Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday

Normally I don't pay any attention to Black Friday* but this year was different. Since I'm on the prowl for a new lens, I wanted to see if it would go on sale today.

It had been listed for $969.99 on Henry's, which is about $80 off their normal price. I wasn't excited about that price so I was holding out for better. I had pretty much resigned myself to trying the Boxing Day sales, but maybe, just maybe Black Friday would come through.

Just before midnight I checked the Henry's web site again.

Another $120 off! (With tax it's $960.49, free shipping)

I didn't wait very long before clicking BUY NOW on that one! The confirmation email came quickly and now I just have to wait for it to ship. I should have it before Christmas...

If you look for the lens on you'll see links to other retailers who are selling the lens for the same price. I saw that Canon itself was selling for that price, as was Best Buy and a few other places. I want to support Canadian companies so I chose Henry's, also because they have a store in Winnipeg. Sadly it was web-only so I couldn't get it direct from the local store.

By the way, if you live in the US and are interested in Lightroom and/or Photoshop, this is a steal! The Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Photoshop CC + Lightroom) is on sale for USD $6.99/month... this normally costs $9.99/month so it's 30% off. Snap it up, as this doesn't go on sale often! (that's an affiliate link, where I earn a small commission for anything you buy while you're on Amazon, at no additional cost to you)

* Black Friday is a recent North American tradition of sale prices and ridiculous shopping crowds, which apparently originated in Philadelphia in the 1950s but only became widespread in the late 1980s. I like that it has become more and more an "online" thing.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Quick Concert Photography Tip

I saw Styx here in Winnipeg this past Tuesday night, and they rocked. I've been a Styx fan since Paradise Theatre but I had never seen them in concert until now. Even though it's not quite the original line-up (since Dennis deYoung has been gone for over 15 years), the addition of Gowan as lead singer was a great choice. They were awesome.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about concert photography. Like many people at the concert, I took some photos with my phone (SLRs not permitted) and I wanted to give a quick tip.

The #1 Problem

If you look at concert photos taken with phones, the #1 problem with them is that they are over-exposed. Concerts are full of a lot of darkness and bright, bright lights. Your phone / camera tries to judge the correct exposure, and in my experience it usually over-exposes the scene.

The opening act at this concert was Streetheart, a good old Winnipeg band. I snapped a few photos with my camera and it was pretty clear they were over-exposed. Have a look at poor Kenny Shields' face - or lack thereof.

These shots were so over-exposed that their faces have become pure white with no detail. There's no recovering from this in post!

The Fix

When your camera is getting the exposure wrong, what can you do?

You really have two choices:

  1. Tell your camera exactly what exposure to use; or
  2. Use exposure compensation

Specifying Exposure

To control the exposure on an SLR, you put it in manual (M) mode and specify all three parts of the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

On a camera, you may be able to do it with the built-in camera app (not on an iPhone!), or you can use a different camera app. I downloaded the excellent Manual iPhone app, which gives you pretty complete control over the iPhone's camera. The interface is a little busy, as you might expect, but it is a great app for controlling your camera.

Exposure Compensation

The other option is to use exposure compensation. Here you are basically telling your camera to determine the exposure, then bias it up or down by a given f-stop amount. This is what I recommend for concert photography, given the wildly varying light conditions.

On an SLR it is pretty easy to use exposure compensation. I won't get into that here.

The built-in iPhone camera app does do exposure compensation, at least on iOS 8 and above. Here's a great tutorial.

The Manual app I mentioned above also does exposure compensation.

How Much?

As a rule of thumb for concert photography, I recommend -1 to -1.5 stops. You'll have to experiment to find out what works for you but I think you should err on the side of too much compensation to avoid the blow-out seen at top.

