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TrainPixs Network's
Equipment Guide for Railfanning

| digital cameras & acc. | 35mm cameras & acc. | medium & large format cameras & acc. | how to | clothing | misc |

Buy the Right Digital Camera for Railfanning
And for other things too…
Written by Nathan Chidester, Webmaster/TrainPixs Network
Printed 03-JUN-2005

Digital cameras come in all shapes, sizes and – most important of all – price. Today, you can go almost anywhere, even the neighborhood drug store, and buy a low megapixel digital camera for less than $50; a price for which you could buy a quality 35mm point-and-shoot camera.

With price, comes features – when you pay a higher price, the more “bells-and-whistles” you will get. With most mid- to high-grade (digital) cameras, you will have LCD screens, auto color/white balances, aperture, shutter speed, and f-stop features. These [digital cameras] are considered to be the best way to get quality shots while out by the rails. While the more expensive models, have fully manual settings – suggested for professional photographers, and I am not one of them!

When new to the “digital scene,” you need to know the basics. First off, many salesmen will try to sell you a camera that is way too expensive and has too many features that you, as a typical railfan, will never use – except at those indoor events and meets or if you use the camera for other things besides railfanning.

We will be looking at what is offered by many manufacturers and what type of camera will best fit your needs. Also check out the sources and also related links that are at the bottom of the page to help you do more research.


You might wander, what are megapixels?

A definition of a megapixel (from is, one million pixels, a unit of measurement in an image. This number will determine the quality of the image. Think of it as the number of dots in your picture. The more megapixels you have, the higher quality your photo(s) will be. Though this can go only so far.

According to Michael Carr, from, people can go nuts over megapixels. Higher megapixels means larger image (file) sizes, which means you will need bigger (or more) memory sticks, which means, spending more money. If you are planning on blowing up the images and/or submitting them in magazines and contests, you must have as many megapixels as you can afford. Below, is a simple outline of what each megapixel-class has to offer and sizes, which you could have printed, and their advantages.

  • 1 megapixel or less: This is typically found on smaller, inexpensive cameras or cameras in combination with other devices (such as cell phones). It will be hard to make a high-quality print of any size, but these are just fine for e-mailing photos or posting photos for a personal web site. Expect to pay $100 or less for the camera alone.
  • 1.1 to 2 megapixels: A slight step up, you can probably knock out a 4x6 or two of decent quality. I wouldn't recommend it for family portraits or if you really need a nice-looking print. You will pay about $100-150.
  • 2.1 to 3 megapixels: This is actually a good compromise between picture quality and low price for most casual photographers. You can print lovely 4x6 images, decent 5x7s and, depending on the camera, might even knock out a good 6x9. You will pay around $150 to $250.
  • 3.1 to 4 megapixels: You're getting nicer. These images make practically photo-lab quality 4x6s, and great 5x7s and 6x9s. You can print an 8x10 in some instances. You'll pay about $250 to $350.
  • 4.1 to 5 megapixels: Hello, 8x10s! Now you are getting closer to professional photographer levels, and the quality shows it. And you'll pay the price, around $350 to $450.
  • 5.1 megapixels and up: Wonderful image quality, but high price tags. There are some high-megapixel cameras coming out with lower price tags than most, but they usually have very few features. Unless megapixels are the only thing you care about, don't get a camera that sounds outrageously inexpensive for its megapixel range. In this category, expect to pay $450 and up.

Zooms & Lenses: their advantages and disadvantages

Salesmen will also try to sell you the higher zoom-power cameras. Most digital cameras have zoom lenses, either internal or attached. When you buy a digital [camera], get at least a 3x optical zoom (35-105mm in SLR terms). It's okay if the camera also has digital zoom, but if that's all it has, don’t waste your time. Digital zoom, really is just on-camera cropping – the finished picture will only have the number of pixels that were selected and cannot be effectively enlarged.

Also be aware of extra attachments that may be purchased. For example, on my Fujifilm FinePix3800, there are two attachments that are currently available, a lens magnifier (multiplying my optical zoom by 2x or 3x), and a wide-angle lens. Also be aware of the sizes of the lens’ ring itself. While out railfanning you will have A LOT of dust, you should have a lens protector with UV protection on every lens. These lenses are inexpensive and will protects your lens, keeps it clean, and relatively free from scratches.


There are many different types of memory sticks (or cards) that are commercially available. Even though the type of media you use is not extremely important, you must realize that different models require different types of media. You don’t want to mix a SD-Picture Card stick with a camera that uses the xD-Picture Card media. As new technologies are produced, many of the older cards (or original cards produced by the camera’s manufacturer) will become readily available by “off-brands,” which means cheaper for you.

