Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Recommended Camera Settings For Railfans

I've been asked to post some of my common camera settings for various situations. I'm happy to share that, and I hope you will look at them in reference to your own settings.

Review

There are really three basic settings that you want to look at when getting ready to take a photo: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Shutter speed is pretty obvious - it's how long the shutter stays open after you press the shutter release button. It's expressed in fractions of a second (usually) like 1/200s. Most cameras can go faster than 1/1000s and you might need that for very fast trains.

Aperture is the diameter of the interior of the lens while taking the photo. Think of it as the size of the lens' window to the world. It determines two things: how much light comes through to the camera, and how much of the scene is in focus (depth of field). Aperture is expressed as a fraction of focal length, like f/4 or f/5.6 (or F4 or F5.6). For example, if you have a lens that zooms from 18-200mm, if you are have it zoomed to 200mm and are using an aperture of f/5.6, the aperture is 35.7mm wide. Don't worry too much about that math. What you need to know is that low F numbers mean more light, but less depth of field. High F numbers like f/18 mean less light but more depth of field. Also keep in mind that most zoom lenses do not have the same aperture at all zooms (more expensive lenses like my Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens do).

ISO in film days was a measure of how light sensitive the film was. Now it is a measure of how much the signal is amplified at the sensor. Higher ISO settings are useful in low light situations. Generally higher ISO means more "noise" (dots) in your photo, so there is a trade-off between light sensitivity and image quality. Modern cameras are getting much better at high ISO but my Canon T1i is noticeably noisy at ISO 800 or higher and I really try to avoid going above ISO 400. Your mileage may vary.

Exposure Triangle

Remember that these three camera settings are all related: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. For a constant exposure, change one and you will affect one or both of the other two. For example, if you are taking a photo on a cloudy day with your camera in automatic mode, it might decide to use a shutter speed of 1/60s, an aperture of f/5.6 and ISO 200. You could manually override this with 1/30s, f/5.6 and ISO 100 and it would be the same exposure/brightness. On sunny days this makes little difference but when the light is low, you have to make sacrifices and you should decide what to do, or your camera will decide for you and you might not like the result.

A Confession

90% of the time, I shoot in Shutter priority mode. That's the "Tv" mode on Canon cameras. That means I decide the shutter speed and let the camera decide the aperture and ISO. I do this because for what I shoot, the shutter speed is paramount. Moving trains demand a decent shutter speed, so I give it priority and the aperture and ISO will follow. Landscape photographers will likely choose Aperture (Av) mode because depth of field is more important to them, and their subjects aren't moving (much).

With that out of the way, here are some recommended settings for photographing moving trains. Please keep in mind that these are starting points and you should adjust based on conditions.


Full Daylight, Sun Behind You

Shutter speed: 1/800s or faster - freeze the action
Aperture: f/8 or higher - good depth of field
ISO: 100

This is the ideal. There's lots of light so you don't have to make any compromises. Shooting in full auto mode will likely work well as long as your shutter speed is fast enough. It's hard not to take a good photo in this light!

Daylight, Backlit

Shutter speed: 1/400s or faster - freeze the action
Aperture: f/8 or higher - good depth of field
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -2/3 to -1 f-stop - make the image darker

When you find yourself on the "wrong" side of the subject... what do you do? Treat it like a normal daylight shot, but use your camera's exposure compensation to tell it to darken the image. Why? Your camera evaluates the scene and decides on a "proper" exposure. If there is a large area of shadow in the frame, it will likely overexpose the bright areas and "blow them out", so they will appear as pure white with no detail. Your camera may show this after you take a shot by blinking areas on the photo that are blown out. You use exposure compensation to override the camera's decision. It may mean that the black area will lose detail, but you sacrifice that to avoid a white sky.

Tip: Shoot RAW if you can, to preserve more detail in those shadow areas!

Here's a real world example from yesterday. I saw a CP spreader and plow in the yard in Kamloops, BC. I could only shoot from this angle because of the fence and some trees off-screen to my right. I used a shutter speed of 1/125s (because it wasn't moving, no need for higher speeds), exposure compensation of -1 stop to avoid blowing out the sky in the top left, and the camera chose an aperture of f/4.5 (best that the lens was capable of) and ISO 200. Some aggressive editing in Adobe Lightroom changed the left image (out of camera) to the right (finished product). Even with -1 stop of compensation, a tiny part of this image is still blown-out. Can you spot it?

