Trains crossing vast western vistas make for compelling images, yet, back in 1989 I also made an effort to document western railroads in ordinary urban environments.
in December 1989, this Southern Pacific eastward freight was easing up to the east end of Roseville Yard, preparing to depart for its run over Donner Pass. Its EMD diesels with 20-cylinder 645E3 engines pulsed their dynamic sounds of power.
I framed it up in the trees and featured a non-descript donut shop that was part of the scene. Also, I placed my car in the photo. Soon, I was rolling east on I-80, thinking about where to catch the freight on the grade.
Exposed on Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 with f2.0 50mm lens.
Mount Shasta looms more than 90 miles to north, as Southern Pacific’s most famous locomotives races railroad west through along Hooker Creek (near Cottonwood, California).
I exposed this image on September 2, 1991. Southern Pacific had organized the historic streamlined engine to make a public appearances in the Sacramento River Canyon as a goodwill gesture following a serious derailment at the Cantera Loop which spilled toxins into the river above Dunsmuir. The railroad had hired me for two days to make photographs of the PR event.
Brian Jennison provided transport, and the two of us spent a long weekend making numerous images of SP 4449 with the matching Daylight train. I borrowed Brian’s 300mm Nikkor telephoto for this dramatic image. SP ran one of my photos in their company magazine, Southern Pacific Bulletin.
While SP’s public runs ran from Redding to Dunsmuir and beyond to Black Butte, after the train returned to Dunsmuir, it would run light to the wye at Tehama for turning. It was on this portion of the journey(s) that I made some of the most dramatic photos because they occurred in the evening when the lighting was most pleasing.
I’d chosen this angle to feature Mt. Shasta. Unfortunately, owing to the time of year, the famous volcanic cone wasn’t covered with snow in its higher regions.
This photo has appeared in books, and I’ve used many of the images from the trip in publications. SP 4449 remains one of my favorite locomotives.
Southern Pacific 2472 Entertains its Public in May 2008
Back in May 2008, I was researching for my book Railroads of California, when I visited the Niles Canyon Railway and made this photograph of Southern Pacific 4-6-2 No. 2472 at Sunol.
This Baldwin-built heavy Pacific was a fine sight that attracted thousands of visitors to the railway. To the delight of its fans, it powered excursions over the line between Sunol and Niles Station at Fremont.
I’ve made lots of photos of 2472 over the years; and one of these images from the 1990s is the cover of my recently released locomotive anthology titled Classic Locomotives published by Voyageur Press. By contrast, the photo display here is focused on the engine’s fans rather than the locomotive itself.
Incidentally, This old Baldwin has been one of my favorite locomotives for years, and coincidentally, when my mobile phone provider issued my cell phone number about ten years ago, it was these four digits I was given. Although the phone company had the right idea, they gave me the prefix for the Prairie wheel arrangement rather than that for a Pacific.
In the mid-1990s, I made numerous trips to California’s remote and desolate Modoc County in the far northeastern portion of the state. Here Southern Pacific’s rolling Modoc Line hosted big trains which made for a stunning, but difficult, subject.
Not only was the line exceptionally far away, but also traffic was unusually sparse and often erratic. SP had built the route in the late-1920s, piecing together the old Nevada-California-Oregon 3-foot gauge with bits of new construction and other trackage.
My favorite part of the Modoc was the old narrow gauge N-C-O section, where it looked as if tracks had been laid down on the desert floor with little concern for heavy grading.
This raw construction was evident at the Indian Camp Loop (compass south from Alturas) where SP’s line curved around to gain elevation.
In the second week of February 1994, Brian Jennison and I set out from Verdi, Nevada making the lonely drive up to the Modoc Line where we spent two rare days photographing trains.
We scored big with an EUCH-Q (Eugene-Chicago Quality) manifest freight that was led by a pair of brand new EMD GP60s.
Here’s a tip: when working sparse or erratic lines it really helps to have an inside track on operations, yet all the information in the world can’t help you if you’re not trackside! When you are trackside it’s helpful to know where the best locations are in advance of trains. In this case we had both the needed operational knowledge as well as prior location knowledge, and made the time to be trackside to take full advantage of it.
On October 4, 1992, Brian Jennison and I gave a Donner Pass tour to a pair of Union Pacific officials visiting from Omaha.
