The following is a reprint of an article that first appeared in The Clearboard in 2013. The Clearboard is the official publication of The Model Railroad Club of Union, NJ. The article was based on a clinic that I presented during the 2012 Spring Meet of the Garden State Division, Northeast Region, NMRA.
PHOTOGRAPHING MODEL RAILROADS WITH A DIGITAL CAMERA IN LESS THAN IDEAL CONDITIONS
Digital cameras have revolutionized photography, so much so that conventional film cameras are almost extinct. Most digital cameras are inexpensive, easy to use, can automatically adjust focus and exposure and, more often than not, produce remarkably good pictures.
Photographing model railroads, however, can present a number of challenges. Chances are if you see a good photograph in a magazine it was shot with a tripod-mounted single-lens reflex (SLR) camera while using photo lamps to supplement or completely replace the room's lighting. It is also likely that a cable release or the camera's self-timer was used to avoid vibration during the exposure which could have lasted a couple of seconds or longer. And the one you see may be the best of a half-dozen that were identical except for the shutter speed. In short, a lot of work went into taking that picture.
All of that is fine if you have the time, not to mention the equipment. But what if you are just visiting a layout, perhaps during an open house, or taking shots at an op session when it's not feasible to drag in a bunch of lights or even a tripod? And perhaps your camera is just a point-and-shoot, not an SLR. You just want to get some decent pictures. Can you do it? Well, yes, with a little care, perhaps a little post-production work, and by taking advantage of the features that all SLRs and many of today's point-and-shoots now offer.
My first digital camera was a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P72. It featured a 3x optical zoom and took 3 megapixel pictures. For its time it wasn't bad and I did manage to get some respectable model railroad shots with it. Currently I'm using an 8 megapixel Canon PowerShot which I purchased about five years ago. I selected it because it was relatively inexpensive and compact, yet offered a 10x optical zoom and, even though it's still just a point-and-shoot, gave me the ability to manually adjust ISO, shutter speed and aperture size. (Since this article was written my first Canon PowerShot stopped working. I replaced it with a Canon SX40HS. The new model shoots up to 12 megapixel shots and features a 35x optical zoom.)
If you're in the market for a new camera and don't want to step up to a real SLR then at least purchase one with those extra features. True, the camera will be a little bigger than your typical point-and-shoot, and a bit more costly too, but I can assure you it will be worth it.
Now before we start taking pictures, let's make sure that your camera is properly set up in order to obtain the best results. For starters, no matter which one you're using, always select the highest megapixel setting possible. If like me you never print your pictures you'll find that a 2 or 3 megapixel shot will usually look okay on a computer screen. But if you ever want to get your pictures published the lower megapixel photos will not be acceptable. And even it you don't plan to ever publish your work you should still select the highest setting, those extra pixels can come in very handy as we'll see later on.
With some point-and-shoot cameras you can also adjust the amount of compression. Compression technology allows more information to be stored in a limited amount of space, but it sacrifices quality. That's why SLR cameras can shoot in what's known as the RAW format where the pictures are not compressed at all. Not only are they better but copies can be made without any loss of vital information. Most point-and-shoots don't offer the RAW format option but if your camera has different compression settings then choose the one that will give you the best quality.
Of course by using the highest megapixel and lowest compression settings you are going to use up your memory more quickly. Who cares? Memory cards are reusable, now come in higher capacities and are dirt cheap. Ten years ago a memory card could cost up to $100 for a mere 128 MB. Now you can purchase a 16 GB card for about $20. That's well over 100 times the storage space for one fifth the price. Amazing! (Just think if model railroad products could drop in price like that.)
Next, if your camera has an image stabilizer then make sure it's turned on. An image stabilizer will help prevent blurry pictures if the camera shakes slightly. It's not a cure all of course, so you still need to keep the camera as still as possible while shooting.