Cloudy / Overcast / Rainy

Shutter speed: 1/200s or faster - do your best to freeze the action
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6 or higher - as low as your lens permits
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: Possibly required - see above

Cloudy days. Bleah. You don't have enough light, there's not a lot of contrast, so why bother? I say, get out there and shoot. You'd be surprised at what you can find. Many of my photos that I really like feature interesting cloud formations or foul weather.

The challenge is that there isn't a lot of light, so you have to compromise on a lot of things. The settings above sacrifice depth of field and a bit of image quality to try to keep the shutter speed at a reasonable level.

You may have to use exposure compensation if you're shooting toward a bright area of sky. See the "Daylight, backlit" section above.

Tip: photos taken on a cloudy day tend to look "flat" because they lack contrast. Don't be afraid to crank the Contrast slider when editing your cloudy day photos.

Sunrise / Sunset

Shutter speed: As fast as you can.. or accept blurring
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6 - as low as your lens permits
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: Possibly required - see above

These are the magic hours - get out there and shoot! The light is beautiful, often there are great colours in the sky, it's a great time to photograph. However... accept that the train is going to be dark, like the photo of CEFX 1050 at Meadows above. There's not much you can do to keep a moving train lit while keeping it in focus. You might consider a low shutter speed (1/30s or slower) and a tripod, and accept that the train will be blurred. Think outside the box.

Night / Low Light

Shutter speed: 1/10s or slower
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6 - as low as your lens permits
ISO: 400

For really low light or night photos, you're going to have very slow shutter speeds. You'll need to have a tripod or rest your camera on something to avoid jitter. Moving trains will be a blur at best. Maybe you can get a nice light trail from the train headlights and/or crossing gates? If you're lucky, you can catch a shunting engine when it stops, like I did in McAdam for the photo above.

Bonus: Snow

You should photograph trains in snow according to the guidelines above, with one caveat. You will need to use exposure compensation to brighten the photo, because your camera will see the bright snow and under-expose the photo, resulting in a dull photo with gray snow. Typically I add 2/3 to 1 stop. Fire off a test shot before the train arrives and see how it looks... always a good practice.

An Exercise For You

I hope these guidelines prove useful for you. I have an exercise for you. Set your camera to shutter priority and try photographing something non-moving at 1/60s while holding your camera and not bracing it against anything. Then 1/50s. Go down to 1/25s. You're doing this to find out how low you can comfortably shoot so you know your limits. I have steady hands so generally I can shoot 1/25s hand-held at 18mm zoom. Keep in mind that as you zoom out you need a faster shutter speed.

Thanks for reading this! If you like, you can browse through my other photography-related posts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Railfan Five Challenge

Eric Gagnon over at the excellent Trackside Treasure blog threw down the gauntlet and challenged myself and three other bloggers to share five photos from our railfan journeys.

Unlike Eric, I haven't been a railfan for most of my life. Eric said he started in early 1976. At that time I was living in Moscow, USSR and riding trains but paying no more attention to them than I would to a bus or a car.

It wasn't until late 1998 or early 1999 that I really became a railfan. It started after I visited the Salem and Hillsborough Railroad in New Brunswick. Something clicked and I started paying attention to trains.

ONE

The first photo I'm sharing with you was taken in what was then Chatham, NB and is now part of Miramichi. I was driving north to Belledune or Dalhousie when I spotted a pair of red locomotives across the river. I actually turned around and drove back to cross the river to see these engines - you could tell I was a railfan by that action. I was a bit confused because they looked like CP Rail engines to my new railfan eyes but I was 75% sure that CP didn't have any track in New Brunswick any more*.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this "NBEC Rail" thing. It was NBEC 1866 and NBEC 1867 working the Loggieville Subdivision, but I didn't know anything about them. This was the first railfan photo I ever took. I had a Minolta Maxxum 5000i film camera at the time and I'm surprised I actually had it with me.

* actually, CP still had a small section of track near Edmundston.

TWO

This one was taken in the fall of 2007. Until that time my railfan photos were usually roster photos, or generally unplanned photos taken whenever I saw a train. To me, this photo marks the start of when I began to intentionally seek out photogenic locations for trains. I credit David Morris for this. I went on a few railfan trips with him and he had a set of locations that he liked to use, and I could see why one would want to step away from the yards and photograph trains in a nice scene.

I took this photo with the intention of photographing the VIA Rail Ocean with fall colours. I went to this location at the west end of one of the Miramichi River bridges, hoping to get some foliage. I had never been to this location before but fortunately it delivered the goods.

