1) Use your foreground. Unless you’re a ballast enthusiast, avoid emphasizing the ballast. Too many railroad photographs suffer from excessive foreground clutter and other distracting elements, so when you’re composing an image pay attention to the bottom of your frame.
2) Watch your focus. Although most modern cameras have auto focus systems, too many use center-weighted auto-focusing sensors. These produce an unfortunate side-effect of encouraging novice photographers to center their subject, which tends towards bland and ineffective composition. More advanced cameras have tools such as variable focus points and focus locks that help you get around the centering problem.
3) Avoid Flare. One of the reasons traditional photography technique stressed over the shoulder lighting was to avoid the unpleasant effects of lens flare. This is caused when the primary light source hits the front element of your lens and cause streaks and patterns across your image while lowering overall contrast. You can make successful backlit photographs by finding ways to minimize direct sun or other primary light sources; stand in the shadow of a tree, building or other object; no shadows available? Make your own with a flat piece of cardboard, book, or spare copy of TRAINS magazine. One last point: while you should avoid flare, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should eliminate it entirely. In certain circumstances, a little flare can improve a photo. Watch the way Hollywood uses flare for dramatic effect.
Using my Nikon N90S with a Nikkor AF 35mm lens, I exposed these Provia 100F slides at Rome’s Porta Maggiore in September 2017.
I often expose color slides in addition to digital images.
I scanned the slides using a Nikon scanner with VueScan software. My initial scans are made at very high resolution (4000 dots per inch or higher) and then using Lightroom I scaled these for internet presentation.
Are these photos better than the digital images? I don’t know. My film photos have different characteristics than the digital images. Also, I like to give slide shows and I find it’s much easier and more satisfying to project original color slides than put together digital presentations.
Ok, how about then and when? (click on the link to Brian Solomon’s Tracking the Light to see the modern view).
These photos were exposed 28 years apart from essentially the same place in West Warren, Massachusetts.
One view was made of an eastward Conrail freight in March of 1984; the other of an CSX freight at almost the same spot on November 15, 2012.
In both situations I opted to leave the train in the distance and take in the scene.
Over the years I’ve worked this vantage point with a variety of lenses, but I’ve chosen to display these two images to show how the scene has changed over the years.
In the 1984 view notice the code lines (the ‘telegraph poles’) to the left of the train and the scruffy trees between the railroad and the road. Also in 1984, the line was 251-territory (directional double track).
On the afternoon of July 1, 2011, I heard a heavy westward freight ascending Washington Hill near the old Middlefield, Station.
It’s been a long time since there was a station here, but the site remains a dramatic place to photograph the old Boston & Albany line. I got into position for some photography. Nice afternoon sun and inky shadows; what’s the best way to work this?
To accentuate the effect of the grade, I used a telephoto perspective, while setting my focus on the front of the locomotive. I waited for the right moment when it was in full sun.
I made a sequence of images, but for me this one best captures the drama of the scene.
Working with my old Leica 3A—a camera I’ve been using on and off for some thirty-odd years—I made this image of CSX’s westward Q293 at Palmer, Massachusetts on the morning of October 5, 2011.
My lens of choice was a 21mm Super Angulon, which tends to vignette a little in the corners. I processed the film using my customized chemical formula that makes the negatives easy to scan. This image received virtually no post-processing after scanning, except to remove a few dust specs and to scale for internet presentation.
Sometimes the old cameras yield the most satisfying results. Some of my earliest photos were made with this same camera-lens combination.
Tracking the Light presents: Palmer, Massachusetts February 24, 1988.
In keeping with the spirit of Otto Vondrak’s Facebook challenge, I’ve dug into my scanned black & white negative file and found this old black & white photograph from the days or yore.
I exposed this using my father’s Rolleiflex Model T that was fitted with a ‘super slide’ 645 insert. I processed the film in Kodak D76 at the Rochester Institute of technology. Back in 1988, I made prints from the negative back, but the full-frame image presented here is from a scan of the negative made in more recent times.
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.
I exposed this image of Pan Am Railways GP40 310 leading MOED on the afternoon of February 17, 2014. By any measure this scene posed a difficult exposure.
The locomotive is a dark blue, while the scene posed a full range of tones from bright white snow to deep shadows. The train was moving, and there was little time for exposure bracketing.
Using the camera’s histogram, I’d made a test exposure before the train came into the scene, and then made a series of images focused on the composition.
Working with my Canon EOS 7D, I always expose simultaneous Jps and Camera RAW files. Most of the time the in Camera hi-res Jpg proves acceptable, and simply archive the RAW files for the future.
