Capturing What We See

To create model photos that resemble what the human eye sees in the real world, we need a camera with a focal length and lens position that matches that of our eyes. The above photo was taken on my Downtown Spur layout using a recently purchased used iPhone 6sPlus.

We’ve all had the experience of being out and about, having something in our field of view catch our eye, and then photographing it. More times than not there is a bit of disappointment when the photograph somehow doesn’t capture what we saw. The optics of our camera aren’t the same as those of our eye.

It’s tricky enough with day to day photography but becomes a much larger challenge with model imagery. We build models to capture something in the real world we love looking at. How can we “look” at our work when we are such much bigger than our subject? The answer is in the camera lens but making it cave to our wishes can be challenging.

To rise to that challenge we need to address two issues. First is trying to get a focal length as close as possible to that of the human eye. A quick Google search turns up the following definition: “Lens focal length tells us the angle of view—how much of the scene will be captured—and the magnification—how large individual elements will be”. Keeping the Google screen open, we also learn that the focal length of the human eye is roughly 25mm. Good to know. Compare that to the typical SLR camera lens which is 50mm, pretty far from the 25mm of the eye. The effective focal length of an iPhone 6sPlus though is 29mm. Much closer. Problem one solved.

The second challenge is lens height. A typical adult railfan will be between five and six feet tall. When we stand rail side we’re always looking up at our subject…same when we watch YouTube rail fan videos. Unfortunately, SLR cameras are fairly large and, even when placed flat on a layout surface, the lens height is well over twelve scale feet above the rails. That’s way too high to be realistic. Even low angle shots taken with an SLR will look off, they’ll look much different than what we are used to seeing. Sometimes we’ll get lucky and have a case where we can drop an SLR below the fascia level but that can’t be counted on. Smart phones to the rescue again, at least the older ones. With the lens conveniently positioned at the lip of the device, we can get the camera low enough to get the angles we want, a scale four or five feet.

There is a caveat with the smartphones however, and that’s the move to the triple lens configuration with the newer models…great for general use, not so great for layout photography. I recently picked up an iPhone 13 with the newer three lens configuration. First, because there are now three lenses, we are back to being having a camera height that is too high again. Second, the algorithm gets confused when taking low angle shots and often jumps between lenses. The solution? It’s easy. Simply buy an older, refurbished iPhone with the single lens configuration. I picked one up for about a hundred bucks on ebay from an outfit called Upper Class Smartphones. It arrived in a week in perfect condition. (As a side note, having a second device is handy on a lot of levels which is something I never thought about.)

The Bottom Line:

We want model images that match what the human eye takes in while railfanning or watching videos. To do that we need:

1) A camera that has a focal length fairly close to that of the human eye and

2) A camera that allows the lens to be positioned very low and close to the layout surface, basically a scale five feet or so.

A refurbished, older iPhone, with a single lens configuration accomplishes both.