Other Issues

The other major issue with concert photography using your phone is being too far away, but there's not much you can do about that. You can crop tighter but you need a lot of megapixels in your phone's sensor to make that work. I find that I can't crop too far with my iPhone before it looks bad. Check out how pixelated Gowan is here.
Pixelated Gowan
This is how much the above photo was cropped. I was in row 7, so I was relatively close to the stage, but it's a lot to ask of a tiny phone lens.

Oh - and don't zoom with your phone unless it actually has an optical zoom. When you zoom, you're losing pixels because for most phones, it's a digital zoom. You're basically cropping in-phone so you are losing resolution. I really don't recommend it.

I'll leave you with a few of my favourite photos from the concert.

During "Light Up" they asked everyone to turn on their phones

James Young and Tommy Shaw rock out - note how Tommy's face is a bit over exposed

Styx rocking out

Near the end they fired off a ton of confetti

This is my favourite photo from the concert!

Styx taking a bow

Styx drummer Todd Sucherman
I hope you've enjoyed reading this and seeing the Styx concert photos. Learn how to use exposure compensation, and better yet, manual mode!

More reading:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Canadian Holiday Train Events 2015

There are a few Canadian holiday/Christmas train events coming up that I wanted to bring to your attention. If you have any others, please comment and I'll add them!


CP Holiday Train
The CP Holiday Train is set to make its way across Canada and the USA again! The Holiday Trains gather food and raise funds for local food banks across North America. Come on out and see the shows and support the needy. The Canadian train departs Montreal on November 27 and will arrive in Port Coquitlam on December 19 (Canadian train information). The US train starts on November 27 in Montreal and visits New York state before traveling from Chicago to Iowa and then re-entering Canada to continue west (US train information).

New Brunswick

McAdam Train Station
The McAdam train station in New Brunswick has been decorated for Christmas! Each room is decorated and volunteers are available to provide tours daily from 2 PM to 8 PM. The cost of the tour is $12/person and includes cider and treats, and the money goes toward the maintenance and improvement of the station. If you haven't been there for a while, go check it out - it's a beautiful station. Station Facebook pageCBC article.


The York-Durham Heritage Railway is running a Santa Train every weekend starting November 21. The railway is located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Each trip runs about an hour and costs $20/person. Santa will visit and there will be a magician on board! (More information)

The South Simcoe Railway is running the Santa Claus Express every weekend starting on November 28 through December 20. Advance tickets are all sold out but "limited walk-in tickets are still available for these dates".


The Winnipeg Railway Museum and Rail Travel Tours are offering a day trip by train to Gladstone, Manitoba. The trip starts at the museum in the morning of December 13 with a tour of the museum, lunch, and then travellers will board VIA 693 to ride two hours to Gladstone. In Gladstone ("Happy Rock") travellers can meet Santa Claus and enjoy crafts and games before riding a motor coach back to Winnipeg. The day costs $95/adult and $85/child and is a fundraiser for the museum. As a great bonus, the package includes a year's family membership to the museum, a $35 value! More information or call Rail Travel Tours at 204-897-9551.


The Aspen Crossing railway southwest of Calgary is operating a Polar Express train on select dates between November 28 and December 24. Hot chocolate and treats are served on board as the classic children's book "The Polar Express" is read. Santa will greet the train at the North Pole. Tickets are $114.50 for two. Some dates are sold out but some are still available at the time of writing. (More information)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Aerial Photos of Inglis Grain Elevators

A fellow named Graison Swaan posted a series of photos of the grain elevator row in Inglis, Manitoba to the Facebook Vanishing Sentinels group. These photos were taken using a drone (a DJI Phantom drone I believe) and are absolutely stunning. He was kind enough to permit me to post a few here. There are more in the Facebook group.

Inglis Elevator row - by Graison Swaan
I think that might be Graison standing on the road.

Drone photography opens up a lot of possibilities for the railfan or the landscape/grain elevator photographer.

You can refer to my visit to Inglis in late June. They looked great on the ground but they look just fantastic from the air!

I love this perspective.

