Types of photography
There are basically three types of photography for the railway
- Record - simple composition, fills the frame and
generally shows a clear view of the subject. The Grab shot
is one taken on short notice with little preparation. Generally a
distant view, maybe blurred, exposure may drift and objects may
obsure part of the view.
- Scene - well composed and could be artistic, records
the action within the environment; the approaching train, the main
subject or area within the general environment.
- Detail - records the detail of the subject - closeup
views of equipment or operations to record within the scene: loco,
wagon, lettering, bogie, door, handbrake, loading, couplers,
signal, lever frame, &etc.
The type of photo can be answered from the question: "Why are
you taking this photo?" The styles are totally different due to
expected composition, rail access, focal length, angle of view and
The types of photography can be achieved with different focal
length lenses vary according to experience. There is nothing worse
than having the wrong lens on which does not show the subject
correctly. I refer of course to having a set of fixed focal length
lenses, plus a large camera bag and tripod for when the 'heavies and
longs' are used. Zoom lenses are a boon and provide good value for
coverage and weight reduction. One of the prime considerations of
'fixed lenses vs zooms' has been the aperture difference. Fixed
lenses can be 'faster' which is a reference to their maximum wide
open aperture. For film photography there is a constant juggle with
cost, film speed generally used and lens aperture. All three define
the choice of equipment for each person.
- 8mm/16mm Fisheye - 8mm circular or 16mm 'full frame'
(diagonal angle is 180o). Suitable for some scenic
shots when care is taken and a special coverage may be desired.
Ideal lenses for record and detail shots where space is limited
such as rooms, buildings, cramped loco cabs, passenger
- 15mm - 21mm Wide angle - Very good for cramped
locations. Distortion corrected when held parallel to horizon.
Good for overall views
- 24mm-40mm Wide angle - Good for cramped locations and
- 50mm/55mm Standard - Basically set for 'what the eye
sees' which means there is no magnification change for the camera
/eye to subject distance. Rarely used as it should be dispensed
with for a good zoom, or used in conjunction with a 28/35mm fixed
lens and a 135mm medium tele.
- 75mm-105mm Short Tele - Fixed lenses in this range are
good for loco portraits (85mm/105mm) and short tele train
- 135-200mm Medium Tele - Good lenses for general train
photography as they require the subject to be some distance away
fromthe camera. This has the effect of 'pushing' the subject into
- 300mm - This perhaps would be the best train
photography lens to use. The angle of view allows subjects to be
easily framed from most vantage points. Probably the extreme focal
length at which general three quarter train photography can be
- 400mm-1000mm+ Long Tele - Difficult to use for train
photos but great lenses for events unfolding at a distance. More
use for long distance 'scene' photos.
- 21-35mm Zoom - Great short zoom for detail photos and
- 28-100mm Zoom - This range is great as a general
purpose 'family' lens and a very good 'loco depot' lens where a
variety of vantages points may be limited and/or cramped.
Generally 28-90mm or 35-105mm. Range depends on whether it is more
important to have a greater 'wide' or' longer' tele.
- 70-210mm Zoom - Very good general purpose tele lens.
Can quickly adapt to changing photo possibilities that fixed lens
changes cannot deliver. There are more possibilities for
intermediate framing of subjects.
- 100-300mm Zoom - Good for stable train shooting where a
single vantage point has been established. Can obviously be used
elsewhere but this lens requires a long telelens mindset for
specific action coverage.
For digital photography the focal length and apertures quoted do
not compare to 35mm lens characteristics. This is due to a smaller
'film size' area of the CCD and respective change in optics. Usually
the 35mm equivalent distances are applied. So something like 6mm
becomes a 35mm focal length. The aperture measurement also changes.
With lens length and aperture being ratio measurements, f2 on a
digital would be similar to f5.6 on a 35mm lens. f8 on a digital
becomes f22 at 35mm size. Smaller apertures than f8 on a digital
result in reduced image quality due to diffraction.
For digital cameras there are three important considerations for
- F stop - the smaller the number, the more low light
- Maximum wide angle - the wider the angle, the better
for overall views or cramped locations
- Optical zoom magnification - the larger the better.
Usually this value might be combined with 'digital zoom'. Values
of 1.5X to 2X can enlarge the image with minimum loss. Anymore and
the image quality degrades to be unusable. However there are some
advantage with digital editing when enlarging portions of images
for detail. It must be remembered that the quality of the digital
zoom/enlargement may look good on the tiny camera screen but
'falls apart' so to speak when presented on a large crisp computer
Many of the comments provided are from a film based heritage. It
is difficult to break with a known medium which is often well
understood. However for those starting in a 'digital' era of
computers, CD and DVD the use of film would probably not be
Digital photography adds a new dimension for the railfan. Not only
are the costs reduced but the previous barriers of justification are
removed. With 35mm and the limited film supply all photos were
subject to a priority determined by available light, remaining film,
lenses on hand and access. With digital, this has been exploded by
the versatility that the medium can provide. With extra batteries and
memory cards, the main choice is one of image size. More photographs
are possible and images can be discarded either on the spot or at a
later less hectic time.