(buy this print)

THREE

After my Minolta Maxxum broke (the mirror jammed, photographing an Ontario Northland engine in Saint John), I bought a Canon S3 and used it for several productive years. The VIA Rail photo was taken with that. I still have the S3 and use it for video now. It's not HD but it works.

In 2010 I decided it was time to move to an SLR. You may remember on my blog that I talked about my decision. In the end I went with a Canon T1i DSLR. The following photo is the first ralifan photo I took with that camera, unedited.

I was delighted with that camera, and I still am... although I'm hungry to get the Canon 7D Mark II. I'm going to have to save my pennies!

FOUR

I decided in 2012 that I should try to sell my photos online to make a few $$$ toward more camera purchases. The following, "Bridge Over Tranquil Waters", was my first sale, three packs of postcards for a decent amount of money.

Since then I have sold a few prints here and there, made a few commercial sales, and I look forward to more.

FIVE

This last one is just a favourite of mine. I like the Rocky Mountaineer and whenever I'm in Banff* I look for it. I first photographed the Rocky in 2010 and I managed to catch it again in 2013. This photograph was taken at Muleshoe between Banff and Lake Louise. I left Banff ahead of the train, intending to shoot it at this location, and got there about 5 minutes ahead of the train. After scrambling down a hill and firing off a few test shots to adjust for exposure, I was ready. The Rocky didn't disappoint.

(buy this print) (see the video)

* I say "whenever I'm in Banff" like I go there a lot. I think I've been there five times in my life, but we're on schedule to go back in 2016!

THE CHALLENGE

I'm going to challenge four other bloggers to come forth and share their own Railfan Five.


Go have a look at their blogs! Thanks again to Eric for the challenge. I'll be donating to the Winnipeg Railway Museum.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

5 Reasons Why You Need Lightroom

I'm going to give you five reasons why you need Adobe Lightroom to manage your photos.

First, a brief paragraph about what Adobe Lightroom is. According to Wikipedia, "Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a photo editing and management computer program... designed to assist users in managing large quantities of digital images and doing post-production work." You'll see how it can help you.

1. Organize Your Photo Collection!
I have a system for organizing my photos. Train photos go into a folder structure organized by railway - BNSF, CEMR, CN, CP, and so forth. If it's not a specific railway, it goes under General Railroad and into a subfolder by location. Each photo is named like this: "engine# location yyyymmdd photographer". I put my initials on the end of my photos.

This worked well enough and I still do that. In Lightroom, though, you can tag photos with keywords to really help you organize them better. It's up to you how far you want to go with this but I generally tag photos with two or three keywords. An example:
Lightroom offers suggestions for keywords, apparently based on keywords used in other photos taken around the same time. You can see at the bottom that you can have user-defined keyword sets as well, so you might have an "engine set" with keywords like SD40, SD60, GP38 and so forth.

In the photo above, you can see my naming scheme at the top left and all the other "metadata" that Lightroom has... which leads me to...

2. Find Your Photos

Now that I'm using Lightroom, it's so much easier and faster to find photos. Let me give you an example.

I stumbled across a photo of Napadogan, New Brunswick online and shared it on the RailsNB Facebook group. A discussion started and I wanted to share a few more photos of when I visited Napadogan back in 2007. It was easy to go to Lightroom and search for that.
Two seconds later, I had a list complete with thumbnails.


It's important to realize that all of the metadata is searchable. Some of the photos above were picked up because they were tagged with Napadogan, some because they had Napadogan in the file name, and some because they were in a folder called "Napadogan Sub". If you want, you can limit what metadata it searches. You can also search by date, by camera type, by rating and a number of other criteria in various combinations.

3. Kickass Photo Editing
Adobe Lightroom has great photo editing built in. The Develop mode takes you to a very powerful, integrated photo editor. It's not quite Photoshop, but you can do a lot with the Develop mode. For example, I took this photo:

and tweaked it in Lightroom to this:

just using the Develop module. Lightroom 5 added the "healing brush", long a favourite of Photoshop users. It's handy to fix little problems in the photo or remove things like power lines.

I'm still learning things in the Develop module. My new favourites are the graduated filter and the radial filter, both of which I used in the edit above. Lightroom keeps a history of all your edits (see left column of photo below) and you can roll back to any previous edit at any time. It does not modify the original photo file at all.

