This guide is intended for amateur railfan photographers who live in or intend to visit India with railway photography in mind, or for those visitors to India who will invariably shoot off a few rolls of railway pictures anyway. The tips and advice contained in this guide are largely based upon my own experiences as a railfan, as well as on several important inputs got out of discussions on our 300+ strong e-mail group the Indian Railways Fan Club (IRFCA), a forum where several seasoned and experienced railfan photographers have aired their views and have shared their tales of wisdom, joy, frustration and triumph.
I must hasten to add that I do not, repeat, do not propogate breaking of the law. All I am saying is that you have the rigid rules on one side. Be that as it may, you have to take a more sensible and pragmatic view of things, which is exactly what the formidable Indian bureaucracy is designed to frustrate. As responsible citizens all of us should obey the law, . Yet, you don't let outdated rules, misinformed enforcers, the rigid and heartless Indian bureaucracy, and the Indian tendency to make things as complicated as possible turn you into into a zombie. Don't allow going rigidly by the book and playing into the hands of hard headed officials ruin for you the joy of railfanning in India.
India, it would appear, suffers from a persecution complex. Several places are considered restricted in India. These include bridges, railroad yards, railway premises, sheds, workshops, stations and tunnels. These are supposed to be of military importance. Officials are very skittish about the whole thing, and many of them tend to go overboard in trying to enforce these restrictions. Its against the law to take a photograph of a train at the station, yet, you can walk a few metres away, just outside the station limits, and shoot freely from there. Or from the overbridge just before the station. Or from the lineside in open country. Which is why we railfans call these 'idiot restrictions'. But thats another story.
Hence officially, if you are planning on doing some really serious and extensive railroad photography in India, it is absolutely essential for you to apply for and acquire a permit. You will need to write to:
The Joint Director of Public Relations, Railway Board, Rail Bhavan, New Delhi-110001, India.
Be sure to apply at least three to four months in advance, and provide a list of the stations you intend photographing at, along with reasons for photographing (?).
You can also write to the Senior Public Relations Officer of any regional railway division, or the Chief Public Relations Officer of a zonal railway. The Indian Embassy or Consulate in several countries can also help you with acquiring a photography permit for the Indian Railways.
Note however, that replying to crazy railfans' requests to photograph trains (at least thats what the bureaucrats feel) is not exactly high on the list of priorities, thus several applications are simply not responded to, and the replies, whenever processed, take forever in coming. Which is why I'd said earlier that you should allow at least three to four months for your permit to come through, if it does. Permits are often refused for no inexplicable reason, and it is very difficult to get permits for 'restricted areas' like Darjeeling and the North Eastern states.
At least one of our club members from Australia had built in two or three days in his itinerary for New Delhi in order to personally chase the red tape wielding officials to dispose with his request for permission. The application had been filed months in advance in most cases. On arrival in New Delhi, the file would very often be missing, and would yet make a surprising re-appearance with persistent cajoling. Most travellers do not have that kind of time, expertise, endurance or patience to coax the bureaucracy into action.
Please also note that the permits, whenever granted, are ONLY FOR STILL PHOTOGRAPHY. The Railway Board is still in the stone age when it comes to moving media, and do not even seem to be aware of camcorders as a mode of recording images. The talk in the bureaucratic circles is still of 8mm film reels and 'movie cameras'. Applications for videotaping require cumbersome deposits and guarantees, in short, all of that which deals with professionial film making. Video is generally officially banned, and most officials do not even know what you are talking about, (if you are not a still photographer, then you are a movie maker), and officials will not even consider your request, unless you are lucky or have plenty of money to burn. (deposits etc., remember?)
What does the permit ensure?
There have been several experiences with several railfans. Some railfan photographers have said that the magic piece of paper with the Railway Board's seal of approval on it has smoothened many a problem for them. Hostile officials have been known to melt at the very sight of that piece of paper, and one railfan even suggested that the permit he had was for another region altogether, yet the official did not bother to read it, once he saw the seal and the Railway Board logo on it. A far shot, but it worked. The lucky devil!
