(This article originally ran in the July, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)

Digital infrared image of a southbound coal load at Palmer Lake, Colorado. Note the
white effect of the infrared light on the surrounding foliage. Nikon D100 converted for IR use.

Why has the black & white medium remained popular amongst some railfans in this day and age of color photography? Probably because of its traditional look. The granddaddy of today's roster shot was the steam locomotive builder's B&W photo. Contrasting plays of light and shadow and massive shapes (locomotives) are ideal for B&W. The timeless look of B&W is perfect for steam locomotives and old diesels. And who can deny the appeal of the B&W work of railfans like Richard Steinheimer, Dave Plowden, Phil Hastings, John Krause, Stan Kistler, Martin Burwash and Ted Benson?

Medium Format
After the introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, railfans started switching to the "small format" 35mm camera as slide shows became popular. But at a time when color images had the reputation for fading (Kodachrome had not had time to prove its longevity and Cibachrome printing was years in the future), fans who were concerned about archival life of their photos stayed with the larger medium format (MF) and 4x5 negatives for quality large, low grained, sharp B&W prints, even when using an ISO 400 speed film.

The recent rise of digital technology is replacing MF cameras, but if you are a dedicated film shooter and would like to move up from 35mm for B&W work, MF cameras are still available on the used market at prices as low as around $150 for a nice Yashica twin lens reflex (TLR) to maybe $900 for a basic Hasselblad outfit.

MF cameras use either 120 or 220 roll film (220 is twice as long as 120, allowing twice as many exposures), and come in several image size formats. "645" Mamiyas and Pentaxs produce a 6x4.5cm (2 x 1 inches) image, allowing 15 exposures on 120 film, or 30 exposures on 220. 6x6cm "2 square" cameras like Hasselblads and Bronicas produce 12 or 24 exposures, while 6x6 Mamiya, Yashica, and Rollei TLRs produce 12 on 120 film. 6x7cm (2 x 2 inches) cameras like the Pentax 6x7 and Mamiya RB and RZ 67s produce 10 or 20 images. Other MF cameras produce a 6x8cm (2 x 3 inches, 9 or 18 photos) or 6x9cm image (2 x 3 inches, 8 or 16 photos).

(LEFT) BNSF coal running southbound on the northbound track at Palmer Lake, Colorado. Original color image converted to B&W in Photoshop with a simple Grayscale function. Note the light sky and muddy look of the orange locomotive.
(RIGHT) Same image but converted using Hue/Saturation functions in Photoshop to give better tonal values. The orange of the locomotive was lightened using the Red channel, and the blue sky darkened using the Cyan channel.

Filters for B&W
Since B&W records colors as different shades of gray, different colors that are of the same tonal value can "blend together" in B&W. An example is a red locomotive beside a green box car or foliage, with both colors reproducing a similar shade of gray. Another trait of most B&W films is they tend to lighten blue skies to almost white. Colored filters can correct this.

A #12 yellow, #21 orange or #25 red filter will lighten red spectrum colors, and darken blues and greens (and also reduce haze and fog), with the effect ranging from slight to more distinct as you move from yellow to red. Our red locomotive becomes a lighter shade of gray to contrast nicely against the darker gray of the green, and a darker blue sky makes those nice puffy white clouds more visible. Red filters will require three stops more exposure; orange filters two additional stops; and yellow filters one extra stop of exposure.

Digital B&W
But the same digital technology that is replacing film cameras is providing an even better way to work in B&W. Digital cameras of 10 MP or greater easily match the quality of a medium format negative in prints up to 16x20 inches. And digital eliminates the need to juggle two cameras to capture B&W and color at the same time, as you can easily convert color images to B&W in the computer.

Another benefit of starting with a color digital image is the ability to utilize the color controls in an image processing program to get the same effects as using filters with film. For example, with the Hue/Saturation function in an image editor like Photoshop, Elements or similar programs, select a specific color (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, magenta) in the drop down menu, then adjust the Lightness and Saturation sliders. If green background foliage is a little too dark to contrast with a red or orange locomotive in B&W, adjust the Red color sliders until the locomotive is lightened. Adjusting the Blue and Cyan colors can make the sky more dramatic without affecting the rest of the image. Then select "Master" in the drop down menu of colors and desaturate the whole image to B&W. Finally, switch the image to Grayscale mode to reduce unnecessary file size.

