Tag Archives: #Donner Pass

Seeing with a 300mm.

In September 1990, I made a trip over Donner Pass.

What was special about this trip was photographing the familiar piece of railroad on Donner in new way.

Between Autumn of 1989 and Autumn 1990, I made dozens of trips over California’s Donner Pass to photograph Southern Pacific trains. What was visually significant about the Sept 1st, 1990 trip was that I’d borrowed a Nikkor f4.5 300mm lens from Brian Jennison, with whom I was traveling.

Over the course of a long weekend, I used this novel focal length to take ‘new’ photos of familiar places.

Among the variety of 300mm views, was this photo that I made at 7:37am on September 1, 1990 of SP 6713 west at Yuba Pass, California. It was one of several from a fixed tripod sequence.

The novelty of the extreme telephoto compression had caught my interest and I made the most of this borrowed lens. Up until that time, the longest lens in my camera bag was a Nikkor f4.0 200mm.

It was only on reviewing my notes from this trip did I realize how much this telephoto had impressed me on that trip. Ironically, a new Nikkor 300mm was completely out of my price range at the time.

It is interesting to see how working with this one lens influenced the way I made photos on that trip.

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Donner Pass- March 22, 1991

Below are two images from my ‘lost’ Kodachrome file.

These were exposed on one of my many trips on California’s Donner Pass to document Southern Pacific in the 1990s.

On this day, SP had called a train with its BIG snow-service Jordan spreaders at each end to help clear the line over the pass.

I was set up at the east end of the snow shed complex at Norden near Donner Summit. While SP’s crew adjusted the wings on the Jordan for an eastward move to clear snow, I made a series of exposures using my Nikon F3 on Kodachrome 25. Back in the 1990s, I had deemed the two images displayed here as less than optimal.Until I scanned them the other night, they had never seen the light of day.

The top exposure was part of a bracket sequence and is a bit ‘hot’ (1/3 stop overexposed). It was challenging to select the correct exposure in bright sunbleached snow , which is why I’d made the bracket to begin with.

The middle image was exposed using a circular polarizing filter in my effort to reduce glare and obtain better highlight detail. Unfortunately, this was a cheap filter and lent a slightly cyan tint to the scene. Also, I didn’t compensate properly for the effect of the filter on my exposure, so the image is about 1/2 stop too dark. The bottom image is an adjusted/color corrected version of the middle image.

Kodachrome 25, exposed using a Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens. Approximate exposure f5.6 1/250th.
Kodachrome 25, exposed using a Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and circular polarizer. The image below is from the same scan.
Same scan as the middle image: Kodachrome 25, exposed using a Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and circular polarizer. This image was adjusted in post processing to correct for the cyan color balance and improve overall appearance.

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Union Pacific SD70ACe—Colfax, California

Fifteen years ago today—May 20, 2008, I made this telephoto view of a Union Pacific SD70ACe leading an eastward freight at Colfax, Calif., on the ascent of Donner Pass.

I was working on my book ‘Railroads of California’ and looking to update my coverage of the Donner Pass crossing.

The photo was exposed on Fujichrome using a Canon EOS-3 with 100-400mm Canon zoom lens. Telephoto compression accentuated th effects of the gradient at Colfax.

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Late Number 5 at Gold Run.

Back in 1990, Amtrak’s westward California Zephyr, train No.5, typically traversed Donner Pass midday.

On this July 1990 afternoon, the train was several hours behind the advertised. I pictured it near Gold Run, California on the west slope of Donner.

I’ve been going through my Southern Pacific and Union Pacific photos searching for material for my next book on Union Pacific and its component railroads.


Although this is an old favorite photo, I’ll likely defer to images that show SP or UP freight trains for the final book selections.

Exposed on Kodachrome 25  using a Nikon F3T with 35mm PC (perspective control) lens.

Scanned with a Nikon LS 5000 slide scanner. Multipass scan.

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Drama on Donner!

In March 1991, I exposed this view of a Southern Pacific coal train ascending Donner Pass.

Working with my Nikon F3T and Nikkor f4.0 200mm lens, I focused on the loaded hoppers of the coal train as diesel exhaust poured forth from tunnel 8 on Donner Pass.

SP’s SNTA-C (Skyline Mine to Trona-coal) had been routed over Donner Pass via Track 1. This was the historic 1860s alignment that involved a difficult sinuous climb around the north face of Mount Judah.

Backlighting aided capturing this contrasty scene, that I preserved on Kodachrome 25 color slide film.

In 1993, SP lifted Track 1 over Donner Pass (between Shed 47 and Norden), opting to route all traffic on its newer alignment on Track 2 via Tunnel 41.

I’ll be featuring SP and Donner Pass in my September 2021 Trains Magazine column that looks back at Southern Pacific 25 years after its merger with Union Pacific.

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Helpers at Cape Horn

It was a lazy late-summer evening in September 1990, when I hiked up to the tunnels at Cape Horn, east of Colfax, California on Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass crossing.

East and westward freights were converging upon me, and I wondered which would reach me first. Listening to my scanner, I knew the down hill train was close, when I hear the eastward freight roaring through Colfax below me, on its approach to Long Ravine.

In this telephoto view, I’m focused on the rear-end helper on the uphill eastward freight.

Exposed on Kodachrome 25 using a Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm Nikkor lens.

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Amtrak’s California Zephyr along the Truckee River

In June 1994, I exposed this Kodachrome 25 slide using a Nikkormat FTN fitted with a Nikon AF28mm lens (focused manually) of Amtrak number 5, the westward California Zephyr as it worked upgrade along the Truckee River on Southern Pacific’s famous Donner Pass crossing.

The other day, I scanned this slide and then imported the unmodified scan into Adobe Lightroom to make corrections.

Kodachrome 25 was an amazing film with very fine grain and a tremendous exposure latitude. Among the difficulties with the Kodachrome emulsions was its cyan/red color bias. When the film was fresh it tended toward a cyan (blue-green) bias, and as it aged it shifted red.

The roll I used was relatively fresh and required significant color adjustment to produce a near neutral bias.

I’ve included scaled versions of: the unmodified scan, the color and contrast adjusted scan, and the Lightroom work window. 

Uncorrected scan.
Adjusted scan.
Lightroom work window showing contrast and exposure adjustment sliders and the corrected histogram. Notice that I manually moved the black point to the left, while lightening shadows and reducing overall contrast. This helps correct for the effect of midday sun in the California Sierra.

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Southern Pacific at Troy, California—July 1991.

I’d left San Francisco in the wee hours of the morning and drove to the Sierra.

In the early hours of July 14, 1991, an SP eastward freight ascending Donner Pass had stalled near Alta. This resulted in a pair of following eastward freights being held; one at Colfax and one near Alta.

This was the second of two following freights, which developed its own difficulties at Gold Run when the train went into ‘emergency’.

I made the most of SP’s difficult time, by photographing the procession of trains at various points on The Hill (as Donner was known).

As the summer sun approached midday, I drove to Troy, where I’d previously scoped out this high vantage point with a commanding vista.

My project for the day was to find ways of suitably using the harsh high light in the Sierra, conditions that had been vexing me.

This was among my more successful images. Working with my old Leica M2 with 50mm Summicron, I exposed Ilford FP4 that I later processed using Edwal FG7 developer. At the back was a two unit helper. The sounds of EMD 645 diesels toiling in ‘Run-8’ (full throttle) was impressive and not soon forgotten.

Many of my other images from the day were exposed on Kodachrome 25, some using a circular polarizing filter as a means to mitigate the effects of Sierra high light. I’ll save those for another day.

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