On the other hand, there have been horror stories of zonal railways demanding their own separate permit despite the poor railfan having a valid Railway Board permit on him. At times, some zonal railways charge a hefty fee of 2000 Indian Rupees for issuing photography permits. It is not clear as yet whether this fee is for that particular shed alone (in which case its a rip off with a capital R) or for that entire region. Nor is it known whether this is an official charge, as several other railway zones do not as yet charge this fee. Yet another horror story was from a Bombay (Mumbai) based railfan who had secured a permit for the massive Bandra Marshalling Yard, yet was stopped when he entered the diesel shed there as he was curtly told off that the shed was not part of the yard and so he has to get another separate permit for the shed! Yet more horror stories go on about the station master of an insignificant station refusing permission because his station was not listed on the permit.
The long and short of it is, if you are a stickler for rules and insist of playing by the book, be prepared for delays, erratic behavior, disappointments, harassment due to different interpertations of the rules by different officials and a lot of heartburn. The point basically is, the zone behind this entire permit business is a large grey area, so several officials themselves appear to be unclear about the rules and their exact provisions. And hence each official interprets the rules differently, one interpretation at times diametrically opposite to the other. In the meantime, the poor railfan photographer cannot but tear his hair in frustration, for his time and wits are running out while officials shunt him around like a locomotive making up a train out of several disjointed cars.
On the positive side, once you have a permit, then you can freely flaunt your SLR cameras, lenses, tripod and gadget bag and walk like a king. (not recommended for reasons of temptation to another class of mortals, also called thieves!) . At certain large stations, the station chief may even depute a junior official to accompany you on your assignment. Needless to say, this official will be a source of much valuable information. As long as his interpretation is positive and he doesn't consider you a wierdo or a nut.
Of course, restrictions notwithstanding, experience shows that you can get away with a lot more at touristy places like Neral, Matheran, Ooty etc. than you can in the rest of the country. Also, certain regions of the country are a lot more tolerant to railfans than certain other regions. The Northern and North Eastern states are a bit intolerant nowadays due to security considerations, what with the ongoing terrorist nuisance in those states.
Please also note that it is perfectly in order for you to photograph freely and unrestricted (with your SLR and full paraphernalia) at railway museums, tourist trains and their journeys (Royal Orient, Fairy Queen, Palace on Wheels types) and of course, from outside railway permises. Under these circumstances, you can snap away freely without a permit.
At any rate, even armed with a permit, it is a good plan to drop by at the station master or shed foreman's office and inform him that you will be photographing at his station or shed. After all, you don't just walk into anybody's garden and start taking pictures of the flowers, plants and butterflies in it. That way, the station master or shed foreman knows you are around, and might even send someone along to help you. This will also save your energies in explaining to half a dozen chaps as to what you are up to, valuable energy you could use in taking pictures anyway.
PSST!--BUT THERE IS ANOTHER OPTION!
If all this has made you re-think about India as a railfan destination, don't lose your marbles just yet. All the above accounts for but a miniscule proportion of railfan photographers who actually adhere to all the rules. Its the film makers, book publishers and travelog writers who need to go into all that. Or folks who want to do extensive photography of the Indian Railways covering all its aspects and colors, possibly for a research document. Or for large railfan groups travelling to India in search of a particular theme or class of locomotives. Why would a single individual as a casual snapshooter worry about all those horrid formalities?
Yes sir, a vast majority of solo travellers get around all that exasperating bureaucracy, time wastage, expense and absurdity in triplicate merely by playing by a few ground rules, being discreet and using their commonsense. As I said earlier, if you try and go by the book, word for word, you will turn into a zombie, if not a nervous wreck. A waste if all you want is a few passable photos to put into your website or travel album, seen by your immediate of kin, or your friends circle alone.
Thus, the main keyword for successful railroad photography in India is, COMMONSENSE.
As we go along, I will let you in on certain ground rules, tips and tricks of the trade, and do and don'ts. Follow these, and you will be able to stay out of trouble, and with any luck, have a few albumfuls of fairly good railroad photographs from India.
When I talk of equipment, I am naturally assuming that you are not a professional photographer. In that case, I am not, and am therefore not in a position to advise you.
I take it that like me, you too are an amateur, someone who does not take pictures for a living, and that you are primarily a railfan, but one for whom photography is also a passion, or an obsession at best. And you are one who will be doing a lot of casual snapshooting of trains in India, one who loves trains, but whose pursuits, resources and the ultimate goal do not make it worthwhile to go through all that officialdom and rigmarole in securing a permit.