The above photo reminds me of the Manitoba Pool Elevator calendar photos. The Pool had an annual calendar with aerial photos of towns with their elevators in them (I have two on my wall), and this would be right at home in those calendars.

The image below is my favourite - looking straight down on the N.M. Paterson elevator.

You can find Graison on Instagram (@graison) and Twitter (also @graison).

Thanks for those photos!

See also:
Please note that some of the links in this article are affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission when you buy something after following the link, at no additional cost to you.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Czech Chess Train

Chess, anyone?
Chess Train locomotive 362 039-0 in Prague
I photographed this locomotive when I was in Prague at the main train station. The paint scheme intrigued me - why were there chess pieces on the locomotive? A little research was in order.
Šachový Vlak means Chess Train. This locomotive was part of the annual Chess Train that hosts an on board chess tournament as it travels from Prague to Vienna and back. The train left Prague on October 9th, a week after my wife and I went home. The train has been running annually since 2011.

The 2015 train had 11 carriages, standard Czech Railways (České dráhy) cars decorated for the event and each named for a world champion chess player.

In 2015 the route was Prague - Dresden - Wroclaw - Bratislava - Vienna - Prague, over 4 days.

Four grand masters were competing as part of the 122 chess players on board. Any chess player could participate as long as they paid the registration fee (180 Euros).
Participants described the venue as very interesting and entertaining, although it presented its own challenges. For example, the sun could shine on one player's face and distract him or her, or the movement of the train itself could be distracting.

The winner of the individual tournament was Swedish grand master Lars Karlsson, who was also a pioneer of computer-based chess.

I've always loved chess. In high school I would study the grand masters' famous games. If you ever play chess with me, take it seriously, because I will. :)

EDIT: I was looking back through some of my European photos and I realized I had accidentally captured another chess train locomotive, 362 035-0 I believe.

Check... and mate!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance Day

Thank you to the veterans who have gone before us, and to those who serve today who protect us. Your sacrifice is appreciated. Thanks should go to their families as well for their own sacrifices.

We will remember you.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Choosing a New Lens

Choosing a New Lens

I'm on the hunt for a new lens for my camera. Currently have three lenses for my Canon T1i:
  • My baby, a Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens
  • The kit lens, a Canon 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS lens
  • The "nifty fifty", a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens

My Baby

I love the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM lens. It's expensive but man, is it sharp! I bought it in September 2013* and I use it extensively. I use it probably more than I even should, because it is so much better than the 18-55mm lens.

The Nifty Fifty

I bought the "nifty fifty" (Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens) back in early 2011. It's a sharp, fast lens but I don't tend to use it very much for railfanning. The problem is that it is a prime lens, not a zoom, so it is not very useful for photographing moving objects. If it was a prime 24mm lens (or wider) it would be more useful. I tend to use the 50mm lens in low light situations because of its wide aperture (lets in more light) and sharpness.

I recommend that everyone have a "nifty fifty" - they are sharp, fast lenses and very inexpensive.

The Kit Lens

That leads us to the 18-55mm lens. It's an OK lens, but it is definitely not sharp. "Kit" lenses tend to be fair quality lenses but you generally want to upgrade from them (they're called kit lenses because they come in the kit you buy with your camera body).

So... what lens to buy? One big problem is that there are so many choices. Canon has 81 lenses in its current lineup! This doesn't even count the third-party lenses from Sigma, Tamron or Tokina...

Narrowing the Focus

It's important to narrow this field down by deciding precisely what you want. My 18-55mm replacement is intended to be a walk-about lens that I will use for photographing moving trains as well as everyday tourist / pictures-of-kids photography. Here's what I want:
  • A similar focal range: 18-55mm, maybe 16mm at the low end but not more than 70mm at the high end. The focal length can't be longer than 18mm or it's not wide enough.
  • An aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 at the highest.
  • It has to be sharp.
  • It has to zoom... not a prime.
  • Image stabilization / vibration reduction is very important.