Finally, if your camera has a digital zoom option turn it off. Using your optical zoom is fine, but digital zooming can reduce picture quality. Besides, if you have an optical zoom of 10x or more then you wont need the digital zoom anyway.
When it's time to photograph a layout a good way to start is to turn on your camera, set it to its fully automatic mode and take a shot. Chances are pretty good that your camera is going to want to use its built-in flash. Don't let it! Turn the flash off and ignore your camera's protests. The reason is that if you use the built-in flash your picture will end up with harsh shadows, an overexposed foreground and an underexposed background. In other words, it will look pretty bad.
Take a few more pictures and review each one of them to see how they turned out. Maybe you'll get lucky and end up with some keepers, but odds are you'll have some exposure issues, focus issues, or both.
Let's address the exposure issues first. There are four adjustments a digital camera can make to help insure that pictures are properly exposed. First, it can increase or decrease the shutter speed. Second, it can increase or decrease the opening of the aperture. Third, it can increase or decrease the ISO, in other words change the sensitivity of the device that captures the image. Finally, it can fire the flash. In the automatic mode the camera will select what it “thinks” is the best combination of settings. If the lighting is good the camera will usually make the right choices. But when the lighting is less than ideal things get a little tricky.
Since most model railroads are located indoors and we're not using the built-in flash it's fairly safe to assume that if there are exposure issues then that means the pictures are underexposed. There are a few ways we can tackle this problem. First, we could try to correct it with photo-editing software, more on this option later on. Second, we could turn the flash back on, but I suggest doing so only if the shot must be taken and using the flash is the only way to get it. The best option, if available, is to take the camera off its Auto Mode and, if your camera allows it, set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO manually.
In order to get more light we can decrease the shutter speed, increase the opening of the aperture or increase the ISO. Each of these options will work but each one has its disadvantages. Decrease the shutter speed too much and it will be near impossible to keep the camera steady unless we use a tripod or place the camera on a stable surface, such as the layout itself. Opening up the aperture will reduce our depth of field causing much of a picture to be out of focus. Set the ISO too high and we'll end up with noisy images.
When shooting indoors in the Auto Mode my Canon PowerShot usually sets the ISO at 200, the aperture at 2.8 and then sets the shutter speed as needed depending on the available light and whether or not the flash is used. The 200 ISO is okay since there is no noticeable noise at that level but I would not wish to go any higher than that. The 2.8 aperture setting is as low as the camera goes so I could not open it any more even if I wanted to, which I don't because of depth of field concerns. In fact, I really want to close the aperture as much as I can in order to increase the depth of field. Of course doing that means we now have even less light which leaves no other choice but to select a very slow shutter speed.
When in the Manual Mode the PowerShot has a default ISO setting of 80, which is just fine. I always set the aperture to 8.0. A higher setting would be more desirable but 8.0 is as high as the SX100IS will go. With the aperture at 8.0 and the ISO at 80 I'll usually need at least a one second exposure. By the way, with aperture settings the higher the number the smaller the opening. Of course a tripod or a stable surface for the camera is now a must as is using the self-timer.
Now let's take a look at a few examples. The first two photographs were taken with my old Sony camera at the Bay State Model Railroad Club in Roslindale, MA. Please note, the Sony camera did not have the ability to make manual adjustments so these pictures were taken in the Auto Mode but without a flash. In Photo 1 (below) you can see a head-on portrait of a diesel locomotive. The background is completely out of focus but in this case that's okay.
In Photo 2, however, we have a big problem because not only is the background out of focus but so is the foreground and most of the locomotive.
Photo 3 (below) was taken at The Model Railroad Club with my Canon PowerShot. The camera was manually set with the ISO at 80, the aperture at f/8, a one second exposure and, of course, no flash. You'll notice that the picture is in focus front to back. Check the lettering on the locomotive tender, the gondola in the background and the tank car in the front corner.
