In February 1999, I exposed this view of a Thalys TGV-style high-speed train at Antwerp, Belgium using my Nikon N90S with Fujichrome Sensia II (100 ISO).
To make the most of the angular high-speed train against a backdrop of traditional brick buildings, I used a moderate telephoto lens and a relatively slow shutter speed (probably about 1/60thof a second). This has the effect of keep the train sharp while softening the background and foreground.
Brussels Central Station features six tracks below ground, with an art deco styled station building above ground.
It lies between Brussels two main termini; Nord/Noord (North) and Midi/Zuid (South).
The incongruity in names and spellings is a function of Belgium’s two primary languages (French and Flemish) combined with the tendency of the English language to rename places without consideration for local spelling or pronunciation.
During my most recent visit to Belgium I made a couple of visits to Belgium’s main stations. While not strictly photographic ventures, I always plan to make photographs during the course of my travels.
Opportunity taken on site can save a lot of running around later on.
Located adjacent to the SNCB lines at Schaarbeek (on the north side of Brussels), Train World is Belgium’s premier railway museum.
I visited last week, having arrived by train from the Brussels suburbs. I’d bought my museum ticket in conjunction with my SNCB fare.
City trams also serve the museum.
You enter Train World from the old railway station building, which has been beautifully restored. Beyond are a series of train halls, that display the history of Belgian railways using real equipment: locomotives, railway rolling stock, signals, literature, signage, etc.
It’s well worth a visit.
Photos exposed using my Lumix LX7
Tracking the Light aims to post new material Daily.
Locked away in an old locomotive shed at Saint Ghislain, Belgium are a wonderful collection of historic SNCB locomotives maintained by Patrimoine Ferroviare et Tourisme. See: http://www.pfttsp.be/index.php/fr/
Mauno Pajunen organized a visit to this collection and provided translation while Rousman Phillippe offered a guided tour.
I was most impressed by the semi-streamlined stainless-steel clad electric (SNCB 1805) that formerly worked TEE international services and by the Baldwin diesel locomotive built under license.
Photographing in a locomotive shed such as this one requires special technique.
Direct and indirect lighting from skylights in the roof and large side windows results in extreme contrast with lower regions of the locomotives bathed in darkness that tends to confuse the in-camera light meter. (A meter doesn’t know what your subject is and only provides a balanced reading and doesn’t work in this situation.)
If you are not careful you may end up with an unacceptably dark result. (see above).
My solution is relatively simple: manually over-expose in range of 2/3s of a stop to 1 stop, and then control highlight detail in post processing.
The easiest way to do this with a digital camera is used a manual mode and then watch the suggested exposure settings offered by the built in meter and then add 2/3s to 1 stop to the recommended value. Thus if the meter suggests exposing a f2.8 at 1/60th of second, open up the aperture to nearly f2.0 without changing the shutter speed.
Another way of doing this is by adjusting the meter to over expose by 2/3 or 1 full stop. Each camera has its own means of doing this.
In my case, I set the ISO to 400, so my average exposure was f4.5 1/60 of a second (camera meter was recommending f5.6 to f6.3, which would have resulted in an unacceptably dark image).
I adjusted my exposure from scene to scene, while tending toward overexposure based on the meter setting and carefully gauging the histogram to avoid loosing data in the shadow areas.
Since the highlights of the outside windows and skylights are not important to the overall scene, it isn’t a problem to allow for a loss of detail in these areas.
After exposure, I adjusted the files in post-processing to bring the mid-tones and shadow areas to an expected level.
Another trick is working in confined spaces. For these images I used a super wide-angle lens, specifically a Zeiss 12mm Touit, which I purchased specifically for photography in settings such engine sheds, signal towers and locomotive cabs.
An invisible political boundary (the dashed line on a map) can prove a greater obstacle than a towering mountain range when it comes to impeding railway operations.
In mid-April, my Irish friends and I explored the Gotthard Pass, where massive investment will soon make the old line over the mountain redundant as the new 35.5 mile Basistunnel beneath the Alps will divert most of the through traffic.
A week later I was exploring the border area between northern France and Belgian Wallonia with Mauno Pajunen.
This is in an area of relatively dense population that was once the center of a thriving coal mining community. Quiévrain, Belgium is a town located an hour or so from Brussels and is relatively near to large French cities of Lille and Paris.
Generally speaking SNCB (Belgian National Railways) provides an excellent service across Belgium, with most stations seeing at least an hourly passenger service and many lines operating with an even greater frequency.
