Norfolk Southern’s former Nickel Plate Road mainline from Buffalo to Cleveland navigated 19th Street in Erie, Pennsylvania. This unusually long section of street trackage offered some great photographic opportunities. In October 1994, I was visiting Erie on my way from West Virginia to Wisconsin, and I made this image of a lone NS GP59 leading a westward double-stack train down 19th Street. The soft light of a dull day works well here by allowing the texture and hues of autumnal foliage to offer the illusion of a long corridor, with effect of haze giving added depth. The train seems endless. I was working with a Nikormat FT3 with Nikkor f4.0 200mm lens on a Bogen tripod and Fujichrome 100 slide film.
This street trackage was sacrificed as a condition of the Conrail split in the late 1990s. To eliminate the slow running and please unsympathetic neighbors of the railroad, NS shifted its operations through Erie to the parallel former New York Central grade-separated line (owned and operated by CSX after the 1998-1999 split.)
Here’s an unpublished image from my archive. In the gloom of early morning on April 7, 1989, I made the hour and 15 minute drive from Scottsville to Portage, New York to make time exposures of the old Erie Railroad Portage Viaduct. I featured this pioneering tower-supported viaduct in an earlier post (see: Erie Railroad’s Portage Bridge May 12 2007). Blessed by a stunning setting and significant history, the old Portage Viaduct has been a favorite subject on many occasions over the years. For this image, I used my Leica M2 rangefinder with 50mm Summicron lens to make a long exposure (about 8 seconds) in the pre-dawn twilight. The predominantly blue light combined with Kodachome’s spectral sensitivity to produce a near monochromatic view. The roaring Genesee falls have taken on an otherworldly ethereal quality, while the dark sky lends a nightmarish cast. This image exists only on film; at the time of exposure, it seemed very different to my eye. Later in the morning, an eastward Delaware & Hudson freight eased over the bridge at restricted speed; I followed this for several hours, making numerous images of it, mostly in black & white.
For years, friends have asked my advice on camera exposure, typically on-site with a train bearing down on us. Politely, I’ll offer suggestions—based on conditions, but such advice can be deceiving since conditions change quickly. For my photography, I often refine exposure as the scene unfolds. A train entering a scene may alter my anticipated exposure, which requires subtle adjustments at the last moment.
Using the camera’s histogram to judge exposure is part of my latest technique for refining exposure and making optimum use of the digital camera sensor. A histogram reflects exposure information collected by the sensor. This is displayed as a graph that offers exposure quantification: it shows the range of data recorded by the sensor and alludes to data lost. The histogram allows me to gauge when the scene is over- or under-exposed. It solves much of the guesswork previously necessary when shooting film, while providing real information by which to adjust future exposures. What it doesn’t tell me, is as important to what is displayed on the graph.
Using film, ‘over-exposure’ inferred that too much light reached the emulsion and resulted in an image that appears too bright, while ‘under exposure’ inferred that too little light, thus and a dark image. It was never as simple as that, but that’s good enough for the moment.
The advent of digital imaging combined with the ease of post-processing using digital technology has changed the definitions of exposure, so far as I’m concerned. I can now use information from camera sensor on-site to help capture the greatest amount of information.
This is not much different than my traditional approach to black & white photography. The new tools offered by modern digital cameras have altered my means for calculating exposure. More to the point; the need for obtaining desired visual balance between light and dark in-camera isn’t part of my exposure technique because the appearance of the exposed image in the thumbnail on the camera display doesn’t accurately reflect data collected, while the final image may be best refined after exposure.
Here’s a difference between film and digital: Film sensitivity is less definitive than with digital sensors; simply, the data accumulated during a digital exposure fits between definite parameters, while with film significantly more information may be retained than is readily visible to the naked eye. Beyond these limits with digital, data isn’t recorded (to the best of my understanding). Thus to obtain the greatest amount of visual information a digital exposure must be calculated to be carefully placed between the image’s deepest shadows and brightest highlights. The tool needed to gauge this decision is the camera’s histogram.
A histogram displays a series of lines progressing from dark to light. These lines reflect the number of pixels exposed in the various gradations. How this data is collected isn’t important for this exercise. Crucial, is the assessment of the histogram in order to make future exposures that don’t lose critical information in extreme highlight or shadow areas.
When I make snow photos, I expose in a manner to place the bulk of information toward the center of the graph. I pay close attention to highlight falloff. Losing detail in the brightest parts of distant clouds, or at the center of locomotive headlights isn’t a problem, but losing detail in snowy foreground is undesirable. Ideally, the graph will taper gently into the extremes, indicating the smallest degree of loss in the deepest shadows and brightest highlights.
The histogram is extremely useful when exposing bright snow scenes, because most camera automatic settings are not tuned to expose for large fields of white and tend to grossly misjudge a brightly lit and largely white scene. This typically results in under exposure which renders snow gray rather than white and, risks opaque shadows (a substantial loss of information). It renders many elements too dark (such as the train passing through the scene). However, a few modern digital cameras have ‘snow settings’ that should overcome these difficulties.
