Q & A

Updated June 2009

What happened to Brindabella Railgrafx?

Basically, after far too long I decided to bring all the galleries under the one roof so to speak, move to a new host and hopefully save some money into the bargain. As well as a slight revamp of the look of the site as a whole, I've finally got rid of Brindabella and simply called it Railgrafx. It seems to me that hanging on to the Brindabella moniker was less and less sensible; after all I live a long way from the Brindabellas and it's been over two decades since I've looked at them on a regular basis. So, farewell Brindabella!

Just what was the cause of my obsession with the word Brindabella anyway?

It's a long story but here is a short version. Several years ago I developed a rationale for a private railway running along the border of Queensland and New South Wales as a subject for a model. After living in Canberra for a couple if years, I grew to love the sound of the word Brindabella (which incidentally for those that don't know are the mountains to the south west of Canberra) so that became the name for the railway: the Brindabella Railway. Then I joined the ranks of N Scale cottage manufacturers and now trade under the name Moreton Bay Model Railways (formerly Brindabella Model Railways -  the reason for changing the name itself is a bit of a story), which has its own web site. Trying to keep everything in the family as it were, I opted to use Brindabella in the title of my photographic web site as well.

And Railgrafx? Well, it's pretty well self explanatory and implies that eventually I might explore the possibilities of digital manipulation of images rather than just using the digital light room to adjust photos.

If you want to read the history so far of the Brindabella Railway, you can do so here.

And yes, I normally barrack for Brindabella in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race!

What prompted me to start taking photographs?

Family tradition has it that I started taking an unusually intense interest in trains when I was about 18 months old. Photography was also an early interest, fuelled in part by my dad who liked photography, understood it well, and also had a small darkroom. So the elements were all there! I’ve been interested in trains and photography for as long as I can remember. I think my first train photo was probably taken of a steam special to the Elwick show grounds in Hobart, in 1970, using an old Kodak Bullet camera – the one with the screw out lens.

After starting to buy railway books at high school, I was originally in awe of the photographers. But eventually it dawned on me that I could probably do the same – so the stone was cast. It was really at that point that I set out to combine my two interests.

Who are my major influences?

Influence is a difficult term in this context. I found that I quickly started taking photos that were other than the traditional view well before I’d even heard of many other rail photographers. But the photographers I most admire are those who can make the most of any opportunity, and who try to push the boundaries in composition.

Of course a lot of this has to do with what magazines are prepared to publish. US-based magazines, and to a lesser extent UK ones as well seem quite prepared to publish what some may try to deride as “arty” photos, so not unnaturally many of the photographers I admire are predominantly US based. Such folk include Richard Steinheimer, Dick Dorn, Winston Link, Joel Jensen, Ted Benson and the UK's Colin Gifford. Here in Australia, Railway Digest under the stewardship of Chris Walters has made great leaps as well in the types of photos it is prepared to publish. Chris himself is a very fine photographer too, which helps the cause no end!

More recently, the Internet has enabled people to "weblish" their own work, as indeed I am doing here, and some of the more memorable ones for me can be found in my Links page.

What’s my general approach to rail photography?

I like to compose images that are pleasing, and to this extent the train itself is simply one element of the overall scene. Photographically speaking, I am less concerned about the particular train, and more interested in how it can be used as part of an interesting photograph. This of course has to take into account the conditions of the day and the location. A useful test I apply is whether the photos would be recognised as a good photo by someone who is not particularly interested in trains. I also like to experiment with different techniques when the opportunity arises.

Some years ago, I bought a copy of Lucius Beebe’s book Highliners A Railroad Album for a friend. Anyone who is familiar with the good Beebe’s work will know that at one time he was one of the leading exponents of a very strict school of railway photography. In the foreword to Highliners he describes some of the requirements of action shots “…its rural background, its clarity of definition of all moving parts, its indication of speed through smoke and steam exhaust, its full length view of the entire train, and its absence of any object or matter to distract attention from the locomotive and consist…” and later “There are conventions governing train photography as rigid as the unities of the French classic drama…recognised by a limited but perceptive group of railroad students and historians.”

