IR Photography Tips
By S Shankar.
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Completely revised and updated: August 3, 2004
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS AND TRICKS
How can I take pleasing photographs of trains and railroads in India, I hear several of you ask. Well, it's not quite as difficult as it seems. But while it can be challenging at times, it is usually also loads of fun.
Here are some basic tips to get you started. This article has recently (Aug. 2004) been updated to cover digital photography, as more and more people turn towards this medium. Barring statements in yellow which are digital oriented, most of the material applies equally to film as well as to digital.
But before we get to the technique, there are certain ground rules and precautions to keep in mind before you attempt any form of railroad photography in India. I have written a long-ish piece on railway photography in India, which you are recommended to read and fully understand, for your own protection and safety. India, it would seem, suffers from a persecution complex, and the authorities are skittish about anyone trying to take pictures of her railways, especially at railroad stations, sheds, yards, workshops and nearby bridges. You can read all about it in fairly comprehensive detail in my above-mentioned website.
Assuming that you have all that behind you, let us get to the technique aspects!
Which sort of camera is ideal for railroad photography in India? Well, as is true with any kind of photography, simply use what you already have, or whichever camera you are most comfortable using. But it's preferable to avoid your heavy SLRs and other non-pocketable cameras, though. This is more from point of view of the hassles and harassment by officials than anything else. Digital is the rage nowadays, and chances are, you use digital too. Digital or film, it hardly matters.
One downside of digital is the shutter lag, i.e., the time it takes from the time you depress the shutter button on the camera till it actually fires. Another problem in some cheap digitals is an additional delay from when you switch on the camera to when you can take the first shot. The cheaper digital cameras have a painfully long shutter lag, so they might not be suitable for shooting fast-moving trains, or for taking a series of shots in quick succession, for by the time your camera is ready for action, the train has long passed. The more pricey and upmarket cameras have undergone tremendous improvements on this score, but if you have an older digital camera, or one of the cheaper ones, this is one thing to keep in mind. However, don’t let this limit your enthusiasm. The shutter lag is sometimes very long initially after switching on the camera, after which it might not be so bad between shots, once you are in action. It depends on your camera, really.
While even a simple point and shoot film camera with little or no features can also be used, for better results, try and choose a camera which gives you some degree of control, like various flash modes where you can turn the flash off if required, electronic shutter with a long exposure feature, spot metering etc. Again, for digital users: many of the cheaper digitals have a slowest shutter speed of a mere ¼ of a second. This makes them rather unsuitable for low light shooting. Flash shooting with digital usually yields a very grainy background, unless you shoot at a high resolution. Try and see what works best for you. Even cameras with ¼ second speed give excellent prints if the lab chooses to apply their mind. Use a reputed photo lab, and use your camera’s LCD screen to point out to the lab staff those frames that require special treatment. Avoid using those dreadful keychain digital cameras or the spypen or other low end digital equipment. They are dreadful resolution-wise and will give terrible looking pictures.
Most digital video cameras can do a limited amount of still 'video captures' or still shots. Keep in mind however that the resolution is usually not even 2 megapixels, barring one or two really pricey models. Shooting stills with a digital camera may do in a pinch. However, use the video camera for the purpose it is designed for: to take videos.
Likewise, almost all digital still cameras can do short video clips as well. Note however that the movies are generally recorded in Quicktime format, which makes them suitable for web use only. The resolution too is pretty awful: 640x480, with an option of an even more dreadful 320x240 resolution if you want to extend the duration of the clip a bit. Note that these movies are generally not suited for television viewing.
If you are in a position to choose, or intend purchasing a new camera for the purpose of Indian Railways photography, then I'd state emphatically that the most convenient and hassle free piece of equipment for safe railroad photography in India is a reliable point and shoot camera WITH ZOOM. Digital or film, the choice is yours. It is generally difficult to buy a digital camera without zoom, so this probably means that any digital camera would do. If you choose to go digital, remember the problem with shutter lag, though.
A few additional points about digital: if you are going to get a new digital camera, pick one with a resolution of at leat 3 megapixels. (Digitals in this range usually come with 3.1 or 3.2 megapixels.) Anything less that that will yield unsatisfactory results when you print the photos, anything more than that, well that’s luxury. Sure, a resolution of 640x480 is more than enough for shooting pictures for web use, and 1 megapixel is sufficient for 4"x6" prints. But only just. Enlarging could exhibit 'jaggies’ if observed closely. Shoot at 2 megapixels at the minimum, if you hope to enlarge any of your photographs. Some photographers advise shooting at the maximum resolution all the time, but this is not necessary if you are shooting with the IRFCA photo gallery or other web sites in mind.
