Tag Archives: Montana

Trains Magazine Podcast: Conversations with Brian Solomon: Episode 13

Check out my most recent pod cast on the Trains Magazine Website.


Conversations with Brian Solomon, Episode 13

I chatted with Trains’ former Senior Graphic Designer Drew Halverson about train-watching and railroading. Topics include favorite paint schemes, the true meaning of the West, and what’s cool in modern railroading.

Drew and I talked about the appeal of Western skies. Back in July 1994, I exposed this Kodachrome slide of BN grain trains meeting near the summit of Marias Pass on the former Great Northern in Montana. Note my low angle which allows you to see steel wheels on steel rails that helps define the train in silhouette.

Tracking the Light Posts Daily, sometimes Twice!

DAILY POST: Winston Hill, Montana, 1994.

Semaphores and Double Stacks.

I love technological contrasts and parallel compositions. This simple photograph works with both motifs.

What makes this photo work for me, isn’t just the technological contrasts and functional symmetry, but also the textured sky. This was difficult to exposure for properly, but serves an important visual element. If it was overexposed, it would represent a defect that would distract from the signals, while if it had been a blue dome, it would have dramatically altered the visual contrast of the image.


A westward Burlington Northern double-stack container train rolls downgrade on Montana Rail Link’s former Northern Pacific mainline over Winston Hill, east of Helena.

I used a relatively short shutter speed to allow a little bit of motion blur, while waiting for an appropriate gab between the stack wells to show both eastward- and westward-facing semaphores.

These upper quadrant blades were powered by General Railway Signal Type 2A base of mast mechanisms, a standard type of signal hardware installed by Northern Pacific in the steam era.

By the early 1990s, double stack container traffic was new and growing, while semaphore signals were relics from an earlier era and rapidly being replaced.

What will be the 2014 equivalent of this photograph? A state-of-the-art LNG-fueled locomotive passing a classic searchlight?

Interested in railway signaling? See my book Railroad Signaling available from Voyageur Press/Quayside Publishing

Also See: Erie Mainline RevisitedCuriously Seeking Erie Semaphores and Susquehanna SD45 and an Erie Semaphore, Canaseraga, New York.

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Kodachrome with Montana’s Big Sky

Big Sky on the old Great Northern
Changing skies on Montana’s Marias Pass. On July 6, 1994, an eastward intermodal train approaches Grizzly on the former Great Northern mainline. I exposed this image less than a week after announcement of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe merger. Nikon F3T with f1.8 105mm lens; exposed on Kodachrome 25.

Montana Rail Link light helpers on Mullen Pass, July 9, 1994. Kodachrome 25 film exposed with a Nikon F3T with 35mm PC lens.
Montana Rail Link light helpers on the former Northern Pacific grade over Mullen Pass, west of Helena, Montana on July 9, 1994. Kodachrome 25 film exposed with a Nikon F3T with 35mm PC lens.

Look up, take in the heavens and transform a railway scene in to a cosmic image. That’s a theory anyway. During my 1994 visit to Montana, I was awed by the amazing skies for which the state is famous. Big sky and wide-open vistas can make for impressive railway images, yet getting the balance between right between atmosphere and railway is no easy chore. Here, I’m offering two of my most successful attempts. Both were exposed on Kodachrome 25 using my Nikon F3T. The peculiarities of Kodachrome’s spectral sensitivity made it a great medium for working with textural skies and dramatic lighting. Not only did Kodachrome 25 benefit from exceptional dynamic range, but also the way it translated blue light I found conducive to dramatic images featuring impressive skies.

While these slides look great when projected on a screen, and both were successfully reproduced in my 2005 book Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, I found they required a bit of adjustment using Adobe Photoshop to make them look good on the computer screen.

Different tools yield different results and I wonder how I might I use my Canon 7D or Lumix LX-3 in similar lighting situations.

