Although only partially related to my photographic work, I thought that Tracking the Light readers might be interested to learn that I’m conducting a series of audio podcasts with Trains Magazine.
Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be interviewing and discussing railroads with a variety of knowledgeable and interesting people, including active and retired railroaders, tourist railroad operators, railroad activists, and a few well known railroad enthusiasts and railroad publishing professionals.
Among my first conversations was with John Gruber about his latest book: Beebe & Clegg—Their Enduring Legacy.
My hope is to allow my guests expertise and perspectives to entertain and inform my listeners and enable all of us a great appreciation and understand of railroad topics ranging from freight cars and locomotives, signals, stations and short lines to how to avoid snakes while making photos.
A new Podcast will be released every two weeks. My aim is to keep these to between 16 and 20 minutes.
My author’s advanced copy of the July 2018 Trains has been eagerly awaited.
In addition to my monthly column, I authored and illustrated two large feature articles.
The first is a detailed nuts and bolts discussion on Positive Train Control signaling, the second a travel guide to one of my favorite places: Germany’s Rhein.
I’m extremely pleased with how both stories turned out. Special thanks to my hosts at SEPTA for allowing me to better understand the intricacies of their modern signaling. And thanks to everyone at Trains Magazine for bringing these stories to print!
A couple of weeks ago I made these views of some colorful Trenitalia trains at Roma Termini.
Bright Mediterranean light is pleasant to work with. In this situation I’ve taken the classic approach with the sun over my left shoulder. It was nice to have some interesting, yet static subjects to work with.
I made several digital views with my Lumix LX7, but also exposed some 35mm color slides on Fujichrome Provia.
These are the digital images. We’ll need to wait to see how the slides turned out.
Check out pages 16-17 of the August 2017 Trains Magazine. I take a look at Italian Railways. Notice that the Italian State Railways ridership is nearly 20 times that of Amtrak! And they are aiming to grow their business and market share through massive investment.
Ride a line once, and it’s an adventure! Ride the line every day and it can become drudgery.
In June, I made an adventure of riding NJ Transit.
My trip was thoroughly pleasant and without incident, except for my brief conversation with an unnecessarily surly NJT conductress at Secaucus, “The SIGN is over THERE!” (Gosh! Forgive me for neither knowing the routine nor how to interpret NJT’s train color coding on platform B).
Ok ok, after all there’s a reputation to be maintained here, I understand.
But, perhaps NJ Transit could take a few tips from the Belgian national railways when it comes to employee uniforms, customer service, and timetable planning. (All top marks for the SNCB based on my experiences).
Tracking the Light posts new and original content daily!
The word was out that Norfolk Southern’s Pennsylvania Railroad painted heritage locomotive was to work a detoured stack train over CSX’s Trenton Subdivision to avoid a scheduled engineering project at Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Pat Yough and I planted ourselves at the West Trenton, New Jersey SEPTA station in anticipation. A number of other enthusiasts had similar plans, so there was plenty of company.
The former Reading station building at West Trenton is now privately owned (and serves a non-railroad function), while the platforms remain active for SEPTA’s regularly scheduled passenger trains to Philadelphia.
When we arrived, morning clouds were giving way to sun. A pair of westward CSX trains was holding just west of the electrified zone and the radio was alive with activity.
In a little more than an hour we caught three SEPTA trains and four freights. This kept me and my three cameras pretty busy. My goal was not just to photograph the trains, but to capture these trains in this classic railroad environment.
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.
The other night in Palmer, Massachusetts an arctic breeze was blowing, but that didn’t stop me from making time exposures to capture the holiday spirit.
I exposed these photos despite numb hands and cold feet. I used my Lumix LX-3 (choice night camera in cold weather) fitted to a large Bogen tripod.
Years ago, I fitted plastic-foam pipe insulation to the tripod legs (as per recommendation by experienced cold-weather photographer Mike Gardner). This makes it easier to handle the tripod when it’s very cold.