Digital Printing
If you have been printing in a darkroom, a B&W print "developed" instead in the computer and printed on an inkjet photo printer will astound you with the ease with which a quality print is accomplished. Making tonal changes is very easy in the computer, VS the process of using different contrast filters, dodging and burning, etc. with several trial prints in a darkroom.

Want to add a nice sepia tone to your steam images? Most editing programs have easy to use sepia functions. And eliminating all dust spots and scratches on a negative requires the first and also each additional darkroom print be hand spotted with special inks to hide these blemishes. But a scanned film image is easily spotted just once using the Clone tool in an image editor, then in the future you can make quick (and exact) reprints at any size without having to re-spot each new print or make tonal corrections all over again.

Of course, with film you will need a scanner that accepts the format of film you are using. Such as one of the Epson flatbed photo scanners that come with negative carriers to accept 35mm, medium format, and also 4x5 film.

Digital Infrared?
Train photography in black & white infrared (IR) is a radical concept not normally seen in railfanning. But if you enjoy working in B&W, you may like the dramatic "look" of white foliage and dark skies and water infrared will give to an occasional train photo.

In this photo of a Cumbres & Toltec Scenic train in southern Colorado, note how the IR effect on the side-lit conifers adds a nice contrast to a composition of mostly dark tones. A sepia tone has also been added. Nikon D100 converted for IR use.

B&W IR photography is possible with B&W IR films. And while most digital cameras cannot capture in IR as they have an IR blocking filter over the sensor, a few do not have this filter and can take both visible light and IR photos. But both IR film and IR capable digitals require a deep magenta, near-opaque filter (an R72, 87B, 87C, 89B or similar), which blocks visible light but lets IR (invisible light) in. This filter limits you to stationary subjects as your shutter speed will be in the range of second, and as you cannot see through the filter, you have to remove and replace it to refocus and recompose for each new shot.

For action train photography, you will need instead a digital camera converted for IR photography by the replacement of the IR blocking filter with an IR admitting filter covering the sensor, not the lens. This allows quick and accurate composition and focus, using normal metering with fast shutter speeds, as you have a clear viewfinder.

A caveat: IR light focuses at a different point than the shorter wavelength visible light camera focus systems are designed for. Most film SLR camera lenses have a red dot on the aperture ring for IR focus adjustment. You focus normally, then move the focus point back to beside the dot. A camera converted for IR use will usually be modified to focus IR light without this adjustment, allowing autofocus.

But some lenses will focus IR light differently. A technician can usually calibrate a camera to focus IR light correctly with a specific lens or at a specific zoom setting for a specific zoom. But the camera may or may not focus correctly with all other lenses or other zoom settings. If using an APO/ED/SD/LD type lens, there is no focus shift needed for the IR light because these lenses control refraction, so autofocus can be used.

Otherwise, you may have to manually focus. The deep depth of field of a f/11 or f/16 aperture also helps overcome any minor focusing errors. Test your lenses on your DSLR converted for IR with different manual focus settings to determine how each will work with IR.

Post Processing Digital Infrared
Unless your camera has a B&W mode, your digital IR photos will appear magenta colored, and will have to be converted to Grayscale in the computer. Then you make the same type of sharpening, tonal and other adjustments as with any digital image.

Converting a digital camera for IR use requires a trained professional, and will cost $300 and up. And because this conversion is "permanent" (reversing the IR conversion also requires a technician), consider doing this only if you have a spare digital camera after upgrading to a newer model, and only if you like to shoot other subjects, such as landscapes, as its use for trains may be too limited to justify the cost. To find a conversion facility, do a web search with key words "digital infrared conversions" or similar.

Alternatively, you may locate a camera already converted on the used market. Or, if you are technically inclined, do the conversion yourself. But to avoid ruining an expensive camera, search the used market including pawn shops, as older point-and-shoot digitals can be found very cheaply. Free web tutorials are available to explain the process of converting a camera.

(If you have any questions on any of the above, please e-me.)

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