Building a Photograph: Toy Train Under The Christmas Tree

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"Christmas Train" by D. Travis North
The holidays are here, and of course I’m in a festive mood.  We celebrate Christmas in my household, and so the tree is up, decorations are out and my kids are on their best behaviors in hopes of getting some sweet gifts.  But for me, the season is a source of inspiration.  I introduced a new tradition to our household this year, I pulled out my old trains for under the tree.  These were my father’s trains, and some were his father’s before him – a special collection.  And so I wanted to memorialize their return in a special way.  Well, I’m a photographer, and so I wanted to shoot a bunch of scenes featuring the trains.  But for your benefit and edification, I wanted to take one of the shots and really explain how I got the shot, and why.

The Vision of the Shot

Every planned shot needs to have a vision.  Your vision may not be entirely complete, it may not even have all of the details figured out.  But you need to start planning the shot, and you can’t do that without a vision.  For this shot, I wanted to preserve the different patterns and reflections that the tree’s lights cast over the tree skirt.  And I wanted the to train pop out of the scene.  And of course I wanted the entire scene framed by the edge of the tree skirt and the branches and ornaments above.  As for the overall look, I wanted something pushing the edge of reality.  I wanted it to be a little dreamy and somewhat surreal.  Knowing what I wanted to accomplish, I was able to begin building the shot.

The Initial Setup

A shot of my final setup – I’ll refer back to this snapshot several times.

When working in a controlled environment, I like to think about lenses first and foremost.  Ideally, I wanted a wider angle shot to get more of the tree in it, and to hopefully make the train look a bit larger.  Unfortunately, that was not possible with the arrangement of the room as I would introduce elements I did not want in the photo.  Additionally, getting the framing of the train the way I wanted would have put the camera too close to the train, which means I would not have an ideal placement of the lower branches within my shot (if they made it at all).  And so I compromised with the 50mm prime which would allow me to get far enough from the tree to get the lower branches of the tree in the shot while keeping a relatively low angle.  As a bonus, it is one of my best performing apertures.  Focal length decided, I was able to position my camera so that I could frame the train exactly how I wanted.  For that matter, I also had to tweak the position of the train a few times.  In the end, I had my camera about seven feet from the train at a shallow angle, as you can see in the setup shot at right.

Layering The Light

Fig. 1:  Here I dialed in f/2.8 and 1/125 to get the lights to look just right.  (direct from camera)

I wanted to pick up the head lamp from the train as well as a few of the lights in the tree.  To get the look I wanted, I started by exposing for the train’s lamp.  I also wanted a fairly shallow depth of field, and so I knew I would be working with an aperture of f/2.8.  Working in manual mode, I dialed the shutter speed up to 1/125 after a few test shots.  It was just enough exposure to get the lights rendering the way I wanted.  As you can see in the shot on the left, you can really just see the lights and a few of the reflections.  The headlamp is almost a perfect circle and you can barely see its reflections on the tracks.  The shot is incredibly dark, but one should never under estimate the power of a flash.  Note that from this point on, I will not be changing the aperture or shutter speed.

Fig. 2:  Adding my flash low and to the right with a half-curled FlashBender seems to have done the trick. (direct from camera)

And so the next step was to introduce the flash.  To preserve the subtle reflections on the floor, I wanted the key light to be very low, just grazing the top of the train.  On the modification side of things, I chose to utilize my large Rogue FlashBender.  A trick that I learned with the device is that you can actually curl one edge over to create a narrower beam and it behaves almost like a tiny strip bank.  And so I placed the entire unit on its back down and to the right with the FlashBender’s far edge curled towards the train.  You’ll note in the setup shot above that the flash isn’t pointed directly at the train – a portion of the light escapes, but enough is bounced onto the trains that we’ll be okay.  As you can see, the newly introduced flash does a good job of lighting the scene.