OK, enough of this. What type of equipment do I use to photograph trains in India?
For the best results, and for reasons that follow, you are best off opting for a small, instantly pocketable, zoom compact. A camera which offers a zoom of at least 70mm or more.
I have been using an Olympus Superzoom 70 (now no more in production), but later switched to an even smaller Konica Big Mini with 35-70, and more recently, an Olympus Myu (Stylus in the US) with 35-105 zoom. While the 105 version is no more available (2001), you can get versions with 115 and even 145mm zoom. Yashica too offers ultra compact cameras with zoom of upto 200 mm. Samsung and Nikon zoom compacts tend to be huge, but Canon and Minolta offer some very compact zoom models too. I've always dreamt of owning a miniscule Canon Elph, only its too expensive, esp. considering that I own a plethora of cameras already, plus the APS film that goes into it is expensive to process too.
Select whichever brand or film format you prefer (a photograph is as good as the photographer, remember?), but opt for a small sized model with zoom, with lots of features which will ensure good results even in difficult conditions: a camera which can be instantly returned to the safe confines of your pocket after each shot.
Two, use fast film. For reasons that follow, you will more often than not be shooting under difficult conditions. Fast film and a good, efficient camera will ensure good results each time. I personally generally use 200 ISO Kodak print film, (the use of print film itself might contradict with railfan policy for some, but I use only that), with a couple of 400 ISO rolls thrown in for those cloudy days or those days I know I will be doing a lot of grab shots.
Unless you want to get a permit, or wish to limit your photography entirely to museums, the lineside, or the countryside, you can safely leave your heavy and unwieldy SLRs, tripod, gadget bag, lenses and other paraphernalia at home. Not to say I do not like SLRs: I own two of them myself (and might even go in for an old diecast one soon, another SLR) but I always opt for my compacts when shooting trains.
Thats about it. All these, plus a lot of high hopes, wishful thinking and commonsense should get you onto the high iron.
A zoom-less compact is even smaller, less expensive, supposedly more durable and will work well too, but a camera with zoom will ensure that you are still more inconspicuous, as the zoom will greatly reduce the number of instances when you have to approach railway stock at close quarters, which will attract attention towards yourself, especially if you get carried away and do it too often. A major advantage with instantly pocketable zoom compacts with fast film is that despite all that has been said earlier about restrictions, hard nosed officials etc., it is still possible to get plenty of informal grab shots of platform life, locomotives, station scenes and the like. And you can shoot from a respectable distance. And get shots you'd dismiss as too far away and hence unviable if you had a camera without zoom. All you do is look unruffled, shoot, pocket your camera instantly, then look for the next subject with a dead pan look on your face. A funny thing happened to me in July 2000 at Madras . (not that I haven't encountered such situations before!) I'd just walked up to the front of the train I was to travel in, grabbed a couple of shots of the electric locomotive, zoomed in (full 105mm) on the two car diesel multiple unit at the far side of the next platform, shot that, (all pretty decent shots, thanks to my trusty Olympus), pocketed the camera and walked back to my car. However, just before getting in, I opened the clamshell cover of the camera just to see how many more frames I had left, and whether I could survive the rest of the journey. Thats when I was spotted by a railway police cop. He just stared and stared, but could not say anything, as I had not actually shot anything in front of him. Nonetheless, it was enough to make me squirm uncomfortably, and all in all, I was happy to disappear into the cool comfort of my air conditioned car.
Hence, as I said earlier, USE YOUR COMMONSENSE, and just because you have a camera that can be pocketed instantly, DO NOT TEMPT FATE and POSITIVELY DO NOT SHOOT PICTURES INDISCRIMINATELY AT PLACES WHERE THERE IS A BOARD EXPRESSLY PROHIBITING PHOTOGRAPHY.
It also helps a great deal if you polish up your photography techniques. Practise a bit of impromptu shooting, grab shots, panning, reverse panning (more important, as you will be shooting out of moving trains ever so often), speed: (quickly aim, shoot, and pocket,) shooting at odd angles and positons. Your key to success is SPEED: quick movements. Practice is imperative if you want to avoid camera shake. And preferably wear loose clothing, for you do not want your camera to bulge out: apart from making it uncomfortable for you, it will also attract attention from undesirable elements like pick pockets.
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