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Photographing model trains

Whether it´s a little diorama or a big model train layout: At some point every model railroad should be photographed. So let´s take a short detour into the world of photography. This is aimed less at ambitious ones (who can safely skip what follows), and more at those who just have a cheap digital camera, but still want to take acceptable pictures.

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Model train layouts photos

A good eye counts

Model railroading and photography have far more in common than you might think at first. Like a photo, a model railway layout is essentially a copy of reality. This effect is strengthened with good photos. So whether you build one, or you want to present the result: A well chosen picture of a layout, a bit of scenery or a diorama always works. We want to see all details of a layout, like engines, wagons, buildings, landscape, tunnels, people - or even the ballast alongside the tracks, isn´t it? I´ve seen a lot of model railroads on the web that are beautiful in themselves, but unfortunately were not photographically captured to their advantage. And yet you really don´t need a high-end single lens reflex camera (=SLR camera) with a macro lens. Using the proverbial "good eye" and a few basic rules that everyone can follow, you can get decent results even with cheap equipment.

Tips for beginners

In the following tips I assume that you possess a standard cheap digital camera, and your work is made only for viewing on a computer or online (no printing). I also assume that you have access to a software for subsequent digital image editing. Since you can get these programs as freeware (for example GIMP), you really should have one. Using these programs isn´t rocket science, and image editing on your PC also greatly enhances the photographic process. In fact it´s one of the main benefits of digital photography, therefore reason enough to use it for showing model train layouts to the best advantage.

How to: photograph a model railroad layout

1. Set the image size on the camera (which means the canvas size of the photo in pixels) to very large or maximum (width x height). For example, instead of a canvas size of 640 x 480 pixels, choose 1600 x 1200 pixels. Why? The real reason has less to do with the photo being sharper, than with making it easier afterwards to select a detail from the picture in an image editing program. Helpful especially for smaller scales like Z or N scale model train layouts. Once you understand that, you´ll have a sort of zoom function available - it´s just in the digital editing process, rather than in the camera lens.
2. Lighting: Give up the built-in flash! It sounds unorthodox, but it gets better results. Good lighting demands a professional flash system anyway; the built-in flash functions in simple digital cameras will just cast unattractive shadows. That might not be a problem for funny party pictures, but it is a problem when photographing a model railroad layout. It´s better to find another way to light your room. It goes without saying that you should use natural light if windows are handy, and backlighting should be avoided where possible. Otherwise a few additional lights can work wonders. That´s how all of the photos on this website were taken: without a flash, in a typical basement hobby room (small window, not much daylight), and without a tripod. The light sources were just 2 fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The only extra light was a floor lamp from the living room.
3. Choice of subject - the image detail: Think in terms of details of the photograph (see point 1). The eventual photo doesn´t necessarily have to be identical to what you can see in the camera viewfinder display.
4. Choice of subject - the perspective: A bird´s eye view is necessary to give a larger overview of track plans or the complete design of model train layouts. But presenting the same perspective as the train driver´s cab is much more realistic and impressive. So keep the camera at track height!
5. Choice of subject - the background: If your model train layout is not equipped with a backdrop, find some other way to provide a neutral background. Nobody cares about the great workbench in the right-hand corner of your hobby room! If you don´t have white walls, at least cover them with a white bed sheet or similar. Why? The answer is given in the next point.
6. The snapshot is in the can, now the PC stage starts. If you can see an unwanted background in the picture: Better image editing programs offer a function to knock out the background. Using a "magic wand" you can select the background and fill it for example with a neutral white background color instead. Hence the bed sheet tip, since cutting out the background is much easier if it is fairly uniform. Cutting out and retouching every shelf in the background individually is only for people with too much time on their hands.
7. Image editing – selecting the actual image: That´s the "cut out" function. Self-explanatory. All image editing programs have this function.
8. Image editing - touching up: If the image is basically right, then as a rule of thumb: the smaller the photo, the more brightness, colors and contrast it can tolerate. Better editing programs have corresponding menu options. Finally, use the "Sharpen" filter - and you´re done.

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Printing or monitor? About file formats and image resolution

So the picture´s finished - now it´s time for display. There are 2 things you mustn´t mix up:
1) the width and height of the actual picture (=dimensions in pixels)
2) the resolution in dpi (= dots per inch).
First the dimensions: For viewing on a monitor or online a maximum size of 800 x 600 pixels is enough in most cases (not everyone has a 24 inch cinema display!). Generally this will do, or even less if it´s being directly incorporated into a website, since many websites still are designed for 800 x 600 monitors, and navigation and content must be factored in. Scale the image accordingly to a suitable final size. More than 800 x 600 pixels will also work in principle, but it should be justified.
Next the resolution: Always 72 dpi, because monitors can only display in 72 dpi mode anyway. Reasoning: a photo with a canvas size of, for example, 640 x 480 pixels at a resolution of 300 dpi has a correspondingly larger file size (= megabytes) than the same photo at 72 dpi. These are unnecessary megabytes that the monitor can´t use, and just cause the web page to take an annoyingly long time to load. For electronic viewing, use 72 dpi; a higher resolution is only necessary for print.
Finally, save the file as a "jpg". To reduce file size, the jpg compression should be set at 80-90 percent. That´s enough in most cases. Important: reducing data volume with jpg compression is lossy, which means corresponding image information is permanently lost. So always make sure you´ve backed up the original before you start jpg compression.

Zoom without a zoom lens

Magic on your PC: Suddenly you have a useable close-up - even from small details of N scale model train layouts! The photo on the right gives a very different impression from the photo at the top of the page. Really it´s just a cut-out from the same photo (not to be confused with enlarging a selection). No telephoto lens, no macro lens - it was just done with the "Cut out" tool.

Detail: Waiting locomotive alongside the signal tower

N scale model train layout photo

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