random thoughts on railroad photography, railfanning, technology, and such

Entries from December 1, 2010 - December 31, 2010


HDR Photography Visually Explained

I am often asked how I captured the details when I show someone my photography. The comment that their “photos don’t look like that.”  I then explain the process of capturing the details, through proper exposure, and the benefits of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.  I though it might help to produce a post that visually details how to capture a scene in HDR an show that everyone can do it.

The only requirements are a camera capable of shooting in aperture-priority mode - typically the big “A” on the dial, and software that can put the final images together. Most consumer-grade cameras today can shoot exposures that will work with HDR and it makes it even easier if the camera also does auto-bracketing. The first step of the process is to actually read the manual that came with your camera and learn about aperture-priority mode, exposure controls for your camera, and auto-bracketing.

Here is an example of why and how to do HDR photography:

I was passing through Los Angeles Union Station one day during my commute to work and decided to shoot a scene that had two Amtrak trains posed side-by-side on tracks 11 and 12.  The scene offered plenty of detail, variation in light, and most importantly to me, a storm-clad sky. If I shot the scene in a traditional manner of photography, I would have to make a comprise between all of these elements and not be able to capture the scene as it truly was. If I exposed for the sky then the train’s consist in the shadow of the platform would not have been properly exposed and vice-versa. This is where HDR comes through for us.

Here is the way the scene looked with a single photo taken with the camera’s automatic exposure setting:

Now this shot has not been post-processed and represents how the photo came out of the camera. In my opinion, all digital photos require some post-processing to enhance the photo and “bring it to life,” so to speak. The following shows the photo after some color-correction, contrast adjustments, and sharpening has been applied to the photo:

P1070943 after post-processing.jpg

This photo is OK but nothing too spectacular and certainly it is not representative of the scene. So let’s shoot it in HDR. It is easy to do!

I set my camera on aperture-priority mode and turn on the auto bracketing feature. Now when I press the shutter button the camera takes 3 exposures (photos) each one exposure setting apart (f-stop). I take the first three shots and then adjust the camera to span those shots and shoot one more set and then adjust the exposure again and shoot the final three shots. In the end, I have taken nine total pictures of the scene, with seven of them set at different exposure settings.

Here’s what the photos look like side-by-side:

Now we have photos that are properly exposed for the sky and the shadow detail as well. The trick is to combine these photos into one image without comprising any of the exposure information. This is where we need some specialized software to handle this task.

I am familiar with many of the HDR titles available for this purpose but the two I choose to use are HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro ($99) and Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro ($159.95). You only need one to create HDR images and I would recommend Photomatix Pro for most folks initially.

To create the final HDR image you identify all of the photos that contain the different exposure settings and the software does the heavy lifting by combining all of the exposure information into a final image. Once you have the final image you can then tweak the settings to get the look that you are going for. That’s it.

Here is the final image after some tweaking, while keeping it on the more realistic side:

Much better! Note how the sky pops and yet we are still able to see the shadowed consist on track 11 without issue. notice how it looks more like what you would see if you were there with me.

Some people feel that the HDR images look unnatural. Well, that is true for a photo in the traditional sense, but look at it not as a photo but rather a scene. You eye’s can adjust to the different exposures without even thinking about it as you take a scene in in-person. This is what an HDR image shows but in a static context.

Now I admit that there are some challenges in learning how to fully leverage the HDR software and learning all of the various settings available. Fortunately several excellent tutorials are available to help you wrap your arms around the process. For Photomatix Pro, I recommend that you check out Ferrell McCollough’s blog “Before the Coffee” for an excellent tutorial. Of course be sure to also consume Trey Ratcliff’s excellent material on HDR as well on his “Stuck In Customs” blog. For HDR Efex Pro I recommend Jean-FrancoisO’Kane’s, The Studio Coach, tutorial series and John Barclay’s videos on the Nik Software video on demand site.

I hope that you can see that HDR photography is not that hard and it adds quite a bit to your photos, and it can be a lot of fun! In a following post I will show various examples of this same image processed with different effects.


A View of Metrolink's New "Guardian Fleet" - the Safest in the Nation

At a series of stations throughout Southern California, Metrolink (Southern California Regional Rail Authority, SCAX), the southland’s local commuter rail provider, debuted their new cab and passenger cars. The new equipment, dubbed the “Guardian fleet,” is considered to be the safest in the nation.

Read “IMPACT TESTS OF CRASH ENERGY MANAGEMENT PASSENGER RAIL CARS: ANALYSIS AND STRUCTURAL MEASUREMENTS (IMECE2004-61252) [November 13, 2004]” by Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, US Department of TransportationThe new cars were designed and built in Korea by Hyundai Rotem, a railroad equipment and systems manufacturer since 1964. What makes these cars so special and safe are the fact that they contain the cutting-edge in crash energy management (CEM) technology. The technology includes energy-absorbing retractable couplers, crumples zones, and interior improvements that decrease the forces involved during a collision. This technology is very similiar to the technology available in most modern automobiles today.

