What is Real?

One of the most common questions I hear or read about regarding a railroad photograph is “did it look that way in real life?”. The implication is that the photographer hasn’t accurately represented what was there.

In this way, railroad photography shares many of the same expectations that landscape photography has on it in that we need to accurately represent what was supposedly there and be representational. Both genres are bound by the generalized belief that a photographer has to use the found site aesthetics in light, environment, and contextual conditions and that creative interpretation of it is suspect.

Another perspective photographic view on Junction 18 in Chicago.

An alternative point of view of Junction 18 in Chicago.

While some photography is intended to be representational, even what supposedly records the “real” scene is a lie. The lie is a matter of degree as all photographers have experiences and point of views that influence how they will shoot a subject and thus every photograph will have a degree of subjectivity.

For example, if we glorify and revere the subject, as most railroad photographers do, we will use our subjectivity to crop out parts of the scene that don’t fit in with our point of view. A light snow can be made to look like a blizzard by using a telephoto lens and adjusting the shutter speed to get the snow to look light it’s falling faster and heavier.

Is this changing what was real or being creative? To me, creativity needs this subjectivity which shows that the photographer had a unique vision or point of view. If we can acknowledge that all photos have a version of the truth that resides in the photographer’s intent, then we can move away from the fiction that all railroad photography has to be seen as solely representational. Once we get there, then photography can get interesting and creative.


  1. “…then we can move away from the fiction that all railroad photography has to be seen as solely representational”.

    I could not agree with this statement more! I never did receive the memo saying I had to work representationally, and if I didn’t I’d have to add a disclaimer. Inside secret time: my images are heavily Photoshopped. I’ve added a thing or two over the years to a scene, whether it’s a prop during the shoot or a cut-and-paste in Photoshop. I consistently remove unwanted and/or unsightly items, striving for sole theme and subject matter without distraction. My take is to use every tool available to display what my mind’s eye sees. Photography is an art form, and very much subjective.

    So much of current-day rail photography all looks the same; plain vanilla and bland. I treasure viewing outside-the-box thinking and execution; from individuals who consistently push the outside of the envelope while incorporating his styles and visions to create uniqueness.

    Eric, your work falls into this category of unique – it’s all very intriguing and inspiring to my tastes.


  2. Eric Williams

    Matthew, thanks.

    For me, it’s all about crafting a vision of what you see. We all interpret and observe things differently, but too many people feel bound by the unwritten restrictions and expectations in this genre of railroad photography. Maybe it helps to think of the the initial recorded image as the raw material, not the end point, of expressing one’s vision.


    1. Ben Martin

      “…too many people feel bound by the unwritten restrictions and expectations…” Boy where can I run with that one? Here is my take: I was out with an extremely gifted photographer back in September in the Catskills and so many questions arose to perception and opinions. I’ve been a “chrome” photographer for just over 25 years and do not feel compelled to leave a resume of accomplishments but rather throw this thought process into the mix…

      “The alarm rings, the motions are made, its vacation and I’ve planned for this… It’s now time and I’m going, I wrote a list in 2008 and I’ve stuck to that list. I need a camera to cross items off that list, sunshine helps but as long as I can shoot my film at 1/60th @ the slowest I’ll make due. The train will run on this segment of the line today. I can cross this geography off my list. I can drive after sunset, I can stay awake because I know I got the experience of being in the moment, I was there, I will remember the day… because I worked for it… I had to take pictures, it compliments that theme down the road for a slide show or an article. It motivates me… I tried to take a good picture, good enough to keep it… When it comes back from processing, I’m gonna write on the cardboard mount, study it, remember the day, and file it in the album. I shall then probably draw a single line through the item on my list, a single line because its always possible to want to go back to try again…”

      What you just read is the self inflicted application of a “unwritten restriction”. I am not wrong. I feel good about what I do because it fits my mindset. I do not have a photoshop program. I am not wrong. It is a demonstration of individual preference. It is a self-inflicted reward to think like some of the great names of yesterday because motivation will invent my own little twist of creativity…