Before making my desired image sequence, I’ll make a series of test exposures to check the effect of camera settings. Based on information displayed by these graphs I’ll make exposure adjustments to place highlights and shadows appropriately. As my subject approaches, I’ll further refine my exposure by making adjustments in 1/3-stop increments. I’ll continue to compensate for exposure changes caused by the train entering the scene (including variations caused by locomotive headlights and ditch lights).
Displayed here are both hypothetical graphs to show how I read histograms, and images of the real graphs from my Canon 7D exposed in snowy scenes last Sunday, February 10, 2013. Both types of images are intended to illustrate how I’ve selected exposures.
I use the histogram feature all the time, but find it most useful in extreme situations. It has proved its value by eliminating uncertainties previously caused by the extremes of snow photography.
Some advice for the graph-adverse photographer working in snow: use the camera meter to gauge base exposure then override the meter by opening up by 2/3 of a stop (for example open from f11 to f9).
I’m not talking about stripping down and running naked through the snow. That sounds like a recipe for frostbite, hypothermia or worse! Rather, I’m focused on how to best select exposure when working in winter situations. Snow is especially difficult to work with for several reasons. First, it’s abnormally bright and results in high contrast situations that is both difficult on the eyes and the camera sensor. Second, most camera meters aren’t designed to work with fields of white, so tend to recommend the wrong settings. Third, for many photographers, making images in snow is an infrequent experience, and one that tends to lead to uncertainty and higher rates of exposure error.
My approach to snow photography stems from years of practice. In general, I take the information provided by camera meters as advisory. I rarely rely on automatic settings without some manual adjustment. Why? I’ve learned to carefully gauge exposure and apply settings manually. Furthermore, I’m distrustful of automatic metering, especially for railway photography, because the automation is programmed to deliver adequate imagery other than what I’m trying to achieve. Perhaps no other situation is as difficult for a common-meter to gauge as sunlit snow imaging.
Many years ago, my father lent me a Weston Master III, and instructed me to wander around the house making exposures and write them down. No photos were exposed. I was about nine and I found this exercise confusing and frustrating because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. However, I overcame frustration and learned to use the light meter. A decade later, I had the opportunity to learn Cibachrome printing (used to make vivid prints from color slides). At the time, I was primarily working with Kodachrome 25, which I’d been taught to nominally underexpose to produce more saturated colors.
Translating Kodachrome to Cibachrome was revealing; I’d found that my rich, slightly-underexposed slides, which when projected on a nice bright screen looked fantastic, were in fact rather difficult to print. The biggest issue was contrast. While under-exposure may have enhanced the color saturation, it also made the image more contrasty. So while it turned out that my old theory on underexposure had it flaws, I discovered that slightly overexposed slides printed very well. I needed to determine ideal exposures in order to make optimal slides.
Aiding my efforts was my notebook; I’d been recording my exposures for years, but with the Ciba exercise I began making even more detailed notes, recording slide exposures to the third of a stop. Eventually, I assembled a chart with ideal exposures for Kodachrome 25 in various lighting situations. In general, I’d discovered that to make prints, slides needed to be about 1/3 stop brighter than I’d been making them for projection. All very well, but what does this have to do with making digital images in the snow?
Exposing Kodachrome is history, but the lessons I learned from this material still apply. (The short answer to the question was that snow in bright daylight should be exposed at approximately 1 ½ stops down from the full daylight setting without snow; thus with Kodachrome 25, if my normal daylight setting was f4.5 1/250, my snow exposure was about f8 1/250 +/- 1/3 stop). Many of my slides have appeared in books, magazines, as well as here on Tracking the Light. Take a look at my recent book North American Locomotives for some top-notch printed reproductions of Kodachrome.
Digital photography offers some great advantages over Kodachrome, including the ability to review images on-site—thus removing the uncertainty of exposing slides and having to wait for days (or weeks) to see if your exposures were correct. It’s now easier than ever to make good snow exposures and learn immediately from miscalculation. Related to this is the ability to use a digital camera’s histogram as an on-site exposure tool.
Histogram? Yes! This is perhaps the greatest feature on my digital cameras. It allows me to set my exposure ideally, allowing key images to capture the greatest amount information, thus minimizing detail lost through unwanted under-or over-exposure. Positively invaluable when making images in the snow.
Today, before a train enters the scene, I’ll make a series of test exposures and judge them by the output of the histogram. This allows me to refine my exposure to a point that exceeds what I could have achieved with my detailed chart and Kodachrome. In my next post, I’ll detail this process with more examples.
Yesterday (January 17, 2013), Rich Reed and I spent a productive day photographing along the old Boston & Maine. B&M to Pan Am: a traditional New England road, Boston & Maine was melded in to Guilford Transportation Industries in 1982. Guilford acquired the rights to Pan American Airways in 1998, and during 2005-2006 the railroad became known as Pan Am Railways. In 2008, the railway engaged in a joint venture with Norfolk Southern involving the former Boston & Maine route (now coined the ‘Patriot Corridor’) between greater Albany, New York and suburban Boston. As a result, Norfolk Southern locomotives are usual assigned to intermodal and automotive traffic operating over the old B&M route; in addition Pan Am operates a pair of through freights in conjunction with CSX between Portland, Maine and CSX’s Selkirk, New York yard (Pan-Am’s symbols SEPO/POSE; CSX’s Q426/Q427). These typically operate with CSX locomotives. Other traffic includes, coal trains originating on Providence & Worcester and traveling north via Pan Am rails to Bow, New Hampshire which run with P&W’s locomotives. Pan Am runs a few trains with its own locomotives; however while a number of Pan Am’s locomotives have been painted for the railroad, a good number of older locomotives still serve the railroad in Guilford paint.
