On August 15-16, 2009, I’d been camping in California’s Feather River Canyon near the curved Rock Creek trestle. In the early light of dawn, I made a series of photos of this Union Pacific container train crossing the bridge.
This image features the tail-end ‘Distributed Power Unit’ (a radio controlled remote locomotive). After making this photo I followed the train west down the canyon and made more images.
Thankfully Union Pacific paints its bridges an aluminum color which helps visually separate the girders from the inky blackness of the trees beyond. Would this photo work if the bridge were painted black?
Union Pacific on Donner Pass; Standing in Steinheimer’s Footsteps.
Among my favorite locations in California is the spectacular overlook at ‘American’ or ‘Old Gorge’ (if you have a really old time-table) located on the former Southern Pacific crossing of Donner Pass east of Alta.
Here the railroad crawls out on ledge high above the waters of the American River. It’s a on sustained 2.2 percent grade, so eastward trains are in full throttle which makes for sublime sound show.
I was in position on an overcast afternoon, October 30, 2003. The American River Canyon was filled with a thick fog. To the west I could hear traditional EMD 16-645E3 diesels roaring in Run-8. That meant SD40-2s. Real locomotives.
As the train approached, the atmospheric pressure changed and the fog rose out of the canyon and enveloped me. Although it was only the day before Halloween, all of sudden it began snowing furiously. Visibility dropped to nil, and the roar of the eastward freight grew intense.
Working with my Rolleiflex Model T loaded with Kodak Tri-X, I exposed a series of images. It was a memorable moment on Donner.
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When I was exploring Santa Fe’s Bay Area operations in the early 1990s, the railroad tended to operate a fleet of westward trains to its Richmond, California yards in the afternoon and early evening.
One afternoon, Brian Jennison and I had set up at the Alhambra Viaduct near Martinez. This was a relatively scenic portion of the line, but beginning to get hemmed in by suburban growth.
We knew that the 899 was on its way. This was a short high-priority piggy back train. The real prize of the day was the premier 199, which often had new ‘Super Fleet’ locomotives wearing the reintroduced Warbonnet paint scheme. But we wanted to make the most of the short train as we had time to make different photos of both trains.
This view minimized the suburban sprawl on both sides of the bridge, along with high tension lines in the valley, while putting the steel viaduct in a good perspective. Was it really 24 years ago?
Tracking the Light posts new material every morning.
The attraction of California Western is the gargantuan trees along the line. The railway winds along the Noyo River passing trees reaching hundreds of feet into the sky.
One of the spooky parts of this experience is the realization that these massive trees are second growth. The much larger original redwoods were cut down a century ago. All that remains of those leviathans is the occasional stump, some of which are more than a dozen feet in diameter.
I made this pan of a Blue Line light railcar on the streets of Long Beach, California while researching my book Railroads of California.
Panning is one of my preferred techniques for making a dynamic image while separating the subject from the background.
This can be especially useful on dull days where a lack of contrast makes for bland scenes, or in complex urban environments where the subject maybe lost in a tapestry of intersecting lines.
It’s also a great way to compensate for harsh lighting.
Some tricks for making successful pan photos: select a slow shutter speed (1/15 -1/60th of a second), aim for a broadside angle, and follow your subject while releasing the shutter as you move. Use smooth lateral motion. Do not stop panning once you release the shutter. Practice repeatedly.
Back in the early 1990s, Southern Pacific was still serving the Northwestern Pacific route as far as Willits, California where it tapped connections, including its former line that was still in operation all the way to Eureka.
Sometimes on Sunday mornings, I’d drive north from San Francisco across the Golden Gate to Petaluma on Highway 101. There wasn’t much traffic at that time of day. Occasionally, I make this run with fellow Bay Area photographer Brian Jennison.
Although the Willits-Petaluma portion of the run was often nocturnal, on Sundays SP’s ‘NWP Sprint Train’ made a turn from Petaluma to Fairfield and this often called for groups of SD9s.
On this day, normal California blue skies were muted by a dull fog. Yet, I persevered and chased the train. It was hard to argue with the great sounds produced by a quartet of 1950s-era 16-567 diesels in multiple. Also, dull days have their moments too.
At Novato, I made this image featuring the gently rolling green hills that characterize Marin County as a back drop. Admitted, I was disappointed by the ‘lobotomized’ leader, which had its classic SP lighting package disturbed; its oscillating headlight was missing leaving a scar on the short hood. Oh the shame of it all!