4. Publishing Made Easy!
Once you've edited your photo, Lightroom makes it easy to publish your photo.

You can right-click on any photo and export it to a file. The power comes from building presets to publish it just the way you like. For example, I have a preset called Export to Web that does the following:

  • Places the exported file in a known folder
  • Sets JPEG image quality to 68
  • Resizes it so the longest edge is 1600 pixels
  • Sharpens it for screen viewing
  • Adds my watermark to the bottom left corner


Lightroom also has Publish Services. These are for specific web sites such as Flickr, 500px, Facebook and so forth. You can just drag your photo(s) onto one of the services, and when you're ready, right-click and select Publish and Lightroom will take care of publishing your photo(s) there.

5. Mobile Editing
The latest version of Lightroom allows you to rate and edit your photos on your iPad or iPhone (sorry, Android not available.. yet) via Lightroom Mobile. This is a powerful extension of Lightroom so you can take it with you and work on your photos offline. It requires Lightroom CC (see below).

Another way to edit your Lightroom photos is via the Mosaic plugin for Lightroom. It is similar to Lightroom Mobile but does not allow editing the photo itself. However, it works with the regular Lightroom.

I'm Sold! How To Buy
Lightroom is sold in two flavours... Lightroom and Lightroom Creative Cloud (CC). The original Lightroom is like most software - you purchase it once and it's yours forever, at least until the next major revision comes out. Lightroom CC is a subscription service and you pay monthly forever to use the software.

There are pros and cons to both. Buying Lightroom outright is $149 US and you own it forever with no more charges. However, when Lightroom 6 comes out, you have to buy that again; there's no free upgrade between major versions.

Lightroom CC allows you to have the latest version, always, and also enables Lightroom Mobile as discussed above. You can sign up for Creative Cloud / Photography which gives you Lightroom and PhotoShop for $9.99 US/month.

I've purchased Lightroom but I am strongly considering switching to Lightroom CC when version 6 of Lightroom comes out. I really want to start mobile editing!

I hope this helps you decide whether you want to buy Lightroom. Personally I am a huge fan of Lightroom and I think it is the #1 photography tool for me.

DISCLAIMER: If you follow the Lightroom links to Amazon and purchase the software there, I get a small percentage of the sale. If you'd prefer not to, you can go directly to Adobe or purchase via your favourite retailer.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Call of the Northland

Thomas Blampied has released a new book, Call of the Northland. This book talks about the former Ontario Northlander passenger train and the author's journey on it.

The Ontario Northlander was a passenger train that ran from Toronto, ON to Cochrane, ON by the Ontario Northland Railway. The train was cancelled by the provincial government and the last train ran on September 28, 2012.

I personally have no experience with the Ontario Northland Railway, other than seeing ONR 2105 once when it visited Saint John in March 2005.

(video of ONR 2105 going around the wye in Saint John)

I think it's great that Thomas has written this book documenting the Northlander. Events and trains like these need to be documented.

Buy the book

Friday, September 26, 2014

Book Review: Westbound by Mike Chandler

Review: Westbound: A Portfolio of Western Railroading by Mike Chandler.

I stumbled across this book last week in a used book store. The cover grabbed my attention with VIA's train at Morant's Curve. I flipped through it briefly and bought it within minutes.

As the author, Mike Chandler, says in the foreword, the book is "with minimal text". This is mostly a picture book. The pictures are excellent - lots of "behind the scenes" photos from the author's long career with CN.

I really like how the book is organized. It has the following sections:

  • Off the Main
  • Across the Flatlands
  • At the Depot
  • On the Shop Track
  • Through the Mountains
  • Against the Elements
  • In the Yard
  • Along the Line

The majority of the photos were taken in Canada, but there are a few American photos as well. The photography is excellent and varied - from panoramic shots like the cover to close-up "Greg McDonnell" style photos (and I say that as a compliment).

If I'm not mistaken, this Master Model Railroader is Mike Chandler.

I highly recommend this book. Westbound: A Portfolio of Western Railroading (Amazon affiliate link).

Note that you can buy the book directly from the publisher at: Bonaventure Press, 1101-720 Hamilton Street, New Westminster, B.C., Canada V3M 7A6.The purchase price of $39.95 is all inclusive.Thanks to the author for this information.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Grain Elevators of the Glenboro Subdivision

Come with me while I show you the grain elevators still standing on the Canadian Pacific (CP) Glenboro subdivision, from Winnipeg to Souris, Manitoba.

First, let's talk about the Glenboro subdivision. The subdivision runs from Woodman, which is on the CP Carberry subdivision, 3.8 miles west of Rugby aka the yard. At mile 12.4 it crosses the CN Rivers subdivision at Diamond.

