Types of photography

There are basically three types of photography for the railway scene.

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 selective framing.


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.

Fixed lenses

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 the lens:

  1. F stop - the smaller the number, the more low light photography
  2. Maximum wide angle - the wider the angle, the better for overall views or cramped locations
  3. 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 screen.

Film based

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 considered.


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:

  1. A large number of film photographs never get used or see daylight. What use quality that never gets used?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Convenience. It is quite obvious that the ease of image storage and use is a factor
  5. For the majority of photographs taken, about 80%, the resolution provided by 35 mm is wasted.

Photographic Tips

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.


Record, Grab and Detail

Writers Note

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