NOTE: You can vary the resolution between pictures, using the same memory card. Like you can shoot your first picture at 640x480 (not recommended though), the second picture at 3 megapixels, the third one at 1 megapixel, the fourth at 640x480, again the fifth at 2 megapixels, etc. Decide what you will do with the pictures. This is however very tedious usually, for changing resolutions means several steps through the camera’s menu, so stick to an average of 1 or 2 megapixel, or stay at full resolution if you are so inclined. Note however that the more pictures you shoot at higher resolutions, the fewer the images that will fit on your memory card. E.g., if you want to do a webpage about say the last MG E.M.U's in Chennai (Madras), and are positive that you will use the images for that webpage only, you can safely shoot all images at 1 mpxl or lower, and hence get more pictures into your card.
One last point. Unlike film, remember that with digital, there are NO NEGATIVES. So if you intend to refer to your pictures again, or wish to store them for the record, get your photos (called 'images’ in digital parlance) transferred on to a CD or DVD. Any reasonable photo lab will do this. After you are done shooting, remove your memory card from your camera, and take it to the photo lab. Tell them whether you want prints or a CD or both. Once this is complete, simply delete all the images from the card, and start all over again on a clean slate, on your next trip. While deleting is generally sufficient to wipe all your image files off memory card, you can make doubly sure of having deleted all images by 'formatting’ your card. Select 'format card’ from the menu of your camera. You can also get digital 'contact prints' from the lab, which show thumbnails of all the photos from the memory card on one sheet -- convenient for reference and cataloguing later.
Some critical points
Note that most of the cell phones of today with built-in cameras offer resolution of only up to 2 megapixels at the maximum. (this is sure to change in the immediate future), and they are equipped with only digital zoom. Forget about using these for good railway photography. The same applies to digital cameras integrated into PDAs or personal organizers, laptops, and other devices -- as of the date this article was written, most of them tend to have low resolutions, usually 1.2 megapixels or 2 megapixels.
Always try your best to use FAST film. 400 ISO is ideal (most compact camera makers recommend 400 ISO as standard anyway), but 200 will also do in a pinch. A combination of zoom lens and fast film should put scores of very satisfying IR pictures in your album.
Why 400 ISO you ask? Well, this film is fast enough to capture action shots (trains do move fast), or take care of mixed lighting situations, where your subject is partly in light and partly in shade. Here is where the spot metering function on your camera comes in handy too. A combination of 400 ISO film and the spot metering will yield satisfying results time after time.
400 ISO film is also fast enough to give you acceptable pictures on heavily overcast days or during the classic Indian monsoon. You will also get better dusk or late evening shots WITHOUT FLASH where the glittering lights are just coming up, and most locomotives are seen with their aspect (parking) lights or headlights alight. With fast film, you simply turn the flash off, stand perfectly still, and shoot. More on this in a moment.
What generally happens in cloudy weather if you are using slow film of 100 ISO and under is that sensing low light, the flash automatically fires. Now catch your tiny flash futilely trying to light up an entire train or a railway yard! There goes your picture: one wasted frame. Auto flash is likely to fire less often if you are using 400 ISO film, and you end up getting some dramatic pictures. (Of course, if your camera offers you an option to turn off the flash, you can use that in low-light conditions and this problem will not affect you -- you still have to ensure you get adequate exposure, though.)
So is ISO 100 film really quite useless? By no means. It's the most popular film speed used by amateurs. But as a railroad photographer, its best you avoid it. However, if you are going out on an all-day trainspotting excursion, or know for sure that most of your shooting will be in bright sunshine, then by all means use ISO 100 film, or perhaps ISO 200. These slow films provide extremely fine results with almost no visible graininess, and pictures which can be cropped and blown up quite a bit. No point wasting money on fast film when your shooting for that day does not call for fast film. Use your judgement. On the other hand if you want to have a real blow up of one of your best train shots, stay away from 400 ISO film, as the graininess will make it look as though the picture is painted upon a plate of corn flakes! And what about even faster film, such as 800 ISO or faster? Use these only if you're sure you know what effect you are looking for, or if you have specific needs for very low-light photography or for 'freezing' very high-speed train movement. If you're considering these issues you're probably more advanced than the intended audience of this tutorial, anyway! Just remember that once you pop in a roll of slow or fast film, on most cameras you're stuck with that until you finish it; it can be very tedious (or sometimes impossible) to switch out a roll in the middle and re-use it without damaging the film. So in most cases, just use 400 ISO and play it safe.
