This post is intended to give a bit of guidance…but certainly reach out to Will, Jim or myself if you have questions.
First, a disclaimer
Let’s get this out of the way. No reference photo is ever perfect. If only because it only shows a subject from one angle. You also have to contend with lighting conditions, type of film being used, exposure, the dreaded colorization of old black-and-white photos, someone getting too happy with Photoshop, hell, even the color calibration of your monitor. Multiple photos of the same subject are always preferred, but rarely available.
Black and white photos, specifically, can also play tricks when it comes to interpreting color. Different film, different light, different filters, and different projector settings can mean that colors can look radically different – reds appearing as very dark in some photos, and very light in others, for example. Proceed with caution and try to go off contextual clues.
The Ideal Situation – Multiple photos of your subject
The ideal situation is pretty easy to sort out. Multiple photos of your subject, from multiple angles.
Not too long ago, I built a Trumpeter Bf 109G-10 for The Weathering Magazine. It was based off of an aircraft photographed at a US-held airbase with some interesting characteristics including chopped landing gear doors, RLM 02 wheels, bare metal lower wings, and so on.
I was super fortunate to find not one, but several photos of this interesting G-10, taken from several angles.
Using all of these, and making notes of things like the heavy exhaust staining and the overpainting of the yellow fuselage band and the weird shifts in camo and even the oil streaks on the chin scoop, I was able to get a pretty good picture of the aircraft in my head, and did my best to translate it onto the Trumpeter it:
The More Likely Scenario – One sweet shot
Outside of resto-jobs and airshow walkarounds, it’s pretty rare to find an aircraft captured from multiple angles. One or maybe two photos, sometimes of questionable quality, are more likely. And not just for World War II aircraft. Even modern shit – like a particular F/A-18 Hornet flying in Desert Storm – can be elusive.
For instance, this photo of an abandoned Me 262 found at Innsbruck in May 1945:
Got built up as this.
And this Birdcage Corsair (note the painted-over number on the gear door, the mismatched tires, the extreme weathering):
Inspired my build of Tamiya’s Birdcage Corsair:
With these single-shots, you have to make a lot of inferences. The Corsair, for example, is shot in very, very harsh light, is low resolution, and is a shitty angle for seeing lots of detail that had to be guessed at.
If you can, finding photos of similar aircraft in similar timeframes in similar situations can really help with plausibly filling in the holes.
The Fuck It, Close Enough Scenario
Sometimes, the kit you’re building has shit for marking options, but there are tons of pictures of similar aircraft. This is the situation I’ve been facing with my Italeri F-104. Thanks to the spectacular shittiness of the Zotz decals I’d wanted to use, I had to fall back on the lone kit option for a late F-104S ASA. One I literally cannot find a single picture of. There are, however, several images of other S ASAs to be found, and so I used them to build a sort of aggregate impression of weathering, off-scheme tanks, and that sort of thing.
All of these combined to give me some good intelligence on the 104, fading and weathering patterns, the fact that the anti-glare panel on the radome was just not the olive drab that Italeri says it was, the use of later, low-viz gray tip tanks, even the lack of various stencils.
While the F-104 isn’t done yet, it’s close enough to show how much these photos informed it:
It’s the Plausibility, Stupid!
Ultimately, if you’re trying to paint, detail and weather to photo references, the best thing you can do is have awesome photo references. But that’s just not always possible. And when it’s not, it’s a matter of using what you’ve got, and striving for plausibility.
Let’s use an illustrative example. Here are two F-15Cs from the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Japan. One is with the 44th Fighter Squadron, and the other with the 67th, but they fly from the same base, blah blah.
Now. Here is that exact same second Eagle, 81-050, looking considerably dirtier:
Just look at that variation, and those touched-up panels, and the barely visible chipping on the leading edge of the starboard wing, the streaking on the rudders, how much cleaner the airbrake is than the rest of the fuselage.
Is it plausible that that other F-15, 85-114, also gets this dirty? Considering they both have identical missions (air superiority) and operate from the same base? It certainly is. And they and all the rest of the F-15s flying from Kadena pinball between clean and dirty, clean and dirty. Just like cars between carwashes. Speaking of which – Kadena has a pretty badass wash area.
Best case – tons of reference photos of the subject you’re building, in the weathering state you’re going for.
Most likely case – one or two decent photos to go on.
Close enough/plausibility is in play – find reference photos for as similar subjects as possible. Aircraft in the same squadron at the same time, flying from the same base or operating in the same theater…and use those to build an aggregate of sorts and to back up any specific choices you make.
And, if you’re looking for some photos, I’ve got a small but growing collection going on over HERE.