Railpictures.net bills itself as the “best railroad photos on the net” and arguably is if you are looking for a single go-to source for railroad photography. It is a juried site, meaning that an image has to be accepted by one of their “screeners” before it is publically available for viewing on their site. The site has attracted a great deal of attention within the railfan and railroad photography community and thus has a sizable group of both supporters and detractors.
I have posted many images on their site over the years and still look at the site, but on an increasingly less frequent basis. I used to go there to look for creative photography, but now go primarily to size up the railroad industry that I’m so passionate about. Looking through the images, one gets to see what’s happening in terms of equipment, operations, and the physical environment.
It’s been a long while since I posted there and friends and acquaintances have asked why. I wasn’t really sure how to answer the question as I hadn’t made a conscious decision not to post there. It just gradually happened that I lost interest for several reasons, all related to content on the site.
Basically, I don’t look to Railpicts any longer as a source of inspiration. For me, there is not enough creativity and diversity in the content that has been selected by the “screeners” or editors.
While the vast majority of the shots on the site are 3/4 view “wedgies” which get accepted because they meet their technical criteria, the editors clearly have a preference for “big scenery” calendar type images, with most being from the North American West where those scenes are easier to find. Beyond that editorial preference, far too many are locomotive roster shots, technically poor historical images and the railroad photography clichés of wreaks, pretty girls, sunsets, signals at night, and charter trip images. Looking beyond the clichés, I see too many bad examples of the latest photographic gimmickry, with railfans jumping into strobe and drone photography without the slightest clue on how to use them to enhance their photography. I don’t have anything against either strobe or drone photography, but with the low creative standards established by the editors, they are setting the benchmark very low in these evolving creative areas.
Which brings me to my other concern about Railpicts…that they are “training” railroad photographers to see by their acceptance and editorial criteria. Based upon the fact that submissions are judged, they are perceived by many aspiring photographers to be the benchmark or standard for quality railroad photography, both on a technical and creative level.
I have no issues with their technical standards and every photographer can benefit by learning to meet these standards. While some of these standards may seem immaterial to creativity such as leveling, sharpening, etc., they do push you to improve your personal skills and standards and that is always a good thing.
Creativity is a fragile thing and by establishing hard rules on how creativity is defined, they are both turning talented creative photographers away and dumbing down railroad photography to a formula. Their creative preferences are very traditional and conservative as far as photography goes….it’s a narrow definition of what creative railroad photography can be, firmly grounded in historical precedent. This is how they can justify accepting historical images that don’t meet their own established technical requirements for new images. It also explains why they accept so many copy-cat charter trip images, as they are generally set up to mimic the railroad photography masters who shot the so-called golden era in railroading from about 1930-1960. There is nothing wrong with these traditional creative interpretations, but with a strong emphasis on a narrow range of image types, they are championing a way of seeing and representing the genre that doesn’t advance railroad photography.
To me, their editorial selections are reinforcing uniformity in the genre. For many aspiring photographers, the path to acceptance is to take the safe, conservative route rather than risk rejection for being creative. Instead of challenging creative conventions and opening minds, people are dumbing down their vision to what they believe will meet the proven selection criteria. Once they achieve success, they continue on the same worn path.
Railpictures.net is a private site so the owners (who are the editors) may do as they wish, but they have established themselves as an authoritative, highly regarded place to view quality photographs of railroads. As a standard bearer for good railroad photography, I believe they have a higher responsibility to the genre and should broaden their definition of creativity while being more selective in accepting the mundane. I admit, it’s a tough balance to strike, but maybe if they find their creative niche instead of trying to be everything to everybody, they can truly live up to their masthead of being ”the best railroad pictures on the net”!
When they figure it out, I may just start posting there again.
The lead image selected for this post illuminates some of my concerns about Railpicts. While it’s not up to my current standards, I believe it’s a strong image with a nice composition and interpretation of motion. It was a 2nd place winner in the 1998 Trains Magazine photo contest, but ironically Railpicts rejected it when I submitted it to them several years ago. It was rejected for the crop, which was considered unconventional.