However, in this instance when I got home, I found that the in-camera Jpg appears to bright to my eye. I re-checked the camera’s histogram for that file and confirmed that the image was exposed correctly.
In previous posts I’ve explained that with modern digital imaging old-school film-based assessments of ‘under’ (too dark) and ‘over’ (too light) exposure do not allow for the most accurate way of selecting exposure. (see: Snow Exposure—Part 1)
Instead of using the image at the back of the camera, or even the photo on my home computer screen, to judge exposure, I use the histogram. This graph allows me to select an exposure that maximizes the amount of information captured by the camera on-site.
In this case, although the Camera processed Jpeg seemed too bright (over exposed), the camera RAW file was perfect. Since the problem was in the camera’s translation of the RAW to Jpeg, the solution was simple:
I converted the RAW to a Jpeg manually, which produced a result that matched the scene. This retained excellent highlight detail in the snow, produced a pleasing exposure for the side of the locomotive and hills beyond, while retaining good shadow detail in the tree at the left.
I did not manipulate or adjust the file except to scale the image and convert it to a Jpg for presentation. (the RAW file is far too large to up-load effectively).
During my visit with Chris Guss in November we explored Chicago area railroads. This was both a means of making photos while proving needed opportunity to discuss the text for book on Chicago’s railroads that we were authoring (along with Mike Blaszak and John Gruber).
On the morning of November 7th, we drove to South Elgin to intercept an eastward Canadian National ethanol train working the old Illinois Central Iowa Division. Back in the mid-1990s, I knew this route as the Chicago Central & Pacific.
As it turned out the CC&P was just a short-lived regional, perhaps now almost forgotten, swept up in the wave of mergers and acquisitions that characterized the railroad dynamic of the 1990s.
Chris favored this location off a bicycle trail below a massive highway bridge. On the opposite side of the river are the tracks of the Fox River Trolley Museum.
Although we missed an earlier eastward freight, we arrived in ample time to set up for this train. I exposed several photos using my Canon EOS 7D, and made this color slide using my dad’s Leica M4 that I’d borrowed for the trip.
Making a slide with this Leica allowed me to maintain interesting continuity, since my father made many slides around Chicago with his Leica cameras in the early 1960s. (Incidentally, some of him images will appear in the book, to be published by Voyageur Press later this year).
These days while I largely work with my digital cameras, I still expose a fair bit of film (usually color slides, but sometimes black & white). I have plenty of old film cameras to choose from, and I often carry an EOS 3 loaded with Provia 100F.
My father taught me to make railway scenes, and not merely images of equipment. I did just that on this cold, wet, rainy day, when I photographed Maine Central Alco RS-11 crossing Route 12 in North Walpole, New Hampshire.
I’d traveled with Paul Goewey to Bellows Falls on the morning of November 25, 1983, specifically to photograph this locomotive. For reasons I can’t recall (if I ever knew), Green Mountain had borrowed Maine Central 802 to work its daily freight XR-1, that ran to Rutland over the former Rutland Railroad.
Despite the gloomy conditions this was something of an event, and I recall that several photographers had convened at Bellows Falls to document 802’s travels.
Green Mountain’s roundhouse is in North Walpole, just across the Connecticut River from Bellows Falls, and I made this image from the east bank as the engine switched cars.
With this image I was trying to convey that this locomotive was in an unusual place by putting it in a distinctive scene.
Once XR-1 was underway, Paul and I followed it toward Rutland. The weather deteriorated and rain turned to snow. By the time we reached Ludlow, the snow had become heavy; we were cold, wet, and tired, having been up since 4:30 am, and so ended the day’s photography.
It had been a busy morning at Byron. This southward freight had made a meet and was just coming out of the siding, so I had ample time to make images of these SD45s.
As the train grew close, I made a couple of final images on Kodachrome with my Nikormat FT3 and 28mm Nikkor Lens. I took this low view with a wide-angle to get a dynamic photograph.
I was Editor of Pacific RailNews, and we often had a need for photographs with lots of sky to use as opening spreads. It was a style of times to run headlines, credits and sometimes text across the top of the image. I had that thought in my mind when I made this particular angle.
I was also trying to minimize the ballast and drainage ditch that I found visually unappealing, while making the most of the clear blue dome and allowing for a dramatic position for the locomotives relative to the horizon.
Variations of this image have appeared in print over the years.
Here’s a pair of opportunistic images. I’d not gone out to make photographs, but while at dinner near Ardmore, Pennsylvania, I noted that Amtrak’s former Pennsylvania Railroad four-track Main Line ran adjacent to the car park.