There are many options available in digital cameras and it is not
possible to recommend any. It is up to the user to establish a list
of priorities, wants and trade-offs.
There is a large established camp of 35mm and large format film
users that decry the use of digital as not being of sufficient high
standard. I can certainly agree with that. However there are several
factors usually ignored that are worth considering:
- A large number of film photographs never get used or see
daylight. What use quality that never gets used?
- There is an immediate bias when a digital image is enlarged
25X or more. Very rarely in the past has film been available for
perusal beyond the 2-8X barrier. Even then an 8X loupe can't show
detail an 8X digital image can.
- Photography does not have to be prioritised based on cost or film limit.
Extra batteries, memory cards and downloads to laptop allow many more photo opportunites for given tasks without the problems
generally associated with film cameras: limited exposures available and film change time. Mind you, the
negative aspect of this is that five to ten times more bad
photographs can also be taken.
- Convenience. It is quite obvious that the ease of image
storage and use is a factor
- For the majority of photographs taken, about 80%, the
resolution provided by 35 mm is wasted.
These tips have been generated from a film based background. The
same rules apply for digital work except the values change. For
example a 300mm lens could handheld and photos taken at a minimum
1/300th second. For digital,the same photo coverage would only
require say 60mm focal length or 1/60th second shutter speed.
- Keep the camera square - ie frame is set horizontal, except
for sharp angled photos that have a particular emphasis
- Use a fast shutter speed; 1/250th second plus, particularly
- To avoid camera shake in hand held photography, the
minimum recommended shutter speed is the reciprocal of the focal
length. i.e., 50mm lens requires a minimum "1/50th" second shutter
speed. This is a guide and when pushed to the limit due to
circumstance, lower speeds can be attempted.
- Don't place the the focus of your interest in the centre of
the photo. That's OK for exposure and focus. For a given camera to
subject distance, the image will remain the same size. Therefore
it makes sense to vary the camera angle to reframe and include
- For action photos, don't press the shutter when the moving
subject hits the centre of the viewfinder. Hold the camera
position and let the subject move to a point midway between centre
and frame edge.
- For action photos anticipate the probable train position a
good photo before the train arrives. This allows for
prefocus and exposure. Then its a matter to wait for the train to
hit the focus spot.
- Don't take a series of photographs as the train approaches.
All those photos will not compensate for one good photo
taken at the right time. Photo series is just excitement value.
You could also run out of film before the train/subject arrives.
How bad did you want that shot?
- Perspective of a photograph is governed by subject to camera
distance, not the focal length of the camera. Fish-eye photos and
tele lens photos all have a use and when used properly can provide
a range of photos not otherwise possible.
- Ignore trying to look and enjoy the unfolding event. This is
done through the camera to determine best photo moments. The
enjoyment will come years later looking at the well composed
- Prepare - plenty of supplies spare batteries/film/memory.
Always have a brush and cleaning cloth
- Have a plan - Many unexpected photo opportunities will
undoubtedly arise. While one can anticipate all unfolding events,
some set photo framing techniques may make the difference between
'no photo' and a 'good shot'
- NEVER APOLOGISE - if you are compelled to apologise it
clearly shows you know how bad they are, which also shows you
could do better. Obviously the photos you show are the best you
could achieve under the circumstances. If you have to apologise,
DON'T SHOW THEM !
Record, Grab and Detail
- Fill the frame
- If the identity of a numbered object is not easily
discernable, take a closeup of the number.
- Organise a standard photo routine to capture maximum
action/detail with the minimum number of photos.
- Include landmarks in photos to identify locations with the
subject: train/building/skyline. Often a unique event does not
look unique because there are no landmarks shown.
- Take a series of photos tell a story
- If you can't remember that you have taken a shot previously,
take another one. Two is always better than NONE
- Record the people operating the equipment.
- Equipment that moves has several actions. Photograph
EVERY action, preferably as a series. Why try and explain
what you saw when a couple more photos would clearly show it.
- What is here today is gone tomorrow. Everything you see today
will disappear. I'd rather you show me the photo of what you saw
than hear you say "Gee I saw that but...".
- Regrets - while it is not possible (at least not yet) to rewind time, the
only regret should be when the opportunity was available but no photo was
taken. That is, the subject was there, the observer had film, time and access
but did not take advantage of the opportunity.
The above comments are made after having photographed for 40 years and
are my own opinion. In that time some 120,000 35mm and 6x6 photographs have
been taken on both B&W and colour slide/negative. As for digital some 40,00
images have been recorded in 24 months, with about half those being saved. This
action 'burnt out' one camera and 'another ones on the way(out)'.
Peter J. Vincent, August 2004