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Photographing the Layout




blog-0327763001424639121.jpgI know that this is a model railways website but I also have no doubt that many people visit because they enjoy looking at the photos of other people's layouts. Thus, it is inevitable that photography plays an important part in communicating what we are doing. There are lots of excellent photos on this website but I thought that it might be of some interest to show some of the techniques I use when photographing my small layout.


The word 'photography' is derived from two Greek words which mean 'drawing with light', so getting good lighting onto the subject is very important. Ordinary room lighting is rarely adequate for good photography, although modern digital cameras are much more sensitive in low light levels than earlier cameras were. If the light is poor, the resulting photos are likely to show poor colour, grainy images, and they may be unsharp, as a result of camera shake and/or very little depth of field (i.e. the zone that is in sharp focus).


I find that, in practice, compact cameras with small sensors are often better for layout photography than larger types, such as DSLRs. The ultimate picture quality from a compact may not be as high but they do have important advantages in this application. The most obvious is that they are smaller and can, therefore, be placed in realistic locations, close to the models themselves. I like to take line-side shots and find this is much easier when using a small camera. Another big advantage is that small cameras provide better depth of field than larger cameras, when used for model photography. The technical reasons for this are explained on the website at http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/digital-camera-sensor-size.htm.


If I use my Nikon DSLR camera with a 90mm macro lens to photograph my models, I might choose an aperture setting of f/16, to achieve a reasonable depth of field. The calculator on the above website shows that a compact camera (with a 1/2.3" sensor) would provide the same depth of field when set to an aperture of f/2.8, which allows 32 times more light to reach the sensor and so makes it much easier to light the model effectively.



Photo taken with Lumix FZ200 - 1/100s@f/2.8 ISO400, focal length=12mm


My preferred light source is electronic flash but this tends to be very harsh if directed straight at the model, leading to a 'soot and whitewash' result! I find that the best way is to 'bounce' the light from the flash off a reflector or off the ceiling (if this is white). This requires a fairly powerful flashgun that must be triggered by the camera and not all small cameras have the necessary connector. So-called 'bridge' cameras combine the advantages of a small sensor with the connectivity of more sophisticated cameras. The photo below shows how I use my Panasonic Lumix FZ200 camera with my old but powerful Vivitar 283 flashgun for layout photography:




The camera is actually sitting on the baseboard and I use the flip-out viewing screen to monitor the view from the camera. I also set the 2-second delay timer, to remove any shake caused by my pressing the shutter button. The image taken by the Lumix from this location is shown below:



Lumix FZ200 - 1/60s@f/5.6 ISO160, focal length=7mm


If a camera will not work with a separate flashgun, then one of the cheapest ways of providing extra light is to use a halogen floodlight of the type sold for outdoor security and garden lighting. I have a couple of these lights that I have mounted onto very cheap tripods, so that they can be aimed at the areas of the model that I wish to photograph. In the following example, I show a small compact camera actually placed on the layout, to take a photo of the saw mill, lit by one of these floodlights.




and the image from this camera is shown below:



Leica C-Lux2 - 1/160s@f/5.6 ISO400, focal length=5mm


Sometimes, in the evening, as I am sitting watching the trains roll by, I like to look for viewpoints that I think will make interesting photos. Near the back of the layout, in a corner, is a Faller kit-built water mill (Faller 130225) that dates from the first phase of my modelling. With a re-paint and some weathering, it makes quite an attractive feature of the landscape, especially when viewed along the stream bed that runs across the layout. I like to think that it is the sort of location where Amy Wilcote might set up her easel and, occasionally, I feel that I can see her there:



Lumix FZ200 - 1/60s@f/8 ISO160, focal length=84mm


That reminds me that I must get on and provide the Wilcote family with some dresses :)




NOTE: if you use an older flashgun with a modern camera, make sure that the flashgun has low-voltage contacts. Some old guns had trigger voltages of 100v or more, which could damage an electronic camera.

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I'm pleased you find it useful, Job.  I've shown some simple ways for getting enough light on the scene.  There are,of course,many subtleties to add, if you want to get realistic shadows or other effects. For example, see Mikkel's photos of the Depot, where he has arranged lamps to create shadows and pools of light through the windows.



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Hi Mike, thanks for some good tips here - and especially for the info about the sensor size issue, I had no idea!


The depth-of-field issue can be so annoying. I have experimented a bit with image stacking but need to experiment more with that. On the other hand, I find that the lack of a sharp background can also help focus a shot and increase the sense of depth sometimes. 


I like the close-ups - Amy looks just like I imagine her! 

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Glad you find it useful, Mikkel.  The depth of field issue is quite significant, although it is often considered a problem in general photography, since compacts cannot isolate a subject.  In close-up model photography, however, it turns into an advantage. In a sense, the compact is itself behaving as a scale model of the large cameras that were used in Victorian times.


I have tried stacking but find it difficult to avoid mis-matches, when different elements of the photo are at different distances from the camera.  Sometimes I take a couple of photos with the camera set to different distances and then combine parts of the images by using layers in Photoshop.



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