At one time a through railway line connected Belgian cities of Brussels and Mons with the French city of Valenciennes via Quiévrain . Today, SNCB continues to operate a regular interval passenger service from Brussels to Mons with some trains continuing south to Saint Ghislain and Quiévrain.
But Quiévrain is the end of the line and the state of the station area is a sad reflection of better times now long gone.
Evidence of the old line remains and the tracks are still in place (although no longer connected).
The town is divided between Belgium and France, with the French town being called Quiéverchain. Differences in the price of tabacco and alcohol between the two countries has led to a thriving business on the Belgian side of the border.
It had been many years since you could take a train directly from Mons to Valencienes.
In theory, you can ride from Brussels to Valenciennes via a change of trains at Lille, but this is the long way around and impractical for regular travelers.
Elsewhere in Europe cross-border services have flourished, yet the end of track at Quiévrain clearly demonstrates how borders create barriers between population centers that need not exist.
Soon you will be able to travel faster than ever before from Zurich to Milan, but not by rail from Mons to Valenciennes!
On October 1st, 2015, I arrived at Mons, Belgium by SNCB Train from Brussels. It was my first time in this southwestern Belgian City, and my impressions were skewed by the fact that the entire railway station was a construction zone.
Mons was only a brief layover for me, as I was traveling to Valenciennes, France (just over the frontier) to give my talk on railway photography to the European Railway Agency.
My host Mauno Pajunen explained that the Mons station had been under construction for several years and that the classic old station building had been demolished to make way for a modern facility.
Since I had a few minutes, I made a few photos of the railway at Mons, but with very little context to guide me; it seemed to be just a jumble of catentary masts, wires, temporary platforms, cranes, cables, concrete and steel.
A week later I was back in Monson, Massachusetts, after some complex and intensive travel involving four countries, a half dozen trains, a fair few trams, two aeroplanes, several buses, and a bit of driving.
55 years earlier my father and Jack May had visited Mons on their wanders around Europe. On arrival back in Monson, I searched the slide collection for some context. Here is one of the slides my father exposed on Kodachrome.
Last weekend (October 3, 2015), I made my second visit to the Belgian Coastal Tramway (LIJN Kusttram). This tramway is one of Europe’s more unusual railways. It’s a narrow-gauge electric interurban line that connects towns and cities along the Belgian coast using modern trams.
The setting is peculiar to my eye, as much of the coast is characterized by mile after mile of high-rise apartments that face North Sea beaches. Between resort areas are heavy port facilities, such as that at Zeebrugge.
On my first visit, back in March 2013, I traveled from Ostend to the south end of the line near the French border. Back then it was gray, cold, and exceptionally windy. In other words, it was a complete contrast to last weekend, when it was warm, sunny, and comparatively still.
During this more recent visit, I explored the North-end of the line with some of my Irish friends who are now living in Belgium. At no point did my two journeys on the coastal tramway overlap.
One of these days I’ll need to visit again, and travel the line from end to end. I’ve by no means worked the most dramatic or most characteristic locations on the line.
Interestingly, I’ve seen relatively few published photos on the route, which makes it a bit more mysterious, and perhaps more interesting to explore.
I’ve passed through Charleroi, Belgium at various occasions over the years. For me it is a place similar to Newark, New Jersey.
Like Newark: Charleroi offers connections between transportation modes and is the location of an important secondary airport and has a light rail-subway that blends an historic network with modern construction.
Also, both city’s environments are characterized by post-industrial backdrops.
On Thursday, October 1st, a change of trains at Charleroi afforded me a 40-minute window to make photos. Rich polarized sun at the end of the day made for some nice lighting to capture the city’s trams and SNCB trains.
Low sun offers contrast and rich lighting that is well suited to making dramatic railway images.
Why limit yourself to one media, when you can use two? Enjoy the best of both, go nuts.
Or, as the case maybe, slip across the street for a glass of Jupiler at the Le Cheval de Fer (The Iron Horse).
That was my call any way. I visited Schaarbeek/Schaerbeek at the end of March.
Schaerbeek is a large station in suburban Brussels. Out front is a tram terminus where modern Flexity trams gather between runs. The station building is a classic, and just recently restored. The railway themed pub is nearby and in sight of the station.
SNCB is the Belgian national railway and it runs a lot of trains. While most trains don’t stop at Schaerbeek, there’s no shortage of action. In just a few minutes, I’d caught a variety of equipment passing.
Since I had three cameras and sunlight, I made the most of my brief time at this railway nexus.
Before long, pictures exposed and beer consumed, I was rolling along through cobble stone streets on one of the aforementioned Flexity trams.
My experience with the Brussels tram network spans nearly twenty years. This fascinating railway network involves a complex route structure with lots of track and several different types of trams.