      “Unwritten expectations”: Simple, my expectations have been surpassed because not only do I still work to draw lines through my list, not a year has gone by where I have not made a new friend amidst the diversity of this hobby… Every instance my camera was never further from my car…but most likely on me…

      Pass the microphone to the next photographer… and remember, chances are that no matter what they say, they are not wrong… My opinions are strong, I have likes and dislikes about what I see in the zone of photography. My strongest opinion about photography is that it needs our presence to define creativity…

      1. Eric Williams


        People can and should practice this avocation as they choose but my point is that there are “expectations” on what constitutes an acceptable railroad photograph.

        To me, railroad photography has been pigeonholed into a narrow range of what’s considered acceptable within the genre. This is admitingly a broad generalization based upon what I see and read across the web in chatrooms, comments, posts, and trip reports (not yours!). The same expectations come across in the railroad photography press by what they choose to publish and their written standards for images. It’s really a fairly narrow definition and rooted in the historical precedent of what came before.

        Your self-described restriction is really a focus of your interests, which is different to me. You are a documentarian and story teller so your images support your vision and the long-term project that you are working on.

        Your closing line actually works well to serve both our thoughts, “My strongest opinion about photography is that it needs our presence to define creativity… “.

        Presence is being there, but also the insertion of our subjective vision, to make a creative image.

  3. Ron Bouwhuis

    Eric: First off, thanks for creating your site to share your imagery. Your work is consistently excellent and a feast for the eyes.

    Regarding ‘What is Real’, I have a slightly different viewpoint. To my mind the issue of ‘reality’ for most people isn’t so much whether a lens distorted the viewpoint or a shutter speed altered the appearance of a moving element of the scene. Those tools have been part of photography long enough that the astute will recognize them and how they’ve been used to record the scene. The bigger issue to my mind is whether the content within the crop has been altered through addition, subtraction or modification of elements. Doing so is the photographer’s prerogative, of course, but I feel there needs to be a certain honesty about it when identifying what we are looking at in the finished image.

    Part of the challenge for the viewer is that photography by its very nature implies that it is a visual documentation of a scene, drawn by light, rather than an artistic interpretation created by the eye seeing, the brain processing, and finally, the hand illustrating. With the latter we know that what we are looking at has some level of inexactness or impression to it; with the former we are left to exercise a degree of trust as to what the photographer has done with the light that was recorded by his or her camera. This isn’t problematic when a photograph has very clearly been stylized through shooting style, digital filters, or darkroom effects, but it becomes much more difficult when a seemingly non-manipulated photo is simply presented as “X Subject” at “Y Location”. The fact that the audience knows that today’s photographer has a range of digital tricks available to create an image that combines the perfect subject, perfect light and perfect weather puts the onus on the shooter to be clear as to whether it is a photograph or a photo-illustration.

    To be clear, I’m not against using the tools available to achieve the concept one has in the mind’s eye. Far from it. Image manipulation is a major part of what I do for a living, making “all the world a sunny day,” as Paul Simon once wrote. For my personal work, however, I’d rather come as close as possible to the final product in camera, be it through choice of lens, depth of field, shutter speed, crop, and so on. I find a certain satisfaction in working that way – even if the road to that end point involves a lot of trial and (especially) error. It would certainly much easier to say, “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop,” but I find no challenge in that. Perhaps this comes from my day job or having been a transparency film shooter for so many years, where you got what you got, with no room for tweaks after the fact. I also find that experimenting out in the field is much more likely to yield those unexpected “Eureka!” moments that spur new ideas that help keep photography fresh and interesting.

    1. Eric Williams


      Thanks for your comment and excuse the tardy response from me due to the holidays.

      “What is real” resonates differently with everyone which is why I made the statement a bit broad as I wanted to start a dialog on the topic. From my point of view, I’m trying to get people to think that railroad photography can be more than documentative.

