It's all in the railroad details

Find out how one photographer creates detail images both to tell a story and as an art form
Detail shots can be powerful, telling an entire story in a limited amount of space. How much can be learned about the working conditions on railroads in the Pacific Northwest simply from this small section of deluged track?
Alexander B. Craghead
Detail images are not new to railroad photography. Here, Richard Steinheimer shows us a friction-bearing journal box on a freight car in the mid 1960s. Like the best of detail images, it serves as a documentary while also strongly evoking mood.
right front push-rod UP3985 Roseville Sept 05_small
Detail shots can sometimes convey emotions better than wider views. Here, Thomas Taylor has made an image of the driving rods of Union Pacific 3985 steam locomotive. The shot borders on abstract. The small scene conveys mystery, drama, and power very effectively.
Shallow depth of field is an old portrait photographer’s technique for making faces “pop,” and it is effective applied to detail imagery for the same reasons.
Alexander B. Craghead
SchoenfeldtMike Day at the Latta Desk
Detail images can be highly efficient storytelling devices. What more would be needed to tell the story of dispatching on Indiana’s Canadian Pacific's Latta Subdivision, than this little scene of Mike Day filling out his train sheet?
Ryan Schoenfeldt
When we think of railroads and photography, we often think of sweeping views of trains lapping up the countryside or locomotives brutally charging for the horizon. One of the most powerful portrayals of the railroad, however, is the detail image. For documenting vital but less frequently recorded aspects of the railroad, for showing the railroad from a unique perspective, or for creating sheer eye candy, the detail image is a useful style. So, what are detail images and how can you go about making them?

Definitions of detail imagery are subjective; but for railroad photography, I define it as a photograph that’s taken from arm's length or closer. While this could include a fisheye image, what I’m describing are images that contain smaller scenes, ones in which there would be no space to “walk into.”

Detail images, like other images, fall on a scale that runs between documentary and abstraction. As documentary photography, they are particularly well suited to recording aspects of the railroad often overlooked in favor of the sweeping vista. Photos of order operator desks, locomotive backheads, station signs, or signals have all become precious historical records of past periods. At the other extreme is the abstract image, focusing on pattern, texture, tone, color, and form. Railroads have been viewed with great emotion from very near the beginning of their existence. Abstract images can explore these emotions without hang-up on matters such as location, date, or specific subject.

Between these two extremes, and containing elements of both, is narrative form. Remember my definition of detail imagery as the subject being “within arm’s reach.” For the railroad worker, this is the definition of their daily life. Think about it: no matter what job a person on the railroad holds, everything they interact with — be it a computer, a locomotive control stand, or a cut lever — is within arm’s reach. A narrative-oriented detail image is the view of the railroad from the standpoint of an individual within its realm, a picture of the man-machine interface from the railroad worker’s perspective.

Making a detail image is no more difficult than making any other type of image. The rules of composition do not change because of the distance from the subject. Guidelines like the “rule of thirds” remain as relevant as ever. In some ways, detail imagery can be easier, as there can be fewer elements to balance. Here are three ideas to remember that may help when composing detail images.

First, be willing to visually explore. While it is possible to extensively preplan detail images, it can be just as rewarding to find them through exploration of scenes with a camera. Start with whatever is closest at hand. Don’t worry about making the penultimate detail image. Stand close to an object, and examine its surfaces, its textures, its shapes. If there seem to be too many options to try, then concentrate on only one subject. Don’t be afraid of getting visually lost; in the digital age, there’s no reason not to shoot many such images, as this is the process by which a photographer sharpens his or her own visual aesthetic.

Next, think like a portraitist. When making portraits, one of the biggest challenges is to make the subject's face stand out against the background. As the challenge is similar in detail imagery, consider applying a similar solution: reduce the depth of field. Examine the scene, and seek out its “face,” and then highlight only that aspect of the scene.

For example, consider an image I made of the end details on a freight car. Determining that the focus should be on the angle cock, the valve handle that controls air-flow between cars, I opened the camera’s f-stop wide, reducing the depth of field on the image, portrait-style. This made the many adjacent details recede, putting attention only on the detail I wanted to be seen.

Finally, start as close as you can, and work back. One of the greatest values of detail imagery is their efficiency. They can encapsulate entire narratives in a tight space. But trying to produce such images can be tough at first. Potential scenes can be overwhelming with far too many interesting details. What to include, what not? It’s best to start close and back up from the object slowly. As new elements emerge into the viewfinder, keep asking yourself, is there enough here yet? Is there just enough to tell the story?

As an example, consider Ryan Schoenfeldt’s image of a Canadian Pacific dispatcher filling out a train sheet. Not only is it a great piece of documentary-style detail imagery, it also is extremely efficient. All we see is the train sheet, the dispatcher’s hand and cuff, and a pen. The scene would be no more meaningful if more of the dispatcher’s arm was showing, or more of the train sheet, or parts of the desk. The least was best.

Creating detail images can be a very rewarding experience. Not only can the process result in some great documentary, narrative, and abstract images, it also teaches a photographer to be more open to his or her surroundings, to be more observant, to see more. With a less hurried pace for creation, it also provides the photographer with more time to consider compositional choices. By making detail images, a photographer will thus become much more adept at composing photographs, regardless of whether the subject of those images are within arms’ reach or not.

ALEXANDER B. CRAGHEAD is a member of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, which provides monthly stories for the Trains newsletter. Craghead is a photographer, journalist, and self-described “transportation geek.” He lives and works in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area. See more of his work at
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