Looking back, I’d quite happily take this again. It was an era before graffiti covered freight cars, the uniform proliferation of locomotive ditch lights, and when SP was still the SP!
I made this image using my Canon EOS 3 with a 20mm lens. This outbound Cal-Train commute had just discharged passengers at the old Southern Pacific station at San Mateo.
I want an iconic modern image that said ‘California’. What better way to do that, than focus on the Cal-Train logo while incorporating the warm blue sky, palm trees, and a reflection of the sun in the window of the train?
It was a clear morning, an azure dome from horizon to horizon, but not much was moving on Southern Pacific at Oakland, California, except for Amtrak.
Amtrak had recently introduced its Sacramento-San Jose Capitol Corridor and some of these trains were working with its new General Electric P32-8BWH diesels, colloquially known as ‘Pepsi Cans’ because of their distinctive livery.
For me these locomotives were a refreshing change to the ubiquitous Electro-Motive F40PHs that had been the rule on Amtrak long distance services for years.
At Oakland’s Jack London Square, Southern Pacific tracks shared the street for several blocks. The most interesting location on this section of street trackage was SP’s signal bridge that spanned First Street.
I set up here to catch Amtrak train 721 Capitols working from 16th Street Station toward San Jose. This was before Amtrak closed 16th Street and developed a new station at Jack London Square a few blocks from the location of this photo.
There’s a certain thrill to photographing in California’s Feather River Canyon. This massive cleft in the Sierra offers numerous vistas with ever changing light around each bend in the river.
It’s easy to follow the railroad west from Keddie (location of the famous Keddie Wye) to beyond Pulga (in the deep lower reaches of the canyon.
The morning of May 23, 1993 was clear and bright; a radiant blue dome capped the canyon walls as the occasional ray of sun penetrated the shadows.
I’d picked up a Union Pacific westbound and followed it on Highway 70. There’s a pull off near Rich Bar where the sun had illuminated a retaining wall, where I made this broadside view with my Nikon F3T on Kodachrome film.
The afternoon of July 26, 1993 was one of those lucky times when everything falls into place.
Fellow photographer TSH and I had hired a Chevy van at the San Francisco airport and drove to the shore of the Great Salt Lake, then worked our way back following Union Pacific’s Western Pacific route across Nevada.
Near Wendover (on the Utah-Nevada line) we came across a struggling westward coal train. One of its locomotives had failed, and it was making poor progress. It had three manifest trains stacked up behind it.
Armed with this knowledge, and having the best light of the day ahead of us, we drove west to the famed Arnold Loop, where Western Pacific’s engineers had designed a sweeping curve to maintain steady elevation. (Running west from the Nevada-Utah line the railroad ascends a continuous 35-mile 1 percent grade, and crests at 5,907 feet above sea level, 15 miles beyond Silver Zone Pass.)
While not a complete circle, such as that used further west at the Williams Loop near Blairsden, California, this loop arrangement is an excellent place to photograph trains.
To the east is the wide expanse of desert punctuated by Pilot Peak some ten miles distant.
We got ourselves in position; cameras loaded with Kodachrome 25 and planted on tripods, and a clear blue dome above us. To the east we could make out the four trains in the distance, seeming to crawl over the landscape like tiny worms. Soon the first of the trains was upon us. These followed every ten minutes or so for the next 45 minutes.
I’ve used my images from this day in several books and calendars. This one slide is well published.
We were spoiled by the experience. The next day on the Western Pacific wasn’t as productive. Such is the luck of desert railroading!
In 1992, I was living on Haight Street in San Francisco, just a short walk from this location. One August morning, I got up early to make photos of Muni’s light rail cars exiting the Muni Metro on Duboce in the sunrise glint light.
For this image, I’ve used the trees at the left to shade the front element from direct sun to minimize flare. Although it was a clear morning, the sun was tinted by pollution that I remember as being a common effect in the Bay Area, especially in the summer.
My goal was to catch a car taking the wye from the J-Church line heading west on the N-Judah line, which was a common way for Muni to position cars in the morning. While I did make that photo, I felt this image was actually a better picture.
It shows an inbound J-Church car turning toward the subway portal with an N-Judah car outbound.
Although, I commonly used Kodachrome at the time, for this image I used Fujichrome 100 (before the introduction of Provia), which I processed myself at the photo studio where I worked in South San Francisco. Among my studio duties was running E6 transparency film. We used a roller transport machine and mixed the chemistry on site.
I’ve long been intrigued by the short section of the former Southern Pacific Bayshore Cutoff at the old Potrero Wye, where the railroad runs beneath I-280.
