Last Saturday evening (May 11, 2019), I exposed these digital photographs of Boston’s MBTA Green Line.
At this location three routes effectively converge which makes it an ideal location for shops and car storage.
Decades ago I’d photograph MBTA’s classic PCCs here. With in a few years of my making those images the PCCs were all but banished to the Red Line Mattapan-Ashmont extension. The PCC’s have since become an icon of that route.
Soon MBTA’s streetcar fleet will undergo another transition that will make last week’s photos seem historic.
When I was a young child my family lived in Newton Centre, an historic suburb of Boston located on the old Boston & Albany Highlands Branch, a railroad that had been converted into a trolley line in 1960.
As a five year old, I’d watch MBTA’s PCC cars pass though, typically operated in multiple sets of two and three cars.
The old B&A railroad station was a relic from former times.
On Saturday, May 11, 2019, after dropping my father on the Logan Express bus for a trip to Portugal, I met some fellow photographers and we visited MBTA’s Newton Centre station on the Green Line.
This was the first stop on our photography of MBTA’s trolley car system.
It was a rare sunny day, and I made these digital photos of the trolley cars as they rolled between Boston and Riverside.
Here’s something different. I had my FujiFilm X-T1 set up to record monochrome with a digitally applied red filter to alter the tonality. Working with a Zeiss 12mm lens, I made this view at Arlington, Massachusetts of two MBTA buses passing on Massachusetts Avenue.
It had been a very long time since my last visit to Middleborough, Massachusetts— decades.
I made these views of an outbound MBTA from the Route 28 overpass south (west?) of the old New Haven Yard.
Exposed using a FujiFilm X-T1 with 90mm telephoto.
Dull summer overcast lighting is just as I remembered it, but the scene is so much changed there was little else to correlate this view with that in my memory, except for the old New Haven Railroad freight house in the distance (upper left).
A couple of weeks ago five cartons of slides were discovered in a closet.
These contained photos I exposed in the 1970s and early 1980s that I’d later rejected as ‘unsuitable for presentation.’
Sometimes the ‘rejects’ prove more interesting than the ‘keepers’.
When I was a teenager, I had a different vision than I did in later years. Although I grew up in a rural area, I was fascinated by urban settings.
My visual inspiration came from slide shows with family friend (and now regular Tracking the Light reader) Emile Tobenfeld, who specialized in innovative and creative urban abstract images. Other inspiration included Donald Duke’s book Night Train (published in 1961), and various main-stream media, including the film 2001.
By intent, I made color slides that were dark and minimalistic. These are raw images made by a kid with a Leica who could see, but who had very little technical prowess. They were intended for projection in dark room.
Later when I learned more about photography, I was discouraged from this sort of raw minimalism. Instead I was urged to photograph to capture greater detail, where sharpness was prized among other qualities. My photography adopted qualities that were ‘better suited for publication and commercial application’.
Although my vision continued to embrace some of the same compositional threads that I’d worked with in my earlier years, by the mid-1980s I rejected these early efforts because they were raw and unrefined. Today, I find them fascinating.
A week ago, Rich Reed, Paul Goewey and I were making a survey of Pan Am/MBTA operations around Fitchburg, Massachusetts, when we came across intermodal freight 22K stopped east of Fitchburg yard.
Driving up to the head-end, we were surprise to find that the train was led by three BNSF Railway GE diesels, with one of the ‘C4’ (model ES44C4; a six-axle/four-motor riding on a variation of the A1A truck) in the lead.
The train was stopped just west of MBTA’s North Leominster platforms to allow the morning commuter rush to pass unimpeded. This gave us ample opportunity to make photographs.
I was keen to show these BNSF locomotives (nearly 1,000 miles from home rails) operating in Boston suburban territory.
Simply photographing the train/engines really wasn’t good enough, since without some geographically identifying feature, these images could be anywhere.
While I made some close photos of the engines for the record, but I also made a point of exposing images that included station signs and other features to positively identify where we were.
One the commuter rush cleared, 22K got permission to proceed and continued east toward its terminus at Ayer, Massachusetts, leading to more photographic opportunities. Stay tuned!
One of MBTA’s HSP-46 diesels leads a mid-morning westward commuter train approaching its station stop in Ayer.
Making effective Midday backlit shots requires challenging photographic techniques.
In this instance, I took an elevated view, slightly over exposed Kodak Tri-X to allow for greater shadow detail while completely cropping the sky to avoid the visual distraction from excessive highlight brightness.
Processing the film was my key for achieving better balance and rich tonality.
