Conrail MP15 9627 On The Philladelphia NTRAK Morrisville Yard Modules

I’ve done a bunch of model photography over the years. Some of it has been quite basic and turned out poorly, other shots have come out beautifully. A lot of it depends on the subject material, but these techniques should yield you some decent results, or at least a place to get started.

For these photos, I’m using my wife’s (and she wondered why I was all for getting her a new one for Christmas) camera. It’s a Canon powershot A520, and I paid less than $200 for it.

The first thing to do is setup the tripod. This is a luxury that I sometimes provide myself. If I don’t have a tripod handy, I often just use the modules themselves. This is one nice thing about NTRAK modules, that 8″ wide swath of track. I try to set the tripod up as close as possible to the layout, and lower the thing down so the barrel of the lens gets as low to the scenery as possible. This is one of the most important steps.

Next I boot the camera and move to Aperture priority mode. Open the settings menus and set the ISO as low as possible. I lucked out, this puppy does 50. No grain for me! This is also where I set the camera “drive mode” to a timed exposure.

This lets me get my hands off the camera before the shutter pops, keeping camera “shake” to a minimum. My old camera only supported a ten second delay, which was a pain in the butt, but the new one does 2 seconds, which I’ve found to be pretty ideal.

Don’t forget to turn the flash off too. Single point P&S camera flashes are not suited for decent photography. Real studio lighting would be a real luxury, but let’s face it, even if I did spend the money for it, hauling it to a train show would be a real pain. I’ve worked on photo shoots before, and the amount of work in simply transporting and setting the equipment up is not “fun”.

This photo was taken at the Chantilly NTRAK convention, and while it's somewhat blurry, it again demonstrates the benefits of a long exposure.
This photo was taken at the Chantilly NTRAK convention, and while it’s somewhat blurry, it again demonstrates the benefits of a long exposure.

Set the Camera’s aperture as small as possible (that means as large of a number as possible). The Canon goes to F8.0, I wish it could go higher (smaller), but that’s all I get. It actually gives me decent results, so I won’t complain too much. Also check the camera’s ISO equivalent setting. If possible, turn the ISO as low as possible. This will help reduce the amount of “grain” or color noise in the final photograph.

Then I turn on the Macro Focus mode, this performs some internal software trickery to allow the camera to focus closer than it normally would. This is imperative for keeping foreground items in some semblance of focus.

I start framing the shot, making sure that everything is on the track & coupled up (don’t miss those details) and letting the camera figure out how long the exposure should be. I expose a shot and look at the image noting the shutter speed. This exposure is really simply for metering, and figuring out where to go next, once the camera is set on “manual”.

In manual mode, I have full control over the camera’s aperture, exposure length, ISO, etc. This allows me to adjust the brightness of the photograph by adjusting the exposure. This varies greatly depending on the ambient light where you are shooting. Start by setting the exposure to the same time as the one the camera decided on above.

This photograph was taken on BANTRAK's yard modules. Yards are a great location to shoot photos in NTRAK layouts, since the open expanse of track will often yield a great place to set your camera while it takes a nice long exposure.
This photograph was taken on BANTRAK’s yard modules. Yards are a great location to shoot photos in NTRAK layouts, since the open expanse of track will often yield a great place to set your camera while it takes a nice long exposure.
This is generally where you will start getting decent images, so you’re going to want to be mindful of the focus. I usually shoot things in auto focus, which many people will claim is a big mistake, however with the, essentially, point and shoot digitals that I’ve used, the tools available to focus the camera won’t permit you to do a better job than the camera itself can do.

The trick here is getting the camera to focus on the same plane as the subject of the photograph. There are two camera features that are invaluable here. The first is the “focus” boxes in the display. On my Canon, these are green boxes that appear on the LCD display showing me where the camera is focusing. I want these boxes to be on front of the subject. The camera is surprisingly good at figuring out what I’m shooting at, but occasionally I need to give it a little help. This can be done in a number of ways, including sticking your finger into the shot when you’re pressing the shutter button down half way (and remembering to hold it down until you’ve taken the photo), panning the camera until it finds somethign at the same distance that you’re shooting for, and then panning it back (keeping that shutter button half way down). My Fuji likes to only focus on the center of the viewfinder. That’s fine for me, since I simply aim the center of the viewfinder at the point I’d like the focus, depress the shutter button halfway, and recompose the shot. Again, a finger in the frame at the same distance from the camera is also useful here.

The second useful feature of the camera when it comes to focusing, and this is one way in which film photography cannot come close to competing with digital photography, is the ability to immediately preview and zoom in on your images. All of my cameras allow me to review an image as soon as its been captured, and, more importantly, let me zoom in on the photograph. While things may look fine when seeing the whole image on the lcd display, good focus can only really be ascertained by zooming in on the image to check it. I have often been lazy about checking images this way, only to be disappointed when I went to edit them and found out that they were too blurry to use. Don’t be lazy here.

Once I’ve gotten focusing figured out, I move on to bracketing exposures. I base my initial exposure on the “automatic” one which the camera had previously taken (remember that, all those paragraphs ago?). If this exposure is too light, then I shorten the exposure length, and if it was too dark, I lengthen the exposure. One thing I have learned is that my camera’s LCD display frequently makes images appear brighter than they are. Storage space is cheap, shoot a wide range of images, and if you think you have one that’s perfect, shoot a few more. While a borderline image can sometimes be saved in Photoshop, the end image quality will be better the less you have to do to it, and you will be nothing but angry if you come away without an image that could’ve been perfect if you had bracketed it with one more shot.

A Local Freight creeps along the edge of the farm on my Apartment Door layout.
A Local Freight creeps along the edge of the farm on my Apartment Door layout.
You should now have some images ready to be downloaded onto a computer. I use an Apple Powerbook (the 1.5 year old equivalent of a Macbook Pro) for my image editing and archiving. I’m a big fan of my Apple, but I’m not going to go into the reasons why. Suffice to say it makes moving photos around from camera to archive to photoshop to web very easy. The important thing is to use a decent image manipulation program. I’m personally a big fan of Photoshop (although not necessarily of Adobe) for this type of work. It’s available for both PCs and Macs, but is a large investment if you’re only going to be using it for hobby work. There is a free alternative called “The Gimp” that is available. I’ve never used it (although I keep meaning to try it), but I’ve heard good things about it.

The things I frequently have to do with photoshop are to adjust image levels, brightness, contrast, and resize the images to display here, on forums, or whereever. I also keep the original large version that comes from the camera in case I ever want to print them. You’re able to do lots of things to an image in Photoshop (make sure to see Phil Brooks’s article about adding smoke), but those should really be the subject of another article.

I hope this has helped take some of the mystery out of model photography. I’ve almost gotten it down to a system now, and I’m very happy that I’m usually able to get pleasing results whenever I pull the camera out. The real secret to that though is practice, which I strongly suggest you do, since digital film is, well, free.