The long and short of this essay is that lately, I’ve found it challenging to photograph Pan Am painted locomotives hauling trains on their own line, since the predominance of daylight traffic tends to feature locomotives from other lines. Yesterday, we caught six symbol freights, one of which was the westward POED (Portland, Maine to East Deerfield, Massachusetts), which was led by Pan Railways 610, a former Southern Pacific SD45 rebuilt to SD40-2 specs. Pan Am on Pan Am! Yea!
In August 1984, I made a ten-day adventure of riding Amtrak. I visited Montreal via the Montrealer, then to Washington D.C., where I boarded the Cardinal for Chicago. It was my first visit to America’s ‘Railroad Capital’; I spent three days wandering around, riding trains and transit, exposing every frame of film I brought with me. At that time, my standard camera was a 1937-built Leica IIIA that my father gave me for my 10th birthday. In addition to this Leica, for this trip, my dad gave me loan of its clone, which he’d bought years before complete with wind-up mechanical drive. Since the drive was weighty, I left it at home. Fitted to this camera was an obsolete collapsible Leitz 50mm Elmar with non-standard f-stops (f3.5, f4.5, f6.3, f9 & etc). While a remarkably sharp piece of glass, this lens suffered from antique coatings that made it inadequate for my color photography and made it susceptible to excessive flare. As a result, I relegated this lens to my B&W work, while using my 50mm f2.0 Summitar for color slides. Among the B&W photos I made was this image of Chicago Regional Transportation Authority F40PH 161 at Chicago & North Western Station.
What I remember best from this solo trip was arriving in Evanston, Illinois, where I had a pre-booked and pre-paid hotel room waiting for me, only to be told in a sneering manner by the woman at the desk that I, ‘wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel, because I was a minor’. She then began to admonish me for traveling alone! I was 17. I was incensed! “Lady, I’ve been traveling for weeks by myself, and you’re the first to cause me a problem because of my age! So! You’d rather have me on the street than in your hotel?” I walked out. Not one to waste time, I resorted to staying in the Evanston YMCA, which was primitive, but adequate, cheap, and didn’t interfere with my travel because of age.
One of the benefits of my visits to Monson, Massachusetts, is being within ear-shot of the former Central Vermont Railway, now operated by New England Central (NECR). Yesterday morning (January 10, 2013), I awoke to the sounds of a southward freight clawing its way up Stateline Hill (so-named because it crests near the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line). NECR freights take their time ascending the grade and on a clear day I can hear them climbing from about the time they depart the Palmer Yard. As a kid I’d count the crossings: CV’s GP9s whistling a sequence of mournful blasts for each one. Yesterday morning I dithered for a few minutes. Should I go after this train? Or, should I keep my nose to grindstone, writing? Clear skies forced the answer: GO!
My hesitation caused me to miss the opportunity for a photograph in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. This was blessing in disguise, since I’ve often caught the train here and then broke off the chase before getting deeper into Connecticut. Having missed Stafford Springs, I pursued further south, and caught the train four times at various points between Stafford and Willimantic. This a relatively easy chase, as Route 32 runs roughly parallel to the line.
Three elements made yesterday’s chase a satisfying exercise:
1) The train was operating at a suitable time of the morning for southward daylight photography (lately, NECR’s trains seem to have headed south either way too early or too late in the day for my photographic preferences—I’ve been photographing this line for more than 30 years, first chasing it with my Dad in the early 1980s, so I can be unusually choosy).
2) It was a ‘clear blue dome’—sunny, bright, and cloudless, always a great time to make morning photographs.
3) As it turned out, one of New England Central’s yellow and blue GP38s was leading. As I’ve mentioned previously, while this was once NECR’s standard locomotive, in recent years the type has become comparatively scarce on NECR, with many of the locomotives working the line wearing paint of former operators (Conrail, Union Pacific, Florida East Coast, and others).
I was also eager for a clear day to test some recently acquired equipment, especially my new Canon 40mm Pancake Lens, which arrived on Monday. I’ll make this lens the detailed topic of future posts.
After abandoning NECR at Willimantic, I made a few photographs of the town, which still has some wonderful old mill buildings, then continued south to New London where I focused on Amtrak for a while.
Since New England Central is among properties recently acquired by Genesee & Wyoming, I’m anticipating change and wondering when I’ll photograph the first orange & black locomotives
See my recent published book North American Locomotives for more information on New England Central’s and Genesee & Wyoming locomotives.
Picking photos for Tracking the Light can be a challenge. Everyday since March 2013 I’ve posted original photos to this site. That means, come rain or shine, I’ve selected photos and put words to them.
For this post, I though I’d try something a bit different. Rather than work from my semi-organized labeled material, I selected a random box of raw and unsorted slides and just plucked out a photo randomly.
While not the best picture in the box, frame 22 isn’t a bad photo.
I made it on the afternoon of October 13, 2001. Mike Gardner, Tim Doherty and I had been following an empty Mt Tom coal train since it left the plant near Northampton, Massachusetts. We caught it a multitude of locations on Guilford Rail System’s former Boston & Maine.
