The signal bridge at Franklin Park, Illinois made for an interesting composition with light and shadow on March 25, 2007. Railfan & Railroad editor Steve Barry discusses his early influences and approach to railroad photography.
Camera Bag: Influences
By Steve Barry /photo by the author
As the new kid on the R&R block, I was asked to explain my photographic "philosophy." My approach reflects elements of several photographers whose style I incorporated into my shooting. I think one of the best ways to develop a "style" is to look at what other shooters are doing, then go out and copy them. Duplicating their efforts gives you experience in taking photos that appeal to you, and you can later apply these techniques to similar situations you encounter down the road.
I've always been interested in railroads, and as I grew older I discovered my primary interest was in photography. I would go on trips with my father and his friends in the early 1960s, armed with my little Kodak Instamatic 100, taking little fuzzy square slides. They looked okay to me — I guess that's what mattered most.
During college, I finally got my first 35mm SLR (a Miranda Auto-Sensorex EE), which gave acceptable results (the camera clerk of the K-Mart where it was purchased recommended I use Fujichrome). Graduation from college in 1979 also allowed me to graduate photographically to a Nikon FM and Kodachrome. Eager to learn whatever I could, I would buy every magazine available and check out the photos, not only for the subject matter but to see who was shooting what and how they approached their subjects (this is something I still do — you can never learn enough).
My earliest efforts were basically hit-or-miss, mostly with misses. I would get the occassional good shot, but most of what I shot was pretty mundane, and a lot of it was downright awful. (I could package my results from a 1977 trip to Horseshoe Curve as a seminar in what not to do. I still couldn't figure out why the good ones turned out the way they did, as lighting and composition were pretty much alien concepts. It wasn't until later I discovered that at least a little bit of planning should go into each shot.
About the same time I was getting into photography, a new magazine called Railfan was hitting the stands. I would snap up every issue and turn to the "Camera Bag" column and try to figure out what I was doing wrong (Gee, you're supposed to stand on the sunny side of the tracks?). I guess it could be said that the photographer who influenced my early efforts the most was Jim Boyd.
With several issues of Boydisms integrated into my shooting, I was at last getting consistent results. My grasp of the "basics" was further enhanced when I picked up a copy of the Guide to Railroad Photography (a publication of the North Western Illinois Chapter NRHS, and re-released in a much-updated format as Railroad Photography — How to Shoot Like the Pros, published by Andover Junction). This book is the single most useful reference too an aspiring railfan photographer can have. It’s tips on composition are presentcd in a way that will enablc anyone to read them and instantly go out and take better pictures.
The next big revelation in my life (pictorially speaking) came when I first saw America's Colorful Railroads: The Second Generation by the late Don Ball, Jr. Inside its covers were perfect examples of what was basically documentation of the rail scene, but each photo had some other creative element incorporated into it. There were Amtrak turbos along the Hudson River and a funky shot of a Rio Grande boxcar in a shaft of sunlight in the middle of a monster storm. These were trains put into the context of their evironment. Soon I was trying to do the same in my photography.
The third photographer that influenced my approach is Gary Benson, who was a professional photographer long before he discovered trains. Because he started shooting trains without ever having seen any of the rail hobby magazines or books, he was not influenced by perceived boundaries that defined "conventional" railfan photography. His fresh approach to the subject, along with his use of a variety of lenses (especially wide angles) and his close-up "detail" shots have all entered into my photographic "mix".
Today, my philosophy is still mostly influenced by what I saw in Ball's book over a decade ago, although I tend to lean more toward the creative ("artsy") side of the hobby. One of the things that keeps me interested in shooting is that there is always some new approach I want to master. Currently, I'm trying to figure out how photographers like Scott Snell and Steve Schmollinger come up with so many great shots with non-conventional lighting.
My current arsenal is a fleet of Nikons (my original FM along with an FE and two FE2s) and two MD-11 winders. My primary lenses are a pair of zooms, one a 35-105mm, the other a 70-210mm. I have a couple of fixed 50mm and wide angle lenses, and my most recent purchase is a "Western Wide Angle" 300mm lens. Going to autofocus would be an expensive proposition, and since I already have top-of-the-line optics with my current cameras, I would just as soon spend the money on trips to places I've never been. Film choice remains Kodachrome with ASA 64 in one camera, 200 in another (for hand-holding medium telephoto shots or for use in grub). A third camera has Fuji Velvia loaded just for fun. If anything is moving slow enough for multiple cameras I'll shot a frame of Velvia — if it comes down to only one shot, Kodachrome always has priority. The fourth camera is loaded with a film du jour, currently Ektachrome Lumiere 100, just to see how different films react under different conditions.
I have also been an active night shooter, starting with my first group session at the East Broad Top in 1997. My first "Jim Boyd Spectacular" was at Ivy City Engine Terminal (Washington, D.C.) in 1979. I started doing my own lighting in 1981 using small blue flashbulbs. I moved up to the big No. 2 bulbs in 1986 and then went electronic with the Lumedyne system in 1992.
As I said at the beginning, my photography has developed through influences. The work of others I find appealing I try to incorporate into my "style." Setting goals keep photography challenging — in fact my ultimate goal is to take a "Ted Benson photo."
This "Camera Bag" column originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of Railfan & Railroad.