Tuesday, January 13, 2015

5 Quick Tips to Improve Your Railfan Photography

We railfans love to take and share photos of trains. Capturing that rare locomotive or great lashup* is a great feeling and you want to share your good luck. Before sharing that photo, however, consider these five tips to improve your photography so you can share your best photos!

* lashup/consist = combination of locomotives powering the train

1. Get On The Sun Side

So many railfan photos are shot into the sun. I know I made this mistake many times.

The frame and trucks disappear into inky darkness, or the sky gets blown out into bright white. Neither are good.

The solution? Get on the sun side.

I know that sometimes this is not possible without trespassing or being unsafe, and of course safety is always first.

If you cannot get on the sun side, at least move so that the sun isn't directly in front of you.

And if there's nothing you can do to move the sun, go for a silhouette photo instead.

2. Ban the Wedgie

OK, that might be a bit extreme, but try to vary your shots so you photograph trains at other angles than just this.

There's nothing wrong with a 3/4 wedge shot. It shows the locomotives well, but it's.. common. Easy.

Try different angles, and different composition, to make your photos really stand out. Shoot the train side on. Try a pan!

Get your camera really low - or really high (find an overpass, stand on a snowbank, or bring a ladder!).

3. Focus On The Details

Rather than show the entire locomotive, zoom in on the details. Noted author and photographer Greg McDonnell includes a lot of detail photos in his books and I think they really set his work apart.

Documenting the details really helps later on to resolve questions that people might have about "how things used to be". As railfans we are also documenting what's going on. We owe a large debt to railfans of decades past who shot the dying days of steam, the first generation of diesels, and so forth. Someday railfans will thank us who capture the last GP9s, the GMD1s, and other equipment that won't be around for much longer.

4. Keep It Clean

Good photography tells a story, and it's hard to know what the subject is when there is a lot of clutter in a photo.

Who doesn't look at that giant box on the left?
I think this needs some "post" processing...

Keep it simple. Move your feet to get rid of distracting elements.

Other elements in the photo help provide context, but the subject of your photo (in this case, the train) should dominate.

5. Edit Your Photos

Please, please, please don't post your photos straight out of the camera (SOOC). All photos can benefit from a little editing.

At the very least, you should:

  • Make sure the horizon is level
  • Get the exposure right
  • Add a bit of contrast

Here's a photo I took in June 2013, almost straight out of the camera. I cropped it but that's the only edit I did to it - so far.

Not bad.. not bad. But it could be a lot better. Here's what I see that could be improved:

  • The horizon slants a bit to the left
  • The trucks are too dark - in fact the  whole photo is a bit dark
  • The grass is a little dull for June

Here's the edited photo.

I think it has a lot more "punch".

There are plenty of photo editors out there. As long-time readers know, I love Adobe Lightroom but there are many other choices including free editors like Paint.NET, Gimp, and PhoXo. If you use your phone for photography, there are lots of editors there too including the built-in iOS photo editor.

I hope these tips help you to produce better railfan photos. Please comment below if you have more to share. I look forward to seeing your photos. Follow me on Google+, Facebook, Flickr or Instagram and let's get sharing!


DaveM said...

I like the picture you took for your third point, I never thought of taking a picture from that angle before.


Steve Boyko said...

Thanks, Dave!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tips Steve! Great suggestions!

Michael said...

Great points. I have learned a lot about the art of shooting trains from these types of posts. One of the most important tips I would suggest is vary the location of your shots, as you point out. If you are always shooting from the same location, you will continue to fall victim to the same errors. I know I did a few years ago.

Brian Small said...

That list works for me. I might have expanded 'Edit Your Photos' to include weeding week files and only showing our best. To many of us post images just because we can without considering weather the photo is actually any good. A very subjective topic I know but ........

Steve Boyko said...

Agreed, Michael, I know I have my "favourite spots" that produce decent photos but I recognize that you have to try new locations... and be willing to accept that some of them are not going to work out. Take some photographic risks.

Steve Boyko said...

Good point Brian weeding the weak files out is important. Your reputation is based on what you share so you should share your best work!

Sometimes the subject is unusual or interesting enough that it is worth sharing even if the photo is technically not great. As you say, very subjective.