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Snake on the Tracks

Watch out for rattlesnakes! It seems like a clichéd railfan warning. Although, I’ve encountered rattlers on several occasions, I’d not allowed fear of snakes (or heights) interfere with my photography. In July 1994, I was on a prolonged trip working my way east from San Francisco to Waukesha, Wisconsin. Part of this excursion, was a ten-day exploration of Montana. Working on a tip from Blair Kooistra regarding a interesting photo location, I’d driven down the long rocky road to the old station at Lombard, deep within the canyon of the same name. Back in the day, it was here that Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension crossed Northern Pacific’s mainline. In 1994, as today, only vestiges survive of Milwaukee Road, while Montana Rail Link’s former NP line is the main attraction (if one hopes to see trains moving; the industrial archeologist is likely more interested in the old Milwaukee electrified line). The point of interest, which I’m told featured some GRS upper quadrant semaphores, required a several mile walk west into the canyon.

A large snake (of the non-rattling variety) suns itself on Montana Rail Link in Lombard Canyon, Montana. Nikon F3T with 105mm lens; Kodachrom 25 exposed at f4.5 1/250th second
A large snake (of the non-rattling variety) suns itself on Montana Rail Link in Lombard Canyon, Montana. Nikon F3T with 105mm lens; Kodachrom 25 exposed at f4.5 1/250th second

I’d made it about a mile or two from the car when I had an unsettling feeling of being watched. Looking around I realized that several impressively large snakes were sunning themselves on the tracks and eyeing my progress. I determined, that while large, these snakes didn’t have rattles on them, and so probably wouldn’t harm me. I made a few photos of this one coiled in the gauge. Then I continued my westward hike when the bone chilling rattle of the dreaded serpent stopped me dead in the tracks. I looked cautiously to my left, and there coiled in a heap, between the tracks and the river, was by far the largest rattlesnake I’d ever seen. It didn’t look nice. Worse, it seemed poised as about to spring and gazing at me with its tongue listing back and forth. Thus ended my westward progress. There I was, a two mile walk from my car in an unpopulated barren canyon, with probably 20-30 mile drive to anyplace with a phone, and me not having a soul on the planet knowing where I stood! Not good.

Without making sudden moves, I reversed direction and carefully retreated on foot back toward the old Lombard station location where my car sat waiting for me. Thankfully, that was the last time I’ve encountered such a beast trackside. Unfortunately, the semaphore I’d hoped to photograph is now long gone. Where’s the photo of the momma rattler? I didn’t make one, primarily because it was lying in deep shadow and I was in bright sun. (Which is as good an excuse as any).

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Burlington Northern at Sunset, Whitefish, Montana July 5, 1994

Sunset at Whitefish, Montana
This is a favorite photo: it appeared in Rails West 1995 (a Pacific RailNews Annual published by Pentrex Publishing), and ten years later in my book Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway published by MBI.

Happy New Years from Tracking the Light!

July 5, 1994, was a very productive day for me; I’d been photographing from dawn to dusk in western Montana and the Idaho Panhandle. I concluded my efforts with this image at Burlington Northern’s yard along the old Great Northern main line at Whitefish. This was my first visit to the town and I arrived about an hour before sunset. I made this image in the final moments of sunlight—just after 10pm. I used my Nikon F3T fitted with an f4.0 200mm lens loaded with Kodachrome 25. I opted to silhouette the engine. This caught the sunlight through the cab, and illuminated the engineer—who appears anonymously with a halo flare around him. Although not readily visible to the naked eye, the sky was laden with particulate matter (possibly smoke from forest fires?) that made for an especially reddish effect on Kodachrome. I’m partial to the monochromatic effect of low red sun, so Kodachrome was a choice material to work with in this regard. While the film made for a deep black, it had an ability to retain detail in extreme areas of the image. Both highlight and shadows retain a high level of detail and sharpness. I find this type of image difficult to make with digital cameras. This scan was made directly from the original slide and is unmodified except for scaling. The locomotive is prominent but not overbearing. Reflective rails—shining in the light—emphasize this as a railway image while providing a natural frame; they add interest while keeping the eye from getting lost in the inky foreground. The silhouette in the cab provides a human element. The subtle detail of the trees and hills beyond the locomotive give a sense of place without offering specifics. The ability of the film to maintain a sharp edge in an extremely contrasty situation help identify the locomotive—for those who are interested—as an Electro-Motive end-cab switcher (model SW1500). The locomotive’s wheels touch the rails tie the scene together while maintaining an abstract quality. We can enjoy this image as a frame in time, although in reality it existed only for an instant.

Diagrammed BN photo©Brian Solomon


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