In A Grain Elevator Loop, Part 1 I discussed the first four stations, Starbuck, Fannystelle, Culross and Elm Creek. Here's some photos I didn't use the first time.
Starbuck
Fannystelle
Culross
Elm Creek

There's no elevator at St. Claude, and I haven't found any mention of any former elevator there. One has to imagine there was one.

Next is Rathwell. This town no longer has a grain elevator (in 1990 it still had 3!) but it does have a grain facility. Louis Dreyfus has a 42,000 tonne facility just west of town. In fact, the Canadian Trackside Guide says it has an SW1200 for switching. I honestly just took one snap and carried on so I never saw the loco.
Louis Dreyfus, Rathwell

There are no elevators in Treherne, although there certainly were some. They were gone by 2007.

Note that CP has been threatening to abandon a portion of the Glenboro subdivision since 2006. The section between Rathwell and Page had no rail users. Later this was amended to Rathwell to Nesbitt. Surprisingly, in mid 2014 CP removed the Glenboro subdivision from their list of "to discontinue" lines. Back in 2010 I reported that the River Hills Railroad was looking at taking it over, but that's over and the RHR's web site is offline.

Holland is next on the line. It has a lovely Paterson elevator.
Paterson in Holland, MB
Holland is a nice little town. I love these murals showing their civic pride.
Tammy Mahon was on Canada's national women's volleyball team from 2002 to 2012, and was the captain from 2008. She was also a star track and field athlete. Good for her and good for Holland for being proud of her.

Holland even has a windmill.

Next is Cypress River, featuring two elevators, both now Paterson elevators.
Paterson grain elevators in Cypress River
While documenting these elevators, I came across this little fella.
Grain elevatorsssssssssss
It was very much alive, but quite scared of me, and slithered away to do snake things.

After Cypress River is Glenboro. There are no elevators there any more, sadly.

Next is Nesbitt. This town actually features two grain elevators. The first is the former Manitoba Pool grain elevator just east of town.
Former Manitoba Pool elevator, Nesbitt
There is a large Cargill facility a few kilometres west of town. This facility has a capacity of 17,700 tonnes, and when I saw it, it was being served by CP!
Working the elevator
CP 8755 and CP 3079 were doing the honours.
Red Power
There was a crew van at the crossing I was at. I assume these guys were coming off shift when they were done switching.
Cargill near Nesbitt
The next location on the CP Glenboro subdivision is Page, and it has no elevators.

The western end of the Glenboro subdivision is at Souris, where it meets the CP Estevan subdivision. Souris is graced with two grain elevators. There's the former Manitoba Pool elevator, at the junction of the two subdivisions.
Pool Power
Just to the left of the elevator, you can see its replacement, the Viterra "Souris East" grain elevator.
Souris East
This Viterra facility has a LOT of storage tracks!
Storage? We got storage!
There you have it - the remaining grain elevators on the CP Glenboro subdivision. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

Extra - If you are doing serious research, may I recommend the Mendeley program. It tracks your PDFs and research items and allows you to do searching, quoting, and annotation. I use it for my grain elevator research and it is great at search. And it's free!

Extra extra - You might also like Elevators of the Carman Subdivision.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Where Do You Buy Your Photography Equipment From?

Morant's Curve
In these days of always-on Internet, there are so many choices available to the smart consumer. It's hard to know where to go for the best prices on camera equipment. Here I'll present a few of the places I look. Please leave a comment if you have any additional places you look.

Your Local Camera Shop
If you're fortunate enough to have a local camera store, this is a great place to start. Their staff are usually quite knowledgeable and you can get your hands on the equipment to try it out in the store. Personally I go to Don's Photo as it is within a few kilometres of my house. I get a discount for being part of a local camera club and their store is well-stocked and they are pretty competitive on price. I bought my Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens at Don's and they were able to offer a great price.

One thing I will say: I don't recommend that you go to a local camera store to try stuff out, then walk out and buy it online. That's not fair to the store.

Big Box Stores
Stores like Future Shop, Best Buy, London Drugs and even Wal-Mart (ptooey) sell a variety of camera equipment. Their selection tends to be on the low end but you'd be surprised what you can find there. The prices are competitive but the sales staff may not be very knowledgeable.

Online Retailers
There are a dizzying variety of online retailers. These are the ones I go to to research and/or buy camera equipment:
Kijiji / eBay
I bought my Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens via Kijiji and the transaction went very well. I sold my 55-250mm lens through Kijiji and, although it was a bit of a pain to close the deal, it was successful.

How About You?
Where do you go for your photography needs?

EDITED September 26, 2014 to add more online retailers.