Railroad photography: Budget gear for beginners

Posted by Brian Schmidt
on Friday, March 16, 2018

There are a lot of really expensive camera options available today. Thankfully, you don't need them for good railroad photography – even if you want to see your photos published in Trains Magazine. In fact, a basic $350 setup can have you on the right path to publication. The compromise, and there are always compromises when there's a budget, is that you'll be shopping on the used market.

The first step when contemplating any equipment purchase is to examine what, if anything, you have already and identify your faults with it. One of the most common complaints I've heard from photographers when trackside is that a camera is too slow. That is usually the case with point-and-shoot-type cameras image sensors that introduce a "shutter lag," the time between pressing the button and when the photo actually records.

So what should you get to start with? Look for a digital SLR camera with 10-12 megapixels. That's more than enough to see your image spread across a full spread in print. Two options are the Nikon D60 and the Canon Rebel XTI. Both can be found used for less than $150 from reputable sellers. Which brand is better? There's a simpler answer than what you may think. Which brand do your friends use? Having someone nearby to help with settings and even share lenses and flashes is a great advantage that an online review can never quantify.

For a lens, look at a Nikon's great 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 G AF-S or Canon's comparable 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM EF-S. Both will provide ample range for most railfan shots. If you have a little leftover in your budget, I'd highly recommend a plain 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 lens. The large f/1.8 aperture will enable shooting in lower light and the fixed focal length can help photographers better learn composition skills.

Once a photographer is planted in a camera system, upgrades are much easier on the wallet. A newer camera will net larger images and better low-light performance. A more expensive lens could bring faster focusing, weatherproofing, or greater focal length selection.

So let the high rollers chase after the latest and greatest camera technology. For a majority of what railroad photographers do, supposedly "outdated" technology is more than adequate. You can even spend the money you've saved on a train-chasing getaway this spring. Florida East Coast sure sounds nice right about now... 

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