A pair of Louisiana & North West F7s and caboose cross the Illinois Central Gulf main line in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1982. Would you believe this photo was taken with an inexpensive point-and-shoot? By understanding the limitations of the Olympus XA, the photographer was able to come away with workable photos suitable for publication.
Quality railfanning with limited equipment
by Greg Monroe/photos as noted
I always enjoyed the late Jim Boyd's "Camera Bag" columns covering train photography techniques and principles. So when Editor Barry asked me if I could take over a revival of Jim's column, I was thrilled! Thank you for reading this new "Camera Bag," and if you have any comments or questions, please contact me!
Typically, most railfans use a DSLR (for digital single lens reflex, or SLR for film) camera for photography. These cameras offer fast automatic or manual focus, automatic and manual exposure modes, fast shooting, high mega pixel sensors and a full range of sharp lenses to yield top quality train photos.
But if you are faced with having to use a lower end camera, such as a small point-and-shoot (P&S) all automatic film or digital camera you have used for family and vacation photos; or to save space when on a non-railfanning trip you may want to take a small camera just in case you come across a good railroad subject, you may feel limited in what you can accomplish. Even the most current P&S models do not offer all the capabilities of a SLR / DSLR, and older cameras can be downright inferior for many railfan situations. The good news is that, with proper use, some really nice photos can be had with these cameras.
(While the following includes examples of using APS and 110 film cameras for which film and developing may no longer be available or hard to find, and older low mega pixel P&S cameras that are no longer being made, these stories illustrate what is possible in general with any low end camera, even current cell phone cameras. As is pointed out, the key is to use them within their capabilities and limitations.)
Louisiana & North West brakeman Ralph Whitlock waits by the switch as his crew member moves their engine out of the engine house on a foggy morning in McNeil, Arkansas in 1982. Despite the limitations of the small point-and-shoot (in this case, an Olympus XA) with limited exposure and focusing controls, by working within the capabilities of the camera a nice image was achieved in less than ideal conditions.
In 1982 on one of my visits to my parents in Monroe, Louisiana, my good friend Bob Karsten, at the time living in Ruston and writing feature articles for Carstens Publications, introduced me to the Louisiana & North West RR in near-by Gibsland, which operated a fleet of old ex-Southern Pacific and ex-Western Pacific F7s. On a subsequent visit, I got the idea of doing a magazine article for Rail Classics magazine on this operation. Problem is I had only a small Olympus XA 35mm P&S camera with me, and at the time I normally railfanned back home in Colorado with a medium format Pentax 6x7 and 35mm Nikon SLR.
I had purchased the XA as it was small enough to carry in a shirt pocket so as to have a camera with me at all times if I came across a news worthy event for a newspaper I was freelancing for. While the XA is a good camera it was not quite up to snuff compared to a good 35mm SLR, but fine for newspaper work where top quality in a big enlargement was not an issue.
But I knew the XA would be limited in what I could do trackside. It had a fixed 35mm lens, which was manually focused using a small lever, not very efficient for action photography. It was all automatic exposure, meaning I could not use manual exposure to overcome the XA’s penchant for yielding poorly exposed slides due to tricky lighting and faulty meter operation. While B&W negatives made good prints, my Kodachromes had washed out color.
To compound matters, I was not familiar with the 100 mile L&NW which ran between Gibsland where it interchanged with the Illinois Central Gulf and another short line, the North Louisiana and Gulf; and McNeil, Arkansas with an interchange with the Cotton Belt. I would not have time to come back another day, and I would need to juggle both color transparencies and B&W film in the one camera.
But intrigued, I set about planning how I could overcome my little camera’s shortcomings. I figured that by setting the ASA dial (ISO was still called ASA in the 1980s) to 125 rather than Kodachrome’s 64, the camera would “underexpose” my slides to compensate for the one stop overexposure the autoexposure was giving, and I could double check the meter’s readings against the old “sunny 16” rule of thumb (which states that in full sun, correct exposure is always 1/ISO at f/16, which for Kodachrome 64 meant 1/60th second at F/16, or the equivalent 1/250th at f/8).
To offset the slow focusing of the little camera, I was able to find good photo locations ahead of the train as it stopped to switch the businesses it served, and have my composition and focus all set. I looked for compositions that best took advantage of the lens’ limited power, or used its good depth of field to advantage. I also searched for unusual angles rather than simply recording the train. I was able to frame the Fs through the porch posts of an old country store, caught the train picking up orders on the run at another location, captured a nice shot of an F by a freight platform while the crew went to beans, and got the Fs with their caboose over the diamond across the ICG main line in Gibsland.
To have a chance of loading the right type of film (color or B&W), I would have to try to foresee what I would encounter as I chased the train, very tricky indeed since I was so unfamiliar with the line. I planned to use ASA 125 Plus-X for the bulk of the work, ASA 400 Tri-X if the lighting went cloudy, and Kodachrome for scenic and roster shots.