The Contenders

Armed with this list, I went out and did a lot of searching to find what lenses were available. In the end, I found 8 lenses. I built an Excel spreadsheet to list the important attributes of these lenses, then read the online reviews and assigned a "desirability index" to each and sorted them. Here are the results:

All prices are Canadian and are store prices at time of writing.


The top two lenses are the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens and the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM FLD Lens. Both are very good lenses. I really want the Canon but the Sigma is $300 cheaper!

The Sigma 210101 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Lens is an excellent lens, by all accounts. I would rate it higher but it has no image stabilization and the focal range is not quite as high as I'd like. That f/1.8 aperture is very tempting, though!

Note that for these third-party lenses like Sigma, it's important to ensure you have the right lens mount. Since I shoot Canon, I've linked to the Canon versions of the lenses. They make lenses for Nikon and Sony as well, so don't buy the wrong lens.

Next Steps

The next step is to go to a camera store and try the Canon and Sigma lenses out. Ideally the store would have both and I could shoot them both and compare the images at home. I know I can't take the lenses with me so that will have to do. I know my heart wants the Canon lens but I have to give the Sigma a good look.

After that it's a question of accumulating enough funds to buy the new lens! Maybe if I sell a few more calendars...

Thanks for reading! Are you in the market for a new lens? Or a new camera?

* The reason why I know that I bought my 70-200mm lens in September 2013 is thanks to Lightroom. It was a simple matter to search by metadata and look for all photos I took with that lens.

The first photo I took with a 70-200mm lens was a pan shot of a passing vehicle to test it out.

Please note that some of the links in this article are affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission when you buy something after following the link, at no additional cost to you.

Friday, November 06, 2015

A Morning at Prague's Main Train Station, Part 2

Here's the second half of my railfan morning at Prague's main train station (hlavní nádraží). (First part)

Here's a different angle on the train station, showing the old city in the distance. The spires on the left horizon belong to the Týn Church, which was right beside our hotel. In fact when I looked out our room's window, I was looking at the side of the church.  The spires closer to the centre belong to several buildings, including the Old Town Hall Tower, home of the famous Astronomical Clock.
Hlavní nádraží, Praha
Here's a pretty versatile engine, a class 380 loco. This is capable of running up to 200 km/hr (125 MPH) under three different electrical systems: 3000V DC, 25 kV AC (50 Hz), and 15 kV AC (16.7 Hz).
CZ locomotive 380 015-8 at Prague station
I spotted sister locomotive 380 018-2 at one of the platforms later that morning.
Czech engine 380 018-2 at Prague station
Here's a Railjet coming into the station - a train much like the one we took between Vienna and Prague.
Railjet train arriving in Prague
I promised a diesel locomotive, and here it is. Czech 714 023-9 was working on the "back side" of the station, shuttling cars back and forth. I saw it had an empty autorack beside it, maybe as a reacher car? It was shuffling both passenger cars and full autoracks.
Czech locomotive 714 023-9 at work
 I walked around to get an overhead view of the locomotive. For a diesel locomotive it has a small stack.
Overhead view of Czech 714 023-9 locomotive
The class 714 locomotives are diesel-electrics capable of 80 km/hr (50 MPH). They have pretty low pulling power by North American standards, rated at 469 HP and weighing only 64 tons. You might say they are equivalent to the old 65-ton GE centre cab locos.

There were a couple of other switchers around, albeit electric switchers. Both are class 111 locomotives, essentially 1000 HP switchers. 111 011-3 is very very worn.
Czech locomotive 111 011-3 in Prague
The other class 111 was on the far side of the station. I reached it with my long lens... with some stuff in the way.
Czech locomotive 111 006-3 in Prague
I guess I have one more diesel to share - an RDC-like self-propelled car. It's a class 854 diesel hydraulic unit, with a Caterpillar prime mover and a top speed of 120 km/hr (75 MPH).
Czech class 854 railcar in Prague
The below is a class 680 high speed train built by Alstom using Pendolino (tilting) technology. The seven car trainsets are capable of 230 km/hr (140 MPH). This train reminded me of the Eurostar trains, although Eurostar can reach 300 km/hr.
Czech 682 001-3 in Prague
I'll close with a locomotive with an interesting paint scheme, decorated for the web site.
Czech 382 086-1 in Prague
So. Many. Trains. I was in railfan heaven!