      I understand where you are coming from, but I disagree that photography is by nature, visual documentation. I think that it CAN be if that is our intent, but even as a document it is always tainted by a degree of subjectivity. To me, we are all adding our vision in how we choose to photograph a subject, so let’s open up room for it in the genre of railroad photography

      As you stated, the viewer should never be intentionally mislead about the image content, especially if the image is intended to be a document of a specific place and time. That does not mean that we can’t exercise some form of subjectivity on how we portray the subject as long as it does not alter the physical circumstances of what we saw and photographed. Interpreting the mood of what we saw is acceptable to me as we all see the exact same elements through our differing and unique vision. How we express that vision is where we take a photograph and make it our own and hopefully turn something mundane into art.

  4. Eric said: “the viewer should never be intentionally mislead about the image content, especially if the image is intended to be a document of a specific place and time.” In more detail, what does this mean? If I photograph a steam locomotive whose stack is running clean – am I wrong in cutting and pasting a more dramatic smoke plume in? If I take a sunset silhouette broadside photo of a train which has a lone tree in it and I clone it out, is that wrong? What about the tender of a Durango & Silverton locomotive where I modify it to say “Rio Grande”? Where is the line drawn? Is it ok to clone things out only? Is the line crossed when objects are added to a scene?

    Here is an example for discussion:
    A photo of mine, I stripped away color to make it monochrome. But the canoe is added, not part of the original scene – it was added in Photoshop. Bad or good on my part?

    For years Playboy airbrushed their photos before publishing in a magazine. Don’t recall seeing any disclaimers that the images have been enhanced to hide blemishes, etc. These days everything which contains a male/female model is heavily retouched.

    Composite images are being done in every genre. Is railroad photography exempt from that? Hollywood now does everything with CGI (computer generated imagery). No disclaimers there, just credits of the operators.

    I have enhanced smoke plumes, removed a tree from a broadside shot, and changed out logos on tenders. Is that wrong on my part?

    Very interesting topic here Eric, thank you. Do not know what answers are correct and which are not. I am certainly not saying my word is right. We all have an opinion; photography is a form of art. I personally am not concerned if a photo represents realism or is built by the artist to display his mind’s eye vision. What hits home is whether it moves me or not. And for me these days a lot does not – it all unfortunately looks the same…


  5. Ron Bouwhuis

    Eric, I think I erred by using the word “documentation” since it implies a straightforward recording of what the photographer sees, with no subjectivity applied in terms of composition, lens and aperture, lighting, etc. with the goal of imparting his or her own vision.

    The point I was trying to make was that what is recorded on a camera sensor or on film is to some degree out of our hands in that light and the camera’s optics join forces to perfectly record the elements of the image: we ourselves don’t need to draw every branch and leaf on a tree; capture the shape of a locomotive in perfect perspective relative to its surroundings; or accurately render the nuances of colour, lighting, texture and shading across every cylindrical, cubic, and spherical shape in the scene. All of that math is done for us, based on the parameters we set in terms of our camera position, lens, aperture and so on. Thus we interpret it to be “real,” albeit with variables such as those created by a slow shutter speed. The fun part for us is setting those parameters, and this is where we do indeed have the chance to “turn something mundane into art.”

    As to Matthew’s post about the use of Photoshop, I would say that you are not wrong for using that tool the way you do. Not at all. Your images look truly amazing, and if creating them this way is enjoyable for you, then by all means go for it. I get where you’re coming from regarding the prevalence of manipulated images all around us. Personally I look more to photojournalism for inspiration (e.g., World Press Photo), as I expect the images I see in this sphere to be free of this level of intrusion. With that in mind, I would ask this question: When you look at a photo that appears believable but you know it to be a composite with content added and/or removed, can you appreciate it the same way that you would one that has not been manipulated in this way?

    1. Ron asked: “When you look at a photo that appears believable but you know it to be a composite with content added and/or removed, can you appreciate it the same way that you would one that has not been manipulated in this way?”

      My answer is a definite ‘yes’.