Working with Ilford ID-11, I used a 1 to 1 mix with water and lowered the recommended process time for Tri-X from 11 minutes to 7 minutes 45 seconds (at 68.5 degrees F). This lowered the contrast and prevented excessive processing in the highlight areas.
After processing, I toned the negatives with a selenium solution, which give the highlights a slight silvery snap, just enough to make for richer tonality without blowing out all the detail.
My goal was to make the most of the reflections off the rails and the top of the train.
On MBTA, the normal operating practice is have push-pull train-sets with the locomotive on outward end of the train. Thus the locomotives should face away from Boston. This has been the standard practice since the 1990s.
In my photo a locomotive is facing South Station, and that is unusual. While not necessarily unheard of, nor ‘rare’, this is not the usual practice.
I’m not an every day visitor to South Station, but this is the first time I recall seeing an MBTA road-locomotive facing the station since the early 1980s.
What isn’t evident from my photo is that there are actually locomotives on BOTH ends of the train. Which is also unusual. The bottom photo shows the same train set at Worcester, and focuses on the outward facing locomotive.
Quite a few Tracking the Light readers guessed my puzzle correctly. One reader asked why the locomotive is facing the station. I’ll be honest, I don’t know why. However, I can guess. Maybe you can too.
For the discerning photographer, summer midday high-light presents difficulties with contrast and deep shadows.
In my Kodachrome days, I’d put the camera away from 10 am to after 2 pm during June-July. Kodachrome’s palate and contrast didn’t work with midday high-light and the slides would suffer from inky shadows, exceptionally harsh contrast, and bleached highlights.
Using digital photography and post processing, I can overcome some of the difficulties presented by summer high sun by adjusting color temperature and carefully controlling highlight and shadow detail.
Another tool is the external graduated neutral density filter. By attaching one of these filters to the front of the lens, I can darken the sky to better hold highlight detail and color saturation, while lightening the lower portions of the image area to make for a better balanced exposure and increasing the relative amount of data captured.
Final adjustment is still required in post processing to lighten shadows.
June can be a challenging time to make photographs. There can be wonderful rich sun for couple of hours in the morning, and again in the evening, while during the day high-light presents difficulties with contrast and deep shadows. (Topics for future posts)
Last week, Rich Reed, Paul Goewey, Felix Legere and I arrived at Ayer, Massachusetts in good morning light.
MBTA and Pan Am Railways kept us busy for a little while. And I made these images using my FujiFilm X-T1.
I gauge my digital exposure using the camera’s histogram (a graph displayed in-camera that shows pixel distribution), and as a result I aim to capture the maximum amount of data by balancing the highlight and shadow areas.
If need be I can then adjust the exposure and contrast in post processing to make for the most visually appealing image without sacrificing the amount data captured
I’ve listed my exposures below each photo to provide a frame of reference.
I made this view of an Arborway-bound PCC car about 1980. I’d exposed the photo using my old Leica 3A with 50mm Summitar, probably on Tri-X processed in Microdol-X.
I scanned this from a print I made back in the day. During that period (1978-1982) I often traveled with my father to Boston and I made a lot of photos of MBTA transit operations. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep precise notes on this print.
Here’s one of the photos displayed yesterday for comparison.
These days, I typically have at least one digital camera and a film camera loaded with either black & white or color slide film, plus a back-up instant photo capture/transmitter that subs as a portable telegraph, mobile map, music box, and portable phone.
On my May 6, 2017 visit to South Station with the New York Central System Historical Society, I made a variety of color photos using my Lumix LX7, and traditional black & white photos with an old Leica IIIa loaded with Ilford HP5.
So! Do you have any favorite photos from this selection? Which camera do you feel better captures Boston’s South Station?
In October 2014, I photographed this old MBTA (Boston) PCC car at the Connecticut Trolley Museum at East Windsor, Connecticut.
Just a rusty old ruin; but the car and its Kenmore destination board, brought me back to the early 1970s when my family lived a few blocks from MBTA’s Riverside Line at Newton Centre.
This route had been the Boston & Albany Highlands Branch, and was converted to a trolley line in 1960.
As young child, I was permitted freedom to wander around the neighborhood. My fascination with railways naturally brought me to the trolley line.
One afternoon, I’d been watching the PCC’s coming and going in front of the old B&A station. I’d often traveled on the cars with my parents, and I understood how the system worked.
Taking a chance, I quietly boarded one of the cars through the back door. I rode to Kenmore Square, where I boarded another car and returned to Newton Centre. I might have been five at the time. More than 40 years passed before I told anyone of this adventure. 🙂
In March 1982, I exposed these photographs of MBTA Green Line PCCs taking the corner at Boston’s Cleveland Circle.