This location offers a graphic contrast; the immensity of the highway shadowing the railroad both literally and metaphorically.
The location also poses a photographic challenge. During high light, the tracks are completely within shadow, so I’ve found the best time to photograph is early in the morning or late in the day, when sunlight is below the bridge.
Yet, low sun also poses a problem, as calculating exposure is neither intuitive nor can a camera meter be relied upon. The overwhelming highway structure will tend to result in overexposure as a camera meter tries to compensate for the darkness, yet the side of the train reflects the full brightness of the sun (which to further complicate matters, may be less than sun at midday).
I made this photograph of an inbound Cal-Train ‘Baby Bullet’ in April 2008, using my Canon EOS 3 with a 50mm lens on Fujichrome slide film. I used my Minolta Mark IV handheld meter in reflective mode to sample the exposure on the side of a gray highway support column, and preset my camera accordingly. (I didn’t make note of the exposure, but it was about f5.6 1/500th of second.)
The resulting color slide looks just about perfect, but my exposure/contrast problem was repeated when I went to scan the image.
Here, I found the scanner software’s auto exposure had the reverse problem of my in-camera meter and tended to underexpose the scan. The result was not only too dark, but unacceptably contrasty.
I switched off the auto exposure, and instead used the software’s exposure histogram to set exposure manually as to better balance the highlight and shadow areas. Using this setting, I made a another scan. Afterwards, I fine-tuned the improved scan using Photoshop to make for a more pleasing image by adjusting both contrast and color balance.
This image is an exception; most of the time I’m satisfied with my first scan. Incidentally, the pictures reproduced here are scaled Jpgs from very large Tiff scans. The file size of the Jpgs is just a fraction of the original scan size, which is adequate for small-size internet viewing.
Mount Shasta looms more than 90 miles to north, as Southern Pacific’s most famous locomotives races railroad west through along Hooker Creek (near Cottonwood, California).
I exposed this image on September 2, 1991. Southern Pacific had organized the historic streamlined engine to make a public appearances in the Sacramento River Canyon as a goodwill gesture following a serious derailment at the Cantera Loop which spilled toxins into the river above Dunsmuir. The railroad had hired me for two days to make photographs of the PR event.
Brian Jennison provided transport, and the two of us spent a long weekend making numerous images of SP 4449 with the matching Daylight train. I borrowed Brian’s 300mm Nikkor telephoto for this dramatic image. SP ran one of my photos in their company magazine, Southern Pacific Bulletin.
While SP’s public runs ran from Redding to Dunsmuir and beyond to Black Butte, after the train returned to Dunsmuir, it would run light to the wye at Tehama for turning. It was on this portion of the journey(s) that I made some of the most dramatic photos because they occurred in the evening when the lighting was most pleasing.
I’d chosen this angle to feature Mt. Shasta. Unfortunately, owing to the time of year, the famous volcanic cone wasn’t covered with snow in its higher regions.
This photo has appeared in books, and I’ve used many of the images from the trip in publications. SP 4449 remains one of my favorite locomotives.
Here, a potpourri of images illuminated the net; covering everything from unit oil trains to obscure eastern European transit. So, looking back, 2013 has been a productive and busy time for Tracking the Light.
My original intention with Tracking the Light was to disseminate detailed information about railway photographic technique. Over time this concept has evolved and I’ve used this as a venue for many of my tens of thousands of images.
Among the themes of the images I post; signaling, EMD 20-cylinder diesels, Irish Railways, photos made in tricky (difficult) lighting, elusive trains, weedy tracks and steam locomotives are my favorites.
Since March, I’ve posted new material daily. I’ve tried to vary the posts while largely sticking to the essential theme of railway images. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts and will tell your friends about this site! There’s more to come in 2014!
When I was a kid, change puzzled me. I’d look back over my father’s photographs and collection of timetables and books and wonder what had happened to the trains and railroads he’d seen and experienced.
But as a young child, I’d assumed that all change was in the past. Certainly things had been different. New York Central had become Penn-Central, and Penn-Central had become Conrail. But I naively assumed that everything else would remain constant!
Then I began to notice change myself: My favorite GG1 electrics were replaced by modern AEM7s and E60s. Those old Penn-Central black diesels were become ever more scarce. Boston’s PCC cars had become fewer and fewer.
By the late-1980s, I’d witnessed enough changes to recognize that documenting the railroad required careful attention to detail, and it was important to anticipate change before it begins.