We started the morning early and drove to Andover on fire roads to witness a westward freight climbing through the curves in Cold Stream Canyon west of Truckee. Later we went up to Troy on the west slope and made an inspection of the Cascade Bridges.
Southern Pacific was busy that day. My notes indicate that we photographed nine trains, including Amtrak 5 and 6 (California Zephyrs).
At 3:40pm we caught this westward freight near Donner Summit at the snow sheds in Norden, California, then followed it west to Yuba Pass.
I climbed to the top of a hill over looking the line and exposed a sequence of Kodachrome slides with my Nikon F3T fitted with a f4.0 200mm lens mounted on a Bogan 3021 tripod. This slide was exposed at f4.5 1/250th of a second. (I bracketed up and down 1/3 stops to insure I made an optimally exposed slide).
I spent a lot of time exploring Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass in 1990. Among my favorite locations was ‘Old Gorge’, sometimes referred to as ‘American,’ where SP’s line rides briefly on an open shelf some 2,000 feet above the American River.
This offers a stunning view of the American River Canyon, but can be a pretty challenging place to effectively portray a train on film.
On this day in July 1990, I’d been following a westward SP freight downgrade, and driven as close to my location as was practical, and then walked to this ledge overlooking the line.
The classic whine of dynamic brakes preceded the train by several minutes. I made several exposures as the train came into view.
In this situation, I used the camera and lens handheld, and made a slight adjustment to the shifting element front element. Instead of aiming the camera down toward the front of the locomotive, as I would with a conventional 35mm lens, I aimed toward to the far rim of the canyon, while lowering the front element downward to take in the tracks.
As the train passed, I panned the nose of the leading SD45, exposing this frame when it was roughly parallel with the film plane.
Since I didn’t have the camera completely level there is still a bit of line convergence, yet the overall view helps put the magnitude of the canyon in perspective with the train without the locomotive appearing too small or seriously distorted.
Southern Pacific’s streamlined Daylight was one of the great classic American trains. It was so popular that a recreation of the train was assembled in the 1980s using traditional equipment, including one of the last surviving SP 4-8-4s, the often photographed engine 4449.
In April 1991, I was traveling with Brian Jennison and J.D. Schmid in pursuit of various steam locomotives converging on Sacramento, California for RailFair 1991. Earlier in the week we’d made images of Union Pacific’s 844 and 3985 working former Western Pacific lines.
We’d driven overnight to this location just north of the California-Oregon state line. While I’d photographed SP lines in Oregon the previous year, Worden was new to me. The location was selected for the sweeping curve on an upgrade, which was hoped to produce a bit smoke. The location was selected for the sweeping curve on an upgrade, which was hoped to produce a bit smoke.
We knew that 4449 was on its way. I was fascinated. While I was very familiar with SP’s magnificent class Gs4 ‘Golden State’ 4-8-4s, having often seen them in photographs and magazines, this was my first experience with the engine in person.
By the time the train came into view, at least a dozen photographers were on site. A helicopter had landed on the far side of the tracks with video crew on board. This was more than just a train, it was an event!
I positioned my Nikon F3T with f4 200mm lens on my 3021 Bogen tripod loaded with Kodachrome 25. I also made exposures my Leica M2 handheld.
I made a selection of images as the train roared by. My favorite is this view, which has been various reproduced in books and other publications.
I deliberately broke a variety of conventions in the composition. Traditional steam photographers might shake their heads in dismay. I’m positioned on the ‘dark side’ of the tracks. I’m using a long telephoto lens. Instead of a centered view, I’ve positioned the train toward the left side of the frame.
Probably the most unusual thing was with my focus point. Instead of setting the focus on the front of the locomotive, I aimed it more toward the tail car. The combined result of the compositional effects is a peculiar tension that draws the eye toward the back of the train and to the scene, despite the dominance and drama of the engine.
Unhappy with this? Well, I also made a rather straightforward 50mm view. And, if that’s not good enough, did I mention the other dozen or so photographers?
Southern Pacific Gs4 4449 in the classic Daylight livery works railroad-direction west near Worden, Oregon in April 1991. Exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film. Exposure calculated manually using a Sekonic Studio Deluxe handheld photocell.
Working with Harsh Light in the California Sierra.
