Model Train Photography

Model railroading may be a hobby you can enjoy by yourself, but it is also fun to share. In today’s connected digital world, it is now easier to share our modeling than ever. Taking pictures of model trains has its own challenges. For starters, there are many reasons we take these pictures, so there is no single “right way” to do it. Like all other parts of the hobby, photography is a bit of an art form. While we won’t make you a master photographer with the tips in one blog, here are a few pointers that, along with practice, can help you improve your efforts.

Equipment

One of the first questions that comes up is always, “What camera should I use?” The right camera is no different from the right locomotive for your layout – it’s up to you! While a good SLR or DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is a wise investment, you do not need to spend $2,000 to take good pictures of your trains. If you only intend to post photos online, you will probably find that a more inexpensive and simple camera not only works as well, but may even have some advantages over a larger camera. These small cameras, can often fit into places a larger lens simple can’t – great for low angle and in-layout shots. Images are also normally captured in a file size that is web-friendly. Keep in mind however, that it is much easier to compress a large photo suitable for printing for use on the web than it is to enlarge a web photo for a print.

set up

The portable project diorama we’ve built on the blog makes the perfect photo studio. Sawhorses make it easy to position the module to maximize lighting and backgrounds. (Notice my shadow which shows light / sun placement.) A tripod is an essential when photographing this close to the camera. This is the set-up for the low-angle perspective shot you see below.

No matter what camera you use, there are a few tools you really should have. First and foremost is a tripod. Many model photos require longer exposures and therefore a very steady base. Since our subjects are small, vibrations appear larger. Also, there will be times when you simply can’t place your camera on a layout to get the shot. A cable release, remote or a timer is also a useful tool so you don’t get any movement from depressing the shutter.

The other important element is good lighting. All of the photos seen here were taken outdoors in natural light – which is very hard to beat. When you can’t carry your entire layout outside, there are still options. Incandescent bulbs tend to have a color that is warmer, or more amber than sunlight. fluorescents (including CFLs) cast a cooler, more blue tone. Both of these lights can be used to good effect, and with even the most basic photo software, you can make adjustments to color. Generally accepted best practice is to place a strong light behind and above the camera, and use a smaller “fill light” at a 90 degree angle to minimize shadows. Just remember when doing this to take care not to create a second set of shadows – unless you’re modeling a planet with two suns.

Photo editing software is another common tool today. Even the most basic tools included on your average computer can accomplish most of what you’ll really need to do for about 90% of the pictures you’ll take. As with the camera, it’s not that expensive software doesn’t have a place, it’s just not the essential element in taking good pictures. In fact, no matter what software you use, there is only so much you can do to an image once the shutter closes. The best way to improve your photography is to improve your photography.

Taking Better Pictures – Perspective

We take pictures of our trains for many reasons. If you’re documenting your collection for insurance, then a clear crisp shot from a normal viewing angle works great. (A plain background also helps!) If we want to use our photo to help convey a larger story or better mimic the prototype, then there are more tricks we can use. Compare the two images here – notice the difference simply changing the angle of the camera can make. Low-angle shots often appear less like a model since it creates a familiar vantage point. Ask yourself, “Where would I stand to get this shot?”

Perspective

Here’s the view through the lens as you see it set up above. By keeping the focus narrowed to just beyond the locomotive, it is harder to tell where model trees end and real ones begin.

normal perspective

Here is the same photo, closer to a normal viewing perspective. This may work if we assume the photographer is on a hill, but the locomotive loses a feeling of mass.

Another common way to improve the overall look of an image is to get away from the notion that the subject of your picture has to be in the center. Sure, there are times when this does work best, but photographers often refer to the “Rule of Thirds” when arranging a shot. Imagine folding your picture into thirds, either horizontally or vertically, and place the subject along one of those lines. With trains, putting it to one side gives the train someplace to go. A high or low horizon can also make a big difference in creating a sense of distance. You can easily practice this skill with the camera or you can also use the cropping tool in most basic editing software to get a better idea of what works.

Lighting and Exposure

backlight

By putting the sun behind, and to the left of the train, its front is lost in shadow. The high contrast between light and dark highlights the details of the rocks, tree branches and rails and even puts a glint on the brass bell.