The last place we photographed this train was at Hoosic Falls, New York. My notes from the day read: “Hoosic Falls in a fascinating little American town—once prosperous, but on a decline . . . certainly worth some photography.”
And so there you go! Random Slide Number 22, displayed and explained.
In August 1998, I was visiting a friend in Bonn, Germany. I’d wandered down the Rhein by train with a promise to return by dinner at 8 in the evening. At Mainz, I bought a ticket for an IC (Intercity) train that scheduled to arrive in Bonn that would have just barely got me back in time. However, EC (Euro City) train 8 Tiziano (Milano Centrale—Hannover) arrived on the platform six minutes ahead of the IC train. I boarded this instead (and was required to pay a 7 DM supplement for the privilege) and after being whisked up the Rhein’s left bank arrived at Bonn with a few minutes spare. I was immediately distracted by the amazing red sunset that illuminated trains heading out of the station toward Köln. I decided to wait on the IC train that I would have taken. Working with my Nikon F3T and Fuji Sensia II (100 ISO) I made a sequence of glint photos from the platforms and I over stayed my time at the railway station and so arrived a few minutes late. Not a problem: Understanding too well my predilection for low-light photography my host had anticipated my delay; she smiled, “Oh, when I saw the nice light, I assumed you’d be late.”
I made my first trip to Poland in May 2000; while part of my quest was to experience steam in revenue service, among the most compelling images I made were of derelict engines such as this one in Silesia. I worked with both 35mm slide film and 120 black & white, the latter exposed with my Rolleiflex Model T.
As I write this I’m eagerly anticipating arrival of an Author’s Copy of my latest book: North American Locomotives published by Voyageur Press.
This morning, while I was polishing off some text and captions for another future Voyageur Press project, tentatively entitled Railroad Family Trees, I thought I heard familiar thunder in the valley.
What’s that? I turned down the volume of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California to listen outside. It was the unmistakable sound of turbocharged 645 diesels at work. I opened the window and turned off the music (sorry Jimmy). Clear blue sky, and a New England Central train was into the grade on State Line Hill — roaring slowly southward.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’d been eyeing some of New England Central’s recent acquisitions: rebuilt GM six-motors wearing Union Pacific’s Armor Yellow. Of special interest to me are those that feature old SD45 bodies and thus characterized by angled radiator intakes (factory built SD45s were powered with 20-cylinder 645-E3 diesels, but during remanufacturing these machines were modified and received a variation of the smaller 16-645-E3). While I’d made static photos of these locomotives in the yard, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to catch one on the road in nice light.
Opening email I hastily attached the remaining documents for my editor, pressed ‘send,’ then grabbed my cameras, scanner and notebook (a real paper one) and made for the car. Soon, I was in downtown Stafford Springs, Connecticut, and after about 10 minutes I heard the southward freight whistling for nearby crossings. As the train crawled into view my intuition proved correct: New England Central 2674 was leading on train 603. (I’d probably known this sooner if I’d been listening to my scanner instead of Zeppelin).
In Stafford Springs a succession of grade crossings combined with a sharp curve limits speed to 10 mph; and today’s train was taking it handily, giving me ample opportunity to exercise my Lumix LX3 and Canon 7D (didn’t bother with film today). As it crawled through town I opted for pursuit, and continued to the Route 32 overpass on the Stafford-Ellington town line, where I made another set of images.
Later in the afternoon, errands brought me north toward Palmer, Massachusetts, and so I spent the remainder of daylight photographing a variety classic General Motors Electro Motive Division diesels at work. CSX’s local B740 was working the former Boston & Albany yard in Palmer, while Mass-Central’s daily freight arrived on the Ware River Branch with its rare NW5 trailing. This 1947-built antique is among the most unusual locomotives operating in New England today. Later, a New England Central local came on duty using one of its few remaining GP38s to work Palmer. All in all, a day filled with classic GM diesels, and not a modern safety-cab to be seen! (Although GE Genesis units worked Amtrak’s Vermonter.)
In February 1998, Colin Nash brought me for a productive visit to Britain’s preserved Great Central Railway. It was typical winter’s day in Leicestershire; the dawn brought crisp cold sun, yet the ground was damp. In other words, excellent conditions for photographing steam locomotives at work. To attract visitors, many railway museums and preserved railways focus operations on summer months, with trains tending to run during the middle part of the day. While this obviously suits casual visitors, it isn’t the optimum time for photography. Harsh high light, and warm dry days offer precious little to enhance the drama of a steam locomotive. I’d much prefer rich low sun of winter with high-dew point and frosty temperatures, that result voluminous effluence from steam locomotives and dramatic contrasts that portray the machinery in dramatic light.
Thankfully, Britain is blessed with a variety of top notch preserved railways, many of which operate during the colder months. During the past 15 years, I’ve made numerous trips to the United Kingdom in search of steam, as well as to make images of revenue mainline railways. This exposure was made with my Nikon F3T and an f2.8 135mm lens on Fuji Astia 100.