Yes, I missed some shots due to the 35mm lens. I would have loved having even a small telephoto to capture the train on several straight stretches of uneven rail. And while the 35mm lens was almost too tight for proper framing in the small Gibsland yard, it was OK for many other locations.
My technique to “fool” the exposure meter by playing with the ASA setting worked, as all my slides came out perfectly exposed. I was also able to fool the meter to allow a nice B&W silhouetted shot against a bright background of brakeman Ralph Whitlock waiting for his engine looming out of the fog in McNeil. And when photographing inside the Gibsland diesel shop, I again tricked the automatic meter by setting the ASA two stops slower to compensate for the bright areas of outside light I knew would case the camera to underexpose in the darkened interior.
These images have all printed beautifully as large as 16x20, and the fog shot and the ICG crossing shots remain today as two of my all-time treasured railfan shots, along with the memories of those hours spent trackside. For while the L&NW still operates, the F units are long gone.
110 and APS
Over 20 years ago, a photography magazine ran an article on a newspaper photographer who worked with the Pentax 110 SLR system and Plus-X (ASA 125) film instead of ASA 400 Tri-X. His reasoning was the low ISO film would allow nice 5x7 inch blowups from the small negatives, with plenty of quality for the small size reproduction in the paper printed with course printing screens on newsprint. And the little Pentax with all its accessory lenses and flash unit was small in size and weight making it easier to carry than a comparable 35mm system of camera bodies and several lenses. The example photos from the 110 published with that magazine article were beautiful.
More recently, I have experimented some with a Pentax APS camera I acquired while working at the Pentax U.S.A. headquarters, and while very limited in the size prints it can produce that retain acceptable sharpness, much like the 110 above it does a nice job with prints up to about 3x5 inches, which I suspect is typical of all APS format film cameras. Either of these little cameras would be suitable for railfan use if you only need small prints to display in a photo album.
Small Mega Pixel P&S
Another small camera I have found to yield excellent photos despite its small size and other limitations is one of Pentax’s first digitals, the 2 MP EI 200 P&S. I was so impressed with this little camera (which as I understand was a collaboration with Hewlett Packard producing the electronics, and Pentax the lens and body) I used my employee discount to buy one for my wife as a Christmas present in 2001, and we still use the EI 200 on occasion for family snapshots. And it was the camera used for another of my spur of the moment railfan exploits on a Louisiana trip. One of those shots was used in my article “Digital Photography for the Railfan” in the April 2007 Railfan & Railroad.
Despite limited features for train photography, cameras like this can produce some nice images. Again, the key is to work within the camera’s limitations. Aside from the low MP count which limits print size account pixilization, one problem with the EI 200 and other low end digitals is too long a “shutter lag” to consistently get perfect compositions with moving trains. Shoot when the train is in the perfect position, and in the second or so of lag time until the shutter fires, the front of the locomotive may be out of the edge of your composition. But for roster shots of stationary locomotives, this is not an issue. And 2 MP is more than adequate for beautiful prints up to 5x7 inches, and a 4 MP camera will give you larger prints or crisp images for a digital slide show.
Another problem with some P&S digitals (even higher MP models like the more modern 12 MP Canon G9 which I sometimes use for railfanning), is a long “write time” which freezes the camera after one shot while the image is recorded, making quick follow-up shots impossible. Not a problem if you shoot only stationary roster shots, but for action shooting you will want a “burst mode” to allow several quick shots, even if it is rated at just 2-3 shots.
Other P&S drawbacks include limited (no manual) exposure control, a lens maybe too “slow” for low light shooting (however, a few models offer lenses of f/1.8 or f/2), and some may also be limited in top shutter speeds to less than 1/500, about the minimum for sharp action train photos.
Does the P&S have an optical viewfinder for careful composition (the trend today is no viewfinder making you compose by looking at the LCD screen)? If you like to take time exposures or use open flash at night, does the P&S have a “B” setting or capability for a shutter opening of 30 or more seconds? Will the camera take a cable release, and is there a tripod socket?
But like I did with the XA and the EI 200, with forethought and careful use, many of these problems can be worked with to produce nice train photos, by working within the specific camera’s limitations and capabilities.
Cell Phone Cameras
In the past, I would never have recommended a cell phone camera for any kind of serious railfan photography. Their main function seemed to be for sharing a very low MP image to a friend’s phone, or for making very small prints. (My personal cell phone’s camera has a whopping 1.47 MP sensor, which won't do much for enlargements.)
But many current cell phone cameras will produce images on a par with P&S digitals. I cannot speak to the overall quality of lenses or digital processors in all phone cameras, but I have seen some nice 3x5 and 5x7 inch prints from 3 and 4 MP phone cameras, and test images printed from a friend’s 5 MP camera phone are beautiful even at 16x20 inches. Some camera phones are up to 10 MP now, and I understand at least one model has a small zoom lens! Like the old, small film and low mega pixel cameras, if used carefully and within its limitations, you can grab an occasional nice railfan photo with a cell phone.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Railfan & Railroad.