It should be abundantly clear to anyone who has looked at even a few of my photos that I do not subscribe to the early views of Mr Beebe, even allowing for the near absence of steam in these pages! Now not for a moment do I want to denigrate the work of Mr Beebe and his contemporaries, but the influences on my work are much more the latter day school of US rail photography. I found at an early age that I have no great propensity for following rigid conventions – French or otherwise.

To be fair, I should point out that Lucius Beebe did later embrace a more expansive view of rail photography and indeed, was partly instrumental in launching Richard Steinheimer in the publishing world.

What camera and scanning equipment do I use?

I’m really not too concerned about the equipment, but for the best part of two decades I used a Minolta XG-M for my black and white work, and a Minolta SRT 100 for my colour work. Over the years I went through a number of lenses but eventually relied on a 28mm, the standard lenses and a 75-150mm zoom. I found that I didn’t often use the zoom much beyond 100mm except when I was photographing people, and was more likely to use the wide angle and the standard lenses.

I’ve borrowed at various stages some much more modern equipment, and I must say I am underwhelmed by what they offer. Certainly the auto-focus is useful, especially at night, but I am wary of any camera that not only has a thick instruction manual to operate, you have to take it with you as a reference! The preponderance of cameras with modes for this, and modes for that, seems a retrograde step. After all, taking a photo is really a very simple task, and modern cameras seem to make this simple task much more complex than necessary. It seems to me that if you understand when it's best to use one auto-mode or another, then you really don’t need modes at all! At the end of the day, all this gadgetry costs more money, increases the risk of unreliable equipment and gets in the way of the creative process.

Having said all that, more recently, the failure of the trusty SRT100, combined with the hard fact that it really is true that once you hit 40 your eyesight starts to deteriorate, led me to the decision to move to an autofocus setup. After a bit of research, I reckoned that there were about five cameras that offered what I wanted (actually, much more than I wanted!) within my budget. An afternoon testing them quickly led to the decision that Minolta had by far the best ergonomics for me, so I bought a Dynax 5. Subsequently I've replicated my original line-up of lenses and now have a 28mm, a 50mm and a 70-210 zoom. The cost of the change-over stunned me - it was so much less than I'd expected. To indulge an interest in very wide work I also picked up a very cheap (but deceptively high quality) Tokina 19-35mm lens.

My Dynax 5 died unexpectedly and on the basis of recommendations from others I picked up a Minolta 600si for next to nothing off eBay, with a battery pack following soon after. What a lovely camera this is! Deliberately basic in layout, nothing got in the way of capturing the image. No fussy menus to get lost in and having two control wheels was a dream! But while on eBay a year or so later I saw a Konica Minolta 7D digital SLR and before I knew it I'd forsaken film altogether, probably forever. Once again, this is a lovely camera with knobs and dials minimising the need to delve into fussy menus for the more obvious and frequently used functions. Some rationalising of lenses took place with all my short stuff going and being replaced with a Tamron 17-50. It's not perfect - not quite wide enough and it still doesn't fill that moderately large gap to the 70-210 lens, but for the money it is a good compromise, while I appreciate its constant minimum aperture of 2.8.

For scanning, I used an HP Photosmart S20 scanner for many years, which for a long time seemed to be de rigeur for home users. And no wonder! For the price it produced good results, although low-light and night scenes are beyond its capacity. This became an increasing problem for me, since I've recently been doing quite a bit of night photography. With the demise of Konica Minolta from all imaging products, I managed to pick up anew KM DualScan IV for a very low price and managed to seel the S20 for a very good price. The KM is a fine scanner but is not going to see much use in future, although I must get around to digitising the best of my old slides and negs. Ughh! - what a thought.

What software do I use?