Too often, railroad photographers wait until change is already underway before they act to make photographs. Sadly, sometimes they wait too long and miss the best opportunities to photograph.
With this in mind, in the 1990s, annually I drafted lists from which to work. It’s one thing to ponder photographing time-worthy subjects; its better to have a clear and prioritized strategy!
In 1993, I was remarkably organized: I’ve included a portion of that year’s ‘photo projects’ list. If you read through this carefully, you’ll see there’s considerable foresight in my approach. I was doing my best to predict the future and act upon that knowledge.
Below are pages from that list:
I’m really glad I made these lists! We can look back today, 21 years after I wrote this list, and see that many of the subjects I hoped to document have indeed vanished or changed. The pen-marked ‘ticks’ indicated that I’d made an attempt at the item.
How did I draft this list? Did I have a crystal ball? How did I know in 1993 that SP was soon to vanish? Why did I give SP’s Modoc line high priority? What caused me to anticipate changes to Canadian Pacific east of Sherbrooke? Pay special attention to my notes and comments for the clues. In some cased my anticipated dates were premature, but my vision was pretty accurate (I’m sorry to report.)
What is on your list for 2014?
Change is on-going. Think! What can you photograph now that will soon change unrecognizably? Remember, it is the common everyday subjects that are too often ignored until it’s too late to make photographs. Don’t wait until the last minute. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the rail. Anticipate, plan and then act.
During the first half of 1994 I spent a lot of time photographing Southern Pacific on Donner Pass. I was especially interested in making images of hard to reach or rarely photographed locations.
June 21st is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and provides unique lighting opportunities. On this long day, I’d hoped to make some unusual images in the deeper reaches of the Truckee River Canyon.
At the time I had good access to train information, and I knew SP had a westward DVOAF (Denver-Oakland Forwarder) heading up ‘The Hill’ (as SP’s Donner Pass crossing is known, ironically).
Rather than catch this at one of many easy to reach locations off Interstate 80, I decided to hike west of Floriston, California toward old Iceland—where SP’s grade separated mainline came back together. My intention was to photograph the Harriman-era truss bridge with the train in evening sunlight.
As was often the case with SP, my desired westward freight ‘fell down’ (it was delayed) and didn’t reach my location in time. I stayed in place despite this set back. I was rewarded with a dramatic sequence of images, culminating with this silhouette.
The front of the locomotive has plunged into deep shadow, yet a shaft of sunlight has illuminated the engineer. It stands out among my hundreds of Donner Pass images, and is one of my favorite. I just can’t believe its been nearly 20 years since I exposed it!
Southern Pacific 2472 Entertains its Public in May 2008
Back in May 2008, I was researching for my book Railroads of California, when I visited the Niles Canyon Railway and made this photograph of Southern Pacific 4-6-2 No. 2472 at Sunol.
This Baldwin-built heavy Pacific was a fine sight that attracted thousands of visitors to the railway. To the delight of its fans, it powered excursions over the line between Sunol and Niles Station at Fremont.
I’ve made lots of photos of 2472 over the years; and one of these images from the 1990s is the cover of my recently released locomotive anthology titled Classic Locomotives published by Voyageur Press. By contrast, the photo display here is focused on the engine’s fans rather than the locomotive itself.
Incidentally, This old Baldwin has been one of my favorite locomotives for years, and coincidentally, when my mobile phone provider issued my cell phone number about ten years ago, it was these four digits I was given. Although the phone company had the right idea, they gave me the prefix for the Prairie wheel arrangement rather than that for a Pacific.
In the mid-1990s, I made numerous trips to California’s remote and desolate Modoc County in the far northeastern portion of the state. Here Southern Pacific’s rolling Modoc Line hosted big trains which made for a stunning, but difficult, subject.
Not only was the line exceptionally far away, but also traffic was unusually sparse and often erratic. SP had built the route in the late-1920s, piecing together the old Nevada-California-Oregon 3-foot gauge with bits of new construction and other trackage.
My favorite part of the Modoc was the old narrow gauge N-C-O section, where it looked as if tracks had been laid down on the desert floor with little concern for heavy grading.
This raw construction was evident at the Indian Camp Loop (compass south from Alturas) where SP’s line curved around to gain elevation.
In the second week of February 1994, Brian Jennison and I set out from Verdi, Nevada making the lonely drive up to the Modoc Line where we spent two rare days photographing trains.
We scored big with an EUCH-Q (Eugene-Chicago Quality) manifest freight that was led by a pair of brand new EMD GP60s.
