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The Long and the Short of It

Gary Dolzall

September 17th, 2020

Using different focal length lenses (and zooms) to create diverse and appealing railroad photos.

Photographs by Gary Dolzall

In We are Railfans’ last article about railroad photography, we explored how using various angles can add diversity and appeal to your photos. Another popular means to create varied and captivating perspectives among your rail images is the use of lenses of different focal lengths. And so, we are about to enter the realm of the “normal,” “wide,” “tele,” and “zoom!”

First, the technical stuff: A camera lens is measured by its focal length. The focal length is typically stated in millimeters and it is the distance from the lens’ optical center to the image plane of the camera. Entirely clear, right? In any case, the “length” of a lens alters the field of view and perspective of a resulting photograph. For a typical 35mm camera (or digital equivalent), a lens of 50mm focal length is considered a “normal” lens because it replicates a field of view and perspective equal to the human eye. A shorter lens produces a wider field of view perspective and thus is typically called – you guessed it – a “wide-angle” lens. And a longer lens tightens the perspective, brings the subject closer, and tends to flatten distance. Such are called “telephoto” lenses. Lenses can be of fixed length or, as are popular for their versatility, “zoom lenses,” which can adjust to various focal lengths. Ok, now on to the fun stuff.

For most railfan photography, fixed lens or zooms with focus lengths of around 28mm to 34mm for wide angles, a 50mm for the “normal” perspective, and telephotos from around 85mm up to 300mm tend to be the most useful on a regular basis for railroad subjects. Super wide angles (such as “fisheye” lenses) and long telephotos (such as an 800mm, for example) can produce dramatic images, but their use tends to be primarily for the occasional “really different” photo opportunity. Not to mention such specialized lenses tend to be on the pricey side.

Let’s talk about using various focal lengths to enhance your railroad photography:

The “Normal”: First a bit of advice (learned the hard way by yours truly when I was a novice photographer): Use your normal focal length lens often! Normal focal length lenses tend to be the easiest lenses to use, helping you to achieve consistent results. And normal lenses are also typically “fast lenses” that perform well in low-light conditions.

GD6-01 The Allegheny Mountains are ablaze with autumn colors as Amtrak’s Broadway Limited makes its way around fabled Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Pennsylvania, in October 1988. Taken with a “normal” focal length lens, the scenic image’s perspective and field of view appear very much as they would to the human eye and mind.

Naturally, for “portrait” photos of locomotives and equipment (aka, “roster shots”), the normal lens is ideal. And because the “normal” does indeed produce an image that is familiar to the human eye, it also produces photos that are pleasing to the mind. Whenever one wishes to truly show the scene “as it existed in the mind’s eye,” the normal lens is the tool to use. “Normal” lenses are also ideal for pan and pacing shots (as discussed in our prior article) and for night photography.

GD6-02 Normal focal length lenses tend to be the easiest to use, helping you to achieve consistent results. Among the many uses of the normal lens are railroad “portraits,” pan and pacing shots, and low-light and night photographs. Night has fallen in the Berkshire Mountains as a pair of Canadian National EMD GP40s bookend a GATX leased unit at Palmer, Massachusetts.

The “Wide”: Given that a wide-angle lens broadens the perspective and field of view, it is, of course, especially handy in restricted spaces such as train interiors or when working amid the sometimes snug confines of museums. But the wide-angle lens is also excellent for emphasizing foreground objects or to use foreground elements to “frame” a subject. When using wide-angle lenses, one does need to be aware that the lens, in offering an expanded field of view, also creates modest image distortion. Such distortion, properly applied, can result in a dramatic image (such as a low-angle photo of a locomotive).

GD6-03 With his zoom set for a mild wide-angle perspective, Gary Dolzall was able to nicely capture the trackside environment of Hinsdale, Illinois, as a Metra “dinky” commuter train powered by the stylish EMD F40PHM-2 189 made its way west on the fabled “Racetrack” between Chicago and Aurora, Illinois.

The “Tele”: For creating often dramatic images that condense and concentrate the visceral visual elements of railroading, such as a long train, an S-curve, billowing locomotive exhaust, etc., the telephoto is unmatched. And, naturally, it is also extremely valuable when you have to photograph your subject from a distance. The auto focus and lens image stabilizer features of today’s digital camera make the telephoto much easier to master than in the past, but still, the longer the lens, the greater the need to use a fast shutter speed and be steady of hand (or use a tripod).

GD6-04 Telephoto lenses can add drama to railroad action scenes and compress background scenery for visual impact. A 135mm telephoto emphasizes the long string of auto racks and undulating track profile as Conrail and Santa Fe power team up on a westbound freight near LaPorte, Indiana (above). In iron ore country, Burlington Northern EMD SD40-2s work with the massive Fairlane Taconite plant at Forbes (Minnesota) as an impressive backdrop (below). GD6-05

The “Zoom”: Ah, how wonderful it is to pack one or two “zoom lenses” in the camera bag rather lug around half-a-dozen fixed lenses! Equipping yourself with a pair of zooms, say one with a zoom range of 24-50mm and another with a range of about 55-250mm, will put you in good stead for almost any situation and creative opportunity. Traditionally, there was a price to be paid with zooms, as they were somewhat “slower” and slightly less crisp than fixed lenses, but the differential today is quite small indeed.

GD6-06 Zoom magic: Same train, same spot, different images. Author Gary Dolzall used a zoom lens to capture wide-angle and moderate telephoto images of a Metro-North commuter train in “push mode,” with New Haven-liveried GE P32AC-DM 229 providing the power. The “wide” view (above) captures the platform scene, while the “tele” image (below) emphasizes the MNCR New Haven Line’s web of overhead catenary. GD6-07

Normal, wide, tele, zoom … put them to work in your railroading photography and you’ll enjoy both the added creativity the lenses offer and the stunning results of your efforts!

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