Rail Scenes Photography

Rarely an event goes by in the railway industry without some enterprising enthusiast capturing it on “film” (or pixels as the case may be). At some point in recent times, the art of train photography has made a transition from just “recording a loco/wagon/colour scheme” to being a standalone expression. It’s not just about capturing “the best steam locomotive”, but it’s about how you capture it. Slowly people are trying out new things and moving past the stereotypical three-quarter sunny roster shot (although these still have their place).

Some railway photographers have earned their spurs as “regular” photographers (either professionally, or more often, photography enthusiasts). Others have gained all of their experience through the rail enthusiast hobby. However, what is a budding photographer to do when faced with a situation they have no experience in – the ever challenging but also very rewarding art of night photography. Previously, unless enthusiasts had access to the skills and the knowledge, it seemed like a very steep learning curve that would frustrate more often than reward.

Thankfully, Rail Scenes Photography (RSP) has seen this as an opportunity, and has begun holding a series of events designed to provide everything a photographer needs to learn about night photography. It’s easy (albeit expensive) to take photography classes, but until now there’s been nothing specifically tailored to railway photography. Thankfully, RSP has come up with an inventive and inexpensive solution.

Their first event was held at Newport Workshops in Melbourne, Victoria on the night of July 28th, 2012. The premise was simple – turn up with a tripod and camera, and the experts on hand will provide the “scenes”, the lighting and the expertise for any level of photographer. Despite having a reasonable experience with night photography (both railway and non-railway related), the event piqued my interest, if only because I would not have to wait for scenes to set themselves up – here was a chance to have steam locomotives parked up in photogenic locations specifically to have their photos taken!

The admission price was $75, which might sound a little steep for the privilege of taking a few photographs. It is only steep when one fails to take advantage of what was on offer – considering the price of a photography class (which might have very little use to a dedicated rail-fan not interested in “contemporary photography”), this was quite cheap. The “customers” (for want of a better term) were split into three groups of five, which made is a lot easier to manage than larger groups would have been.

Three “scenes” were provided, and each location around the workshops had an expert on hand to assist where required. Probably the best thing about the experts was that they could see when people did need help they were on hand to assist, but for those who had the skills required, they were quite happy to stand back and just chat about photography or trains or… anything really! There was no “looking over the shoulder” or “suggesting” things to do differently – they were happy to just let people do what they wanted to do, while still remaining available for questions if required.

The first “scene” that my group shot was two K Class locomotives poking their noses out of the workshops. The concept behind this shoot was superb, the composition was a classic workshop scene. As the locomotives were not “in steam” to keep costs down, smoke machines were used to create the right atmosphere instead, another excellent idea. The lighting however, did not lend itself to the use of models (which were also provided by RSP), who were expected to stand perfectly still for 30 seconds at a time (an impossible feat). Thankfully Les (one of the Steamrail Victoria blokes on hand overseeing the event) had the idea to do some light painting with the headlight of T395, which improved photography significantly. The concept of “light painting” was also explored by the RSP expert, although the equipment used was not up to the task – in place of flashguns, which are the best tool for light painting, LED torches were used instead, which did not have any noticeable effect on the locomotives at all. If not for Les’ use of the headlight, the scene would have been a total bust.

The second scene was conducted inside the workshops, which also included a demonstration of off-camera flash. Whilst it was exceptionally informative, I feel the opportunity to capitalise on this equipment was lost. The equipment (a standard flash gun mounted on a stand shooting through an umbrella to soften the light) was on hand and operational, but instead of being used to capture photos, it was merely a show and tell. Perhaps the best way to do things would be to have the participants capture a specific scene however they would do it normally and then have the staff member capture the same scene using the off-camera flash equipment to form the basis for a comparison. It’s one thing to show a photograph using off-camera flash that has been shot of an entirely different scene, but it’s another thing to show a direct comparison relative to the actual scene in front of people’s eyes. With all of that said and done, it did dispel a lot of myths about off-camera flashes (ie prohibitive costs, not easily portable, and overly complicated), and it certainly had the effect of generating some interest from myself in investing in such equipment in the future, even if a proper demonstration was not performed.

The third and final scene was R761 outside the main shed with additional lighting provided to offset the harsh yard lighting, and ensure an evenly lit locomotive. Despite the best of intentions, it was very difficult to capture the locomotive as it was without having the image polluted by the yard lighting. Again, a RSP expert was on hand to offer assistance, however he saw we all had a reasonable knowledge of our equipment, and was happy to let us shoot away on our own.

The concept behind the event was flawless I feel – providing set scenes was a massive drawcard, as night rail photography relies a lot on luck, for the right locomotive to be parked in the right spot with the right lighting. Obviously not having the locomotives in steam was a bit of a lost opportunity, however this was unavoidable given that, if the price of admission was too high, it would scare away potential participants.

I personally would have preferred the event to choose between one of two things – either advertise it as a “class”, a wholly educational experience, and divide the groups up by knowledge level. This would have the advantage of appealing to those who want to learn, while putting them in a setting that appeals to their interest. On the other hand, the event could be advertised as a “shoot”, in which participants would have a certain level of knowledge, and have more creative control. By putting one foot in each camp, I feel both sides lost out a bit. An opportunity to combine the off-camera flash with the use of models in a “lesson” or “workshop” type scenario would have been exceptionally valuable assuming the participants knew how to use their cameras already. A different scene for novice photographers could have focused on mastering “manual” mode and experimenting with different shutter speeds and f-stops.

Whilst the event did not live up to my expectations, I am happy with the results I walked away with, and I would gladly go to another event held by RSP in the future. I feel that the prices they are charging for the opportunities provided are reasonable, and whilst there is plenty of room for improvement, there is also plenty that they are doing right. Perhaps in the future they could offer two different types of event, “classes” for novice photographers, and “shoots” for those with the equipment and the knowledge to get the best out of the situation.

No matter what your view of these types of events, it is fantastic to see a way for novice photographers to learn how to improve their photography in a railway environment at a reasonable cost. Compared to a formal photography course which might have no application to rail photography beyond basic technical skills, it is a sure thing that even the newest of photographer will get pleasing results. I would certainly recommend visiting one of their events, and I plan on visiting future events myself.

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