Here’s a tip: when working sparse or erratic lines it really helps to have an inside track on operations, yet all the information in the world can’t help you if you’re not trackside! When you are trackside it’s helpful to know where the best locations are in advance of trains. In this case we had both the needed operational knowledge as well as prior location knowledge, and made the time to be trackside to take full advantage of it.
In early summer 1986, Conrail was weeks away from converting the Boston & Albany route from a traditional directional double track mainline to a single-track line under the control of CTC-style signals with cab-signal. The first section to be cut-over to the new control system was between Palmer to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Among the results of this change was the abandonment and eventual lifting of the old westward main train west of Palmer.
I was well aware of this pending change and had been documenting Conrail’s work in the area over the preceding months.
On the evening of June 17, 1986, I focused on the westward main track at the Quaboag River bridge just west of the Palmer diamond as Conrail’s eastward SEBO-B dropped down the short grade toward the Palmer yard.
While the train adds interest to the scene; my main focus was the track in the foreground that would soon be gone. I made a variety of images in this area on the weeks up to Conrail’s cut-over day.
Photographing directly into the clear summer sun produced a painterly abstraction. I’ve allowed some flare to hit the camera’s lens which obscures shadow detail and makes for a dream-like quality.
Years after I exposed this frame, I moved to California where I met photographers that had perfected this photographic technique. Interestingly, railroad photographers had been using backlighting to good advantage for a long time. In searching through archives I’ve come across fine examples of Fred Jukes’ and Otto Perry’s works with similar backlighting effects.
California’s rolling Tehachapi mountains south of Bakersfield is one of the West’s great places to watch and photograph trains. Here through creative use of scale, depth-of-field and backlighting, I’ve made a real railroad look like a model!
In the early 1990s, I made several productive trips there. In Spring 1993, Brian Jennison and spent a few great days making images of SP and Santa Fe trains. On this morning we were joined by local photographers Bruce Perry and the late David Burton.
On the morning of April 3, 1993, I climbed a grassy hill near Bealeville to make this image of Santa Fe’s westward second 199 winding its way downgrade between tunnels 1 and 2.
Working with my Nikon F3T and 35mm PC lens, I played with focus and scale to make an image that looks like one exposed on a model railway. This was my way to cope with some difficult lighting on a photogenic subject and following in the California tradition, I’ve micturated on established ‘rules’ of conventional railroad photography.
I’ve always liked the purple lupin in the foreground.
Some places are famous for fantastic light and San Francisco Bay is one of them.
The combination of stunning scenery and amazing weather and light effects has made this city one of my favorite place to make photographs.
Warm air wafting in from the Sacramento Delta meets cool damp Pacific air producing coastal fog. The sun rises through layers of California smog which gives the light a warm rich quality as it burns through the mists hovering over San Francico Bay, Marin Headlands and the city.
Shortly after sunrise on September 16, 2009, I exposed this view of a container ship heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Soon the ship was out on the open ocean and I was airborne headed east on Jet Blue.
On October 4, 1992, Brian Jennison and I gave a Donner Pass tour to a pair of Union Pacific officials visiting from Omaha.
We started the morning early and drove to Andover on fire roads to witness a westward freight climbing through the curves in Cold Stream Canyon west of Truckee. Later we went up to Troy on the west slope and made an inspection of the Cascade Bridges.
Southern Pacific was busy that day. My notes indicate that we photographed nine trains, including Amtrak 5 and 6 (California Zephyrs).
At 3:40pm we caught this westward freight near Donner Summit at the snow sheds in Norden, California, then followed it west to Yuba Pass.
I climbed to the top of a hill over looking the line and exposed a sequence of Kodachrome slides with my Nikon F3T fitted with a f4.0 200mm lens mounted on a Bogan 3021 tripod. This slide was exposed at f4.5 1/250th of a second. (I bracketed up and down 1/3 stops to insure I made an optimally exposed slide).
I spent a lot of time exploring Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass in 1990. Among my favorite locations was ‘Old Gorge’, sometimes referred to as ‘American,’ where SP’s line rides briefly on an open shelf some 2,000 feet above the American River.
This offers a stunning view of the American River Canyon, but can be a pretty challenging place to effectively portray a train on film.
On this day in July 1990, I’d been following a westward SP freight downgrade, and driven as close to my location as was practical, and then walked to this ledge overlooking the line.
The classic whine of dynamic brakes preceded the train by several minutes. I made several exposures as the train came into view.