My exposures varied from about 1.6 seconds at f2.8 (ISO 200) to 25 seconds at f4.0 (ISO80). I set the camera manually using the histogram from test exposures to gauge my settings.
Christmas lights on dark nights make for exceptionally difficult contrast. If you overexpose to allow good shadow detail the lights get blown out (losing their color[s] as a result). Underexpose to feature the lights and the sky and shadows turn to an inky black.
Somewhere in between is a compromised setting. Rather than ponder the subtleties of the histogram as the blood in my toes congealed, I opted to take a series of images, one after the other, and select the best of the bunch in a warm environment later on.
Villach is in southern Austria near the Slovenia-border. Here the Tauern and Semmering routes converge; there’s several yards, a handsome old passenger station, some stunning scenery. To the south, lines again divide, with one route heading southwest toward Italy, and another south into Slovenia.
There’s no shortage of trains.
This is a good thing, because while standing out on a freezing January 2006 morning, I was beginning to question the wisdom of making railway photographs.
After several hours in the cold, I noticed the Austrian equivalent of a convenience store near tracks and this seemed inviting. Inside it was immaculately clean, warm, nicely decorated, and (most importantly) it was serving piping hot cups of chocolate and freshly baked pastries. Hooray!
There was plenty of time to witness and photograph the Austrian Federal Railways after a thaw.
I’ve always liked to make macro views of railways. Examining the texture, colors, and shape of the equipment, track and structures allows for better appreciation of the subject.
One of the best times to make close ups and detail photographs is under dramatic lighting; low sun or stormy light, where richer qualities make for more pleasing tones. Even the most mundane and ordinary subjects seem more interesting with great light.
Yet, detailed views can also make use of dull days when by focusing on texture and using extreme focus can compensate for flat lighting.
Irish Rail made for an especially good subject for detailed images, in part because there was so much antique equipment to photograph. Well-worn infrastructure is inherently fascinating. Here out in the open metal has been doing a job for decades and often it shows the scars from years of hard work, like an old weaver’s time weathered hands.
I’ve made hundreds of Irish Rail close-ups over the years. Here a just a few. Look around railways near you and see what you find! Sometimes the most interesting photographs can be made while waiting for trains.
Thinking up new ideas everyday takes a lot of effort, so today, I’ll rely on clichés and old ideas with a new twist to fill the gap.
Back in the day, in the 1980s, I’d wander up to the Boston & Maine at East Deerfield where I’d photograph trains on well-worn rights-of-way led by first and second generation EMDs. I was thrilled to find freight trains on the move!
The poor ‘ol B&M had seen better days. New England had been in industrial decline since World War I. It was my understanding that the old phrase ‘it’s gone south,’—meaning ‘it’s gone to the dogs’—originated when New England’s textile industries began closing and heading to the Carolinas and Georgia. (Never mind Southeast Asia, China and what not).
Guilford Transportation came about and melded Maine Central with B&M and briefly with D&H. For a few years the railroad was really busy. Traffic was on the upswing, new intermodal trains were introduced, and run-through locomotives from D&H, Maine Central, as well as Norfolk & Western/Norfolk Southern became common.
Then a souring passed over the scene. ‘All that glitters is not gold’, as they say (paraphrasing an English poet), and the well-trodden paths to the Hoosac Tunnel and along the Connecticut quieted for a time.
Things changed again with the dissolution of Conrail. Now Guilford is Pan American Railways and Pan Am Southern. Metallic blue paint has begun to replace charcoal and orange. And traffic is on the rise.
Yet to me, while there’s been some changes, the old B&M is a throwback to another time.
Yes, there’s a few new signals, some new welded rail here and there, and some nice fresh ties. Many of the old searchlight signals and signal bridges are gone and here and there the tracks have been trimmed back. But the B&M has the appearance of retro railroad. It’s like classic rock with spin.
Last week, on November 21, 2013, my old friend Paul Goewey and I went up to East Deerfield. It was like old times. First and second generation EMD diesels were moving freight in every direction while decaying vestiges of New England industry could still be found at every turn.
