Saturday, January 28, 2017

How To Focus Your Camera at Night

If you've tried to take a photo in the dark of night, you may have found your camera had a hard time focusing... or never focused at all.

Digital cameras focus by looking for contrast within the image. They are looking for areas where a bright part of the image is next to a darker part. This is why cameras focus best on sharp edges like door frames, building edges and so forth.

The problem with focusing at night is that everything is dark so there is very little contrast. This causes cameras to "hunt" for focus and often fail to lock in a good focus, resulting in blurry photos. My camera will often refuse to take a photo at all because it didn't focus.

Two solutions for focusing at night are:
  • Using a light to assist
  • Live view

Using a Light

If you have a light handy, you can use that to illuminate your subject and provide enough contrast for your camera to achieve focus. You can use a flashlight, your car's headlights, or even your cell phone to put a little light on your subject.

Once you achieve focus with your camera, put it in manual focus to keep that focus point and start shooting.

For the photo at the top of this post, I used my portable flashlight (which is ridiculously bright) to light up the signal tower.

First I put my camera on a tripod. Then I lit the signal tower up with the flashlight, and focused on the tower using my camera's auto focus.

Once it achieved focus, I flipped the switch on the lens to put it in manual focus and turned the flashlight off.

As long as I didn't zoom in or out, or change the location of the camera, the focus would stay "good" and I could take as many photos as I liked.

Live View

Another option is to use the "live view" feature of your camera. This is a feature of most DSLRs where it will show what the camera's sensor sees, in real time, on the display on the back of your camera. Normally when you look through the viewfinder, you are seeing a reflection off the mirror in your camera.

Live view has its benefits because it is brighter than the viewfinder, and you can zoom in. In the video below, recorded in Fargo, North Dakota, I used live view to focus on the clock tower of the Fargo train station.

The basic idea is this:

  • Put the camera on a tripod
  • Put the lens in manual focus
  • Turn live view on
  • Expand the live view as far as you can go
  • Use the focus ring on the lens to focus using the live view as a reference
  • Turn live view off and take photos

In this case I had the benefit of a relatively bright clock face, but it works pretty well in darker situations as well.

Live view really sucks the battery, so you don't want to use it long term.

This should work well for mirrorless cameras, where you are basically using live view all the time. I don't have a mirrorless camera so I don't have any personal experience of this.

I hope this helps you take some great night photos. Shooting at night is a totally different experience and I enjoy the challenge and the different perspectives it brings!

See Also

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Drama At Diamond

Diamond Darkened Dome Drama?
Mark Perry and I both photographed at Diamond one day last week, so with his permission I thought I'd share our stories together. His text is in italics and the post title came from Mark.

Mark: Wow, whoever says Winnipeg is boring for railways is crazy!

I had in mind a shot of the tail end of VIA 1 leaving the city this afternoon so I headed west. Stopped in at St. James Jct for a quick look, BNSF sitting there waiting to get into Fort Rouge, a southbound CP Altona WF coming, CN 101 heading west, what to do?

I had a brief look but did not do any shooting. Instead I jump back in the truck and head west following Q101. Guy is going like hell, his head end beats me to Diamond (sadly no Mayor around today).

Steve: I was itching to get out and shoot some trains. I checked the VIA Rail tracker and saw that VIA 1 was on time, so I hopped in my car and headed to Diamond outside Winnipeg. As I approached Wilkes Avenue from the south, I saw a westbound CN intermodal train also heading toward Diamond.

I was able to get in front of it pretty easily and decided to catch it "splitting the signals" just west of Diamond. That was CN 101 in its typical 1+1+1 configuration with CN 2851 / 3018 / 3118.
CN 101 with the air conditioning on, splitting the east-facing signals at Diamond.
There is a railfan standing on the CP crossing in a silver car shooting, he wants to shoot the tailend DP unit going over the diamond. Hell I'm going to ruin his shot, so I slam on the brakes so I don't wreck his shot!

As I positioned myself to shoot the trailing unit crossing the diamond, I saw a truck driving up and it sure looked like I was going to get skunked. Thankfully it was Mark Perry and he paused long enough for me to snap the crossing.