It was exactly 20 years ago today; November 20, 1992, I made this photograph of an Albany-bound Amtrak train along the Hudson Line near Breakneck Ridge north of Cold Spring, New York. Like today, this day in 1992 dawned cold and crisp. I was armed with my Nikon F3T with a 35mm PC (Perspective Control) lens and loaded Kodachrome 25 film. I metered manually with my Sekonic Studio Deluxe hand-held light meter. Amtrak’s classic FL9s were still working the Hudson Line on Empire Corridor trains. Later in the decade these were supplanted by modern General Electric dual-mode Genesis locomotives. Back then this train was common; today it’s a classic. Likewise, Kodachrome 25 was then my staple film, but its been gone for several years (discontinued well before Kodak stopped making K64). Wait 20 years, and see what changes unfold. Time passes and everything changes. Make your photos as you see them.
Low sun, frosty damp weather combined with constantly changing conditions make for a challenging but potentially rewarding setting for railway photographs. Add in a classic steam locomotive and you have all the potential for stunning dramatic images. That was my experience on Irish Rail yesterday (Tuesday 6 November) . I’ve already posted a few images from Monday and Tuesday (5-6 November, see: Gallery Post 5 and Gallery Post 6), I’ve now had time to plow through many of the digital images I exposed yesterday. As previously mentioned, in addition to digital images made with my Lumix LX3 and Canon 7D, I also exposed some Fuji Provia 100F. Deciding to use film or digital is a spot decision; while I use past experience with these materials to gauge when film or digital may be best, when the action is under way, I’m often juggling cameras and exposing as quickly as I can. When working with steam locomotives, wafts of steam and smoke and changing light mean that each moment can product dramatic changes in composition. Not only is the exposure impossible to predict, but the whole scene can change quickly and fantastically. Reaction time is crucial.
Railway Preservation Society Ireland’s locomotive 461 and Irish Rail’s IWT intermodal liners were my primary subjects, but I focused on all elements of the railway, photographing the regularly scheduled trains, stations, and infrastructure, as well as what ever else caught my eye.
These are just a sampling of my results. I’ll be very curious to see my slides, but it will be weeks before these are processed.
Brian Solomon will be giving an illustrated talk titled “Ireland from an American Perspective 1998-2003” at the Irish Railway Record Society’s Heuston Station premises in Dublin at 7:30pm on Thursday November 8, 2012. Admission free.
(text originally reproduced in Irish Railway Record Society Journal no. 177, February 2012)
Photography is an art, not a science; yet it relies technology and it is necessary to master that technology to consistently produce successful images. Railway photography requires the photographer to make a variety of small decisions at precisely the right moment. Rapid movement combined with the operational uncertainties inherent to railway operations makes railway photography challenging and there is no proven sure-fire method of ensuring perfect railway photographs. There isn’t a single defined set of skills required to make pictures, furthermore efforts to impose absolute photo formulas have typically resulted in stale image making. By contrast there are diverse and myriad approaches toward photography each unique to the individual photographer, and it is this endless variety in approach to the subject that has kept the medium fresh and exciting. Many photo opportunities have been missed or ruined, or simply fall short because of the photographer’s momentary inattention or minor technical error. This is not limited to the novice or occasional photographer, as even the most experienced practitioners make mistakes. While formulas lead to dull repetitive images, here’s some simple philosophy and habits that may help you improve your odds at making successful railway action photos:
1) Always carry a camera: If you don’t have one, you can’t make a photograph.
2) Insure that your camera is ready: if it uses a battery, check to see that it’s fresh; if using a film camera, insure it’s loaded; if using a digital camera, insure the recording card is installed and working properly; double check to see that sufficient exposures remain on the film/card to make all the photos you have planned. If you reach the end of roll or fill your card unexpectedly, you’ll miss the critical image.
3) Always carry an extra battery and at least one spare roll of film/recording card.
4) If your camera has a light meter, check to see that it works; if using an automatic or program mode, be sure that these are set as you intended.
5) When using auto-focus, insure it is switched ‘on’; if you focus manually, check (and double check) your focus point.
6) Don’t fight with your equipment! Select a camera that you feel comfortable using. If you aren’t happy with your camera or it routinely malfunctions, replace it post haste.
7) Many fully automatic cameras are designed for making snapshots of children’s birthday parties and scenic vistas, so by design may greatly limit your ability to make successful railway action photos. Especially troublesome are automatic cameras that impose an unwanted shutter delay. Although these are prolific, the only advantages to them are high availability and low cost.
8) Use a camera that allows you to control the shutter speed. While working a camera manually grants the greatest operator flexibility it also requires a high-level of photographic skill and practice; using a camera in a ‘shutter priority mode’ is easier. Be sure to select a ‘fast’ shutter speed to better freeze the action and avoid motion blur. While the speed of the train, your relative angle to the train, and the focal length of the lens all affect the amount of blur, in most instances a shutter speed of 1/500th second is fast enough to stop the action. Any speed less than about 1/125th of a second is probably too slow for conventional railway action photography.
9) Think ahead and select your locations carefully: select an interesting backdrop or setting—is this a timeless scene or one about to change? Consider obstructions and if these may cast shadows; watch for objectionable wires, line-side rubbish, trees, and other items that may detract from your planned image. Pay close attention to lighting and watch the weather.