Just sayin’ it seems to me that at the end of the day, it is what it is, and MORE!
Last week, John Gruber and I called into TRAINS Magazine for a social visit.
John has been a regular visitor at TRAINS since David P. Morgan was editor. I’ve been calling by since 1994.
We pre-arranged for the visit during a conversation at Beecherfest. TRAINS’ Matt Van Hattem met us inside Kalmbach’s glassy office building and we spent an hour chatting with the magazine’s editors.
Editor in chief, Jim Wrinn was away on assignment in California where he was on a live-feed covering the pending movement of Union Pacific Big Boy 4014.
For me, railway photography has always been more than just images of tracks and trains, and I brought my Lumix into this inner publishing sanctum to make a few photos of the people that produce America’s most popular railway magazines.
Trains Converge on Palmer; 2 Hours of Non-stop Action.
In the 1980s, Trains Magazine occasionally ran articles that featured ‘hot spots’ illustrated by sequences of photos showing different trains passing the same place over the course of hours.
These always caught my attention. While the individual images ranged from pedestrian to interpretive, the collective effect produced an understanding of how a busy spot worked.
Trains tend to arrive in clusters. Hours may pass where nothing goes by except a track car, then trains arrive from every direction. The astute photographer has learned when to make the most of these situations.
Palmer, Massachusetts can be a busy place, if you’re there at the right time. CSX’s east-west former Boston & Albany mainline crosses New England Central’s (NECR) former Central Vermont line at grade. An interchange track connects the two routes and serves as connection to the former B&A Ware River Branch operated by Massachusetts Central.
Afternoon tends to be busy. Among the moves through Palmer are Amtrak’s Vermonters that use CSX’s line between Springfield and Palmer, and NECR’s line north of Palmer toward Vermont. There isn’t a direct connection to allow an eastward train on the CSX route to directly access the NECR’s line.
To compensate for this, Amtrak’s trains must use CSX’s controlled siding to access the interchange track, and this to reach the NECR. This requires trains to reverse direction. As a result, Amtrak trains either have locomotives on each end or run with a push-pull cab control car.
On the afternoon of October 17, 2013, the interchange track proved one of the busiest lines in Palmer and was used by a succession of NECR, Mass-Central, and Amtrak trains.
Complicating matters was Amtrak 57 (southward Vermonter) which was running more than an hour behind its scheduled time, and so met its northward counterpart at Palmer. New England Central was also busy with no less than three trains working around Palmer about the same time.
I’ve put the following photos in sequence with the approximate times of exposure. I stress ‘approximate’, since my digital camera’s clocks not only didn’t agree on the minutes passed the hour, but were set for different time zones as a function of recent travel.
It was a nice bright day too. Patrons at Palmer’s ever popular Steaming Tender restaurant (located in the restored former Palmer Union Station) were entertained with a succession of trains passing on both sides of the building.
Not bad for one afternoon! Yet, not a CSX train in sight. These days much of CSX’s business passes Palmer in darkness.
In the late 1980s only a few active semaphores remained in New England. One of the best places to see them was at the crossing of former New Haven Railroad lines in Walpole, Massachusetts.
I made this photo of a new Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority F40PH-2 leading an outward train on the Franklin Line on the afternoon of March 2, 1988. The attraction for me was the contrast between the new locomotive and the ancient signal.
A variation of this image appeared in TRAINS Magazine some years ago. I exposed it on Kodachrome 25 using my Leica M2 with a f2.0 35mm Summicron.The combination of clear New England light, Leica optics, and K25 film enhanced the scene.
For many years Kingscote was effectively Bluebell’s northern terminus. That changed this year when the extension to East Grinstead was finally opened along with the direct connection to Network Rail.
Now, as a quiet mid-point on the Bluebell line, it embodies all the qualities of a small town passenger station from a time long ago. Adding to the rural solitude is a ban on visitor automobiles in the car park. (Railway riders are encourage to use other stations on the line).