PS - I want to share a few Czech freight cars that I saw.
Open autoracks! Who would imagine this in North American any more?
 I loved how these logs were stacked in gondolas:
Logs in gondolas
 This is a more "North American" looking bulkhead flat car:
Czech bulkhead flat car
Thanks for reading!

PS - Hey, if you want to receive emails when I post new content here or elsewhere, sign up for my mailing list! I promise I won't spam you.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A Morning at Prague's Main Train Station, Part 1

My wife and I visited Vienna and Prague this fall. We spent 6 days in Vienna and 6 days in Prague and thoroughly enjoyed both cities. After seeing the main train station ("hlavní nádraží") in Prague, and Tom Gatermann's great photos of the rail traffic around the station, I wanted to spend some time there. I negotiated with my wife and we agreed that I could spend a few hours one morning. On October 4th I woke up early and left the hotel just after 6 AM so I could walk the 15 minutes or so to the station while the sun rose.

On the way to the station, I captured a tram. See Trams of Prague for more!
Prague tram 8513

Once I reached the southwest end of the station I spotted someone hard at work cleaning the windows of a CityElefant train. These are electric multiple-unit (EMU) trains produced by Škoda for suburban use.
CityElefant 471 069-5 in Praha
Here's a view of the area. I spent most of my time at the southwest end, on Vinohradská street, although I did go up Španělská for a side view of the station.

See the "Me!" at bottom right of the map for where I stood for most of these photos.

This was my early view from Vinohradská street. You can see that the sun was up but not cresting the ridge east of the station.
Prague station area
Under Vinohradská there are three tunnels. All of these were used while I was there.
Tunnels under Vinohradská
 The photo below was taken later in the morning when there was more light.
Coming out of a tunnel under Vinohradská
The action was often fast and furious with trains arriving and departing all the time. From my vantage point I could often see trains on the other (northwest) end of the station but I couldn't really photograph them, given that it was a good half a kilometre away. I'm not going to post every train I saw - there were too many - but I want to provide a flavour of the rail traffic I saw.

Here's an overview of the entire station, at 7:24 AM.

Note the original station at left (preserved), the enclosed glass train shed, and the three covered platforms at right. There are a lot of tracks here!

Here's a view looking back at Vinohradská and the National Museum (Národní muzeum), and a train going into the tunnels.

I used my telephoto lens to get a closer view of a few trains at the station. Note the complex web of towers and electrical wire to serve the trains.

Given the low light available, I had to use a slow shutter speed - around 1/25s. That's too slow to freeze a train, so I resorted to panning. Here's a few pans I took.

I like how the train cars are so different

Speaking of catenary wire... I'd hate to be an electrician here!

Wires, wires everywhere
 I think all of the "50" signs are speed limit signs, 50 km/hr. In rural areas the trains don't seem to slow down through the rural stations. I can recall blowing through some small towns at track speed, which surprised me.
Czech trains in Prague
A CityElefant train on the move.
CityElefant in Prague
Czech Railways 150 209-5 is another Škoda locomotive. It's a 3000V DC locomotive capable of 140 km/hr (87 MPH).
Czech Railways 150 209-5 in Praha
That's probably enough locomotive photos for now! In the next post I will finish up my morning railfanning at the main Prague train station. It will include a diesel switcher and a couple of electric switcher locomotives!

PS - for your amusement... when I was shooting trams in Prague, I was photobombed...
Photobombed by a nun. Now I've seen everything.
Move on to part 2