After dinner, I wandered up to the tracks to investigate the potential for photography. At the edge of the car park was a sign post that I co-opted to use an impromptu camera support (I’d call this a ‘tripod’ but in fact it really was just a post), and placed my Lumix LX3 on the post.
The prevailing darkness and extreme contrast combined made for a tricky exposure. Instead of relying on the camera’s internal meter. I first made a test photo, then using that as a gauging point, set the camera to ‘over expose’ by about a full stop for each angle.
To avoid camera shake, I set the self-timer for 2 seconds, pressed the shutter button and stepped back. These are my results. It was cold, and I didn’t believe that any train movements were very close, so I didn’t opt to wait for a train.
Would have a train improved the scene?
See my earlier posts on night photography for suggestions and guidelines:
This was among my first Irish Railway photographs. I’d hired a car in Limerick and was exploring. At the time I knew very little about Irish Rail, but I was fascinated by the Ballina branch passenger train.
What caught my interest here was the juxtaposition of the General Motors diesel with the Claremorris station sign. It was the name of the town in Irish that fascinated me. I also liked the old Irish Rail logo, which seemed to represent the double junction at Claremorrris.
I’d never have imagined then, that this would just one of the thousands of Irish railway photographs I’d expose over the next 16 years!
I was interested to find this collection of Maine Central locomotives at Boston & Maine’s East Deerfield Yard in September 1984. At the time, Guilford’s gray and orange livery was still a novelty.
Using my father’s 21mm Super Angulon on my Leica 3A, I composed this somewhat unconventional view of the ready tracks. This lens was a favorite of mine at the time. I still use it occasionally.
The composition works despite being foreground heavy and exposed on the ‘dark side’ of the locomotives. The image nicely integrates the infrastructure around the locomotives while offering a period look.
At the time I was studying photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and made regular visits to photograph the Boston & Maine.
Fifty years ago, it would have been pretty neat to see a Burlington GP30 at Pennsylvania Railroad’s Enola Yard. Yet for the context of that photo to be fully appreciated, it would help to have the location of the locomotive implied in the image.
A few weeks ago, Pat Yough and I were driving by Norfolk Southern’s Enola Yard and spotted this SD70ACE. These days, BNSF locomotives on Norfolk Southern and CSX are not unusual occurrences. Not in Pennsylvania anyway.
After a tight image of the locomotive, I stood back and made a few views intended to convey location.
It’s not what you see, but the images made of what you see.
In mid-July 1984, I heard the distinctive roar of EMD 20-cylinder engines working an eastward train on the west slope of Washngton Hill. My friends and I were positioned at the summit of the Boston & Albany route, as marked by a sign.
We often spent Sunday afternoons here. Rather than work the more conventional location on the south (west) side of the tracks, I opted to cross the mainline and feature the summit sign.
As the freight came into view, I was delighted to see that it was led by a set of Conrail’s former Erie Lackawanna SD45-2s! While these locomotives were more commonly assigned to helper duties at Cresson, Pennsylvania on the former PRR, during the Summer of 1984, all 13 of the monsters worked the Boston & Albany.
I have a number of photos of these machines, both on the B&A and PRR routes. However this image of engine 6666 never made my cut. Back lighting and hazy afternoon light had resulted in a difficult negative. My preferred processing techniques of the period didn’t aid the end result, and at the time I dismissed the photograph as ‘unsuitable’.
The other day I rediscovered this unprinted view and decided to make a project of it. Now, 30 years later, I felt it was worth the effort. I scanned the negative and after about 30 minutes of manipulation using Adobe Photoshop, I produced a satisfactory image.
I made a variety of small and subtle changes by locally adjusting contrast and sharpness. These adjustments would have been difficult and time consuming to implement using conventional printing techniques, but are relatively painless to make digitally. I’m really pretty happy with the end result.
For me the old Boston & Albany West end is hallowed ground. This was the first true mountain mainline in the modern sense. The line was surveyed in the mid 1830s and by 1839 trains were working over Washington Summit.
Over the last 30 years I’ve made countless trips to photograph this line and it remains one of my favorites. Yet, I rarely come up here in the winter.
On Friday, February 7, 2014, my father and I went up to Huntington to catch Amtrak’s westward Lake Shore Limited, train 449. Not far behind was CSX’s Q427.
This freight runs daily between Portland, Maine and Selkirk, New York via Ayer and Worcester, Massachusetts. This day it had a pair of General Electric Evolution-Series diesels of the type that have come to characterize modern freight operations on the Boston & Albany route.
Since the train wasn’t making great speed, we pursued it on Route 20, stopping to make photos at opportune locations. At CP 123 (where the line goes from single track to two-main track) Q427 met an eastward freight holding at the signal. We continued upgrade ahead of the train.
