How to photograph your Garden Railway

Introduction

You may wonder why most of the photos on this page are "real" locomotives. The reason is, if you know what a photo looks like of a real locomotive then you will have a better chance of making a photo of a G-Scale locomotive look much the same.



Camera Angle

If you look at photos in magazines or at video on say  "YouTube" you will see photographs and videos of Garden Railways and they almost always have one thing in common.

The camera angle is low down, as if at your eye level above the level of the track, or even below sometimes called "the worm's eye shot".

Why? Well this camera angle gives the same view as if you had been standing taking a photo beside the track of a full sized locomotives and trains, thus adding to effect of realism in your photo or video.

The photo is of a full sized loco taken at track side level on the Buckfastleigh to Totnes line.



There are times when a following shot as if in a helicopter is dramatic but rarely better than the low level shot. If you are using a video camera the best advice is use it like a still camera and follow the subject's movement rather than moving the camera all over the place. With that in mind if a video camera is not mentioned below then use is like a still camera.

The photo, whilst it is of a full sized loco, is actually taken from way above unit and looks more like a shot of a model loco standing in a station. It does not have the impact of a lower eye level shot.



Equipment

Forget for a moment the camera, still or video, and think that it is a dry but cold day and you are wishing to capture the "great" picture of your live steam  or electric locomotive, then the most important item to have with you is something to put down on the ground so that you can lay flat on the ground. Make sure it is not just any old piece of plastic sheeting as it will be very cold to the touch! A Sleeping bag on top of a ground sheet is what you need to be the most comfortable.

A more expensive camera does not necessarily mean a better shot but obviously a better camera which allows you to use photographic techniques, to the full, does result in stunning photos. You must expect to take many photos at different setting to, may be, arrive at the shot you really wanted to obtain.

However do not be put off if you do not have a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) as the simple point and shoot camera can give you good results but take your time experimenting with all available settings.

The photo was taken at Totnes Littlehempton Station as low down as possible. Had this been a G-Scale loco it would have necessitated lying flat on the ground as mentioned above!



Moving or still locomotives

Your next decision is do you want to take a shot of the locomotive stationary or moving. Both are correct but it all depends upon what photo you are wanting. There will not be the characteristic flowing of steam from the chimney back over the engine if a live steam loco is not moving. The photo shows a full sized loco at speed with the lovely plume of steam leaving the chimney.

It is always best to use a tripod but with the DSLR camera some now have "vibration reduction" lens that reduce camera shake. Pan with the subject, whilst pressing the shutter release, if you are taking a  shot of a moving locomotive and you can achieve the photo, which to some is most pleasing, with foreground and background blurred due to camera movement and the subject still.

Such a photo is not as easy to achieve with a compact digital camera as with the DSLR. With the DSLR there is negligible delay between the shutter release being pressed and the picture being taken and entered into the camera's memory.



The photo is of the indoor "00" railway track at Buckfastleigh, the loco is moving so the camera was panned with the movement resulting in the blurring of foreground and back ground.



There is nothing wrong in taking at least some shots with the loco stationary and this is especially true when using a compact digital camera.

Having the loco stationary also means that the camera can be mounted on a tripod and foreground - subject - and background will not be blurred but as shown here with careful use of the depth of field the foreground and back ground are mostly out of focus making the loco the important item in the photo.

The DSLR such as the Nikon D80 has another nice feature in that you can take a succession of photos just by holding down the shutter release button. This combined with panning the camera with the moving loco can achieve great results.



Day or night shots

Day shot are as above but the night time shot will mean even more experimentation. Whether you have a compact camera or DSLR. To achieve that natural looking picture you must NOT use the built in flash ... or any flash for that matter unless you are setting up a studio like location but such a set up is far outside the scope of this piece.

In the, top right, picture of the "00" track at Buckfastleigh the interior light of the diesel shows nicely, foreground and background blurred, loco in focus and still, showing that the camera was being panned at the speed of the loco when the shutter release was pressed.

Nights shots are all about embracing the feel for the environment and using available light. Now this does not mean a completely black night shot as there must be some light for the camera to record an image. The light can be from moon light, street / station lights . So first take some shots with just the existing light using the capabilities of your camera to the full.

The night shots you have seen taken in a movie / TV film are specially contrived by the lighting crew who have been there for a long time setting the lighting for the prefect shot.

So there is nothing wrong in you copying those ideas of using additional lights. Simple lights such as those used with protection for the bulb are quite sufficient for first your efforts and then build on your results.

The night shot of the building and loco allows the lights  of the building to illuminate the general area and is not "over lit" with lights outside. You will need to achieve a balance between the outside ambient light and that coming out from the windows.



Special shots for the Video camera

Something that the video camera can do that the still cannot and that is record a trip on your track. Whether the camera is facing forwards or backwards make sure it will be safe even if the train has a crash. Keep the camera located as near to the track as possible, and this helps with preventing the truck carrying the camera from turning over and does give you the shot as if it were on board a real train.

Remember to consider any tunnels, bridges or track side furniture such as signals so that the camera does not smash into them and stop your fun before it has begun.

Here is a shot taken from a full sized train whilst stationary waiting at signals. Such a photo could be taken on your railway with a camera on a suitable truck.



Conclusion

Whether you have a still compact or digital single reflex camera or a video camera make sure you will be comfortable taking the photos, enjoy the task and if the results are not as you want the first time make some notes and then try to improve the next time.

Always consider your safety whilst taking your photos especially when using additional lighting and trailing cables, we cannot be responsible for your accidents.

If the best photo you can take is like this one, taken from the foot bridge at Buckfastleigh Station, be satisfied as the steam makes for a very atmospheric photo.

Well that is enough for the time being but of course is not the end of the topic as there is so much more to consider especially for the owner of a DSLR but to go on would probably bore most readers !!!


The photographs of the locos on this web page were taken on the South Devon Railway ...

The animation is made up of 23 separate photos assembled at low resolution to show all the photos taken whilst panning and then you could decide which is the shot you like most.

Camera Nikon D80 with VR 18-200m lens, shooting mode - continuous 3 frames per second.