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The Art Of Photographing Trains- A History

Nov 1, 2007
Trains and railroading is a very exciting hobby. One of the most rewarding aspects of "chasing trains" is railroad photography. Here, you get a chance to take back the memorable rail scene into your photo archives. If you are so equipped, you can create a video of the rail scene you've witnessed. You can show them off to railfan groups. With secure web conference, anything is possible to promote your photographic skills.

The art of rail photography has advanced.over the years. At one time in the 1930s, the 4 x 5 Speed Graphic was the camera of choice. Produced by a company in Rochester NY known as Graflex Corpoation, it was the workhorse of every photojournalist around. Its lens and shutter speeds were ideal for train photography. Besides, its very appearance would mark you as a photojournalist. You didn't need permission to enter rail property. One look at you with your Speed Graphic and equipment bag, and every railroad manager and security cop would plead with you to take their picture.

The Speed Graphic was a ponderous camera to lug around. In the 1940s, the Speed Graphic went to war and most of the memorable WW II photos emerged as the product of this camera. In the 1950s, the twin lens reflex replaced the Speed Graphic. The Rolleiflex indeed made its mark. One of the most noted of rail photographers, Ed Nowak, used a Rolleiflex for most of his work. Phillip Hastings was another rail photographer of eminence. I did all of my work with my trusty twin lens during that period. It was very easy to use, and you could "get down low" to photograph rail height scenes of trains coming at you. The Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad Museum located south of Rochester NY has a featured collection of the best of my railroad photographs. All of them were the work of my twin lens. I still have that twin lens stashed away somewhere amidst the wreckage of my household.

In the 60s, 70's and 80's, the Rollei and other twin lens reflex cameras faded from view as a camera of choice for rail photography. In its place came the 35mm Single Lens Reflex, or SLR. Spearheaded by Nikon and Canon, the Japanese invaded this camera market. One of the biggest reasons why Japanese made cameras did so well was their lens systems. The lens resolution was so sharp that locomotive details were never blurry or indistinct. Night photography, a dream scene for pictures in rail yards and terminals was a cinch. Photographs with existing light within locomotive cabs and cabooses did not need electronic flash

The SLR could use an array of lenses for different effects, something the twin lens could never accomplish. Using a long focal length telephoto lens, a SLR could photograph a train as if it were coming right on top of you. With a short focal length lens, you could capture a broad expanse of scenery such as that within the California mountain ranges.

The 35mm camera is still around, as is the twin lens. However, it is the digital camera that has made itself the indispensable tool of rail photographers. The biggest drawback of both the SLR and the twin lens was the photographic film silver halide method of image capture and development. Ever since its inception, this has been the basic building block of photography.

The digital camera has changed all that. Instead of capturing a silver halide image on photographic film, we now capture images in digital format with a new term called "megapixel" that is a measure of image quality. Digital images are stored within the camera's memory or to an auxiliary image storage device. These images can then be downloaded at any time to an attached PC, and then can be subsequently stored, re-worked, or moved anywhere on the internet. There is no more photo darkroom, no sending out for color slides, and complete image manipulation versatility. Images can be stored on CD or DVD formats, Whole albums of train photos can be created and stored.

Capacity rating in megapixels is the most important feature of a digital camera for rail photography. The higher is the megapixel rating, the more detail and color rendition will be captured in your train photo. You cannot see this unless you have a PC along on your train photography mission which can display your work from its files. On the other hand, you do not want to lug around a PC near a rail site, since the dirt and other outdoor elements might do it in.

Rail photography has indeed come a long way since the days of the Speed Graphic. One of my pet ambitions is to revisit my old New York Central haunts in Rochester and do some mean photography in those haunts before old age does me in. However, there are a pair of photographers tooling around Rochester that have done some excellent work with digital cameras. Just think ..I was climbing up and down New York Central railroad embankments with my trusty twin lens in Rochester before these guys were even born or before the digital camera ever got invented !!!

However, railroad photography is just as exciting a hobby as ever..with the new digital camera equipment, give it a try. Don't forget to get permission from railroad authorities before venturing out onto railroad property. Who knows - the old man with an old twin lens camera you might see out there might just be me !!!
About the Author
Bob Carper is a veteran information systems consultant with an MBA from Pitt. For additional information go to All About Webconferencing or My Power Mall. You may also e-mail Bob at robertcarper06@comcast.net
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