Opportunity at the Willows, December 5, 2012

Every so often trains converge and pause, presenting opportunities to make interesting and dramatic images. Such was the case yesterday, December 5, 2012, at the junction known as ‘the Willows’ east of Ayer, Massachusetts (where the former Boston & Maine Fitchburg Mainline meets the B&M Stony Brook line). Where the Fitchburgh continues toward Boston, and now used by MBTA commuter trains, the Stony Brook serves as part of Pan Am Railway’s primary freight route. A pair of freights had come west over the Stony Brook and were waiting to continue over the Fitchburg line to Ayer, (where they would diverge and head southward on the former Boston & Maine line to Worcester).

Modern locomotives at the Willows
Overcast conditions combined with the bright headlight and ditch lights on CSX 8747 made for a challenging set of circumstances. Canon 7D fitted with 28-135mm zoom set at 135mm, ISO 400 f5.6 1/500 second.

On the left is Pan Am Railways’ POSE (Portland, Maine to Selkirk) with CSX (former Conrail) SD60M 8747 leading. (At Worcester this will become CSX Q427 for its journey over the former Boston & Albany toward CSX’s Selkirk Yard, see post Palmer, Massachusetts 11:01pm November 30, 2012). On the right is an empty coal train returning from the generating station at Bow, New Hampshire to the Providence & Worcester. This was led by a mix of P&W General Electric diesels, leading is former Santa Fe DASH8-40BW 582 in BNSF paint with P&W lettering. Both trains were waiting for an MBTA equipment move coming from Worcester (MBTA has been detouring equipment using the Worcester-Clinton-Ayer route as to bypass a damaged bridge on Boston’s Grand Junction Branch—which normally handles transfers between South-side and North-side operations.)

There’s nothing like a bit of sun to brighten your day. By changing my angle to the locomotives I minimized the objectionable effect of headlight flare. Canon 7D and 28-135mm zoom set at 122mm, ISO 200 f8 1/500 second.

My friend Rich Reed and I arrived at the Willows to catch the unusual MBTA move with the hope of also seeing the pair of freights. This easily accessibly junction is split by a public grade crossing. When we found the two freights side by side this became the main photographic event. The day offered a changeable mix of sun and clouds and so my initial exposures were made under overcast conditions. Complicating my exposures were headlights and ditch lights on CSX 8747 which when photographed straight-on flared and proved too bright relative to the rest of the scene. To compensate I waited for the sun to come out (thanks sun!) and then made a few views off axis to minimize the effect of the ditch lights while taking advantage of the better quality of light. While this solved the difficulty of the flared lights, it wasn’t as dramatic as the head-on view and didn’t show the freight cars, just the locomotives.

Moving back from the trains and using a longer lens increased the drama offered by a pair of freights ‘coming at you’. However, the sun had going in again, and the result amplified the effect of the light flare. Canon 7D fitted with 200mm lens, ISO 400 at f5.0 1/500 second.

Switching from a 28-135mm zoom to a 200mm fixed lens proved part of the solution by offering a more dramatic angle, but ,if anything, this exacerbated the difficulty of the engine lights. The longer lens forced me to move back from the locomotives in order to fill the frame. I made some test pictures, and analyzed them on-site while I waited for a moment when clouds partially diffused the sun. This allowed for bright light on the front of the locomotives, not only increasing the drama, but it offered the necessary compromise condition to better cope with locomotive lights (making them less objectionable). Another trick, I adjusted the white-balance in-camera for a slightly warmed tone (by setting the WB to ‘overcast’—pictured with a puffy cloud). After about 10 minutes, I could hear the MBTA special approaching from the West and shifted the focus of my photography. Soon after this passed, the coal train received a signal to proceed westward, and the whole scene changed.

With this view, the sun is slightly softened by light cloud, yet bright enough to help balance for the lights. The lighting is rich and warm, while the angle is dramatic. On both trains, the angle reveals freight cars behind the locomotives which tells part of the story; these are freight trains and not just modern locomotives posed side by side. Canon 7D with 200mm lens, ISO 400 at f6.3 1/1000 second.
I always check focus by enlarging a selected portion of the image. This detail of the P&W GE displays a high degree of sharpness. I’ve cropped a portion of the Camera RAW file in Photoshop for display here.

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