I remembered that there’s a gap in the hills at Chester which allows for a window of sun on the line that lasts late in the day. So we zipped ahead of the train.
At Chester, Pop set up his tripod to make a hi-resolution video of the train climbing. I positioned myself with my Canon EOS 7D with a telephoto lens to make use of the window of sun against a dark background.
As the train grew closer I also exposed more conventional views with my Lumix LX3. The heavy train took more than two minutes to pass.
Difficulties of Photographing in the Spring and Summer.
That’s just what you want to read about right now, isn’t it!. Gosh, those awful warm months with the long days, soft sunlight and thick foliage.
Well, here I have two views, both made at about the same location off Route 67 in West Warren, Massachusetts at approximately the same time of the morning. Both views show a CSX eastward freight.
The first was exposed on July 31, 2010; the second two views were made on May 10, 2013. While I’ve used one of these views in a previous post (see: Quaboag Valley in Fog and Sun, May 10, 2013 ), I thought these made for an interesting contrast with the earlier image.
The primary difference is that in the interval between 2010 and 2013 CSXT cut the brush along the Boston line and performed undercutting work at West Warren. This is just one of many locations that benefited visually from such improvements.
A secondary difficulty about photographing when foliage is at its summer peak is selecting the optimum exposure. In the 2010 image, I took a test photo and allowed for some nominal overexposure of the locomotive front in order to retain detail in the foliage. I then made a nominal correction in Photoshop during post processing to make for a more pleasing image.
In contrast from the iced grip of winter, these photographs were made on June 30, 2010. This was a gorgeous warm summer’s morning; birds twittered the tree branches as the sun light streamed through a gauzy haze to burn away the dew.
I arrived early at the famed ‘Railfan’s Overlook’ to make photographs in the early light of day. In the distance, I could hear the thunder of a heavy train climbing east toward the Allegheny Divide at Gallitzin.
Norfolk Southern’s busy former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline rarely disappoints, and this morning it was alive with trains.
Using my Canon EOS 7D, I worked the glinting sun to its best advantage as an eastward Pennsylvania Power & Light coal train clawed into view. As it worked the grade, a westward RoadRailer led by former Conrail locomotive glided down grade.
At the back of the coal train were a pair of freshly painted SD40Es making a classic EMD-roar as they worked in run-8 (maximum throttle).
How I wish I was enjoying a warm June morning on the West Slope right now!
On a recent ride out to Elwyn on a SEPTA suburban train, my brother Sean and I noted several large viaducts on this former Pennsylvania Railroad route.
The Elwyn route is one of several SEPTA lines that has been under threat of closure. The bridges on the route have been reported to be suffering from deferred maintenance which has made them candidates for replacement.
This bridge piqued our curiosity. So on Monday, January 20, 2014 we decided to investigate the Crum Creek Viaduct which is easily accessed via The Scott Arboretum trails (near Swarthmore College).
An impressive viaduct, it spans the heavily wooded Crum Creek valley, looming above the tree tops like an ancient relic of another age. It reminded me of Milwaukee Road’s trestles on St Paul Pass in the Bitteroot Mountains of the Idaho panhandle.
This is a double-track tower-supported plate girder viaduct, of the type of construction common to many late-19th and early 20th century railway bridges. It dates to the mid-1890s.
Photographically, the Crum Creek viaduct presents a challenge. The surrounding trees tend to obscure the bridge. While the most graphic images of the bridge are made near is base, yet working close to the bridge makes it difficult to adequately capture a train crossing the bridge. As we moved further away both train and structure tend to blend with the forest.
Since this bridge is in jeopardy of either replacement or abandonment, I thought it a worthy project to photograph it as functioning infrastructure. I tried panning an outbound train in an effort to show a train on the bridge.
What will become of this bridge? Will it be restored, abandoned or replaced?
Below are some recent links that make references to the viaduct.
Watching trains today, it seems that graffiti is omnipresent. Hardly a freight passes without heavily tagged cars in consist.
Railcar graffiti isn’t a recent phenomena. Traditional chalked tags have appeared on cars for generations. I recall photographing a tag that read ‘Edward Steichen knew’ back in the mid-1980s, and I first noticed spray-painted graffiti on the New York Subways in the 1970s.
Yet, the proliferation of large colorful spray-painted murals and haphazard spray tagging has only become widespread on mainline trains in the last couple of decades.
While freight cars are the most common canvases, I’ve see locomotives and passenger cars tagged as well.
