a telescopic eye; for example, a $10,000 handbag needs to look immaculate – not just in how it’s styled but also lit and photographed. I can now scan an image with my eyes and instantly know what’s wrong with it. It’s sort of a visual superpower that anyone can learn.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

What sort of materials and photography equipment do you typically use? 

You name it! Sometimes I mix continuous lighting with strobe lighting, video projectors, grids, softboxes…and I have an obsession with bounce boards. Sometimes I will make my own modifiers if I don’t feel like spending the money or can’t find what I need. 

I shoot with both Canon and Nikon camera systems. My Canon is a 5Ds R adapted to Mamiya RZ67 lenses. If I need to go ultra-wide, I have a Canon 16mm lens. I also shoot with a Nikon Z7 mirrorless. I have several flashes and newer monolights: Profoto Airs, D1s and Acute 2400w power packs. And I always shoot tethered to Capture One.

‘How to Breathe Underwater’ – constructed from candle wax, clay, compressed moss, dyed starfish, feathers, figs, flock, glitter, jellybeans, nonpareils, peanut shells, plaster, Q-tips, sponges, toothpaste, walnuts, wax-coated seashells, and wire

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

What’s the most surprising material you’ve used in a miniature set?

I’ve used paprika, sandpaper, cooked sugar, parchment paper... Oh, and snakeskin! (It worked perfectly to replicate the bark of a long-extinct species of tree.) To be honest, this list could go on forever.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

How big a part does post-production play in your images? 

Nothing in my images is rendered in Photoshop. The most post-production I will do is compositing different exposures. It’s the same way they used to do miniatures in film. For example, ‘The Hottest Day on Earth’ was made using three separate captures: one capture for the sepia toned background, another for the cooler foreground and a third for the dappled light spilling through the canopy. 

It requires me to plan ahead and can get complicated but now that cameras have multiple exposure modes built in, it’s much easier. Shoot for black or shoot for white.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

How do you make your sets look so real? 

It’s all about the photography – the way a lens distorts the light, point of view, etc. It’s always funny to me when someone walks into my studio and sees what I’m working on. It’s a messy pile of crap. They have a sceptical look on their face but when I direct their eyes through the viewfinder there is always a wow moment. 

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

For people interested in creating their own diorama photography, what would you recommend in terms of prop choice, lighting, composition and camera settings? 

There really is no right answer to this. The possibilities are endless. But as a starting point I would say, always make your foreground brighter than the background and shoot the background at a higher elevation than the foreground. I also like to maximise my depth of field, so I keep my aperture as small as possible – but that’s just me.

Image copyright Matthew Albanese

What’s next on your radar, in terms of future projects?

I have several projects in my queue, all of which are centred around science in some way. Right now I’m doing as much research into experiments conducted with light to see how they may be incorporated into my work. Who knows? Maybe one day they won’t just be miniature sets but whole studies of the behaviour of light and the human perception of it. I would love to collaborate with a scientist who works in the field.


Want to know more about miniature, tabletop,

or forced perspective photography?

Ask one of our staff photographers 
in storeonline or over the phone.