Minnie versus larger stuff

Okay, so the Minolta with added close-up filters was adequate in “studio” situations. What was it like in other environments, such as photographing whole layouts while at exhibitions?

(All the images used in this blog are of models built to a constant scale of 7mm to 1 foot, or 1/43rd scale.)

Well, to be honest, it was okay. Not brilliant, but okay. I was asked by some fellow members of the ScaleSeven Group to photograph their new layout Ellerton Road at its first outing at Telford (the Gauge O Guild convention) in 2006. I had access to the layout before the show opened to public, so I could take my time, while the guys set things up around me.

The problems I encountered were these:

  • Taking images from a low angle means you see a lot of ceiling. Convention and exhibition hall ceilings are not that nice to look at, unless you’re a heating and ventilation engineer.
  • The hall lighting was orange. You don’t notice this when you’re looking about, but electronic devices (and film cameras) end up with a distinct colour cast if you don’t consider white balance. 
  • The lighting caused lens flares.
  • Lack of depth of field.

Let’s take these problems in order, and look at how I solved them.

  • I had to live with the ceiling. I will not take photos of models from a helicopter looking down, because it instantly ruins any illusion of realism. I figured I could remove the worst excesses of air conditioning ducts and lights in post production, so I concentrated on getting nicely framed shots as best I could.
  • I let the camera handle the lighting. The Minolta Dimage, being a sort of hybrid digital stills camera with video camera technology, usually managed reasonably well with auto white balance. I decided to let it do its own thing, and adjust in software later.
  • Lens flares were all but impossible to avoid. Looking generally upwards, there were lighting systems in frame most of the time. Anything that obviously caused a flare could be shielded by holding my hand to block it.
  • Depth of Field.Not one of the Minnie’s strongest points. To counter this, I did a series of long-ish shots to take in the general view of the layout, then concentrated on small detailed sections.

Here are the results:

That sky looks wrong, doesn’t it? There’s also a bit of flaring going on up there. But, on the whole, it works well. Nothing half an hour in Photoshop with an alpha channel or two couldn’t cure. In fact, the DoF here looks really good. I put this down to the Cokin close-up filter.

The next shot suffers badly from the stand beyond with their own lighting. It sort of gives the impression of the foreground action taking place under floodlights – hardly appropriate for 1910! Again, the DoF is adequate, if a little soft in the foreground, but a bit of creative cropping to lose those lights would work wonders.

The third shot works quite well, with the locomotive framed nicely between wagon on the left, and the sheeted load on the right. Even the walkway at the back, actually part of the main exhibition hall, doesn’t look too out of place. Sadly, the DoF lets the foreground down. Pity.

The close-up filters let me take some shots inside the goods shed, which was perched at the front of the layout. This image shows the lighting problem well. It’s very bleached and orange in tone, which meant that any colours on the layout simply did not reproduce well. In context with the period in which the layout is set, it doesn’t look so bad, but orange mercury vapour lights (or whatever they were) were not ideal for this job. What I didn’t see until back at base and downloading the images to the Mac was the dust on the filter. Live and learn!

At another exhibition, this time in London, I took a series of shots of Clydesdale Iron Foundry. This is an industrial layout, set unsurprisingly in the network of lines of a foundry, and is one of the S7 Group’s Scottish area group layouts. Of note is the tramway style electric loco. 

I didn’t have my tripod with me, as I hadn’t been expecting to take any photos. However, while the exhibition was quiet, I managed to get some very good shots handheld. I did this by boosting the ISO to 400 so the shutter speed could be faster with a smaller aperture. Luckily, the barrier I was leaning on was sturdy, and my hands weren’t shaking too much! 

Again, I was using available light, but this time I didn’t have the close-up filters on. I guess I was just lucky.

Well, the Minnie was okay for working with the larger stuff. Still, it wasn’t perfect, and certainly limited what I wanted to do with the small scale model photography. It seemed the only way forward was to move to a proper camera. It was back to the saving for the proper DSLR.

Next time I’ll take a look at why Depth of Field is so important to what I do.