On the advice of J.D. Schmid, in June 1990, I’d bought my first single lens reflex; a Nikon F3T (which I still use, occasionally). Initially, I owned just two lenses: a 35mm PC (perspective control—tilt/shift) and a second-hand Nikkon f4.0 200mm telephoto.
For most of my photography, I was still working with my Leica M2, and so the Nikon was just a new toy.
Living in Roseville, California near the Southern Pacific yard, gave me ample opportunity to explore and photograph SP operations. My favorite subject was Donner Pass, and most weekends would find me wandering around at high elevations seeking angles on the railroad.
The Sierra can be a challenging place to make railroad photos. On this morning, I was between Yuba Pass and Crystal Lake on the west slope of Donner. I’d photographed this SP westward freight descending the mountain using the new F3T and 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25.
Despite photographic conventions, I was positioned on the dark side of the line, and aimed into the sun, while looking cross-light the train. The glinty back-lit rocks help silhouette the locomotives. Although the time of day resulted in harsh contrast and a stark scene, I like the result. It captures the spirit of raw mountain railroading that for me was SP on Donner.
This is a place where the tracks are cut into a rock shelf and require lots of power to get trains over the spine of the Sierra Range. Back lighting and telephoto compression shows the heat of from the dynamic brakes rolling off the tops of SP’s ‘Tunnel Motors’ (locomotives specifically built to endure the rigors of Donner). In the distance is a hint of one of SP’s wide signal bridges, necessary for winter operations.
On the evening of August 15, 2009, I was photographing along the former Western Pacific near Oroville, California. At that time, Union Pacific was doing heavy work on its parallel former Southern Pacific line over Donner Pass, and it was understood that double-stack container traffic would soon be shifted off the old WP route in favor of Donner Pass. Time was running out to regularly catch double stack trains on the WP route and I focused my efforts on making the most of this while I could.
At the end of the day, I made this image of a westward double stack train stopped at a signal east of Oroville. Wildfires had filled the atmosphere with smoke, which lend to a surreal painterly light. Low sun accentuated the effect and the combination of California golden grass with smoke tinted glint light offered wonderful photographic opportunity.
I exposed these images on Fujichrome slide film with my Canon EOS 3 using several different focal lengths. It was a spectacular finish to a productive day of photography. I’d made my first visit to the Western Pacific in October 1989, nearly 20 years earlier. Hard to believe so much time had passed between these trips. In 1966, my father, Richard Jay Solomon, rode west over this line in a dome car on Western Pacific’s famed California Zephyr.
Significantly, this portion of the Western Pacific route (between Oroville and the lower reaches of the Feather River Canyon) was built new in the early 1960s as part of a line relocation forced by construction of the Oroville Dam.
In this case, I’ve walked (or scrambled) further down the hillside from my parking place on Carquinez Scenic Drive. The road is gated overnight and opened to the public in the early morning hours. Finding the right street in Martinez to reach Carquinez Scenic Drive can be a trial to the uninitiated, a good map or sat-nav device is recommended. I used a Northern California DeLorme Atlas and Map Quest, (plus vague memories of having photographed from this road in the early 1990s).
Working with hard silhouettes requires careful exposure. Also, I’ve found it helps to avoid excessive lens flare. This is one of those things you rarely read about. If the sun (or other bright light) hits the front element of your lens it will cause flare which will change the contrast of the image and may cause patterns (light streaks or blobs).
While in some instances it may be desirable to include flare (Hollywood discovered the dramatic use of flare in the 1960s and 1970s), often it is best to minimize it.
What to do? Shade the sun from hitting the front of your lens. Traditionally a lens hood will solve this problem . However, when the sun is very low to the horizon, a simple lens hood isn’t sufficient. To compensate, I’ll try to find something to stand behind (such as a hedge, awning, convenient sign post). If this fails, I’ll use my notebook (which I carry with me everywhere) to shade the lens. For this reason, I often carry a 5×7 in size notebook with a dull charcoal gray cover (to minimize reflection).
I’ll position the notebook in such a way so its shadow covers the front element, but the notebook itself isn’t in the image. This is a handy trick to use for night photography too. It helps to have the camera on a tripod (or have a capable assistant to hold the notebook!)
In this instance, my intent was to emphasize the glint off the rails and signal bridge in a hard silhouette. Notice where I’ve positioned the locomotives in relation to the glinting sun. I’ve deliberately exposed for the highlights, allowing the shadows to consume most detail.