Working on the Railroad

It’s birthday portrait time again in my household, as my oldest has recently completed yet another trip around the Sun.

Birthday portraits are a fount of contrasts, in particular the ecstasy of transcendent visions of images to be and the agony of failing to realize them. Often, with that form of l’esprit de l’escalier unique to photography, the photographer realizes when importing images into Lightroom that if he’d only squatted instead of standing up he’d have made a much better picture, or something like that.

But this is not a tale of woe, my dear readers; no, this is a tale of agony transmuted into ecstasy when a vision was (mostly) realized satisfactorily. On with the image:

The Model Controller

John, like his mother and grandfather, is a railfan. He loves trains, anything and everything about trains. Of course he has a model train setup, in N scale because our house is small. He got a new engine for his birthday, too, and I knew I wanted a picture of him with his railroad, wearing an engineer hat and bandanna. I also knew I didn’t just want to throw an umbrella or octabank in front of him and call it a day; something edgier and more interesting was called for.

After a couple weeks of thought I got the idea of a long exposure with his trains while they were running, with a grid spot (my favorite restricted light source) on his face. I like long exposures in general, and this shot would mix strobe with continuous light and some light painting from the movement of the model trains.

Further, I’d been rereading David Hobby’s Lighting 103 course and was reminded that very few light sources are white light sources. This image would have amber and red and green and a bit of blue from the screen on the DCC base station, but no “pure” white light.

Having figured out the light, the next problem was composition. John’s room is small and crowded, and the trains are on a piece of plywood mounted under a loft bed. The arrangement of the room leaves one and only one good angle to shoot from, long ways down the bed towards the west windows. Those windows are a huge problem because they will utterly blow out any long exposure.

I solved the windows both by waiting until evening to photograph and by draping a large piece of black velvet around the bed frame. Initially, I thought about having John lean over the trains with a lantern, but that position was awkward and cramped and he was too far away from the trains. By having him kneel next to the board with his elbows next to the track, that put him close enough to establish a relationship between man and machine.

John has a Metra (Chicago suburban) passenger train and a freight train with three different engines he can use. In the picture above, the Metra train is running on the outer track, making one revolution of the track every 8 seconds or so. At f/11 the light levels looked good, so my exposure was 8″ @ f/11 @ ISO 800.

The room was too crowded to use floorstanding lights, but as luck has it I have a couple of different clamps and stands with built-in clamps. I positioned a strobe with my grid spot using such a stand attached to the leg of the bed nearest him and angled it until it hit his face at the angle I wanted. The trains would take care of themselves.

I set up the camera on a tripod and snapped a few exposures. The strobe did its thing on his face and the lights in his Metra cars painted in the foreground nicely.

Would I do anything differently if I could do it again? Maybe. The DCC base station behind John’s left arm is pretty much fixed in place by where we ran the wires when we originally set up his track. True, the lights on it are actually helping the image by providing separation on his arm and the back of his head, but one could argue that I should either have included more of it as an image element or hid it altogether. I’ll probably never decide which is correct.

Oh, and for you train fans, that UP/CNW engine is running left-hand main, just like in real life. 😁

That’s all for today. This is Nicholas Haggin, wishing you fair subjects and following light.

It’s the Most Wonderful Light of the Year

I love Christmas lights. I love them almost as much as I love my wife. Maybe more.

(Just kidding, honey.)


But when I first tried photographing them in 2004, my results were bland and unimpressive, featuring either underexposed lights in a sea of murk, or overexposed lights with some bits of house scattered across the frame.

Two years later, David Hobby published his definitive guide to photographing Christmas lights, which I discovered yet another two years later. Stop now and read David’s post before you continue here.

To be sure, my first efforts with my new knowledge weren’t all that impressive:


But eventually I found time and leisure to try more complex compositions:

Lux in tenebris lucet

Sometimes I even put the foreground on the right side of the frame:


Most of my pictures have been taken either in Champaign (40° N) or Arlington Heights (42° N), and in either case my rules of thumb for the best time to photograph are the same:

  • On a clear day, the best light is between 4:55-5:10 PM. Before that the sky is too bright, and after that it’s too dark.
  • Shift everything back 10 minutes for a cloudy day (4:45-5:00 PM).
  • You may be able to buy a few extra minutes on a clear day by shooting into the west.
  • You may need to start earlier if you’re shooting into the east.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, especially on the darker end.

Despite the proliferation of LEDs in modern Christmas lighting, incandescent/tungsten white balance is still the best choice in my opinion. Nothing else yields those rich blues that are half the reason for photographing Christmas lights.

Inspired to take your own pictures now? I hope so. Now get out there and do it. As always, I wish you fair subjects and following light.

Ready For My Close-Up

The photograph of President and Mrs. Biden and President and Mrs. Carter made at their recent visit seems to have broken the Internet, with shock and laughter and mockery and “well, ackshully” fact-checking galore. I wouldn’t normally add to it, but I occasionally teach people how to photograph, and this picture is a great example for explaining explain certain optical phenomena.

First, here’s the picture:

The light is consistent across the frame (particularly, look at shadows under chins) and there are no signs of compositing or cutting-and-pasting image elements. The photographer probably manipulated contrast, did some color correction, and added a bit of sharpening, but that’s about it.

So why do the Bidens look so big and the Carters look so small, almost like dolls or puppets? What we are seeing here is the effect of a wide-angle lens used at very short range; on 35mm film, the focal length would be no longer than 24mm, and could be as short as 16mm. The photographer likely had very little room to work with and could not get the camera back far enough to use a longer lens.

Wide-angles used close-in create deep perspective and exaggerate the sizes of objects both close to the camera and at the edges of the frame. The effect is analogous to the Mercator map projection, where Greenland is rendered larger than South America, though it is in reality much smaller. In this photograph, two particular size relationships are telling:

  • Compare the size of Jimmy’s head and his feet. He looks like he’s wearing clown shoes; that size distortion/perspective exaggeration is an inevitable effect of this combination of lens and camera position.
  • Though the Carters are smaller people than the Bidens to begin with, and older, both Carters are also sitting farther away from the camera than both Bidens. If the photographer were using a longer lens from farther away it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the same perspective exaggeration that makes Jimmy’s feet huge makes both Bidens look much larger than both Carters.

Modern image software offers tools that can be used to reduce the effect of distortions at the edge of the frame, but there’s nothing really that can be done to modify near/far exaggerations without accurate depth data for every pixel in the whole image, and doing that transformation without making it look silly is computationally quite expensive.

I must unfortunately report that this is not a case of nefarious Photoshopping, but rather of a photographer constrained by a small space to a particular tool that has interesting and potentially amusing side effects.

And that’s the way it is. This is Nicholas Haggin, wishing you fair subjects and following light.

66 Strip

66 Strip

Turns out that the famous Las Vegas Strip welcome sign has no protection under copyright or trademark, and may be freely adapted by whomever wants to spoof it.

Even funnier: the mayor of McCook, IL who had this sign built was prosecuted for corruption, and is no longer mayor. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to put your name on it, sir.