Photography Tips from Hungerford Common

Photo lens tips from Hungerford photographer and train enthusiast Tony Bartlett

I’ve spent some time watching trains on Hungerford Common recently, with the tree clearances and project to replace the Cow Bridge providing opportunities to get new angles on an old theme. I was surprised to find how far along the track towards Kintbury you can see now from the Down Gate with trains disappearing from distant view as they round the curve past the signal at the far end of the loop line by the water treatment works. This signal shows bright red as a sort of beacon over a mile away, only changing to green when the occasional loaded stone train is let back on to the running line after a stopover in the loop.

I resolved when the light was suitable to take images of a train approaching from the east, charting its course through the landscape before eventually passing by out of sight at the station. I’m presenting here a selection of those images with some commentary and some technical notes for people interested in photographic technique. I hope you find it interesting:

Image 1

A train of empty wagons from the Theale terminal appears round the curve from Kintbury as predicted on Open Train Times, seen first as just a hi-vis headlight. I wait long enough to get the front of the loco in the gap as the first few wagons of this long train are beginning to appear. I make a mental note that this view will be very much more restricted when the leaves are back on the trees next year – for example the red signal at the end of the loop will have been obscured by then. Moving forward in the view, the clutter of the treatment works is now visible since the conifer screen was removed last year. The access to Dun Mill lock at the bottom of the slope from the overbridge leads to the white railings at the canalside, and a gentleman is taking repose from one of the arms of the lock gate (technical term?). The autumn colours are reflected in the canal and also show in the hedgerow beside the lady walking her dog on the lower common:


Image 2

A wider view in which the train is passing the works and the locomotive is framed by the arch of the overbridge. The low winter sun is producing deep shade but it is possible to pick out the pillboxes at the left end of the bridge. The length of the train has now become apparent, as well as the curvature of the route along the Kennet valley emphasised here by the foreshortening of the distant view:

Image 3

Wider still, the front of the train is just about to dive behind the bushes by the Cow Bridge but its wagons are still trailing round the curve. The fencing hinted at is now revealed to be protecting the ground disturbed during the Cow Bridge project and beginning to recover its pasture top. The dog-walker is lost to view but the gentleman is still seated at the lock:


Notes for photographers

The first issue here was where to position to take the shots in order to get the angles I needed at the different stages. I had about a half hour before the train arrived, which I fully used before settling on the final position and during which time I was keeping a nervous eye on the cloud cover streaming past. For the purposes of this demonstration I set my best telephoto lens to its 200mm max focal length, framed for the last shot in the sequence and did not move the camera (which was sitting securely on a beanbag) during the progress of the train. I took selected single shots rather than a continuous sequence – not feasible with DSLR technology for the 65 seconds! Clearly with this technique employed I had to crop the earlier images to display the level of detail described above (compressed JPGs attached for further study if required).

The effect of digital zooming in this way is that Image 1 appears to have been taken with a 700mm lens, Image 2 400mm and uncropped Image 3 the native 200mm, and avoids the need to change lenses or cameras during the shoot – but comes at a cost. Cropping throws away a portion of the pixels in the original image and could leave you with inadequate for your required purposes. In this case the severe crop to achieve my Image 1 has left just 3 Mpx (megapixels) of the original 36, enough for screen use or small prints e.g. 7″x5″ at 300dpi but nothing larger. But even if you have enough pixels after the crop you have to consider what you are expecting of the lens – enlarging part of the image emphasises any imperfections introduced by the lens, and this assumes that your technique has removed the possibility of camera shake. Unless you are using very expensive scientific or military-grade optics you will notice some softening of the image – which is not unacceptable with the ProSeries Nikkor lens used in my example. At some stage I shall repeat the earlier shots with a rather older (slightly less sharp) 400mm Nikkor lens to see how the trade off works between the resolution of the image sensor and the lens. Don’t believe the marketing blurb which says that a camera has ‘high resolution’ because it has a multi-megapixel sensor. Conventional wisdom is that the quality of the optics is of higher priority.

An unintended consequence of this method of taking the shots is that I have easily been able to make a fun shot as a montage of the three images, apparently showing three trains in close cavalcade crossing the Common. This could not happen in practice because the signalling system is designed to restrict only one train to each section of track in normal circumstances.

Tony Bartlett


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