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All About Digital Night Photography Of Trains

Nov 8, 2007
The railroad is a place that operates around the clock, seven days a week. From the time the sun goes down until dawn on the following day, the rails are never silent for very long. Some of the most outstanding and dramatic photographs of trains and the people that operate them are taken at night. You can have incredible digital photos of trains at dawn and dusk and at nighttime.

Night photography of trains is not a new thing. I've been doing it since the mid-1950s. All of the great rail photographers have a sizeable collection of night photographs in their collections. In my book, "FOCUS - The Railroad In Transition," I have a good number of night photographs which are still dramatic to me every time I look at them. Photographing trains at night is a combination of the arts of existing light photography with the insight and knowledge of how the railroad works. Here are night photography ideas to capture the big trains at their most illuminating time

You Need Good Equipment

Without good equipment, there is no sense even trying to do night photography of trains. First and foremost, you need a good sturdy tripod. Secondly, you need a cable release that can mount up with the camera's shutter receptacle. If you don't have these, go home.

If you plan on taking digital photos at night, a professional grade tripod is an absolute must. It is extremely hard to hold a camera still for the length of time needed for a good night exposure, and any shaking can result in blurred photos or completely blacked out subjects.

Your tripod should have a head atop which your camera will mount. It is almost a necessity that this tripod head can pan and tilt. These are essential if you want to compose your photo, especially at night. Panning allows you to move your camera from side to side. Tilting allows your camera to move up and down. Used in combination with each other, you can beautifully compose your photo of a locomotive or a rail terminal illuminated by stadium lights or a rail signal bridge in the last fading strands of the passing day.

With a tripod, you can set your digital camera to use a long exposure time, snap a photo, and not worry so much about 'camera-shake'. However, to remove any chance of camera movement, either purchase and use a cable release or another type of an external shutter release. Even the simplest motion of releasing the camera shutter button during a photo shoot can cause the camera to shake, rendering a beautiful photo almost worthless with blurriness.

Next, your camera cannot be an el cheapo. You must have an ultra fast lens with a maximum aperture of f 2.0 or better. It must have time exposure settings of "bulb" and "time." Depending on the work you want to do, it should have a wide angle lens or a lens that can zoom out to a wide angle coverage.

You Need To Plan And Detail Your Photo Session

Photographing trains at night is not just going out to a section of track, aiming, shooting, and then saying, Ah!" over your finished results. At the very least, you will end up with blank frames. At the very worst, you could end up in jail - possibly worse, if you are unfortunate enough to get attacked by rail security dogs.

Planning ahead consists of these items: Where do you want to photograph night scenes? Which trains will be operating? What do you want to accomplish? Are you on an assignment from a publication or are you working on a publication of your own? Are you doing it "just for fun?" If you plan accordingly, you will ensure that all your night photo sessions will be successful

Once you have your photo session planned out, you must get official permission to be on rail property. The railroad is a very dangerous place to be. At night, being on the railroad is even more hazardous than in daylight. If railroad officials do not have a good idea about why you need to access rail property especially at night, they will not let you in.

If the railroad Oks your request, it is a very good idea to ask that a rail security person escort you while you are in a rail yard or engine terminal. To combat pilferage of containers, railroads have used attack dogs. Besides making sure you are safe wherever you go and do not roam freely about dark spaces in the yard or terminal, security folk know the commands to call off the dogs. You don't.

Other gear you should have on your night photo mission will include a small flashlight, a cell phone, a radio that can be tuned to railroad operating frequencies, and a reserve supply of batteries. Above all else, you will need extra memory modules to store your work. Remember, we are not using camera film on a digital photography mission.

Having gone through the basics, let's get some prize-winning night shots..

First off, you should learn how to Use the Night Program or Scene Mode on your camera.
Letting your digital camera's presets help you will ensure that you take great night photos.
If you are just starting out taking photos at night, check to see if your digital camera has a special night program or scene mode - read your camera manual. This mode will adjust your camera settings, tuning it to low-light conditions and possibly allowing you to take better night photos than if you were fumbling through other options. If you're not sure about adjusting exposure times and have no idea what ISO means, a one-touch setting may be all you need.

Secondly, you should get accustomed to long exposure times

Just like in the days of film cameras, a long shutter exposure is mandatory in taking clear, crisp night photos with your digital camera. One of the main tricks to taking good photos at night with your digital camera is taking a series of long exposures of a subject. One exposure just will not cut it. You need to shoot a "spread" of at least five or more shots. You will have only a glimmer of an idea of what the camera will pick up for the light it sees. The long exposure times are needed to compensate for the low light. The longer the exposure, the longer your camera absorbs the scarcely available light. While a sunny day with plentiful illumination may only require a camera shutter to remain open for 1/250th or 1/125th of a second for clear, crisp photos, low-light conditions may require decreased shutter speeds of 1/15th of a second or longer. Check your digital camera manual for instructions on changing the shutter speed - it is usually the "S" in the "PASM" or "ASM" camera setting modes.

Thirdly, you should try to capture the unique lighting displays that you find in bridges, buildings, and railroad signals. If your night photo session is in a rail station, you are in luck. In a large city, you may also have the benefit of lights from surrounding buildings to further enhance the night view. Some rail terminals may be located near a bridge or near water. Lights of all sorts can add to the drama of the scene.

One of my favorites was at the New York Central Station in Rochester, NY. There, passenger trains would pick up and debark passengers on tracks adjoining the main line. They would be governed by a "home" signal which would be set to red over red over green when the train was clear to go back on the main line. In those early days, there were no digital cameras. The good folk that presently run CSX and Amtrak were not even born. But imagine today, seeing a digital image of a night scene showing Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited with a home signal in color and with station platform lights glowing against the sides of the engine and cars.

I'll conclude this article with an excellent example of what happens when everything falls into place I needed a "round the clock" sequence of photos depicting a rail yard in operation. One of the largest and busiest rail yards was rge Pennsy yard at Conway, PA. I obtained the necessary permission from Pennsy officials, who also assigned an escort for the time I would be in the rail yard.

I shot many scenes that night and used up about ten rolls of 120 film for my twin-lens. The twin-lens really earned its keep that night, since I was able to compose all my shots, especially under night conditions. My escort was just as fascinated watching me go about my work, and he invited me to go atop the main observation tower that overlooked the entire expanse of Conway Yard. There, I shot at least 20 exposures but it was worth it. The results of that night's work are in my book "FOCUS - The Railroad In Transition."

Photographing trains at night can be an exciting adventure. Try it sometime, but remember to first get official permission before you even begin your photo mission.
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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