The relative proximity of three Green Line trolley routes at Cleveland Circle made this an ideal place to photograph streetcars since there was lots of trackage and variety of action.
The streetcars pictured had just finished their run and were turning into the storage/staging area at the end of Green Line’s ‘C’ route.
By this time MBTA’s old PCC cars were nearing the end of their regular service on Green Line routes, which made them an added attraction for me. The cars were tired and battered from decades of hard service yet soldiered on.
Today, it’s the period signs that make the photos interesting. Look at the ad for ‘Peoples Express’ on the back of one of the streetcars. Also, the cinema is advertising ‘Chariots of Fire’ among other films from 35 years ago.
I exposed these images on Ilford HP5 using my Leica 3A with 50mm Summitar. Unfortunately, I processed the film in Kodak Microdol-X. This developer offered very fine grain, but at the expense of tonality. It was tricky to get the timing right, and in this case I left the film in the developer too long. The result is that negatives display excessive contrast and blocked up highlights.
It was dull mid-August day at Worcester, Massachusetts. I had my Leica 3A loaded with Ilford Pan F (ISO 50) and made a few exposures.
This hasn’t been my usual film choice. More typically, when working in black & white, I’d use Ilford HP5 or Fuji Acros 100.
I’ve found that difficult light can be a better measure of materials than clear bright morning. And flat summer light is about as difficult as it gets.
For this trial, I processed the film using a Jobo with Ilford Ilfosol 3 developer.
This was a crap shoot, as I’d only used this film/developer combination once before.
I opted for a 1:9 dilution, but scaled back my process time from the recommended amount to just 3 minutes 45 seconds. As is often the situation, I intentionally over-expose my black & white film and then under-process to obtain a greater range of tonality.
Once processed my negatives looked pretty good, but these still required a bit of contrast control using Lightroom. While my end results look ok, I’ll need to refine my chemical process for Ilford Pan F (ISO 50) if I expect this film to perform as well as Fuji Acros 100.
Also, I was hoping that the Pan F would approach the results I used to get with Kodak Panatomic X (ISO 32) back in the 1980s, but so far I’ve not achieved that goal.
The MBTA platforms at Mansfield, Massachusetts feature modern information displays.
As with many modern signs used by passenger railways these use light emitting diodes (LEDs).
You may have noticed that although LED displays seem clear to the eye, in many instances they do not photograph well and appear in your pictures as random spots rather than full letters and words.
This occurs because many LED systems pulse on and off at a rapid rate. You eye cannot detect this pulsing and so you see a steady light, but when a photograph is made at higher shutter speeds, the exposure may capture an LED during the ‘off’ portion of the pulse sequence.
Since the LEDs may not be synchronized with each other, the result sometimes appears as a random collection of spots (each is an individual LED) or if they are synced the pulse may be coupled with a scanning effect that results wide gaps of LEDs in the ‘off’ portion of the sequence. (Such is the case at Mansfield).
This unfortunate effect is especially pronounced when the message is scrolling laterally.
One effective way to expose images of LED displays is to set your camera to a slower shutter speed. This will allow the shutter to stay open for a full pulse cycle.
I’ve found that shutter settings of 1/60th of a second or less will usually work effectively. (It helps to test this, as display pulse rates vary).
Below is a sequence of images that I made at various shutter speeds to demonstrate the effectiveness of slower shutter speeds in regards to the LED display. In each situation I’ve used an equivalent shutter speed/aperture combinations to allow for uniform exposure between images.
In this instance the MBTA train was stationary as it discharged passengers.
Obviously, using slow shutter speeds with rapidly moving trains will present other problems. No solution is perfect.
It had been a few years since I last visited the old Boston & Maine station on the Fitchburg Line at South Acton, Massachusetts.
Pat Yough and I stopped in on Sunday, just a day or so after MBTA’s Grand Opening.
The new facility features long high-level platforms, a massive footbridge, and modern signaling.
A young woman waiting for a train to Leominster told me that she was very excited about the new station but found the signage confusing. “It’s traumatic when the train comes in on the other platform and you miss it!”
Pat and I waited for an outbound MBTA train destined for Fitchburg. High clouds made for diffused lighting that was ideal to show the new station at South Acton.
Last time I’d visited South Acton, there was a ‘blue- bird’ GP9 with a caboose working a local freight. Didn’t see that on Sunday!
Photos exposed with my FujiFilm X-T1 digital camera.