My photo of CN 3118 trailing on train 101 at Diamond. The shadow of Mark's truck is visible at far right!
Soon the steel diamond stops hammering with 700 wheels and I see it's Steve Boyko! First words out of his mouth are "I hear a horn, I think the CP is coming!" Sure enough here comes a GP38-2 and a GP20ECO and a string of empty hoppers headed south to Elm Creek.

I agree that the first words I said to Mark probably were about the CP horn I heard as CN 101 was passing. Sure enough, there were headlights on the CP Glenboro sub but the train stopped a long way away.

Well what to do? Head west for my tail end shot of #1 or shoot the CP coming across the diamond? 

Well maybe the CP is going across first so I can bag him and then head west.

No sooner did I think that, here comes #1's headlight on the north track, okay we stay put at the Diamond.

The next train up was VIA 1 and I shot the "Canadian" splitting the east facing signals. The train had four deadhead cars on the head end with Kootenay Park on the rear.
VIA 1 at Diamond

Steve shoots the head end as I shoot the tail end.
VIA 1 heading west out of Winnipeg. Mark Perry photo.
5 minutes later the CP pounds the diamond and heads south.
CP 3063 has the green light to cross the diamond. Mark Perry photo.
Next was CP, with a Geep and an Eco unit (3063 / 2220) pulling some grain mtys for elevators along the line.
Same train, different photographer. :)
I took a few shots as they rolled on past, then Mark and I said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Good times.

It was -1C and sunny in the city, it was still -1C at Diamond but the Mayor asked for winds and they were out there in FULL FORCE. No time for chit-chat, we were freezing our balls off and off to home we went...

Danger, Will Robinson!
Time to say our goodbyes

See Also

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Effing Graffiti

I want to rant a bit about graffiti. I saw two posts this weekend of vandalism that just made me mad: VIA Rail's Canadian and the Toys for Tots train.

VIA's Canadian

It's common to see freight cars with graffiti on them. I should say it's uncommon to see cars without graffiti. However, it's a lot rarer to see passenger cars get vandalized.

Jeff Keddy posted this photo of VIA Rail's Chateau Lasalle with graffiti on one side. (thanks to Jeff for permission to post)
Chateau Lasalle with graffiti. Photo by Jeff Keddy.
Apparently the car was parked at Union Station (in Winnipeg, I believe) and someone hopped the fence and sprayed it, then did some damage to the interior as well.

That made me mad. But this one made me furious:

Toys For Tots Train

Railway Express car with graffiti. Photo by Taras Terlecky.
This train is owned by the United Railroad Historical Society of NJ and was used for a "Toys for Tots" drive.

Toys for Tots train, vandalized. Photo by Taras Terlecky
It was vandalized this weekend and several cars were "decorated" by some jackass or jackasses. A police report has been filed.

I don't know if you can see from the photo at right but one of the coaches also has some graffiti "scrawls" on it.

Imagine how many scarce volunteer hours have gone into maintaining and repainting this equipment... and now it will have to be done again.

Thanks to Taras Terlecky for permission to post the photos.

What the Heck?

It's bad enough to vandalize freight cars with paint. You shouldn't do this.

But to "tag" passenger cars? And museum cars?

Well, this is a family blog so I won't use the language I really want to use, but what kind of #*$&@#$ jerk does that?

I see a lot of posts about "benching" on Instagram (#benching), which is about watching and photographing graffiti on trains. Here's a big blog post on it. I'm sure it's interesting to watch for known "tags" and some of the graffiti is quite artistic.. for example:

There is definitely some real talent out there.

Most graffiti is just scribbles, vandalism with no art at all.

Regardless of its artistic value, it's wrong. It's not OK to deface someone else's property. I don't understand it at all.

I've written in the past about how I'm conflicted about graffiti on trains - the art of it versus the vandalism. No more.

Just.. Stop

Just stop doing graffiti. And stop glorifying it.

For my part, I'm not going to post any more graffiti. I mean, it'll be on trains that I photograph - hard to avoid that - but I won't post any photos where the photo prominently features graffiti.

I'm going to unfollow anyone on Instagram who primarily posts graffiti. I might lose some followers, but I don't want them.