Nor is the phenomena isolated to the United States. Train graffiti is a worldwide occurrence. I’ve photographed heavily tagged trains in Poland, Belgium, and (wouldn’t you guess?) Italy! (Among other places).
Almost every photographer I’ve met has an opinion on graffiti.
Would you like to leave a comment? Tracking the light is interested in your opinion(s). See the comments section toward the bottom of the page.
New England Central at Montpelier Junction, Vermont.
A freshly scrubbed GP38 led a pair of Pennsy passenger cars in a classic old-school whistle-stop campaign tour of Vermont.
On August 28, 2010, my dad and I drove to the Georgia high bridge (near St. Albans, Vermont) to intercept a New England Central special train hired by gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie.
It was a sunny warm summer’s day, and we made numerous photos of the special as it worked its way south.
This pair of images was exposed at Montpelier Junction, where the train made a stop for the candidate to make a speech to his supporters. Traditionally, this was where Central Vermont met the Montpelier & Barre.
I used a telephoto for these views in order to emphasize the bunting and flags that marked the train’s distinctive qualities. Several of my photographs of the train appeared in Private Varnish.
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.
Tim Doherty asked me a few weeks back, “Have you ever tried a shot from the north side of the Millers Falls high bridge?” I’d looked a this several times, but was discouraged by the row of trees between the road and the railroad bridge.
So, on January 12, 2014, at the end of the day (light), Tim and I went to this location with the aim of making images of Amtrak’s northward Vermonter crossing the aged Central Vermont span.
As there was only a hint of light left, I upped the ISO sensitivity of my Canon EOS 7D and I switched the color balance to ‘tungsten’ (indoor incandescent lighting which has the same effect as using tungsten balance slide film (such as Fujichrome 64T), and so enhances the blue light of the evening.
A call to Amtrak’s Julie (the automated agent) confirmed the train was on-time out of Amherst. Running time was only about 20 minutes (a bit less than I thought) but we were in place, cameras on tripods, several minutes before we heard the Vermonter blasting for crossings in Millers Falls.
The result is interpretive. The train’s blur combined with view through the trees and the deep blue color bias makes for a ghostly image of the train crossing the bridge.
Arctic Conditions in Central Europe Made for Great Light and Cold Fingers.
It was my last full day of a week-long visit to Austria in winter 2006. I was changing trains at Wörgl, having spent the better part of the day making photos in the snow. Using my last roll of Fujichrome 400F, I exposed a series of sunset photos from the platform.
Wörgl is a busy place where lines converge on their way west through the Inn valley towards Innsbruck. Every few minutes something would pass over the mainline, and there was an electric switcher working the yard.
Thinking about the photography: working in low winter light the 400 ISO slide film had two advantages. Its faster film speed made it easier to work hand held and helped stop the action. While the warmer color balance favored the snowy sunset scene by accentuating the reds and yellows in the sky.
It was painful to be outside, and as the sun set it got even colder. But soon, I was gliding eastward on an InterCity train to Salzburg ensconced in the warm dining car. I’d enjoyed a hot ‘scheinsbratten mit sauerkraut’ and a tall glass of Schneiderweiss for dinner. The frosty landscape fading from blue to black as the train rolled into the night.
Here we have a typically New England scene; a fresh blanket of snow has fallen and the sky has cleared to a clear blue dome. Perfect light right?
Not exactly. The great contrast between the brilliant bright snow and the shadow areas makes for a difficult exposure. Complicating matters was Conrail’s rich blue paint.
While I was fortunate to catch Conrail’s TV9 leaving West Springfield Yard, I faced an exposure conundrum. If I exposed for the train, I risked grossly over exposing the snow, furthermore if I simply set the camera based on the snow on the ground, I’d end up with a pretty dark slide.
In the end I compromised, and stopped down enough to retain detail in the snow, while leaving the rest of the scene reasonably exposed.
However, 28 years later I’m still not satisfied with the slide.
There are three problems. I was concentrating on the exposure and the moving train (while trying to manipulate two cameras simultaneously) and I missed the level by about two degrees. Secondly, the Kodachrome film had a decidedly red bias, which resulted in pinkish snow (hardly what my eye saw that day).
I was easily able to correct these flaws after scanning the slide. I imported it into Photoshop and made three changes.
1) I cropped and rotated the image to correct for level.
2) Using the red-cyan color balance sliders, I shifted the highlights and mid-tone areas to toward cyan to minimize the excessive red in the scene. (cyan is the color opposite of red)
3) I made a localized contrast adjustment on the locomotives by outlining the area I wanted to change and then making a slight change using the curves feature.
I’ve illustrated the original unmodified scan two intermediate steps and the final image.