In this situation, I used the camera and lens handheld, and made a slight adjustment to the shifting element front element. Instead of aiming the camera down toward the front of the locomotive, as I would with a conventional 35mm lens, I aimed toward to the far rim of the canyon, while lowering the front element downward to take in the tracks.
As the train passed, I panned the nose of the leading SD45, exposing this frame when it was roughly parallel with the film plane.
Since I didn’t have the camera completely level there is still a bit of line convergence, yet the overall view helps put the magnitude of the canyon in perspective with the train without the locomotive appearing too small or seriously distorted.
I’ve posted this image as another example of my work with a perspective control lens. This was a tool I made excellent use of in the early 1990s. On the recommendation of J.D. Schmid, I bought a Nikon 35mm PC ‘Shift’ lens for my Nikon F3T.
Among the advantages of a perspective control lens is the ability to shift the front element. This can be used to keep vertical lines from converging, but also to alter the image in subtle ways.
It was a clear Saturday morning in the Bay Area, and Brian Jennison and I were on one of our jaunts looking at area railroads. We stopped near the old station location at West Pittsburg (no ‘h’), California. (I believe the palm trees in the distance are an indication of where the building once stood.) Here we photographed several trains.
For this eastward freight, I positioned the camera relatively low to the ground and raised the front element of the 35mm PC to near its maximum. I didn’t quite keep the camera level. The result includes a large amount of crystal blue sky, while minimizing the foreground and keeping the vertical elements of the lead locomotive nearly parallel with the image frame.
I feel the subtle effect allows the locomotive visually surge forward, seeming to charge along. This was my intent. Santa Fe 5809 is an SD45-2, a machine powered by EMD’s 3,600 hp 20-cylinder diesel.
In their heyday these were powerful machines that produced an awe inspiring low-base sound in the high-throttle positions. I hoped to convey that power visually while making use of the California sky.
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Working with Harsh Light in the California Sierra.
On the advice of J.D. Schmid, in June 1990, I’d bought my first single lens reflex; a Nikon F3T (which I still use, occasionally). Initially, I owned just two lenses: a 35mm PC (perspective control—tilt/shift) and a second-hand Nikkon f4.0 200mm telephoto.
For most of my photography, I was still working with my Leica M2, and so the Nikon was just a new toy.
Living in Roseville, California near the Southern Pacific yard, gave me ample opportunity to explore and photograph SP operations. My favorite subject was Donner Pass, and most weekends would find me wandering around at high elevations seeking angles on the railroad.
The Sierra can be a challenging place to make railroad photos. On this morning, I was between Yuba Pass and Crystal Lake on the west slope of Donner. I’d photographed this SP westward freight descending the mountain using the new F3T and 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25.
Despite photographic conventions, I was positioned on the dark side of the line, and aimed into the sun, while looking cross-light the train. The glinty back-lit rocks help silhouette the locomotives. Although the time of day resulted in harsh contrast and a stark scene, I like the result. It captures the spirit of raw mountain railroading that for me was SP on Donner.
This is a place where the tracks are cut into a rock shelf and require lots of power to get trains over the spine of the Sierra Range. Back lighting and telephoto compression shows the heat of from the dynamic brakes rolling off the tops of SP’s ‘Tunnel Motors’ (locomotives specifically built to endure the rigors of Donner). In the distance is a hint of one of SP’s wide signal bridges, necessary for winter operations.
In 1989, Napa Valley Wine Train began public operations on a former Southern Pacific branch through its namesake valley. I first explored this railway in October 1989. A little more than a year later, Brian Jennison and I spent a very productive day photographing the line on Kodachrome.
Brian lent me a Nikon 300mm lens for this photograph. I’ve always like the image because the extreme compression offered by the long telephoto accentuated the classic lines of the Montreal Locomotive Works diesels (and the steam era bell on the top of the lead unit) while offering a pleasing juxtaposition between the train and the background foliage.
In the early 1990s, I made several productive trips to the California Tehachapis. Southern Pacific owned and operated the line over the mountain, while Santa Fe operated by virtue of trackage rights.
Yet at that time, Santa Fe ran about three times the number of trains as SP. On this morning, T.S. Hoover and I were set-up on the east slope of the mountain. While catching a Santa Fe FP45 in the ‘Super Fleet-Warbonnet’ livery leading was certainly a coup, it wasn’t especially unusual.
Dry desert air and clear skies were nearly ideal conditions for Kodachrome 25 film. This was one of many choice chromes exposed that day. I wish I could turn back the clock!
The locomotive survives at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. I made some more recent photographs of it on visit in June 2008.