If we use the manual controls correctly our photographs should be superior to any shot in the Auto Mode both in terms of exposure and focus. Learn how to use these features on your camera and practice until you feel comfortable with them. And remember, keep the ISO low, close the aperture as much as you can and then set the shutter speed.
Now what if the camera you're using doesn't have manual controls, like my old Sony? Even if our exposures are acceptable, or at least close enough that we can correct them with photo-editing software, we will still have problems with focus. How can we handle this dilemma? The easiest way may be to simply take a few steps back. Why, because the closer we place the camera to the the subject the lower the depth of field. Conversely, the further back we place the camera the greater the depth of field.
There is an interesting web site I found that can calculate the depth of field for any picture taken with just about any camera, at any distance, any focal length and at any aperture setting. The address is: www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html. As I mentioned earlier, my camera sets the aperture to 2.8 when shooting indoors in the Auto Mode. If, for example, I focus on a model locomotive from a distance of 20 inches, with the lens at 6.0 then, according to the web site, my total depth of field will be only 8.21 inches. The area in focus starts at 16.7 inches and ends at 24.9. But if I pull the camera back to 60 inches (5 feet) and take the same shot keeping everything else the same then my depth of field starts at 37.6 inches and extends all the way to 148.6, a total of 111 inches. (The last time I checked I noticed that many newer camera models, including mine, were not listed on the DOFMaster web site.)
In the next example we have a picture of Dan Vandermause's S Scale B&O layout (Picture 4). As you can see by stepping back we have no serious focus issues. Unfortunately, even though I got everything I wanted in the picture I also got a lot of other stuff I didn't want, such as the benchwork, the overhead light and the incomplete backdrop. The fix, of course, was quite simple, I used a photo-editing program to crop the shot (Picture 5). Remember earlier that I said to set your camera to its highest megapixel setting and that those extra pixels would come in handy later on, well now is that time. The original was an 8 megapixel photograph, the cropped version a mere 1 ½ megapixels. It stills look great on my 23” computer monitor. (By the way, an HDTV, even a very large one, has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, in other words only 2 megapixels!)
Click here to see more of Dan's Allegheny Western Subdivision
When shooting model railroads it seems that no matter how I set my camera or how lucky I get it I always need to do some post-production work in order to end up with a decent photograph. Fortunately there are plenty of free editing programs available to accomplish just about everything that I need. Often the software comes included with the camera itself but the program I use most now is Picasa 3 which can be downloaded from Google. I find it to be easy to use and it produces excellent results.
Before doing any alterations to a picture the first thing that I do is make a copy of it. After that I leave the original alone and work only with the copy. That way if I mess something up, change my mind or just want to make another version I can still go back to the unaltered original, make another clean copy and start over.
When using Picasa 3 the first thing that I do is go the the Basic Fixes section and, if necessary, straighten the shot. After that I will almost always crop the picture in order to remove unwanted items and to improve the composition. I used to typically use a 6 x 4 aspect ratio which would be that same ratio as a regular print, but since purchasing a new desktop and a widescreen monitor I will often go as wide as 16 x 9. A 16 x 9 ratio works well with most train shots and makes the best use of my monitor. Of course each picture is different and I wont hesitate to use a different aspect ratio if it makes for a better photograph.
After completing the cropping I head over the the Tuning section to adjust the Fill Light, Highlights and Shadows. This can often be done with just one click but I'll play with the settings individually in order to get the best results. One word of caution, when making these types of adjustments with Picasa or any other program, avoid overdoing it. The goal is to improve the pictures but to do so in a way that the changes are not too obvious.
After adjusting the Fill Light, Highlights and Shadows I'll try adjusting the color temperature. Once again this can often be done with one click but I'll experiment with the slide-control to see what looks best. By the way, I find that in many of my shots the blue in the backdrops looks washed out, especially it the picture was taken at an angle to the backdrop. I find that Picasa’s Color Temperature tool does a great job of putting the blue back into the sky.