Most digital cameras will take care of low-light situations automatically, so you can shoot without fear. But turn the flash off, if you want better results, for like film cameras, many digitals too fire the flash automatically when they detect low light. Be aware of the rather fast ¼ second minimum shutter speed on some of the cheaper digitals though, and remember to ask the lab to manipulate the image a bit.
Just like 'pushing’ and 'pulling’ film, i.e., changing the ISO setting to a higher or lower value to 'mislead’ the camera, it is possible on some digital cameras to change the ISO setting to force the camera into acting differently. No, I am NOT going to go into these aspects. Stick to simple shooting techniques. (Again, if you are considering these advanced techniques, this tutorial probably isn't for you anyway!)
GENERAL TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Armed with this kind of information, here are some general suggestions:
CAUTION: DO NOT GET DOWN AND STAND NEXT TO YOUR TRAIN WHEN A VERY FAST TRAIN IS CROSSING ON THE NEXT TRACK, AS YOU COULD GET PULLED UNDER THE FAST TRAIN. It very nearly happened to me once! And if your own train starts moving at the same time, you may be in a tough pickle. Stay on board when shooting a 'crossing'.
A WORD OF CAUTION: A few seconds of time lag will mean that you will get only a part of the engine's front as it overflows the frame (this is for film. Digital cameras will probably fire even later). Remember, your subject is moving. So you need to be quick, and exercise your judgement. The faster the train, the quicker you need to be. At the same time, keep your cool and do not jab the shutter and thus shake the camera in your excitement. Sounds frightening? No, its dead easy. All it needs is practice. Just a few wasted frames later, you can call yourself an expert. And ALWAYS REMEMBER, if you are trying to shoot a fast train, KEEP YOUR DISTANCE! Objects in your viewfinder look smaller and farther than they actually are. The driver may sound a friendly 'toooot', but don't bank on that!
With digital, the shutter lag coupled with your anxiety or impatience to capture the scene might lead you towards doing something impusive or brash. Added to this the momentum and speed of the passing train, the situation can get pretty dangerous. So please prepare yourself and your camera well in advance. Take a few test shots with a passing locomotive, or of moving trains in non-critical situations, where you do not mind deleting the image and starting all over again.
A few caveats for digital users
If your card gets full midway through your shooting, pause, and make sure your camera is not writing to your card, before you pull out the old card. The fact that your camera is writing to the card is generally indicated by red or green flashing lights. Removing your memory card when it is being written to or read from can cause irreparable damage to your card, and can corrupt all the data on it.
The shutter lag notwithstanding, if you do manage to take several shots in succession, note that your camera will 'shut down’ momentarily until it writes all those images to the card. The camera may fire rapidly, shutter lag notwithstanding, but will take time to write those images to the card. Be extra careful here, for pulling out the card can kill it or corrupt it.
Something else that bites many a digital camera user is the fact that many digital cameras are programmed to shut down automatically if not used for some time. This means that you may have picked the perfect spot to stand in, framed the ideal image, taken a couple of shots to test everything, and then waited for a while for your subject train to come by -- and when it does, clicking the shutter button does nothing! Be sure to keep the camera on (this varies depending on the model, but often just moving the on-off switch between the on and off positions and back again works) just before you expect your subject to show up.
Digital cameras record data by means of a CCD or Charged Coupled Device. Dust is a major CCD killer. Hence, while the CCD itself may be rather long lasting and sturdy, keep it that way by shielding your valuable digital camera from dust. I know this is difficult in India, where dust seems to get in anywhere and everywhere, even in seemingly airtight situations. Cameras are generally built tough, and can take a lot of beating, but remember, they are precision instruments and need to be handled with care. I mention this point specifically here as fast moving trains, the bare and dry countryside, and the all pervasive dust are all inseparable elements of the Indian railway scene.
A WORD ABOUT LOW LIGHT SHOOTING
Turn off that flash, for chrissakes! Most point and shoot cameras suffer from the 'puny flash syndrome'. This applies to film as well as to digital. I am sometimes greatly amused when I see folks trying to capture the fantastic night view from the Victoria Peak in Hong Kong with their flashes firing off. Or the interior of the VT station late in the evening. Well, what do you expect from your half inch long flash? No way it can capture such a huge scene like the interior of a loco shed or station (assuming you are armed with a permit, otherwise, get wise and disappear from the scene as quickly as possible!) So if in such situations, don't waste your film and your expectations: switch off the flash. That way, you camera will automatically choose a longer shutter speed, sometimes down to a full second or two or even more,(depending on how advanced your camera is), ensuring perfect exposure of the interior of that shed or station. Of course, the use of 400 ISO film is crucial in such situations. And remember to keep still during the exposure as explained above.