The facilities are faithfully decorated to convey the spirit of long ago. I appreciated a lack of modern intrusions. Not so much as an electronic beep could be heard during my brief visit. (I turned off the various sounds uttered by my digital cameras!). I should have brought my Rollei Model T for effect.
During my hour visit at Kingscote, I was rewarded with the arrive of a wedding special hauled by a diminutive locomotive named ‘Bluebell’ and decorated appropriately.
Orange Engine at Stafford Springs, Ct., and Irish Rail’s IWT Liner in Dublin.
Last week I made these photos, nearly exactly 24 hours apart (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon).
The first image shows New England Central’s freshly painted GP402-L 3015 leading a southward freight at Stafford Springs, Connecticut. I was delighted to finally get this elusive orange engine operating on a road-freight in daylight.
The next image was made in Dublin, after a trans Atlantic crossing courtesy of Aer Lingus. This shows locomotive 073 struggling along with the second IWT Liner at Islandbridge Junction near Heuston Station in Dublin, Ireland.
Later, I heard through the grapevine that 073 failed a few miles down the line and require assistance.
Both images were made with my Canon EOS 7D. Also both feature 1970s-era General Motors diesels singly hauling freight under bright sunny skies.
Although Palmer is a relatively small town, it has long been the focus of railway activity. Today, it hosts yards for both New England Central and CSX, as well as nominal terminal facilities for Mass-Central.
CSX has a four-mile dispatchers controlled siding the runs from CP79 to CP83 (the numbers are based loosely interpret mileage from South Station, Boston). Just past the west switch at CP83 is the level crossing with New England Central—colloquially known as the Palmer Diamond. The popular Steaming Tender restaurant occupies the old Union Station between the two lines.
After 10pm, trains converged on CP83. A CSX westbound on the main track met an eastward freight running via the controlled siding, as New England Central’s northward job 606 was looking to cross CSX to double its train together before heading toward Vermont.
The awkward nature of the former Central Vermont yard at Palmer complicates operations over the CSX diamond. Not only is the yard too short to hold long trains, but the yard was built on a grade which crests at the CSX (former Boston & Albany crossing).
Challenges for railroaders produce opportunities for photography, especially in the evening hours. As the railroads weaved their trains through Palmer, I made a series of photos.
However, time was catching me up: I’d had a long day and by 11pm, I needed a bit of that elusive commodity—sleep. As Bob Buck would have said, I was the ‘hero’, and departed as more trains were focused on Palmer. The approach lit signals at CP83 were still lit when I hit the road. The regular gang can report on what I missed!
I made this image during my senior year of high school. I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but on that day I’d followed Central Vermont Railway’s southward freight from Palmer to Stafford. I made photos of it south of downtown Monson off Route 32, and at the Massachusetts-Connecticut State Line.
This view in downtown Stafford Springs has always intrigued me. The railroad runs tight to a row of buildings along the main street in town. Today, the brick building featured in the photograph hosts a trendy coffee shop where I sometimes meet my friend Roger Ingraham to wait for trains to pass and discuss photography.
In 2013, New England Central operates the railroad, but the scene hasn’t changed all that much. I still make photos here from time to time.
I exposed this image with my old Leica 3A and 50mm Summitar lens, and used a Weston Master 3 light meter to assist in exposure calculation. I processed the film myself in Microdol-X. Typically, I used a weak formula to save money. By doing so, I inadvertently avoided over developing my negatives (which was a flawed inclination of mine at the time).
I made a few minor contrast modifications in post processing and cleaned up a few small spots and scratches on this nearly 30 year-old 35mm negative.
Fifteen years ago today, I exposed this image of Irish Rail’s empty Ammonia train at on the South Eastern route Bray Head (former Dublin & South Eastern Railway, nee Dublin, Wicklow & Wexford Railway).
At that time, there were three daily ammonia trains between Marino Point, County Cork and Shelton Abbey near Arklow, County Wicklow. The trains operated to tight schedules and were among the most predictable freight trains on the Irish Rail network.
