Railway Photography – Trains in their Environment

Meeting Report

We were treated to some wonderful railway photography from Nick Gilliam - who had previously been a guest at the club as he lives just up the road in Ashington. Nick has had many of his photographs published in the national magazines devoted to steam railways – and this is no mean feat as Railway Photography is such a popular genre.

Nick uses a Mamiya rangefinder camera with an image size 6 by 7 centimetres – into this he loads rolls of Fujichrome Velvia 50 film a brand noted for its saturated colours. So large slides, vivid colours, and a powerful projector – wow! – what fantastic images that combination produces. Food for thought – these are the first film slides I’ve seen projected at the club although we’ve seen plenty of files which have been scanned from film images. The only comparable evening I remember was the “50 Years of the Monaco Grand Prix” but that relied on prints.

Nick’s shots show railways in their settings often showing off the surrounding countryside to great advantage. Nick’s ideal steam railway photograph demands good weather, but not too good as a clear blue sky is not favoured. The sun should shine in the same general direction as the camera is pointed to give a flattering side light on the whole train. The complete train from locomotive to guard’s van should be in view. The train should be going uphill so the locomotive has to work hard and give copious exhaust smoke. The arrangement of vehicles in the train must be realistic – a single BR “blood and custard” coach among a set of GWR chocolate and cream carriages will spoil a railway enthusiast’s week and certainly invalidate any photograph for publication. Of course the locomotive must face the right way – tender first is not acceptable. And Thomas the Tank Engine is definitely not welcome!

Do your research and get that lot right and you can start to think about photography – shutter speed – do you want to indicate motion blur or a pin-sharp shot? And depth of field – a train is a very long thing and it all has to be in focus. But the technical stuff you can control – you also need luck. The wind can blow the smoke so it obliterates the train. A train on a parallel track may come along just at the wrong moment, or a previously unnoticed diesel in a siding might creep into the frame to spoil the timeless illusion – these are just some of the many pitfalls just waiting to ruin your photograph. And the train you are photographing passes by in a very few seconds – no chance to change your camera settings. You thought wildlife was difficult? – have a go at railways!

Nick let us in to some tricks of the trade though – photographers can effectively charter steam trains and have them repeatedly run past the photographers so shots can be improved upon because of the difficulties outlined above. And in general the steam railway heritage lines can be relied upon to put together an authentic train but all that only goes some way to help. Nick’s images were exceptional, wonderfully composed and executed and complemented by his choice of camera and materials.

After coffee Nick ran a critique with some of our railway photos and awarded prizes for the best print and PDI. Janet Brown won the biscuits for her print where the steam locomotive had to play second fiddle to the elegantly posed model. Derek Grieve took the honours for his PDI of a narrow gauge image which ticked pretty well all the boxes in Nick’s list of requirements – excellent.

So a different and interesting evening - even if railways were previously not your thing you might be tempted to give it a try – the Bluebell Line is not far away and the Flying Scotsman, no less, will be there next weekend – form an orderly queue.

Thanks greatly to Nick for giving us such a good show – please keep coming along as a guest of the club – we’ll be very pleased to see you.

P.S., Since the meeting I’ve been down at Ford railway bridge (with several members of Bognor Camera Club) for an early morning mainline steam special. Even though this has been a brilliantly sunny weekend down by the river at 8.00am on Saturday it was very misty – see what I mean about luck. Nevertheless I got some shots of the locomotive as it passed by – they’re not very good but much better than they would have been had I not heard and acted upon Nick’s advice.