With digital, you will need to change the resolution to a higher setting. For putting pics up on the web, it would usually suffice to shoot at 640x480 resolution. For 4"x6" prints, a 1 megapixel setting would suffice. This is a moot point however, and many digital users recommend shooting at the maximum resolution. After all, you have paid for that many megapixels, so why not use them? Well, assuming you are shooting a low resolution, to save on card space, change the resolution to the maximum, if you are shooting at night. Full night views with flash off and camera supported appear sharp and clear enough even at 1 megapixel, but if you are shooting in night mode, or if flash, wherever permitted, advisable and safe, the grain at low resolution really sucks.
Back to film, the lowest priced compact cameras usually have their shutter fixed at something like 1/125. In that case, long exposures are not possible, more due to equipment limitations than anything else. My advice to users of such cameras is, do not attempt to shoot interiors or low light shots till you can afford a better camera. You could push your luck a bit by using 400 ISO film, but turning the flash off (if at all possible) wouldn't help much, due to the fixed shutter speed.
Another situation is during the monsoon. As I mentioned just a few moments ago, if you are using slow film of 100 ISO, there you are, on the trackside, shooting trains in the rain (not recommended if your camera is not weatherproof!), when the flash goes off, due to the gloomy, dark weather. You cannot blame the camera: it sensed low light, and fired the flash. Congratulations. Your camera just blew the shot. Fat chance of capturing that train coming round the bend in pouring rain with your half inch long flash.
So this is yet another reason to use 400 ISO film. You will get a farily good shot of the train in wet weather. If the driver has the headlights on, so much the better!
Do note that if you are in or on a moving structure (inside a train, in a car, on a boat), then getting sharp pictures in dim light conditions is often a hopeless quest, because even with 400 ISO film, the shutter speed may be ¼ second or even 1 second or slower. In such cases it can be almost impossible to cancel out the effects of the motion of your vehicle or its vibrations even with careful panning and so on.
Shooting in the rain has similar considerations to low-light photography, but in addition you should of course ensure your camera doesn't get too wet. So-called 'weatherproof' models tolerate more water splashed on them than others, but most cameras cannot survive a really good soaking. A word of caution for digital users: While cameras and water generally do not mix, digital cameras really do not like water. Film cameras might still tolerate some splashing, provided you wipe the camera clean immediately afterwards. Digitals are particularly suceptible to short circuiting or severe damage by water, due to the precision electronics inside. Some of the more sophisticated film cameras also have sensitive electronics and do not take well to water being splashed on them. Take extreme precautions, if you MUST use your digital camera in the rain. Or else, just use an old film camera. An old trick is to put your camera in a plastic bag with a small hole cut out just for the lens, but this is by no means a foolproof way to avoid getting water on the camera, especially if it is raining hard.
Armed with ISO 400 film, you can also try shooting in foggy weather and at dusk. Dusk is very interesting as the lights are just beginning to get switched on, and the sky has a special color. Fog is interesting as bright headlights piercing through the near zero visibility are very photogenic indeed. In both these situations, stabilize yourself before shooting (if you are panting due to a long walk or climb up a flight of stairs, wait till your breathing becomes normal), TURN OFF THE FLASH, hold perfectly still, and release the shutter. Hold still till the motor has wound the film and only then take your camera off your eyes. Remember three crucial points for fog, dusk and late evening (or pre-sunrise) photography: ISO 400 fast film, flash OFF, and stand perfectly still. But you must have a decent camera with some features. Otherwise, you can still get pretty decent daytime shots, but if you want to be a little artsy or adventurous, save up for a better camera.
That's all for now...
This little tutorial could go on, but I'd prefer you get off the computer, and go out and shoot, dammit! Have fun, and you will soon find yourself experimenting with more and more techniques and tricks. I was to have incorporated several of my pictures on this site, but decided against it as it will make the page a little heavy on graphics. You can however visit my sites from the link above.
I'd be happy to answer any IR Photography related questions you might have, especially related to technique. Drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org. However, PLEASE do not send me questions like 'Whom should I contact at NR, New Delhi, to get a permit to shoot at Ludhiana shed?' or 'Can you help me get a photography permit for Eastern Railway>', etc. I will NOT answer such questions!.