Also, when you are looking at a camera, do some research about how much memory is suggested for your camera on a typical outing. For example, my camera is a 3.2MP camera, meaning that it will take about 1.5MB for each picture (at the highest setting), meaning that if I wanted to take approximately 150 pictures (at max MP), I will need a 256MB card.

Though, most cameras come with a “normal” or standard quality format; this will save you some memory space per image (about 50%) and also will give you about the same quality. Also remember to bring enough memory to last you the entire trip – nothing is worse than either sacrificing pictures for others or not taking any more after your memory is full. If you are going to be gone for an extended trip, be sure to download your photos to a computer and burn it on a DVD or CD-R, to free up your memory sticks for more photos.

On most of my trips, I use a 128MB chip with a 64MB and 16MB chip for backup, allowing me to take approximately 121 images @ 3.2MP(fine), 312 images @ 3.2MP(normal), or 455 images @ 2MP. Most of the time I use 3.2MP(normal) for all of my photos unless I am taking a photo of something that I want a lot of detail.


You’ will never want to leave home without it – and no, it is not American Express – it’s batteries. A vital part of the new age in photography requires a lot of power, I mean A LOT of power! Many cameras will require two to four AA or AAA. Many first-time buyers believe that you can just plop some alkaline batteries in and be able to shoot all day. WRONG!

According to, many people believe that their new camera is defective, when there is no more power after only 20 pictures. Also, many believe that digital cameras are battery-hogs. Yes, they are hogs to a sense, but you can save a lot of battery time with certain setting/features on your camera.

For example, if your camera offers a “power saver,” use it. But if you are out by the rails and you spot something, and your camera just “powered off,” well good luck trying to get your camera ready in time – I have missed many shots of rolling stock and also other interesting details because of my camera was off. What I try to do, is turn off the feature. When I know that I will not be using the camera for some time, I will turn it off manually.

Another battery saver is to use your viewfinder as much as you can. My camera has a mini LCD screen for the viewfinder, and this saves me power for use elsewhere.

You might be asking yourself, “What type of batteries should I buy?” Well, that is up to you and your budget, but I will give you some resources and places to find adequate information about each type of battery that is available.

I use the Monster Ultra 2100 Powercell (2100mAh) battery. I have had good luck with this brand, with a single set surviving my use for over two years. I can say that they can stand up to a lot of use and recharging. Many rechargeable batteries can develop “memory,” so to help prevent memory buildup be sure to charge your batteries for a longer period of time than the automatic charge says. In other words, charge the batteries over night, or least four to six hours. Even though these batteries cost a $25-30 for four batteries, they are well worth it!

ALWAYS bring extra sets of batteries. A typical rule to follow would be to have two extra batteries for every battery required for use. This way, you will have an ample supply of power for a single day trip – for everyday after that, have a charged pair ready for use the next day, while you are charging the others.

Comfort and Accessibility to Features

With the megapixels, zoom, and other features taken care of, another important factor to consider is to what the camera looks like and also how they feel. One can compare buying a camera to buying a new pair of shoes. One must ask him/herself, how does it feel in my hand? Is it too large or too heavy? Does a plastic body feel too flimsy? Are the controls sensibly placed? Are there too many or too few buttons? Are the menus easy to navigate?

Find a camera that “fits you like a glove.” What I mean is that the camera must be comfortable for long periods of use; will the weight cause you to have neck pain, when it is strapped around your neck? Will using it cause you to have “trigger-finger,” or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Other (Important) Features

Taking digital photos can be as simple as pointing the camera and pressing the shutter button. But digital cameras can also provide as much control over the exposure, color, dynamic range, and so on as you want. Also consider extras like in-camera red-eye removal and panorama modes. In general, however, I would suggest buying a camera that takes better pictures over one with a lot of features. Computer programs, such as Photoshop, could make these corrections. Remember, you can’t add in details that a poor camera missed – and sometimes that is what makes the difference between an okay shot and a great shot!

Related Topics

Correcting/Fixing Photos Using Photoshop (coming soon!)

Saving Your Images to Different Formats & Media's (coming soon!)

Other Related Links
(clicking on a link below will open up a new window)

Battery Reviews Photography

Buying a Digital Camera


| digital cameras & acc. | 35mm cameras & acc. | medium & large format cameras & acc. | how to | clothing | misc |

Copyright ©1998-2005 TrainPixs Network. All rights reserved. All information in the "Equipment Guide from Railfanning" may be printed for personal use only.


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Last Updated: 01-Jan-2010