10) Study the details of railway operations so you may anticipate what and when trains will run and how they will perform. The more you know, the more likely you’ll anticipate a train’s performance and apply that information to your photography. Is the train on an upgrade or drifting? What is the track speed? Is the train approaching a junction, a station, or a speed restriction? Does it run regularly or is it a special move? Will it take the next passing siding or run through on the main line?
11) Arrive at your desired location well before the train is expected.
12) While waiting use your time wisely: make test photos to insure everything is working as intended. If using a digital camera carefully study test photos and check for: focus, exposure, overall composition, the locations of shadows or undesirable visual elements. If trains or equipment pass before the main attraction, always use these as practice for the main event. Some photographers might dismiss this action as ‘waste of time/film/pixels’, but not only will this exercise hone your skills, but in years to come you may find that the photo of the ordinary train dismissed on the day turns out to be more interesting than what you set out to capture!
13) Repeat number 12.
14) Be patient. If you leave before the train passes, your efforts will have been wasted.
15) Study and edit your results. While you should only display photographs that satisfy your expectations; it’s important to study failures and learn from your mistakes.
16) Share your work; idle photographs sitting on hard drives or stored in closets are wasted.
Between 1990 and 1992, I made a series of trips to Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in northern California and south-central Oregon. This fantastic stretch of railroad was characterized by exceptionally steep grades, sinuous alignments, stunning scenery and ancient lower-quadrant semaphore signaling. As a signal enthusiast, I was fascinated by the large numbers of active Union Switch & Signal two-position semaphores used in automatic block service. While these vintage signals could be found elsewhere on SP’s system, there was no greater concentration than on the Siskiyou in Oregon. Another attraction were SP’s collection of classic Electro-Motive diesels, including 1950s-era SD9s (technically SD9E after overhaul) and my favorite 1960s/1970s-era SD45/SD45T-2s famed for their powerful 20 cylinder 645 engine.
At the time I was in a photographic transition: I had just discovered the virtues of the Nikon F3, while still working with my old staple tool, a classic Leica M2 range-finder. This moment of transition and discovery of Nikon’s single lens reflex (SLR) system made my early Siskiyou trips especially exciting. There’s nothing better than have a new tool in a new place! The flexibility, functionality, and ease of use of the F3 SLR was a revelation. Everywhere I turned I saw new photo possibilities! Among the lenses I played with was a Nikkor 35mm PC ‘shift’ lens that allowed adjustments with the front element to correct for linear distortion often associated with wide angle lenses—a tool valuable for keeping semaphore masts parallel to the film plane, and thus avoiding the effect of them visually ‘falling away’ when photographed relatively close. And fun for making skies more dramatic.
More than twenty years later, I still work with my F3T occasionally, as I find it’s strengths are not afforded in any other system. With more than 2,000 rolls through its body, and working on shutter number 3, this old work horse owes me nothing. Like SP’s SD9s, the F3 is tool that has its place, long after more modern and more powerful machines have been acquired to supplant it!
My visits were well-timed too! SP’s operations of the Siskiyou route were about to wind down. I caught the last gasp of big-time railroading on what had once been SP’s primary route to Oregon, but which had been supplanted more than 60-years earlier by the Cascade route’s Natron Cutoff via Klamath Falls and Cascade Summit. All of my images were exposed with Kodachrome film, primarily K25 (ISO 25). I’ve scanned my images using a Epson V600 flatbed and scaled and optimized the scans for digital display using Adobe Photoshop.
Technique: Customizing process for optimal tonality with minimal post-process adjustment
I promised to reveal secrets! While I won’t tell you which American railroad CEO is a serious railfan, nor will I divulge which North American railway company is on the verge of centrifugal destruction, I will spell out the details of my proven black & white process!
In Installment 5 Black & White revisited Part 1, I elaborated on my philosophies and theories behind my traditional black & white photography. I’m not going to rehash that any more than necessary, instead I’ll detail the formulas and specifics of my process so that other photographers may take advantage of my experimentation, and perhaps further refine the process. I go into great detail, so hopefully the specifics will be easily understood.
Back in the late 1980s, I’d refined my B&W photography using Kodak Tri-X and other period films. Typically, I’d overexpose by a stop (basically by rating ‘400 ISO Tri-X’ at 200 ISO—a one stop difference, although in actual practice my system of exposure was more complex). Then, using a diluted mix of Kodak D76 or Ilford ID11 (1:1 developer to water), I’d under-process the film by about 20-25 percent from recommended time. My intent was to produce negatives that while appearing on ‘thin’ side in fact offered adequate detail to produce beautifully rich prints with deep blacks, and a full range of grays with minimum visible grain (in an 8×10 inch print). At that time I preferred prints with relatively low contrast and lots of gray, yet which retained clean, white highlights.
Today my process is different. First of all, I now expose film with the intent of scanning the negatives and not for making chemical prints. Secondly, I’ve altered the process to produce a higher contrast image, one that I feel is better suited for digital display. Instead of Tri-X I’ve been largely working with Fuji Neopan 100 Acros (ISO 100). While initial experiments required a bit of post processing manipulation in Photoshop to adjust the gamma curve of the film image, ultimately I aimed to produced negatives that don’t require this time-consuming post processing adjustment, and more to the point, look great on a computer screen; the intended output is Apple’s iPad.