Classic Image in California’s Feather River Canyon.
In the early hours of May 18, 1990, I departed Sacramento, California destined for the former Western Pacific mainline through the Feather River Canyon.
On the drive, I saw a pair of eastward trains in the Central Valley north (railroad timetable east) of Marysville. This sighting influenced my decision to work the lower regions of the canyon, rather than driving through on Highway 70 toward Keddie and Portola, as I had done on previous trips.
A bit west of Pulga, there’s a long and winding dirt road that drops from Highway 70 down toward the North Fork Bridge. Finding it is counter intuitive. On an earlier trip I’d become rather lost trying to find the bridge. A Northern California DeLorme Atlas ultimately provided me the necessary navigational tools.
Having reached the bottom of the road, I hiked into position before 8am and waited on the side of a hill overlooking the modern open spandrel concrete arch bridge. This is late-era construction, built in the 1960s when construction of the Oroville Dam resulted in flooding of the lower Feather River’s North Fork which required relocation of Western Pacific’s line out of the canyon via a series of tunnels and bridges.
At 8:15 am, Union Pacific DASH8-40C 9174 rolled westward across the bridge with an APL double stack train. The sun hadn’t fully hit the bridge and I was happy that the stacks bought me additional time on my anticipated pair of eastbound trains.
The westward stacks must have met the first eastbound at James, a CTC siding immediately west of the Canyon (and another favorite place for photos). Just 20 minutes after the stacks had passed, the first eastward train emerged from the tunnel on the west side of the bridge. I made several exposures, bracketing from f4.5 to nearly f5.6 1/125th of a second on Kodachrome 25 film.
Exposure in the Feather River Canyon can be deceiving. Because of the depth of the canyon, less skylight reaches the tracks than in open territory. Also, the dark green trees and bushes lining the canyon walls absorb a considerable amount of light. The result is that direct and unfiltered sunlight isn’t as bright as it seems.
Careful use of my handheld meter was crucial in calculating the accurate exposure, but I still felt compelled to make fine adjustments as the train rolled into view.
The second eastward train was 20 minutes behind the first. I stayed for the rest of the day in the lower reaches of the canyon and photographed five more Union Pacific trains by 6:09 pm.
Caption: Union Pacific C30-7 2474 works an eastward train over the North Fork Bridge near Poe, California on May 18, 1990. Exposed using a Nikon F3 with 135mm lens on Kodachrome film. The camera was mounted on a Bogan 3021 tripod with a ball head.
About 10 months ago (July 2012), I started Tracking the Light. In the short time span since then I’ve had about 19,000 hits. While small numbers compared with Gangnam Style’s viral You-Tube dance video (with more than 1.7 billion hits), it’s a gratifying start. (BTW, there are some train scenes in Gangnam Style, so it isn’t a completely random reference).
In my introductory post, I offered a bit of my background with a taste of my philosophy on the subject of railway photography; ‘There is no ‘correct way’ to make photographs, although there are techniques that, once mastered, tend to yield pleasing results. I hope to expand upon those themes in these Internet essays by telling the stories behind the pictures, as well as sharing the pictures themselves.’
What began as an infrequent opportunity to share work via the Internet has evolved into a nearly daily exercise. In the interval, I’ve learned a bit what makes for an interesting post, while working with a variety of themes to keep the topic interesting.
Regular viewers may have observed common threads and topics. While I’ve made a concerted effort to vary the subject matter considered ‘railway photography,’ I regularly return to my favorite subjects and often I’ll post sequences with a common theme.
Occasionally I get questions. Someone innocently asked was I worried about running out of material! Unlikely, if not completely improbable; Not only do I have an archive of more than 270,000 images plus tens of thousands of my father’s photos, but I try to make new photos everyday. My conservative rate of posting is rapidly outpaced by my prolific camera efforts.
Someone else wondered if all my photos were ‘good’. I can’t answer that properly. I don’t judge photography as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly, some of my images have earned degrees of success, while others have failed to live up to my expectations (It helps to take the lens cap ‘off’). Tracking the Light is less about my success rate and more about my process of making images.
I’m always trying new techniques, exploring new angles, while playing with different (if not new) equipment.
The most common questions regarding my photography are; ‘What kind of camera do you use?’ and ‘Have you switched to digital?’ I can supply neither the expected nor straight-forward responses. But, in short, I work with a variety of equipment and recording media. I aim to capture what I see and preserve it for the future. I try to have a nice time and I hope to entertain my friends.