As a follow-up to Wednesday’s Tracking the Light post featuring vintage Ektachrome slides of Boston’s MBTA Mattapan-Ashmont PCCs from the late 1970s, I thought I’d present some of the images of this classic transit operation that I’ve made in the digital era.
I’ve featured this colorful trolley line about a once a year in Tracking the Light, but since the topic is timely as operation of the historic cars now appears to be under threat, I thought a Mattapan-Ashmont PCC review might be of interest.
Recently, the TRAINS Newswire published a story on MBTA’s Mattapan-Ashmont Trolley line warning of the possible demise of the historic PCC cars and possibly of the trolley line itself. (The ‘bus’ word was uttered!)
So, the word is out, if Mattapan-Ashmont Trolley is something you want to see, DON’T Wait.
I recalled an early visit to this line with my father on a May Sunday in 1979. This was back when former Dallas double-ended PCCs dominated operations on the line, and the cars were largely painted red to reflect their operation as an extension of the Red Line.
Today, I find it fascinating to look back on these photos. I couldn’t have anticipated back then that more than 36 years later, old PCCs would still be working the line, albeit with different cars.
However, from strictly a photographic point of view, what is now most interesting to me is that I knew virtually nothing of the ‘rules of photography’ , other than a rudimentary understanding of how to work my father’s Weston Master III light meter and translate the settings it offered to my Leica 3A.
No one had ever told me about three-quarter angles, or where the sun was ‘supposed to be’. Front-lighting, back-lighting, and side-lighting were foreign words. I was blind as to the relative importance of foreground and background, and I didn’t known that ‘good’ photos were only made with Kodachrome, and I knew nothing about the compositional ratios of 2/3s, or any of the other stuff that later influenced my photography.
Honestly, as record of the scene, my raw unfettered, uninformed approach has a great appeal to me today. Had I known those things, I may have exposed less interesting images.
What you see here are the inspired views of an enthusiastic 12-year old exposed using a Leica with a 50mm Summitar lens on Ektachrome film.
Railroad photography isn’t necessarily aided by a windswept empty car park, a host lighting poles, catenary masts, fences, not to mention the metal monstrosity posing as a footbridge.
This was the scene at Readville, Massachusetts on Sunday, Morning, December 6, 2015.
An MBTA train heading for Boston was due shortly. Since locomotives operate on the south-end of consists, I set up for a trailing pan photo. I focused on the new engine and allowed the setting to settle into a sea of blur.
This is one means of making the ugliness more interesting.
Back in my Pentrex Publishing days (in the mid 1990s) I wrote an editorial about the ultimate demise of the searchlight signal.
Even then, this style of hardware was out of favor for new installations, yet thousands of the old signals still remained.
Today they are fast disappearing, and at many installations they are already gone.
Two weeks ago, when traveling with Bob Arnold and Paul Goewey, we opted to photograph an outbound MBTA train passing these General Railway Signal searchlights on the old Boston & Maine west of Ayer, Massachusetts
I wanted to feature one of the new HSP-46 diesels passing the vintage signals to show the contrast in technology. The window for making this type of photograph is rapidly narrowing, as these searchlight’s replacements are in place and will soon be cut in.
Elevation is often the key to better railway photographs. That was certainly the case on the morning of July 6, 2015, when Paul Goewey and I inspected the view from the parking garage opposite Worcester Union Station.
We were lucky to catch new MBTA HSP46 2027 leading an outbound train from Boston. These locomotives are unique to MBTA, and in long-standing tradition have large road numbers painted on their roofs. (atop the cab in yellow numerals).
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Friday nights trackside represents a tradition going back more than three decades. Back in the day, Bob Buck would hold court at his Tucker’s Hobbies in Warren, Massachusetts, then we’d head down to Palmer for dinner and afterwards convene at the old railroad station to watch trains pass in the night.
I’d make photographs.
A group of us have maintained the tradition and still meet in Palmer some Fridays. However, a few weeks back Rich Reed offered a suggestion, “Lets do something different. How about we meet in Worcester, and I’ll drive everyone to Mansfield where we can watch the Acela blast by at 150mph.”
We opted for one of the long days of June, and proceeded to plan.
As we all recalled later on, even this idea had originated with Bob Buck. Back in the 1980s, Bob would take a summer evening and drive a group of us to the old New Haven Shoreline route.
Sometimes Bob would bring us to Readville, other times Mansfield, or Attleboro. We’d variously meet with locals, including Dave Clinton and Bob Karambelas, who’d show us new locations and share railway information. On at least one occasion we visited Edaville and traveled on the narrow gauge.
