While flicking through photos from friends and contacts on Flickr, as well as thinking of some of the fantastic old photos seen in publications such as “Australian Railway History” as well as many books covering the history of various services and locomotives operating within NSW over the years, it causes me to ask: Should we be photographing the mundane, or just looking for the extraordinary? I know a lot of enthusiasts these days who find the normal timetabled services to be boring, and not worth photographing, and who are always looking for something unusual or out of the ordinary to photograph.
Certainly, if you’ve seen an NR Class, you’ve seen them all (save for a couple of variations on liveries on some units), and any enthusiast from the main south can tell you that we’re not short of 81 Class to photograph. What about XPT’s and Xplorers? Do most photographers even turn an eye (let alone a camera) to the passing of yet another loaded coal train over The Blue Mountains? Indian Pacific shunting at Central? S-Set running a service to the city circle? Tangara on a service to Springwood? A large number of supposed railway photographers today wouldn’t even blink at that.
Of course, most of us covered the basics when we were starting out. It seems the easiest way to get into the hobby, to take a cheap point and shoot camera (or, for those readers who started in the days before digital, their first camera), down to your local station to take some photos of the trains that come along. This is an excellent start for a beginner, who will usually return home with a nice collection of photos of Cityrail trains, and perhaps the odd freight in the hour or two that they stayed around for. Eventually, such a photographer will stretch their boundaries, trying out more adventurous photos, looking for better photo spots, and upgrading their equipment. They might start looking for specific trains, happy to return home with a single set of high quality photos of a specific train or movement, rather than happy to stay put and collect photos of whatever comes their way.
However, what happens when the status quo changes? It might even be changing now, before our very eyes, and we don’t even realise it, instead looking for the unusual movements and rare-one-off lashups. You come home with a couple of really nice photos of the brand new SCT Class doing a light engine trial with a C Class. Perhaps you’ve chased the AK Cars around a rural branch line behind the latest rent-a-wreck from IRA? Meanwhile, in the background, all the semaphore signals that we took for granted between Bargo and Mittagong are gone, replaced by colour light signals. Perhaps there is suddenly a lack of Tangara trains running services to Gosford and Wyong in the peak hours? What DID happen to the 620 railcars, anyway?
At this time, we all look back to our photos, flipping through physical albums (or perhaps hunting through folder after folder in the “My photos” folder on C Drive), looking for our own piece of (what is now) history. Usually, we will have at least one or two photos, and that will do. But what if the only photos you have are from when you were first starting out, and only photographed “boring trains”? They are still photos, but looking back with an experienced eye (and the benefit of hindsight), you see poor lighting, perhaps poor composition – it might be a photo that, subject matter aside, you wouldn’t give a second thought when dragging the file over to the “recycle bin”
Looking back through those publications I mentioned earlier, you see photos that, to the photographers at the time, would have been mundane. A single 422 at the head of a southern highlands passenger train. A pair of 81 Class hauling an interstate freight to Melbourne. Quad 86 class hauling a coal train over the blue mountains. A lone CPH Railmotor rattling along a branch line. What have these things been replaced by? Scruffy looking Endeavour Railcars? Double or triple NR Class? Four 82 Class? A bus?!? A good thing the photographers of years past took the time to frame and record, what was to them at least, a normal movement.
This is not to say there is no reward in looking for those rare, one off movements either. Certainly, future generations who will grow up with the SCT, LDP, 92 and 6000 Class will want to look back at when these locomotives were under trial. Also, those who grow up with the Xplorer and Endeavour fleet in their new colour sceheme will be interested to see these trains working south of Goulburn, on their way to and from their refurbishment. However, bear in mind that what we see as “boring” today, future generations of railway photographers will look at in awe. Remember that the S-Set that got in the way of your photo won’t be around forever…
Make the ordinary the extraordinary. Often the most mundane movements can produce the most memorable photos, becuase you can use them to try a new style of composition, or explore the abstract. Certainly, on one of my frequent trips to the Main South last year, the best photo from the day was not solo G535 class wandering south through Menangle, but a simple shot of double NR Class at the head of a northbound Melbourne-Brisbane freighter. Something I’d seen a million times before.
My main inspiration when it comes to challenging the ordinary and getting extraordinary results, is my friend Kaine Treleaven – while the rest of us are sitting on a train, trying to get from A to B, Kaine is always looking for a new shot inside the train. See his photos here. Some of the photos he has taken while I’ve been reading, talking or having a snooze on the train are exceptional, and an inspiration for the rest of us.