I'm sick to my stomach from seeing these passenger cars vandalized, and I'm sick of graffiti.


Monday, January 02, 2017

My 2017 Plans

First train of 2017 for me
I went out yesterday afternoon (January 1) to get my first train(s) of 2017. As I drove up to the CN Rivers subdivision, I saw headlights to the east, indicating a westbound train. I turned west and headed toward Diamond and started planning my shot. Where did I want to photograph the train? What angle? What lens?

Planning is what we do at this time of year. It's natural to plan when you start a new year. Out with the old, in with the new. Here are my plans for 2017:
  • Range farther afield
  • Finish my Manitoba grain elevator project
  • Write, write, write
  • Help others

Range Farther Afield

I've become pretty comfortable with zipping out to the CN main lines east and west of my house. They're quick, easy, but I have to say.. not challenging.. and there is not much of a variety. I love the open prairie but there are a distinct lack of props / background details to be had near Winnipeg. It's time to push the envelope and go a little farther.

I have two areas in Canada that I plan on visiting in 2017, and a couple of other "hopefuls".


Photo by Ken McCutcheon
The area around Assiniboia, Saskatchewan has fascinated me for a while. Saskatchewan is blessed with many short lines and the Great Western Railway works in the Assiniboia area. Ken McCutcheon and others have shared many photos from the area and I'd like to visit Assiniboia and photograph a few trains. Those MLWs and ex BNSF units are calling me... as are the grain elevators!

I'm looking at late spring to visit Assiniboia. It'll be a multi-day trip, as it is a good 7 hour drive from Winnipeg to Assiniboia... plus I'll want to stop along the way to photograph grain elevators...

Ontario Southland Railway

The Ontario Southland Railway (OSR) is a shortline railway operating in southern Ontario. It operates over several subdivisions but its main draw is the fascinating array of older locomotive power it has. The OSR has FP9s, it has SW1200s, it has RS18s, GP7s and GP9s... working in freight service, no less! I've enjoyed the photos that Greg McDonnell and Walter Pfefferle and others have shared and I want to take my own.

I hope to visit the OSR in the fall, maybe when I'm in the Toronto area for my son's graduation from university.

UPDATE: I did this one!

The Hopefuls

I would love to visit Churchill, Manitoba. I want to see the polar bears and ride VIA Rail through the remote areas of Manitoba. However, it is expensive to tour Churchill, in the order of several thousand dollars per person. That's definitely a lot more than a few tanks of gas and a hotel night or two to visit Assiniboia!

I'd also like to photograph some trains over the Uno trestle in western Manitoba. When I visited Beulah as part of finishing my Manitoba grain elevator project, I was only 10 minutes away from the trestle. I knew it was there but I didn't have time in my schedule to visit it, and I'd like to correct that.

Finish My Manitoba Grain Elevator Project

I set out in 2014 to photograph all of Manitoba's grain elevators, and in the summer of 2016 I finished the job. However, there's more work to be done.

I have to finish putting them all on the web site, and maybe consider writing a book or eBook.

That's my big project for the first half of this year... put every grain elevator online.

Then I can look at Saskatchewan and beyond! :)

Write, Write, Write

In 2016 I wrote a few articles for Branchline magazine - I loved doing that.

In 2017 I plan on writing a couple of articles for The Trackside Photographer - an excellent web site I recommend you check out.

I also intend to write another eBook or two. I have some topics in mind but I welcome your suggestions.

Of course, I'll be writing here and on Confessions of a Model Train Geek.

Help Others

I want to help others. In many ways, really, but in the context of this blog, I want to help people improve their photography, answer the questions they have about trains, and just provide a little rail-related entertainment.

I'm not claiming to be the one source of answers - far from it - but I've learned a thing or two, and I'd like to share it.

In 2017 I plan on publishing more photography "how to" posts (like this one), a series of posts on Instagram (SO many railfans on Instagram across the world), and more "5 minute railfan" type posts (like this one).

I'd also like to publish more guest posts. I really appreciated that Ken McCutcheon and Jack Hykaway and Taylor Woolston guested this year.

I Need Your Help

I don't want to write things that nobody wants. That won't help people.

So... please, leave a comment or email me at What do YOU want me to write in 2017?