Although less photographed than historic cable cars and vintage streetcars, San Francisco Muni’s light rail routes offer plenty of interesting opportunities to make urban railway images.
San Francisco enjoys spectacular weather and lighting conditions. My favorite times to photograph are a sunrise and sunset. While the modern Breda-built cars lack the flair of historic PCC’s (see San Francisco Muni F-Line, May 2008), they still make for interesting subjects for the creative eye.
San Francisco Muni’s F-Line route operates with a variety of vintage streetcars, including streamlined PCC cars painted in various historic liveries to represent systems that originally operated these cars.
Popular with tourists and residents alike, the vintage cars are fun to ride and photograph. Unlike most modern transit, the F-Line offers continual variety, with different cars operating from day to day.
In May 2008, I made this photograph of PCC 1061 dressed for Pacific Electric in front of the restored Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcedero. Originally built for Philadelphia, this was among the cars acquired for operation in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Some restoration work for out-of-service heritage cars has been done by the Market Street Railway (volunteer support group for Muni’s historic rail lines ); these are turned over to Muni when restoration nears the point where cars are ready for revenue service.
Working with Wonderful Light in an Infrastructure-Intense Environment
San Francisco Bay is famous for its beautiful light; the combination of soft sun with rolling Pacific fog and layers of pollution make for a rich textured golden glow in evening and mellow bright conditions during the height of the day.
Following my Northern California theme presented over the last few posts to Tracking the Light, I’m offering a few views of San Francisco Bay exposed in August 2009.
These images were exposed on Fujichrome slide film with a Canon EOS 3 and 100-400mm lens.
On the evening of August 15, 2009, I was photographing along the former Western Pacific near Oroville, California. At that time, Union Pacific was doing heavy work on its parallel former Southern Pacific line over Donner Pass, and it was understood that double-stack container traffic would soon be shifted off the old WP route in favor of Donner Pass. Time was running out to regularly catch double stack trains on the WP route and I focused my efforts on making the most of this while I could.
At the end of the day, I made this image of a westward double stack train stopped at a signal east of Oroville. Wildfires had filled the atmosphere with smoke, which lend to a surreal painterly light. Low sun accentuated the effect and the combination of California golden grass with smoke tinted glint light offered wonderful photographic opportunity.
I exposed these images on Fujichrome slide film with my Canon EOS 3 using several different focal lengths. It was a spectacular finish to a productive day of photography. I’d made my first visit to the Western Pacific in October 1989, nearly 20 years earlier. Hard to believe so much time had passed between these trips. In 1966, my father, Richard Jay Solomon, rode west over this line in a dome car on Western Pacific’s famed California Zephyr.
Significantly, this portion of the Western Pacific route (between Oroville and the lower reaches of the Feather River Canyon) was built new in the early 1960s as part of a line relocation forced by construction of the Oroville Dam.
In this case, I’ve walked (or scrambled) further down the hillside from my parking place on Carquinez Scenic Drive. The road is gated overnight and opened to the public in the early morning hours. Finding the right street in Martinez to reach Carquinez Scenic Drive can be a trial to the uninitiated, a good map or sat-nav device is recommended. I used a Northern California DeLorme Atlas and Map Quest, (plus vague memories of having photographed from this road in the early 1990s).
Working with hard silhouettes requires careful exposure. Also, I’ve found it helps to avoid excessive lens flare. This is one of those things you rarely read about. If the sun (or other bright light) hits the front element of your lens it will cause flare which will change the contrast of the image and may cause patterns (light streaks or blobs).
While in some instances it may be desirable to include flare (Hollywood discovered the dramatic use of flare in the 1960s and 1970s), often it is best to minimize it.
What to do? Shade the sun from hitting the front of your lens. Traditionally a lens hood will solve this problem . However, when the sun is very low to the horizon, a simple lens hood isn’t sufficient. To compensate, I’ll try to find something to stand behind (such as a hedge, awning, convenient sign post). If this fails, I’ll use my notebook (which I carry with me everywhere) to shade the lens. For this reason, I often carry a 5×7 in size notebook with a dull charcoal gray cover (to minimize reflection).
I’ll position the notebook in such a way so its shadow covers the front element, but the notebook itself isn’t in the image. This is a handy trick to use for night photography too. It helps to have the camera on a tripod (or have a capable assistant to hold the notebook!)
In this instance, my intent was to emphasize the glint off the rails and signal bridge in a hard silhouette. Notice where I’ve positioned the locomotives in relation to the glinting sun. I’ve deliberately exposed for the highlights, allowing the shadows to consume most detail.