Tradition says that the best photographs are made with the light (natural or artificial) behind the camera. This will highlight all of the details, and is the best lighting for most photographs. Backlighting – with the strongest light behind the subject – can create some unique mood shots however. It is also useful in highlighting reflections. While we often try to minimize shadows, they can at times improve the overall image.

Another factor is the exposure of the picture. This is determined by the length of time the shutter is left open. The longer the exposure – the brighter the image. Most cameras today will compensate for this automatically. When shooting models however, it can sometimes be helpful to adjust a little one way or the other depending on the lighting and the subject. Shooting dark trains on a light background (like a steam locomotive in snow) is always a challenge!

Take a look at the three photos below. I set my camera to automatic, but also to bracket the exposure. In other words, it took three pictures in a row, one at what if felt was the proper exposure, one at one stop lower and one at one stop higher. Other than the exposure, the pictures are identical. A function like this can be very useful when learning – or when you just want to check yourself.

Undeer exposed

This is one stop lower than the camera thinks is ideal. The locomotive details are minimized, but so is some of the sun glare on the rocks.

"normal" eposure

Left to its own devices, this is the exposure the camera thinks is best. Everything is pretty well balanced.

high exposure

Same image – one stop higher. This is far from a wash out, and highlights some of the smaller details on the locomotive.

Focus and Depth of Field

No matter how good your equipment, if you aren’t in focus, it is going to show. Keeping a model completely in focus is a bigger challenge than it might seem. Most modern cameras will autofocus on whatever you place in the center of the view finder. Once it is locked on, you can reposition the image for more interesting images. Depending on the camera’s settings however, what you have in focus may not be everything you want to have in focus.

High Depth of Field

A great depth of field keeps everything in focus from the coupler to the trees in the background. This is the camera set at f-34.

Minimized DofF

Now, against conventional wisdom, we try the same shot at f-14. What tree in the background?

The range of focus is called the Depth of Field. One would think that since our models are smaller, this should be less of a problem. From the camera’s perspective, it’s not the size of the object but the distance from the lens that creates the trouble. For obvious reasons, we don’t take train pictures two feet from the tracks – but that’s exactly what we have to do with our models. Yes, you can step back further and try to zoom in, but this creates a whole host of other issues from distorted perspective to pixelation. The easiest way to control the depth of field is by controlling the aperture setting on the camera. The higher the aperture stop, the smaller the opening of the shutter will be, and the greater the depth of field.

In general, a photograph that is in focus from front to back looks better. In other words, set the aperture high. Sometimes, we get carried away however. You may want to minimize things in the background either because they are out of scale or don’t belong, or simply to draw more attention to the subject of the photo. Here, a smaller f-stop will work in your favor. Look at the images below to see the difference. No single photograph is “right” – each works in its own way.

Get creative

In the end, all the instruction and technology in the world are no match for practice, having fun, and just plain luck.

In addition to Depth of Field, there is a lesser discussed element of Depth of Focus. This is the point at which the foreground of the image becomes in focus. It is important to understand that no matter what lens or setting you use, at some point elements are simply too close to the lens to be put in focus. Sometimes, this works to your advantage. (Try taking a picture through a chain link fence sometime – notice what happens when you get the lens right next to the fencing.) You can minimize the obstruction of trees, fascia, etc. – or they can become annoying blurs.

There is software that will allow you to “stitch” together multiple images taken at different depths of field to create deeper images. Often however, you can accomplish much of what you want with the camera itself if you know how to use it. A macro, or “wide-angle” lens is best for most modeling subjects. Many cameras also have a “Macro” function that automatically optimizes the image for subjects close to the lens (it is usually identified by an image of a flower.) This is one area where more expensive cameras do tend to have an advantage, but it is not as great as you might imagine.

Practice Practice Practice

The best part about the advent of digital photography is how easy it now is to practice. You can take a picture and get instant feedback. Don’t like it? Delete it, make a change and see what happens. Thankfully, you can try out all of the basics we’ve so briefly introduced here without waiting for film to develop, and you can take hundreds of pictures without spending a dime. Of course all of these fundamentals will work with film cameras too! The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be and the less you’ll find yourself trying to “fix” that picture before you post it online.

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