At the end of this June 2015 evening we made a toast to the memory Bob Buck—the man who brought us all together and for years shared the railroad with us.
MBTA’s Beacon Street line to Cleveland Circle is a classic median running trolley route. Coolidge Corner is situated on a gradient and a gentle curve with a traditional traction shelter and lots of trees that help make it a cool place to photograph.
On our whirlwind tour of Boston transit a few weeks ago, Pat Yough and I spent a little while making photos here. The streetcars pass often, so in a relatively short period of time we were able to make a variety of angles.
This is one of the Green Line routes and some of the cars are in the 1970s-era green and white livery, while others are in a more modern teal and silver. I find the older livery photographs better.
Personally, I preferred the days when the PCC’s ruled this route, but those days are long gone. It’s still an interesting place to experiment with different camera-lens combinations.
Some of my earliest memories of the Green Line and the Boston Museum of Science
Much has changed since the days when I used to stare in wonder at Boston & Maine 3713 on display out front of the museum while trains of 2-3 old PCCs hummed along the elevated structure across the street.
In mid-May 2015, Pat Yough and I went for a Green Line spin to Lechmere and back, stopping over at the Science Park station for a few photographs.
The steel-girder elevated that once extended toward North Station was replaced years ago by a new tunnel with a steep ramp up to the concrete-faced elevated that still passes the museum.
Lechmere looks much the way that I remember it.
Some places never seem to change . . . and then one day all of sudden they are unrecognizable . That day may be soon approaching. Afterward memories fill the gap where photographs leave off.
Now, is this a fair comparison? Pat Yough lent me his Carl Zeiss Touit f1.8 32mm lens to test on my Fuji X-T1. So I made two similar photographs at the same spot of successive MBTA PCCs at Cedar Grove (first stop west of Ashmont).
A more conventional comparison would have taken a more scientific approach by perhaps mounting the camera on a tripod and photographing a static subject with constant light.
And that would be a good test, its true. But that’s not what I was going to do.
Lens in hand (or more precisely, attached to my Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera), I wanted to see what the lens could do as a working tool. How does it handle? How quickly does it focus? What is the color like? Does it seem sharp?
I was comparing it against my ‘catch all’ Fujinon Super EBC XF 18-135mm zoom. At the moment this is the only lens I have for my Fuji X-T1 and I’ve been using it for just about all the photos I’ve made with the camera.
First I used my Fujinon lens of PCC 3262; then 8-minutes later the Zeiss of PCC 3260.
While the 18-135mm is a great lens, it has two drawbacks. It’s bulky and relatively slow (f3.5 –f5.6 depending on the focal length). The Zeiss lens by contrast is lightweight and very fast.
But the really important point of this exercise is the end photos. Which is better overall?
The Fujinon image was made with a slightly wider focal length. Well that’s the advantage of a zoom-lens, right, the ability to adjust the focal length on the spot.
However, one of the unspoken advantages of a prime lens (a fixed focal length lens, such as this Zeiss 32mm) is that it forces the photographer to work within the limits of the given angle of view. Sometimes this makes the photographer (me) work a little harder when composing the photograph.
I found the Zeiss to be fast-focusing, very sharp and it provides excellent clean color. On the downside, the field of view is slightly narrower than I like.
Using the Zeiss 32mm on the Fuji camera reminds me a lot of my old 50mm Leica Summicron (which owing to my use of it with a traditional 35mm-film Leica M, provided nearly the same field of view as does the Zeiss on my X-T1.). The 50mm Summicron always seemed a bit too narrow, but the results I got from the lens have really stood the test of time.
In recent years I’ve been making annual visits to MBTA’s Mattapan-Ashmont Red Line extension. This quaint relic of urban transit is a throw-back to another time.
Thanks to the wisdom and historically minded MBTA, this continues to host restored PCC cars wearing classic period paint. (today, we might call it ‘heritage paint’ but I don’t know that I approve of that term).
Back in June 1978, I visited this line with my father and exposed my first roll of Kodachrome 25 (prior to that I usually used K64 or Ektachrome).
Twenty years earlier, my father had made his first visit to the line. The cars then were double-end former Dallas PCCs, but painted nearly the same as those featured here.
The other day, Pat Yough and I spent an overcast afternoon photographing the antique PCCs. These are great vehicles to travel in and make for intriguing subjects. For me it brought back memories of living near MBTA’s Riverside Line in the early 1970s when PCCs were still the rule on that route.
If you haven’t seen it, John Gruber and I authored a compact book titled Streetcars of Americapublished by Shire that features on the cover a freshly painted former Dallas PCC near Cleveland Circle.