TRACKSIDE with a DIGITAL CAMERA
(This article originally ran in the May, 2007 Digital Horizon column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)

Digital train photography is much like film photography. Exposure modes, autofocus, fast shot advance on a digital single lens reflex (DSLR), etc. are the same as on a film camera. But there are some critical differences.

First off, you need to choose between RAW, JPEG or (on some cameras) TIFF. Theoretically, RAW gives the best image, as the “raw” data is unaffected by in-camera automatic adjustments. TIFF also is a high quality image. However, the highest JPEG setting (such as JPEG Fine) gives excellent quality while JPEG’s compressed file size allows more photos on your media card than RAW and TIFF. Do stay away from the highly compressed, lower JPEG levels (such as JPEG Normal, JPEG Small, etc.) which degrade image quality.

TIFF is a high quality photo format used in the computer. To save harddrive space, original JPEGs from the camera should be stored in the computer as JPEGs. But once you make adjustments to an image (crop, resize, etc.), always save as TIFF (JPEGs loose quality each time they are re-saved). To work on it in a computer, in some image programs RAW also must be converted to TIFF.

Even if your camera offers a black & white (or "grayscale") mode (many do not), you might shoot in color and use the individual color channels in an editing program to achieve a better tonal range in the final B&W print. (See The Black & Whitest.

With a DSLR, you may find their response time as fast as or faster than your old 35mm film SLR. However, with a point-and-shoot (P&S) and some Advanced Digital models, two nasty surprises awaiting you when you take your first train photo are “shutter lag” and, close on its heels, “write time.” No concern with a stationary subject, With up to a second of delay from the press of the shutter until the image is taken, a moving locomotive may be out of your perfectly composed scene or even will have moved out of your composition before the shutter fires! You should compensate for this by timing your shot for about a second before the train is in the desired position. Then, if your camera does not have a burst mode, it will be frozen for a few seconds while the image is written to the media card. Quick follow up shots will be impossible, and you may get poorly composed shots, out of focus images, or completely miss the shot. So plan ahead to be sure you get the shot you want on the first try.

Note how in this scene (of a northbound train at Palmer Lake on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe / Union Pacific "Joint Line" in Colorado), when the shutter was pressed when the front of the engine was at the point where the fuel tank is seen now, shutter lag of around a second allowed the front of the train to move out of the composition before the shutter fired.

Also, some P&Ss do not offer manual exposure controls or long shutter speeds which you will need if you take night time exposures. Some P&S may offer a top shutter speed of only 1/300, a bit slow for photography of moving trains (1/500th is the standard shutter speed for railfanning). Another potential P&S problem is a start-up time of several seconds, coupled with automatic camera shut off after a period of non-use. This can cause a missed shot if you are surprised by the train’s arrival when the camera is off.

You might also have noticed a digital camera indicates how many shots are left, unlike a film camera showing the shots taken. Digitals offer different capture settings and file sizes, so the counter counts down to show the number of images left on the card according to the image format selected. You may have space for 6 JPEG Fine images, but switch to RAW and the counter may go to 2 because of RAW’s larger file size.

Now here is a big advantage of digital over film. If you are shooting in full sun at ISO 100 and clouds darken the sky, you can instantly switch to ISO 400 to maintain the fast shutter speed you need, then go back to ISO 100 when the sun reappears.

Digital cameras use “white balance” to automatically filter out color casts (such as from using tungsten film or filters with lights in a rail yard at night). Usually, you can let the camera set the white balance automatically. An exception might be photographing a scene with a sunset or sunrise colored sky, as white balance may see these intense colors as a color cast. Here you might turn white balance off to capture the rich sky colors. Polarizers and neutral density filters are fine for digital, but because of the camera’s white balance compensation, do not use color correcting filters (such as 80 series and CMY filters).

A digital camera’s LCD panel is another big plus. Use it to clear up media card space by deleting unwanted images, to verify you are using a fast enough shutter speed, and check exposure, composition, and white balance in test shots before the train arrives.

Also on the LCD panel, most modern digital cameras have "Live View" which allows you to see your intended photo on the lCD screen before you press the shutter. Many of these screens can also be rotated to allow you to compose from a low or high angle without laying down or climbing up on something, such as having to reach over a chain link fence or other barrier to photograph your subject. Of course, you may find composing - and focusing if using manual focus - on the LCD panel can be a bit tricky, as it is not as easy to hold the camera still as when using an eye level viewfinder, and you may wind up with a tilted composition or cut off one edge of the scene. One solution is to put the camera on a tripod to compose.

I spied this interesting Escanaba and Lake Superior derelict SD9 #1220 on the grounds of the ELS RR in Escanaba, Michigan in September 2012, behind a six foot high chain link fence with a strongly worded sign nearby about no permission being given to railfans to come on the property. But a clear view was possible by using Live View while holding my Canon G9 P&S over the top of the fence, something unheard of with a film camera (unless you have a step ladder handy!) To avoid dropping your camera on the other side of a fence, be sure the camera strap is firmly around your wrist!

Digital zoom? DO NOT USE IT! Unlike a regular zoom lens that magnifies the image before it is recorded on the sensor, digital zoom uses interpolation to crop and magnify the image. Just like major cropping and enlargement in the darkroom, the result may be a photo with reduced sharpness.

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