As I mentioned in Installment 5, Black & White revisited; Old Tech for a New Era part 1, I experimented using my antique Leica IIIa with a 21mm Super-Angulon; with these tests I exposed Acros at its recommended 100 ISO, while using a hand-held Minolta Mark IV light meter in reflective mode to calculate exposure (and fine tuning the exposure aided by more than 25 years of my experience working with that unforgiving medium called ‘color slides’). With my exposure calculations my goal was not just to get a satisfactory exposure for each individual frame, but to maintain consistency through-out the entire roll of film, as I would with color slides. (Just for reference my typical daylight exposure with 100 ISO film in ‘full’ New England sun would be f5.6 at 1/500th of a second.)
I then processed the film in Kodak HC110, using the as-recommended ‘dilution B’. (HC110 is a syrupy developer with a variety of different recommended dilutions; dilution B, as I mixed it, is one part HC110 syrup with 31 parts water. Since I require 32 ounces of developer, this makes for a relative straight forward mix. )
[Note: While a metric equivalent needs only to maintain the ratio; for reference: 1 ounce = 29.6 ml; 32 ounces = 946.2 ml]
From start to finish, my black & white process goes like this:
1) Load film on plastic reels into plastic tanks (in total darkness); cover tank and turn on darkroom lights.
2) Bring all chemistry to ideal developer temperature (in this case 68ºF/20ºC).
3) Pour 32 ounces of water into tank as a pre-bath, soak for 1-2 minutes (with very gentle agitation every 30 seconds; three slow inversions, then a firm tap with the tank at a 45-degree angle to dislodge any air-bubbles, sometimes giving a second tap if bubbles appear).
4) Drain pre-wash, and add developer, agitating to start for about 15 seconds (constantly, but very gently), then returning to the 30 second agitation interval as noted. My total process time at 68ºF was 4 minutes 45 seconds.
5) Drain developer, and quickly add stop-bath, agitating for 30 seconds total time.
6) Drain stop-bath, and add First Fix for 2-3 minutes. (My First Fix is typically already been used, and is ideally Ilford Rapid Fix mixed 1:4 with water). Agitate in same manner as developer.
7) Drain First-Fix, add Second-Fix (same mix as first fix, but freshly mixed) for 2-3 minutes.
8) Drain Second-Fix.
9) Rinse in running water for 3 minutes.
10) Inspect negatives.
11) Add Perma Wash/Hypo Clearing agent for 3 minutes.
12) Rinse in running water for 10 minutes.
13) Add Kodak Selenium toner solution (mixed 1:9 water), agitate very gently once every 30 seconds; total time for toning not more than 9 minutes. (Caution: Selenium toner is unhealthy; extreme care is required to avoid contact with the solution and toning should be done in a well ventilated place, typically outside. Wear gloves.)
14) Rinse in running water for 10-15 minutes.
15) Final rinse in clean de-ionized water with a few drops of Kodak Photo-Flo 200 (wetting agent).
16) Remove from reels and hang dry.
I’ve scanned the negatives at 3200 dpi using an Epson V600 flatbed scanner. After making hi-res TIFFs for my archive, I scaled selected images into the JPEG format for Web display. (While my initial application is computer/iPad display, I want a hi-res image for future use.)
Using this process, I obtained satisfactory results for the iPad, but the negatives required too much post processing to adjust the gamma curve for desirable contrast. Specifically I needed to improve highlight and shadow areas. Also, I found that the peculiarities of the 21mm lens were complicating matters. This lens has almost a polarized contrast/color-palate which made for some challenging black & white images. Some of the photos are pleasing, but my success ratio was less than hoped for.
I found two more pleasing alternatives: One was my Nikon F3 with traditional lenses (topic for another post), the other was working with my Dad’s Leica M4 and a 35mm f1.4 Summilux lens. Using this latter camera/lens combination, I then further refined my processing. Specifically, I increased development time by 30 seconds to 5 minutes 15 seconds, then ultimately to 5 minutes 30 seconds while making two other small changes:
First, I added a very small amount of developer to my pre-bath. This is a technique I use for other B&W processes that seems to have helped here as well. In theory, a very small quantity of developer in the pre-wash should get the development process underway which allows for slight better shadow detail without a dramatic increase of overall negative density.
Second, I cut my Selenium Toning from 9 minutes to 5 minutes, then further to 4 minutes 30 seconds, in order to reduce the effect of the toner on the highlights.
Using these final process modifications, I found that most of the resulting negatives made with the M4/Sumilux required virtually no post-processing and some were ready for display directly from the scanner. All of the photos displayed in this post were exposed and processed as described using the Leica M4 with 35mm Summilux lens with Fuji Across 100, and processed using the basic formula as illustrated. As always, I’ll probably continue to make adjustments to this formula as needed.
Central Vermont Railway northward freight 323 at Windsor, Vermont, October 14, 1993. (Scanned from a 35mm slide using an Epson V500 scanner.)
