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Sunday, 18 August 2013 14:18

Representative or interpretive? (Or why is much railway photography boring?)

Written by Mike
An interpretive view:  Shot with a 1/10th second exposure, 'Jubilee' Class 4-6-0 no. 5690 'Leander' departing Loughborough on the Great Central Railway, 29 October 2008 An interpretive view: Shot with a 1/10th second exposure, 'Jubilee' Class 4-6-0 no. 5690 'Leander' departing Loughborough on the Great Central Railway, 29 October 2008

As I find myself getting sucked more and more into video, at the same time I find myself confronting a question about photography that has nagged away at me for some considerable time.  And the question is should photography be representative or interpretive?

Let’s start out by looking at what I mean by the two terms.  Can I also point out that this might sound like one of those arty-farty, highbrow subjects.  It’s not.  It’s just about getting the creative juices flowing in interesting directions.

On that subject, I was fascinated to see a discussion on Facebook between two of my mates saying they were getting jaded with railway photography.  They’re both photographers I respect, both capable of producing great images.  Maybe as you read on, you’ll see why I think they might be jaded.  And importantly, what they might do about it.


I would class a representative picture or video as showing what is there.  Sure it might be beautifully composed and lit, but the essence of the picture is to represent what was actually there.  If you like, to produce a record of a point in time.

For example, I would class the vast majority of railway photography as representative.  The object of the picture is to portray the subject.  In the context of railway photography, it’s often seen as a way of recording history.

That means portraying an unusual working or a type nearing the end of its life is a prized picture.  In summary, the story of the subject is as important as the photographic treatment of it.


I would class an interpretive picture as not necessarily showing everything that was there, but capturing the emotion of the moment.  So often, light is the key factor.  It’s a truism that great pictures are often of light with a subject in it, rather than the other way around.

Again using railway photography as an example, for me, railways are about people and movement.  So a great interpretive picture will capture either or both of those elements, with the minimum of the actual subject to be able to give a sense of what is going on.

That leads to extensive use of panning to give a sense of movement, and effort to include people to bring the picture or video to life.

Which is right?

The short answer, is both are right.  I recognise and admire great representative railway photography, but for me, it’ll never move me like a great interpretive picture or video.

The problem is representative railway photography is that it’s constrictive.  To satisfy its audience, the ‘rules’ say it has to be in full sun.  Ideally it has to show the whole train.  The location is a critical part of the picture or video.  (And then there’s all the silly rules about the rods on a steam loco must be down, but let’s not even go there)..

Those forces conspire to make representative railway photography highly predictable.  And with that predictability, comes boredom.  Don’t believe me?  Go and look at videos on YouTube of main line steam specials.  Very often more than half of the video comprises (what feels like) 120 carriages following the brief passage of the loco.  Or look at the major railway magazines.  The vast majority of pictures use that well-worn front three quarter approach.  And that includes even the so-called ‘photography’ sections like ‘Gallery’ in ‘Steam Railway’.

Interpretive is freedom

On the other hand, interpretive photography has no rules, and no given ‘right’ approach.  You have the freedom to explore your own ideas.

Sometimes I’ll set out with an image in mind, more often something will catch my eye.  When something does catch my eye, I’ll then spend time developing the idea until I get the image I want.  Sometimes that can be immediate, sometimes it can take months.

As an example, I recently had two business trips to Kuala Lumpur.  Whilst time was tight, I did find some time to take some railway pictures.  The suburban trains of Kuala Lumpur are predictable, but even so I managed to get some interesting images.  (My one regret is that at no time did it occur to me to flick the camera’s dial around to video to capture some movement.  This video game is still new to me).

Almost because I knew little of the subject, all I could do was confront the shapes and colours in front of me.  And of course the people using the trains.  Now I’m keen to take what I learned in Kuala Lumpur and apply it to the UK.

The role of photo charters

Given that way of thinking, you would think photo charters would be a great opportunity to try being interpretive.  Sadly that’s usually just not the case.  The gallery forms at the approved spot for the front three quarter picture, and if you try to deviate from that, you incur the wrath of the other photographers.

I’m not alone in this way of thinking, a number of mates have dropped out of the charter scene because of the difficulty of coming up with something interesting and different.

I’d go so far as to say I almost welcome dull days for charters – while everybody else stays on the train because the sun isn’t out, you have the freedom to explore ideas.  And I’ll always sneak off at lunchtime when everybody else is filling their faces.

Where next?

I've been taking interpretive railway pictures for years.  So my next challenge is to learn how to make interesting and visually appealing videos.  Already I recognise success will come about by following an interpretive path.

It’s a steep learning curve trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  But already I can spot that fast cuts between strongly lit, visually strong scenes packed with action is a much more potent formula than just putting the camera on the tripod and hitting record as the train comes into view.

I have a hunch this is going to be an interesting journey…



Mike McCormac has been a photographer since about ten years old.  He's a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and splits his time between living in Olney in the United Kingdom and a village in the hills near Paphos in Cyprus.

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