At this point I'm usually done but, of course, Picasa and the other editing programs have even more features that can be employed to sharpen or soften the picture, modify colors, change to black and white or sepia tone, or make a host of other changes. Feel free to experiment, just remember to work with a copy and not your original. And, once again, it's important not to overdo it, in most cases subtle changes are best.
That's it. I hope you find these tips to be helpful. Good shooting!
Scott's Simple Rules for Shooting Model Railroads
- Adjust your camera’s settings in order to take the highest quality pictures, highest megapixel, lowest compression.
- Avoid moving trains when taking still shots. Save the moving trains for video.
- Never use the built-in flash unless you have to. The built-in flash will give you overexposed foregrounds, underexposed backgrounds and harsh shadows.
- Avoid setting the ISO too high, at least with a point-and-shoot camera. With most you'll end up with a noisy image.
- Close the aperture to increase the depth of field. Go to www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html to check the depth of field for your camera.
- When using a slow shutter speed you must use a tripod or place the camera on a stable surface. The layout will often work just fine.
- Use the camera's self-timer to avoid shaking it.
- If you can't manually adjust your camera's aperture and shutter speed then step back from the subject in order to improve the depth of field.
- Almost every picture will need some post-production. There are plenty of very good programs such as Google's Picasa.
- There's no substitute for good lighting. (Or good scenery!)
- No matter what you do most of your pictures will not turn out well, so take lots and lots of them.
Scott's Digital Photograph Transfer and Editing Process
- Create a folder on your computer for your new pictures. Example: GSD Meet, Spring 2012
- Transfer the pictures from the camera's memory card to the computer and place them into the new folder.
- Review the pictures and delete the bad ones.
- Re label the remaining photos. Example: GSD Meet, Spring 2012 001, GSD Meet, Spring 2012 002, etc.
- Create another new folder on your computer, use this one for your edited versions. Example: GSD Meet, Spring 2012 Slide Show
- Copy the photos from the original folder to the new folder. You now have two copies of every shot, one in each folder.
- Using photo-editing software, such as Google's Picasa (free), begin editing the copies in the folder. Do NOT touch the originals again unless you need to make a new copy.
- Crop each shot in order to remove unwanted elements and to improve composition. A 16 x 9 aspect ratio works well with many train shots and looks great on newer computer monitors. Other aspect ratios are better for prints.
- After cropping use the program's tools to improve the exposure, color, contrast, detail, etc.
- When you're done review the picture, if you like the results save it and move on to the next shot. It you don't like it undo your changes and try again. If you can't make the picture look good then delete it and move on.
- After you're done with the editing process review all of the shots, eliminate duplicates and any others that are substandard.
- Back up all of the pictures, the copies and the originals, so you'll never lose them.
Now here are some more pictures that did not appear in the Clearboard article. All of these photographs were taken with my old Canon PowerShot SX100IS using the existing layout rooms' lighting. A few of the pictures were shot in the Auto Mode. The rest were shot with the aperture set to 8.0 in order to improve the depth of field and a shutter speed of about 1 second. The ISO was adjusted automatically by the camera. A final point to remember, despite its extra features, the SX100IS is still just a point-and-shoot camera, not an SLR.
Jeff Taylor's Rockaway Southern
Jeff Taylor's Rockaway Southern
Click here to see more of Jeff's Rockaway Southern
Thomas Eckhardt's West End Cumberland Division
Thomas Eckhardt's West End Cumberland Division
Click here to see more of Thomas's West End Cumberland Division
David Parks' Cumberland West
David Parks' Cumberland West
Click here to see more of David's Cumberland West
Otis McGee's SP
Seth Neumann's UP Niles Canyon
GATSME Club Layout
Howard Zane's Piermont Division
Bill Kachel's Pennsy
Arnold Kimmon's Central of Georgia
Mike McNamara's Maine Central
Dick Elwell's Hoosac Valley
Glenn Glasstetter's C&O Railway
Di Voss's Everett & Monte Cristo