      Again I will use a photo as an example, this time from the camera of friend and college Bryan Pleasant; I know him for quite a few years now and have rode photo charters together:


      He admits he added the sun beams to this image afterwards. To my eye, without the added beam the photo could stand tall against any of what I consider my best work. The composition of the train on the barren prairie, the horizon line a third of the way up, the leading lines of the perfect plume bringing me across the frame from upper right to the locomotive in the lower left, the sun poking out from under the low clouds, the backlit plume with rim light accents, the pure timelessness of the photograph. But the addition of the sun beams pushes this up to an entire different level. Breath taking. My wow factor goes through the roof every time viewing this. I know this is digitally enhanced, but I can also imagine and envision myself standing in his footprints seeing this exact scene before me, with the sun beams. I appreciate his talent to capture this photo, and his vision afterwards to make an addition. And to make it believable.

      One other thing I’d like to mention: I’m not a big fan of watermarks, but his in this photo works for me. Perfectly placed in the negative space of the sky, its another digital addition I appreciate.

      A main form of my inspiration is to browse the galleries on 500px. Granted some of the images posted there are over-the-top manipulated, but regardless I value what can be done to an image afterwards, coming from artists with knowledge and experience lightyears ahead of me.

      Now a question back to Ron, he said: “Personally I look more to photojournalism for inspiration (e.g., World Press Photo), as I expect the images I see in this sphere to be free of this level of intrusion.” How do you know the images are free of intrusion? Is it an assumption that because it carries the label “photojournalism” it’s true and pure?

      1. Ron Bouwhuis

        Matthew returned my serve, asking how I know that [photojournalistic] images are free of intrusion. Well, I don’t know that. I said “I expect” that they would be. I’d like to think that there is a still a large contingent within the world of professional journalism that puts integrity ahead of all else. There will be exceptions, of course, but I think we either know who they are, or are rightfully disappointed when those that we held in high esteem have let us down on this front.

        Getting back to my original point, what I find inspirational about photojournalism is the ability of some individuals to exercise incredible artistry in capturing fleeting moments in an environment that is often well beyond their control. They are not simply documenting what they see, but are framing it in such a way as to prompt dialogue or an emotional response. Being professionals, the onus is on them to do this in a completely honest way, free of desktop artifice — much more so than it would be for anyone not wearing that hat.

  6. Eric Williams

    Matthew and Ron,

    Thanks to both of you for your perspectives on “What is Real”. While manipulation was in the back of my mine when I wrote the post, it was really meant to be a thought starter on how railroad photography is perceived which too me is very staid and too conservative.

    You both make some very good points and I think it all boils down to our intent and audience that we have for our work.

    Too me, if you are shooting fine art photography which I feel you both do, then manipulation, no matter how we define it, is acceptable. In creating a fine art image, we are crafting or making our vision. The camera is not capable of capturing anything other than light and every piece of equipment will do so differently. It can’t capture the mood and emotion that we envision when we are composing the scene. Sometimes just enhancing the image in post-processing will get the image close to our vision and at other times further enhancement may be desired.

    I too have added elements, like a canoe, into a scene if it adds to the visual appeal of the image. There have also been times where I have composited or overlapped images to get the best of the prime subject and the atmosphere or light. I do this to help me craft the aesthetic vision and story that I want to viewer to have of my image.

    Just like a good magician, I don’t believe that we need to disclose what we did if our intent is fine art. And by that I mean an aesthetic image that is not meant to represent an actual and specific scene and time. I would never send a manipulated image to Trains Magazine for a news or editorial story. However, I would send a manipulated image to their photo contest. For me, the technical backstory is not important and don’t want to be distracted by it…I want to be able to appreciate the final vision of the photographer.

    In regards to crafting our vision, Ansel Adams summed it well when he said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” Our technology has evolved, but not the steps necessary to craft our vision.

  7. https://youtu.be/ptX6QwRjAIo

    I recently discovered this presentation by fine artist John Paul Caponigro titled “The Creative Process”; he is very well versed as a lecturer, and in many of his ideologies I see my own opinions and beliefs.

    I invite and encourage everyone to spend 45 minutes viewing this video, I feel it ties in with this blog topic – and has given me much food for thought.


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