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Bob's New "Photo Studio"

Modern Toy Train Photography:
From Doodlebug to Shutterbug, How to make your digital photography click

By Bob Mintz                                                               Updated Spring 2021

Growing up (an interesting concept considering our hobby and I'm still playing with basically the same toy that I first did at the age of 4), I was told to save $$$ for my old age.  As I am turning 67 next birthday, I have determined that, as Elvis sang, "It's Now or Never."

I am packing up the collection from my Florida Condo in anticipation of finding that blessed home with the ultimate Man Cave, seeing that there are no basements or usable attics here.

For a visual comparison of the current method of photographing cars with the new method, click here. The clarity and detail of the new method is quite apparent for those wishing to examine close details.

In doing so, I am retaking photographs of my entire collection for both e*Train and myself.  With larger internet bandwidths now available, high resolution images make more sense in today's electronic environment so that we can share our collections and finds with others in the hobby.  Subtle and slight color differences, dull vs. glossy paint, colored vs. painted plastic, lettering size, color spacing or font and different placement or brightness of the heralds and decals and other variations, can now be seen clearer for comparison purposes, especially for you rivet counters out there.

I have previously written about how to take photos of your toy trains. See my earlier article.

I have spent a lot of time experimenting with different and newer methods to help satisfy my self-imposed standards of photographical approval.  I have tried using tin foil bouncing the flash off of the "roof" and "floor" of this photo studio or natural lighting and no flash at all.  My major issue were the shadows created under the black trucks especially when using overhead lighting systems.  Using Photoshop to silhouette the images, the trucks and shadows were similar in color, whereby Photoshop needs a contrasting color to view dissimilar colors in order to eliminate them.  That is why you see the blue screen in the photo studio above.  Obviously, if I had a sky blue or red boxcar, I would need a different contrasting background color.

As the above photo of the photo studio illustrates (is that considered a selfie or investigating the investigators?), I am using both overhead lighting AND 4 small LEDs placed at ground level as well as a digital camera and tripod and an external attached flash unit.  There will always be a shadow, but this method appears to have minimized it enough so that I get to remove the background colors and shadows efficiently and sufficiently.  The reason for the red tape was that just having the blue screen touch the white base, created, you guessed it, a black shadow near the trucks, which defeated the entire purpose.  Same holds true with the black border on the LEDs themselves which I also covered in red tape.

I bought two pairs (making 4 lights) of these LEDs on Amazon. The product is called Neewer ZC-10S 2 Pack Portable Photography Kit 5600K USB 66 LED Video Light with Mini Adjustable Tripod Stand and Color Filters for Table Top/Low Angle Photo Video Studio Shooting The price at the time was $39.99 per set.  These LEDs come with a small tripod and extension that both tilt and rotate.  I have removed the tripod and extension for my purposes to make them level with the playing field as it were, and put a small clamp on them to make them stand up straight and not fall over.  You will notice in the top photo in this article that I also covered the black plastic border with red tape to prevent the dreaded truck/shadow/background issue previously discussed.

Ailkin USB Wall Charger

Be aware that although the LED unit comes with a USB cord, it does not come with the USB wall charger.  I bought on Amazon two Ailkin USB Wall Charger Adapter 2-Packs (making 4 plug-ins) 2.1 Amp Dual Port Quick Charger Plug Cube for iPhone etc.  The cost is $8.99 for each dual plug.

To give you an idea of the improvement, here is a photo of the 9319 TCA Silver Jubilee w/Coin mintcar without using the LEDs.  I found this image to be way darker than I would like.  Taking photos of mint and aquarium cars presents an added issue because of the reflection of the flash against the windows.  An automatic camera gets confused when the flash bounces back at it and believes that the subject is brighter than it actually is, and then tries to compensate for this by changing the aperture of the lens, and unfortunately, it creates an image that is way too dark.

I then tried to color correct it in Photoshop by goosing up the brightness with the result shown above.  Notice the shadow streak under the chassis and how dark the trucks are in both pictures.

Using the 4 LED posts at street level, you can see that the color is much crisper, the shadow below the chassis is lighter, and the trucks themselves are brighter and have much greater detail.

After doing my MintzMagic®, here is the final product:

Obviously, one does not need to use high priced software or a digital camera (I use a CANON EOS 40D digital camera), iPhones and other smart phones to take decent images, but the lighting itself is something that needs to be addressed, especially if you are creating photos for the likes of eBay or a cyberzine like e*Train.

I could not draw a straight line as a youth, but it's nice to combine 3 interests of mine: toy train collecting, writing and photography.


You live and learn… When I started taking photographs of the trolley cars which have curved end panels, I discovered an issue.

Using all four LEDs resulted in these end panels to having a rather "washed out" look due to the reflection of the light source.

By eliminating the rear two LEDs for this type of object, the results are much better. I'm sure as the project continues, there will be more updates.

Second Decade.
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