Sunday, February 1, 2015

Photographing railroad models

I recently received a stimulating question in an email, simply asking what recommendations I would make to achieve good photographs of railroad models and layouts. I am no expert, but I have been making (or attempting to make) such photographs for a whole bunch of years, and I can at least offer a few pointers which sum up my own experience.
     Some amateurs believe, with the advent of digital cameras, and the many software applications out there which enable photo correction, manipulation and improvement, that photography is fundamentally different, and easier, today. That’s true in a number of ways, but the fundamental variables in photography have not changed at all. I will briefly summarize what they are, and how you can work with them.
     Any photographer first needs to have at least a basic understanding and command of his or her camera, since in model photography we normally exercise the camera in ways you would not usually do in photographing, say, your family picnic. Cameras do come with rather compact directions (which camera buyers often promptly lose), but in most cases that is only the most basic information. Trial and error may work, and if you pursue that course, I advise making notes so you remember what worked and what didn’t. Better is a resource you can turn back to when needed. Nowadays there are lots of after-market publications for this purpose. Here I just show one, which relates to my own Canon camera, a digital SLR (single-lens reflex). Every make of camera enjoys similar support.

This publication is by Black Dog Media (BDM) of England, publishers of a very wide variety of titles, and a broad range just on photography. It’s an 8.5 x 10-inch book, 160 pages on glossy stock, and very well produced, available on the magazine racks at Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. I recommend it.
     Now let’s turn to model photography. The biggest obstacle faced in photography of any small object or group of small objects is adequate depth of field, which means the distance within which everything is in focus. For model railroad subjects, usually that means that you have to arrange the photography so you get as much depth in focus, or near focus, as you can. There are software applications which can stitch together a series of photos, each focused at a different depth in the scene, and these can be astounding when a really deep scene is photographed, but for most photos this isn’t necessary.
     What do you do? The key is to reduce the lens aperture as small as it will go, which produces maximum depth of field. Not all conventional camera lenses will stop down terribly far, and this is one place that a macro lens can be really useful, because they often offer very small apertures (or, to use the photographic term, large f-stop numbers). On my digital Canon, I use aperture priority, and leave it set at the limit for my camera, which is f /25. That’s my first principle.
     Of course, minimum aperture size means that the light reaching the light-registering medium, whether electronic sensor or film, is also minimum per unit time, which in turn has to mean longer exposures. With most model photos, this almost automatically means that hand-held photos just can’t be adequate. I believe that if you are at all serious, a tripod or camera rest of some kind is essential. That would be my second principle.
     The third determining factor is lighting. There are two parts to this: first, pretty bright lights, to help with light delivery through your stopped-down lens, and second, uniform lighting over the whole subject. This is harder than it sounds. The human eye is so flexible with light levels, that you easily may not realize you are lighting one side of a scene more than the other side, but the camera will see it that way. The solution is to analyze the photos you take, looking for this problem, and you will soon get used to viewing your lighting with a critical eye, and reducing the size of the problem.
     In the days of film, one might need to use a 1000-watt main flood light, and one or two 500-watt fill lights (or more). Digital sensors in modern cameras are far more sensitive in low light, and today considerably less wattage is necessary. But lighting still has to be bright enough, and still has to be reasonably uniform.
    I should also mention flash. Fixed-position flash on the camera produces model photographs which usually have terribly dark shadows, and many cameras have automatic settings for flash which take over when the flash is engaged, often overriding settings such as maximum f-stop. For most kinds of model photography, then, flash is not a good idea, unless you can tilt the flash to bounce it off the ceiling.
     Today, applications like Photoshop can enable you to fix lighting variations in an image, though only within a certain range of variation. Minimizing what you will need to do in Photoshop is always a good idea.
      There are innumerable books on specific aspects of photography, and no doubt most are helpful. In this post, I will just mention one I happen to own, and have learned from. It is a 1979 book, frequently reprinted, and still readily available used (and cheap) from and elsewhere in the Internet. The author, Lester Lefkowitz, was a well-known close-up photographer.

This book shows a huge range of techniques, and though of course entirely about film photography, has absolutely clear and informative directions on the photographic methods to use and how they work.
     With my three fundamental principles described in this post, I believe I have covered the basics. I will give specifics about model photography, and more details, in a  future post.
Tony Thompson

No comments:

Post a Comment