Here is a video that shows the cars, having recently arrived at Long Beach Harbor from Korea, still wrapped in shipping material and describes the technology in lay terms. The video is narrated by Keith Millhouse, Moorpark City Councilmember and Board Chairman for Metrolink. (Not the best produced video ever but I am glad it is available): 


Here is another video (more of an slideshow with audio but very good nonetheless and thanks to AmtrakSurfliner768!), that details the cars a little more and provides some background information on the need for cars such as these:


For those of your interested, here is a video showing the cars being unloading at the Port of Long Beach:


As a rail advocate and daily commuter on Metrolink, I was happy to be extended an opportunity to get a VIP tour of the new equipment as the result of a contest that Metrolink held via Twiiter. So I took a day off of work and Deb and I attended the “Whistle Stop Tour” at the famed San Bernardino Depot which is the eastern most terminus for Metrolink.

After finding a parking spot and grabbing something to eat, Deb and I crossed the street and made our way to the depot. Already in place was a Metrolink consist with 2 locomotives on the head-end and three of the new cars — two regular passenger cars and one cab car. The new cars are predominately stainless-steel, which was a surprise to me, that gives the fleet a taste of the good ol’ domeliner cars of yesteryear (much like the banner photo at the top of this page). The lack of paint which reduces the weight of the cars also affords reduced maintenance costs over the lifetime of the cars. As for the new Metrolink paint scheme, well, who knows, maybe it will grow on me - not a fan!

After poking around a bit and making some introductions, I set about to shoot some photos prior to the official ribbon-cutting ceremony which was preceeded by the requisite speeches from local dignitaries and Metrolink management.

Debut of the Guardian Fleet - As part of a multi-stop tour, the newest cars of Metrolink’s “Guardian Fleet”, are staged at the San Bernardino Depot for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry
The Business End of SCAX 638 - This is engineer’s end of SCAX 638 which is part of the new “Guardian Fleet” for Metrolink.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

SCAX 638 Debuts - Metrolink’s newest cab car, SCAX 638, waits for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the San Bernardino Metrolink station.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

SCAX 638 Waits in the Morning Sun - As the morning sun begins to clear the Metrolink San Bernardino depot, Metrolink’s newest cab car 638 waits for the pomp and ceremony to begin.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

Cutting the Ribbon - A host of local dignitaries and Metrolink council members, including John Fenton - Metrolink CEO , far right, are just about to cut the ribbon on the new Guardian Fleet debut at San Bernardino, CA.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

Currently ten cars are planned for immediate use and, according to Metrolink, their board recently approved an additional 20 more cars to be acquired to bring the total to 137 cars which are slated to be fully in service by late 2012. While the inital cars were manufactured in Korea, the balance of the new cars will be assembled at Metrolink’s Eastern Maintenance Facility in Colton, California.

Pristine Nevermore 1 - A view of the interior of the upper deck of Metrolink’s newest cab car, SCAX 638, which will never looks this good again.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

Pristine Nevermore 2 - A view of the interior of the upper deck of Metrolink’s newest cab car, SCAX 638, which will never looks this good again.
[12/8/2010 - San Gabriel Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry

At one point I was granted access to the cab car to have a look around and grab a few shots. I was impressed by the appearance of the interior and pleased to see that they raised the height of the seat backs. The interior seems roomy and well lit and it has that “new car” smell!

I can’t wait for these new cars to arrive on the San Bernardino line! Good job Metrolink - now how about WiFi? ;-)


Trains at Los Angeles Union Station in HDR: Part 2

Continuing from my previous post, here are four more photos from Los Angeles Union Station:

An Eclectic Consist - An eclectic mix of cars constitute this Amtrak train set awaiting departure at Los Angeles Union Station.
[11/23/2010 - River Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry
Thanksgiving Passengers - Metrolink locomotive SCAX 895 (EMD F59PHI) and Amtrak AMTK 507 (GE P32BWH [Dash 8-32BWH])provide the power for their respective trains at Los Angeles Union Station as passengers detrain from the recently arrived Amtrak’s Southwest Chief just prior to Thanksgiving.
[11/23/2010 - River Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry
Flocks - A flock of birds fly west as a flock of Metrolink locomotives, SCAX 881 (EMD F59PHI), SCAX 851 (EMD F59PH), and SCAX 853 (EMD F59PH) rest at the end of their morning runs to Los Angeles Union Station.
[11/23/2010 - River Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry
Gold Line Departing - A Metro’s Gold Line train departs from Los Angeles Union Station heading east to Pasadena in early morning light.
[11/23/2010 - River Subdivision] © Copyright 2010, Joe Perry