View Full Version : Looking for some practical railfanning tips

11th Aug 2012, 11:08 AM
I've had a DSLR for about a year but only now I'm trying to take it off auto mode.

I took a brief photo course for work, sort of a photo course, but it was all focused on stuff related to work so we learned about appeture and shutter priority, some on night photography etc.

So I'm looking for some tips as you guys have some awesome shots especially in the prototype threads.

Do you have a preferred setting or priority? Since the train is moving would you concentrate on a high shutter speed or appeture to capture maximum depth of field?

Same for the night time stuff. Any tips for some of those cool night shots of the lights zooming by or just crank it to bulb and hold the shutter open?


11th Aug 2012, 11:18 AM
There is an old photographer's rule of thumb: "F11 and be there."

What it means is that, the most important aspect of getting the shot is being in the right place at the right time to snap it... if you're not, it doesn't matter what f-stop or shutter speed you use. The "F11" part comes from F/11 being the best "compromise" F-stop. It's wide enough to let in enough lite to retain fast shutter speeds (in daylight, at least), and narrow enough to give reasonably good depth of field for the sorts of things a newspaper or magazine photographer tends to shoot (street-level shots, people in a sports venue, etc). For this reason, the old-time cheapie cameras that had only one fixed lens and fixed aperture (and could only vary, if you were lucky, shutter speed), had their aperture fixed at F/11 as well (usually).

With moving images, you're going to really need to focus #1 on shutter speed. If you want to freeze the action, you have to use a fast shutter speed (how fast depends on how fast the target is moving). This is going to force you to use a wider aperture or else under-expose your shots. But just exactly how fast, how wide an aperture, etc, is going to depend on the conditions, partly, but also, and primarily, on YOUR preferences. Some people like blurry backgrounds with only the object of interest in sharp focus. Other people want the WHOLE shot in focus. Neither one is right, but the results look different, convey a different feeling and mood, etc.

Some is also going to depend on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to create "art", then the choices can be more varied. You can even leave long shutter times to get the train to "smear" across the photo, and it's fine if that's the effect you want to achieve. On the other hand, if you want to create "reference shots," then you will need to get everything to be nice, sharp, in focus, and correctly exposed so you have proper color fidelity for future reference.

I know that's not really much of an answer, but the reality is you have to do a bunch of test shots yourself and see what you like. The huge advantage you have today over past times is, once you buy a digital storage card, you can take effectively infinite shots for free, and you can delete, copy, save, edit, etc, all without much effort or much cost. No need for your own darkroom, your own developing tools, and a hundred expensive roles of Velvia film stock.

11th Aug 2012, 01:45 PM
Thanks that was insightful

One the instructors on my course did say "F8 is great, F11 is heaven"

11th Aug 2012, 09:54 PM
Here's my cheat: I start with auto mode, and let it calibrate to the scene. Then, I note the settings, and switch to manual mode and enter the settings there. That will give you a good starting point, and you can make adjustments from there (there are always adjustments needed).


Michael Whiteman
11th Aug 2012, 10:07 PM
What I love about today's digital media is that all the lost detail in those under exposed steam engine shots can be brought back with Photoshop like magic. I'm glad I didn't throw them away. Things were a lot more difficult back in the day, when it cost you about $.35 each time you pulled the trigger and then you'd have to wait a week to see how well you did.

11th Aug 2012, 10:31 PM
For moving trains, 1/125s is the slowest shutter speed I would use to minimize motion ( including shaking ) induced blur.


12th Aug 2012, 01:48 AM
Don't stand on the track when the train goes past!! Like this idiot.


12th Aug 2012, 09:33 AM

He really wanted to get up close and personal

12th Aug 2012, 04:56 PM
at least here, since 9/11 the railroad folks are a bit more antsy about people being around their property. Whatever you do don't trespass just to get a good shot.

12th Aug 2012, 07:08 PM
Or at least, get permission.

29th Aug 2012, 08:00 PM
If its a double track, never sand between the rails to shoot for the other track.
If a facility is close by, if its a yard or railroad office, don't be seen walking down the tracks past it.
Train crews have cell phones. You might never hear a call to the police on a scanner.
If you see a graffiti artist at work, report it immediately.
And yes, if you do go into an area that says "no trespassing", expect a visit.

29th Aug 2012, 10:13 PM
Same for the night time stuff. Any tips for some of those cool night shots of the lights zooming by or just crank it to bulb and hold the shutter open?

For this one, unless you're in an area with a lot of train action - you're not going to be able to take advantage of the "it's digital, take a bunch of shots" approach because you'll only get to take one shot (if you want the lit engine, anyway) and then you'll be sitting there in the dark with your camera and the crickets - waiting for the next train to come by so you can take your next shot! Unless it's a really slow train, I guess.

I would suggest "practicing" on a roadway at night with the lights from vehicle traffic... at least to get an approximate feel for where your settings should be so you can take the most advantage of the real "train's coming" opportunity. And all the above advice still stands. Don't setup in the middle of the road :D. I'm assuming you know the necessity of a tripod. If you have Vibration Reduction on your lens, most manufacturers want you to turn VR off when using a tripod.
It will all be timing - hopefully you have a remote release for your shutter. There is no simple setting answer because there are so many factors (train speed, ambient light). I actually haven't taken nighttime train shots, but if I were in an area without a lot of ambient light, I'd want to leave the shutter open for a while (7-8 seconds?) to gather some interesting background light, with the train crossing the frame in the final 1-2 seconds.. If the train crosses and then the shutter stays open for a while afterwards, you'll burn over the interesting headlight effect you're after.
If I were taking one shot right now and it were dark but not pitch black, I'd go F8; maybe 8 second shutter, set the ISO around 500 and try to time the train like I mentioned.
The shot would probably be awful because that's a total guess starting point, but hey - you've got to start somewhere!

User "Mark W" has some great night shots... he'd be a good resource.