I’m currently using Picture Publisher 8 as part of the Webtricity 2 package, having upgraded from Picture Publisher 6. When I made the leap to thinking about entering the digital realm in early 1997, there were really only 3 choices: Photoshop, Corel’s PhotoPaint and Micgrografx’s Picture Publisher. Photoshop was a non-starter because of the price and the steep learning curve and I simply preferred Picture Publisher to PhotoPaint. Certainly there were a few other packages around, but none offered what I wanted, especially since my initial foray was to produce my Ridgy Digi-tal backdrops.

Now of course there are literally bucket loads of software around, most of which seem more than capable of doing the sorts of things I use them for. Still, even though Micrografx has been swallowed by Corel and the whole Picture Publisher line has disappeared, I’m not likely to change to anything else in the foreseeable future. Photoshop may justifiably be king of the graphics realm, but it still seems over-priced and offers things that I will never use. Indeed, I suspect most people who buy it could get by with something much simpler and cheaper.

Having got into digital work pretty well exclusively with my 7D purchase, I now plan to move on from Picture Publisher and Lightroom looks to be the perfect choice and hopefully will mean that it is the only program I actually need to use. Once I get a few things sorted out, I hope to buy a new basic laptop, probably combine it with a better monitor and then get myself thoroughly organised. All this hopefully by the end of 2009.

To put this web site together, I used AOLPress. I had originally expected that I’d only use this for my first web site (now long since gone!) and that I’d use something like Webtricity for this website. Webtricity is terrific for producing web elements, and is very useful for some types of web pages. But it doesn’t handle large amounts of text very well, and I soon discovered that AOLPress offers a great deal of flexibility and its ease of use was hard to forget. So much so, that I abandoned using Webtricity and went back to AOLPress – should have saved my money! I guess anyone who is proficient at graphics and wants lots of excitement on their pages would soon find AOLPress very limiting, but for my modest needs I find it ideal.

What’s my approach to captions?

I prefer the more descriptive style to the prosaic “train number 1234 with locos xxx” which seems to be the typical Australian style. Since my interest is more in composition, the details of the train become less important. Don’t get me wrong, I like to know the details for my own information, but for my style of photography, such information adds nothing to the captions. There are plenty of other sources of information with that kind of detail!

As a result, you will not see too many details of loco consists and train numbers here. I guess my attitude to captions is this– if you can see the loco number in the photo, you don’t need to have it in the caption – and if you can’t see the number, what does it matter?

What’s my idea of the perfect location?

This of course is like asking how long is a piece of string. But if I was to sit down and create a photographic location, it would have a striking scenic element, be not too hard to get to, have plenty of trees to enjoy their shade, be away from busy roads and of course have plenty of trains! I haven’t encountered too many places that have all these elements, although sitting under a tree at Tunnel on the central Queensland coal lines springs to mind.

What’s my view on the power of digital software in photography?

The ethics of digital manipulation are the subject of huge debate, and I suspect that there is no simple or right answer. Of course, we should not get too sensitive to the dilemmas posed by the digital lightroom. After all, photography has always been rife with subjective choices, all of which may subtly alter the final image from a “pure" representation of what was originally photographed. Such things include choice of lens, type of film, shutter speed and aperture, and the whole array of techniques available in the darkroom.

I consider these sorts of things to be acceptable in the digital environment as well, without compromising the ethical validity of the image. Here of course I am assuming that “image” is synonymous with photograph. As I consider myself to be a photographer, I am happy with this assumption. So the following things are all considered OK without having to declare that an image is digitally enhanced:

· Cropping;
· Dodging and burning;
· Changing colour balance;
· Changing exposure and contrast;
· Removing dust and other blemishes.

On the other hand, combining elements of photos to get the perfect shot, or making wholesale changes to the detail, removing distractions for example, is not acceptable in my opinion, unless the viewer is made aware of such changes. Of course, if the image is only presented as an image, rather than a photograph, and the viewer is made aware of the distinction, then anything goes!