This is among my favorite railway images. It was part of a sequence of photos I made—a similar version to this one appears on page 88 of Railway Photography (Solomon & Gruber, 2003). Need I detail the charms of Vermont in autumn? Crisp weather, colorful foliage, quaint villages, and stunning scenery have long made Vermont Octobers popular with photographers, while classic rural railway operations make it a great place to experience American railroads in action. My parents first brought me to Vermont in search of railways in the late 1960s, and my earliest memories of railroads include poking around Bellows Falls and riding Steamtown’s trains. In autumn 1993, I was on my annual shoestring tour of the East that brought me from Montreal to central West Virginia over the course of six weeks as I chased the foliage from north to south, while traveling in concentric circles looking for photo opportunities of trains.
Based on previous years’ travels, I’d ascertained that the first week of October tended to produce peak color in central Vermont, so on October 7th, I set out from Monson, Massachusetts, in a borrowed Honda Accord. Driving north on I-91, I got off at Bellows Falls, where I hoped to find working either the Central Vermont or Green Mountain railways. While, it isn’t necessary to find trains moving to make great autumn railway photos, I prefer action images to add a bit of thrill to the chase. At that time, CV’s Palmer, Massachusetts, to St. Albans, Vermont, through freight tended to depart Palmer yard limits in the very early hours of the morning and find daylight between Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. This proved true, and I followed the train for most of the morning, making photos along the way. Among the locations I chose was a view of this plate girder bridge over the Connecticut River near Windsor, Vermont. Standing on the New Hampshire side of the river (near the famous long covered bridge) I’d opted for a 200mm Nikon lens, and framed the locomotives tightly on the bridge; in the process I cropped out most of Mt. Ascutney. In that photograph the sun was shining brightly, so in almost all respects I’m happy with the result — except for the fact that my focus on the locomotives cropped one of Vermont’s most famous mountains.
My notes from the day show that I exposed my photographs using Kodachrome 25 at f5.6 and 1/125th of a second. At the time, I recorded each day’s photography on a detailed form. Kodachrome 25 was then my staple medium, and so went unrecorded; however, when I deviated from that choice I’d make special note of the film in my log. Later in the day, I photographed Central Vermont’s southward 324 on this same plate girder span featuring the covered highway bridge in the distance (this image appeared in TRAINSMagazine in 1998).
One week later, I made a repeat trip to Vermont. By this time the foliage was past peak, yet I was determined to make the most of the day, as autumn remained my prime season for photography. At 7:15 AM, I was back at Bellows Falls where I found a Boston & Maine (Guilford) local working the Green Mountain interchange tracks near the passenger station. A heavy river fog blanketed the town making the scene dark, but not especially ethereal (f4, 1/15 sec). The signal on the Conn-River mainline lit up in the northward direction, ‘yellow-over-green-over-red,’ meaning ‘Approach Medium,’ and I knew that CV’s 323 was close. Rather than make dull photographs with Kodachrome in the dimly lit morning gloom (which may sound more attractive than it was), I continued north to Claremont, New Hampshire, where the railroad crosses the Sugar River Valley on a high tower-supported girder trestle. My hope was that by the time CV 323 arrived the morning sun may have burned off the fog on the bridge. Good theory, but no joy. I ended up with a foggy silhouette of the train on the bridge at 8:05 AM.
While CV’s freights tended to clip along, I made good speed and returned to my spot near the Windsor covered bridge. I had enough time to set up my Bogan tripod and take a couple of cursory meter readings with my Sekonic Studio Deluxe light meter. The fog was lifting as I heard the train whistle for the highway crossing on New Hampshire Route 12A, and shortly before the train eased onto the bridge the sun popped out. Instead of the 200mm Nikon f4 lens I’d used the previous week, this time I chose my Nikkor 105mm f1.8 so as to better include Mt. Ascutney. Normally, I’d have used my Nikon F3T (my principle camera at the time), but this had suffered a shutter failure the previous weekend, and instead I was working with my Nikkormat FT3 (oddly adorned with red leather instead of black—not my choice, but I’d bought it second hand as a cheap extra body). CV 323 rolled into view as mist was rolling off the river — the sunlight was down about a stop from full daylight (which in an October Vermont would typically warrant about f4.5, 1/250, on K25). My exposure notes recorded “8:30 AM Windsor, VT (Conn River Bridge) f4.5 1/125 (bracket?) COSMIC Light!”.
I probably made three exposures: up a third, down a third, and spot on f4.5, that was my standard routine when the light was changing rapidly. Keep in mind there was a slow order on the bridge, so 323 wasn’t moving very quickly. (I also apparently made a 50mm view probably with my Dad’s Leica, although I’m not sure what happened to that image—possibly it didn’t turn out as hoped.) Although, this was by far the best shot of the day, I continued northward, and later in the morning picked up the New Hampshire & Vermont railway local that ran from White River Junction, Vermont, to Whitefield, New Hampshire. That also proved fortuitous, as much of the old Boston & Maine line between Wells River, Vermont north to Whitefield was abandoned and lifted a few years later. The bad news? I left the lens cap for my 105mm at the Windsor covered bridge! (one of many lens caps unhappily abandoned in the heat of a chase).
If you find a copy of Railway Photography that John Gruber and I wrote back in 2003, and seek out page 88, you may notice that the caption indicates that I used my F3T with 200mm f4 lens for the October 14, 1993 photo. This is an error, and in fact that was the data for the October 7th image at the same location. How could that happen?! Simple, when I wrote the photography book, I looked at the wrong set of notes. My mistake!