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Railfan & Railroad Classics - July 1997

The signal bridge at Franklin Park, Illinois

A tricky low-light exposure in tight confines would be a difficult task for traditional film cameras, but the increased sensitivity of certain digital cameras makes scenes like these easier to capture. The engineer lights his cigar recreating a scene from 60 years ago at a special photo shoot at the Virginia Museum of Transportation on November 12, 2010. Editor Steve Barry discusses how digital photography would shape the world of railfanning in the coming years.

Camera Bag: Digital is Coming

By Steve Barry /photo by the author

Railfan & Railroad - July 1997Like it or not, photography is about to undergo the biggest change it has had since the advent of the 35mm camera. We are on the threshold of the computer age in photography, which opens up a universe of new possibilities.

Digital cameras are just beginning to make their appearance on the consumer market. Like a conventional camera, you aim and shoot, and the image is captured. Unlike today's cameras, however, the image is not recorded on film but rather in the camera's memory. The current crop of digital cameras can hold about 100 images — almost three rolls of film! Once the camera's memory is full, you download the stored images into your home computer's memory or put it on a disk. Imagine being out in the field and snapping a photo with your digital camera. You can instantly see the image in the back of the camera, just as you can see video played back through the camera's viewfinder. For greater detail, you can run back to your car, plug the camera into your laptop computer and see the image. No more exposure anxiety. You'll know right away if you blew the shot or not. Of course, as we'll see later, it may soon be impossible to "blow" shots. Pretty neat, eh?

So why hasn't digital already marched through the mass consumer market? Simply put, the images produced by a digital camera don't have the resolution — they aren't as sharp — as those produced by today's 35mm cameras. Each photo, whether produced on film or computer, is made up of microscopic pieces. On film these are grains of silver. You expose the silver to light, and its reaction is what produces the image. The equivalent of grains of silver in the digital world is "pixels." If each pixel was as small or smaller than a grain of silver, the digital image would be as sharp or sharper than film. The technology is already in place to make pixels as small as grains of silver. The problem comes in quickly storing and retrieving all those pixels. A picture with very small pixels currently pushes the limits of computer memory capability. With the seemingly daily advances in computer memory, however, it's only a matter of time before the memory problems are overcome. In limited applications, digital is already being used where resolution isn't of extreme importance. For instance, in the publishing field where halftones are used, the pixels only need to be as small as the halftone's dot pattern. During a recent dive show editor Jim Boyd encountered the publisher of Skin Dive magazine, who was using a digital camera. The resolution of his high end camera was good enough that the images were of reproduction quality.

Will digital photography completely replace film? It's hard to say, but those of you who are into recorded music have seen how compact discs quickly made the twelve inch vinyl album a dinosaur. How many of you had home computers five years ago? Computer technology tends to work its way into the mass markets pretty quickly.

Digital images will be geared to viewing on computer monitors or televisions. It remains to be seen exactly how this will translate to situations where you need to show your photos to large groups of people. It may be hard to believe, but the advent of digital photography could spell the end to the railfan slide show. It's possible to shoot a digital image directly onto transparency film to make a slide, but cost has kept this in the realm of commercial applications. It remains to be seen if the demand for such a procedure will drive the cost down to where the typical photographer will be able to afford transferring an entire slide show's worth of images.

Will we have to be content with slide shows of only vintage material? (Of course, in this context "vintage" material covers those SD9OMAC's we'll be shooting in the years between now and when digital becomes firmly entrenched.) Even if film remains readily available, I would guess that most shooters are going to go digital because it will simply be much more convenient. The best technology goes to whatever most folks are using, so digital cameras will probably be continuously enhanced while film cameras will remain at whatever level they've hit when digital comes in. After all, you don't see anyone making breakthrough enhancements to record turntables (or Atari games, for that matter).

So we have these newfangled digital images in our computers. What can we do with them? Almost anything. Underexposed? No problem, just crank up the brightness. Annoying phone wires ruin the scene? You can remove them. The sky isn't blue enough? You can make it baby blue and add a puffy cloud for good measure. The Southern Pacific engine is too dirty? You can digitally clean it up. For that matter, you can renumber it or repaint it into Atlantic Coast Line colors. This is where we leave the realm of photography and enter the world of art.

Artists can add or enhance features to their scenes as they see fit. The digital artist can do much the same thing. The only difference is that the digital artist is not starting from a "blank canvas" but rather with an image captured out in the field.

This is where we may start to encroach into "photographic ethics," for lack of a better name. Railroad photography has been to a large extent simply documenting the rail scene. Roster and structure shots are the most basic, although even your typical grade crossing wedgie would qualify, as well. When you use a telephoto or wide angle you are somewhat manipulating reality, but it's still pretty much straight-ahead documentation.

Soon, though, we'll be able to change our photos, adding things that aren't there or removing things we don't like. We can remove telephone poles from roster shots, which may not seem like a bad thing. But what happens when you see a photo in a magazine of a broad sweeping vista and go to that spot only to find phone poles galore between you and the tracks? (Of course, if everybody has gone digital you can remove the phone poles from your picture as well.)

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Is it cheating? Is it misrepresentation? The key here is to let folks know what it is. If it's a photo of exactly what was there at that time, that's okay. If you digitally enhanced the photo, that's okay, too, as long as you present it for what it is.

Quite honestly, we're just being to encounter digital photography (editor Boyd has used some images shot by a friend for his dive club newsletter with excellent results). As we learn enough about it to ask some intelligent questions, we'll try to stay on top of the changes and trends and let you know what's happening in this column. If you have any experience with digital photography, drop us a note, and we'll share it.

This "Camera Bag" column originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Railfan & Railroad.


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