Video 101: Sharper images

A reader asked the how to get sharper images in your videos
“Aria” wrote in, asking how to get sharply focused videos that reveal the road names on his rolling stock. His question appears here: With some excellent comments by forum moderator Tom Trigg, and some research, we realized that sharper images of both prototype and model trains challenge our skills and our equipment.

With professional lighting, highly adjustable cameras that allow control of frame rate, aperture, depth of field, and light sensitivity, sharp focus on objects is demanding but manageable. With my column guidelines of using consumer-level cameras, portable still cameras, and smart-phone cameras, with digital post production, my own results were mixed and frankly somewhat disappointing.

Trains of any scale pose depth-of-field challenges. A train on a distant horizon can be photographed as a landscape but a train stretching from a close-up to a distant view requires lots of light (natural or artificial), a small aperture, and a film speed (ISO) that is high enough to accommodate the smaller aperture, yet low enough to avoid grainy-looking images.

The formula for depth of field is the same for video as it is for still images: small aperture, lots of light, tripod, long exposure time, and sharp focus on a midpoint that expands to make the horizon in focus. My GoPro camera and my smart phone, however, are constantly refocusing and averaging light values. In my tests, trains that were about three-quarter view, coming toward or going away from the camera, looked best. As the train rounded the corner, its road names were focused but, as it passed by the camera, road names become choppy.

My still camera captures images that are crisp and they can be digitally enhanced to emphasize detail and sharpness. If I wanted to be sure that the road names could be read, I would include about eight seconds of a sharp, still image to start or end a scene. Alternatively, a frame in a video can be frozen so that a viewer can analyze detail.

I welcome more viewer questions with video challenges like Aria’s. I hope to hear from others who have had good results in creating sharply focused video of long, lonesome trains.

This month’s video looks back on some of my favorite railroad scenes. I had to look through lots of blurry images to find the crisp ones I selected.


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