Fig. 3:  Added: Blue Gel to key, “reflector” camera left and a bit of fill from the on-camera flash.  (direct from camera)

To me, I still felt the shot lacked a few things.  The silver portions of the train were dull and uninteresting to me.  One trick I learned is that a bluish color tends to bring out the best in silver.  Adding a full-blue gel to the flash helped me to get those metallic elements to pop.  As expected, it does create a bit of a color shift to blue within the shot, but I can correct for that later.  I also wanted to get a tiny bit of separation between the train and the tree skirt, and I wanted a bit more light on the front of the train.  I handled by placing a white sketch pad backing (not everything must be expensive)  just to the left the train.  To add just a bit more light to the face of the train, I set up my on-camera flash for a bit of fill at 1/128th power.  The blue gel ate some of the light on the key, so that got a little bit of a boost and ended up at 1/32 power.  The finished shot direct from camera is shown here.  Again, the shot doesn’t look like much.  But remember that I have a plan for this, and I am already planning exactly what to do in post processing.  The bluish cast remains at this point, which I plan to fix in post, but look at how well the silver edges are popping.  This is ready now to be pulled into my software.

Post Processing

Generally, I don’t intend to do too much in post-processing.  I strive to keep things simple with an exposure tweak, maybe some white balancing or a few spot checks for dust and scratches.  But with a shot like this, and with my overall vision in mind, I knew from the very beginning that I would be doing more with this photo.  I had this in mind when I was setting up the lighting.  That’s why I wasn’t so concerned about white-balancing in-camera (which I often do).  In fact, I was going to take advantage of the bluish tint by selectively warming the train itself.  And so I began my approach towards wrapping up the finished photograph.

Note that I am working in Adobe’s Lightroom for my post-processing in this case.  You can truly use whatever you wish for your post-processing, and I am going to try to be as broad in my summary as possible.  The terminology and aspects of what I changed will translate to other software packages.  The methodology may be slightly different.

Fig. 4:  Within Lightroom, I am snapping a diagonal gradient to help make my train pop. I used two gradients in a wedge around the train to get the finished look.

Using Lightroom, I started by adjusting for any minor errors I made in camera.  I slightly boosted the exposure, tweaked the contrast and of course adjusted the color temperature and tinting to compensate for the blue-gelled key light.  I didn’t warm it up too much at this point for reasons you will soon see.  Next I dropped the clarity slider a bit to get that dream-like effect overall.  At this point, the train itself loses a little detail as a result of the clarity shift, but I’m about to introduce gradients to make the train pop.

Gradients are a new tool that I’ve been experimenting with, and I really wanted to use them in this shot to make the train pop.  The primary gradient, which is seen at the right, boosts the exposure, sharpens and significantly increases the clarity in the direction of the train.  I have also given it a warming tint to compensate for the bluish tint that I still had over the entire photograph.  A secondary gradient, the control point of which is seen just below the tip of the branch, is angled much shallower and sloping down and to the right.  The purpose of this gradient is to control the exposure and brightness as well as the saturation of color up and to the right.  I want to make sure the train is still the most clear and warmest spot in the frame, and this secondary gradient helps me achieve that.  To wrap up, I added a bit of vignetting at the corners to focus the eye and to really punch the warmth around the train.

Final Thoughts:  Finishing Touches

I am pretty satisfied with how the photo turned out and I feel as though I’ve achieved my original vision.  But I will admit that what I had expected of my post-processing was a bit of a gamble.  That’s not to say I took the approach that I had without a fallback.  I did shoot several frames after figure 4 above with in-camera white balancing and slightly higher light levels.  But I had a different and less dramatic processing approach in mind for these fallback photos.  In the end, I never ended up using them because my gamble worked out far better than I had imagined.

One final note:  I would be daft to say that I didn’t learn anything from this and every shot.  For example, this was the first time I had used more than a single gradient in post-processing within Lightroom, and I truly believe the shot is all the better for it.  I will be using that secondary gradient as a means to control the primary moving forward.  One should always make an effort to learn from their shots.  The wisdom gained will help you to do better the next time.

Well, I hope seeing my process from start to finish really helps you to understand how I build a shot.  This is the first of this kind of posting here on Shutter Photo, and I hope you found it beneficial.  In the future, I hope to do more of these, but I would appreciate your thoughts and feedback so that I can make sure I’m hitting on the things you’d like to see.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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