Street photography has its fair share of challenges. Automobiles and pedestrians mingle with trams in ways that make it difficult to set up shots.
Further complicating matters is the sedate shades of silver and bronze now favoured by STIB (the transit operator), which I find difficult to photograph satisfactorily.
However, in addition to the regular tram livery are a large number of specially painted advertising trams and a handful of old PCCs in the earlier yellow livery, which certainly add a bit of colour to the fleet.
These photos were all exposed during one afternoon in late March 2015.
Among my recent book projects is an illustrated examination of railway station architecture to be published by Voyageur Press later this year. This is an excerpt of my text:
Today’s Antwerpen-Centraal is a blend of architect Louis de la Censerie’s elaborate and elegantly adorned station building and spacious balloon-style shed with two modern new levels. The lowest level provides through connections to the north. The original station opened in 1898, while the improved and expanded modern terminal reopened in 2007.
I revisited this railway wonder of the modern world at the end of March 2015. Yesterday I presented a few interpretive images, today I present an more literal collection of images.
On an evening last week, using my Lumix LX-7, I exposed this time exposure of Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges’s (Belgian National Railways or SNCB) Gare de La Hulpe.
This railway line is being transformed from double track mainline line to a quad track line to facilitate an improved suburban service akin to the Paris RER.
To make this image, I rested the camera on the bridge railing, exposed a pair of trial exposures to gauge the lighting conditions, then set the camera (shutter speed and aperture) manually to allow for sufficient exposure of the sky and shadow areas.
As previously mentioned on Tracking the Light, to make successful night photos it is important to give the scene sufficient exposure (usually 2/3s of a stop more than allocated by many built-in camera meter settings), while keep the camera steady for the duration of the exposure. Keeping flare to a minimum is also helpful.
Belgium’s Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (Belgian National Railways or SNCB) operates a top-notch passenger network with interval frequencies on most routes. This works on a hub and spoke system, where planned changes allow passengers a great variety of destinations.
On an August 2014 evening, I arrived at Ottignies from Charleroi on my way to La Hulpe in the Brussels suburbs. My journey itinerary gave me 13 minutes to change from one train to another.
Ottignies is an old school station with traditional platforms and canopies. While this can’t last forever, I’ll take its situation as a blessing. Refurbished stations are fine for passenger utility, but offer less in the way visual character.
Since I’d changed here previously, I had a sense for where the light would be.
That’s right! I had precisely 13-minutes to make photographs, and I was prepared to make the most of it! (And yes, I exposed some colour slides too. You know, for the record.)
My time in Charleroi had come to a close. My next destination was La Hulpe in the suburbs south of Brussels. While I anticipated taking an Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (Belgian National Railways or SNCB) train to Brussels and changing trains there, the ticket seller convinced me to try another option.
“It’s cheaper and faster to travel to Ottignies.” Ok, why not.
When I went up to platform 3A at Charleroi Sud, what appeared to be the oldest train in Belgium rattled in to collect me. I ended up riding a line I previously didn’t even have on my map (this turns out to be line 140).
While the train’s inside was nicely refurbished, it retained openable windows, a rare treat in today’s world of train travel.
No sooner than I boarded the train and the rain began, again. But after a while the sun came out and so I made a series of images using my Lumix LX7, which I was able to hold out the window at arms-length while keeping a sharp eye on the rear display screen.
Among the Lumix LX7s features are a built in neutral density filter and image stabilizer. This allowed me to make relatively long exposures in bright daylight while keeping the camera steady.
SNCB’s track is flawless, and the heavy aged train provided a solid, nearly vibration-free ride, allowing me to expose a series photos using long shutter speeds intended to blur the tracks and countryside while keeping the train sharp.
Sometimes I stumble into the past. Although I was keen to explore Charleroi by tram, I wasn’t expecting the vestige of roadside interurban operation on the long line to Anderlues.
Frequency on this line is only about every half hour, and I nearly gave up on this leg of my journey while waiting for a delayed outbound tram at the dark and dire brown-tile transfer station called Piges in western Charleroi.
Much of the route features modern construction on concrete elevated structures and subway, a creation of the Charleroi Metro. However, once beyond a turn-back station at the end of this infrastructure intensive right of way, trams operate on a vestige of the old Vicinal network (once the operator an extensive system of Belgium’s interurban tram lines).
This includes side-of-road operation with long sections of single track, passing sidings and brick-lined streets. I was astounded. I checked my calendar, and it confirmed that it really was August 2014, not sometime in the mid-twentieth century.
However, as is too often the case, I was on short-time and only had a few hours to explore this fascinating railway.