For me the Ammonia was a bonus. I was actually out for a Railway Preservation Society Ireland (RPSI) steam special running with engine 461. To make the most of the morning, I taken the first southward Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) run from Pearse Station (Dublin) to Bray, then walked roughly two miles to this location in anticipation of catching the regular passenger trains and the empty Ammonia.
The line itself was in transition. If you look carefully, you’ll see the electrification masts along the line, as Irish Rail was preparing for extension of DART services to Greystones (the next station south of Bray).
The run around Bray Head is one of the most scenic on Irish Rail. Here the line clings to cliff and passes through several tunnels all the while in view of the vast expanse of the Irish Sea.
It was my first July 4th outside of North America. Irish Rail’s ammonia traffic ceased in 2002, when the fertilizer factory at Shelton Abbey closed. Today there’s no regular freight traffic on the South Eastern route.
Going back to at least the 1980s, a group of us would convene in Palmer on Friday evenings. It used to be that after closing Tucker’s Hobbies on Fridays, Bob Buck would come down for dinner along with customers and friends from the store. Afterwards, we’d head over to ‘the station’ to watch the railroad.
I recall seeing Central Vermont’s old Alco RS-11s on sultry summer evenings, belching clouds of exhaust and sparks, while we waiting for the parade of westward Conrail trailvans (intermodal piggy-back trains); TV-5, TV-13, and etc. Back in the day, I’d make night shots with my Leica 3A. That seems like a long time ago.
This past Friday, a group of us convened at the usual spot; Doug and Janet Moore, Bill Keay, Rich Reed and myself. After a few trains, Doug and Janet were the ‘heroes’ as Bob would have called them; they headed home and a little while later the signals at CP83 lit up. To my astonishment, the ‘C’ light was flashing (the small lunar-white light between the main signal heads). I rushed for my cameras . . .
The signals at CP83 are approach-lit. So, when the signals light, it means that something (usually a train) has shunted the circuit. Among other things, CSX’s CP83 governs the switch at the west end of a controlled siding that begins at CP79 (about four miles to the east). When the signals light with a high green, it means a westward train has been cleared to continue past CP83.
Conrail installed the present signaling system back in 1986 when it converted the Boston & Albany route from directional double track under Automatic Block Signal rule 251 ( ‘signal indication will be the authority for trains to operate with the current of traffic’) to a largely single main track system with controlled sidings and governed by Centralized Traffic Control-style signals with cab signaling.
As a result there are now only wayside signals at dispatcher control points such as CP83. CSX assumed operations from Conrail 14 years ago.
It’s rare, but occasionally a locomotive suffers a cab-signal failure, or a locomotive that isn’t cab signal equipped leads a train. There is a provision with the signal system using the ‘C’ light, to allow a dispatcher to authorize a train to proceed without operative cab signal.
CSX rule CR-1280A names the ‘C’ light aspect as ‘Clear to Next Interlocking’. This gives the train permission to proceed the full distance to the next block ‘approaching next home signal prepared to stop’.
Why am I going into such specific operational details? Because, I’m fascinated by signals, but also in the 27 years since Conrail installed this signal system I’ve only witnessed a ‘C’ light lit, three times. And, I’d never before seen the C-light lit at CP83. I’ve been to CP83 more times that I can count, so for me, that is a really unusual event. (I saw a shooting star that night too, but those are common by comparison!)
Fortunately, I had cameras handy, and, perhaps more to the point, I had my dad’s Gitzo tripod, which made this sequence of images possible. (Other wise I would have trying to balance the camera with stacks of coins on the roof of my Golf, but, we’ll save that for another event . . .)
I just wish that Bob Buck could have been there with us to watch the train pass. He would have enjoyed that.
All images exposed with a Lumix LX3 set manually at f2.8 for 15 seconds, ISO 80.
Often I look to put trains in their environment by trying to find angles that show context. Not every railway scene is scenic. And, in the North East, more often than not, the environment around the railway is pretty rough looking. But that is the scene, isn’t it?
On Wednesday May 29, 2013, Rich Reed and I were making photos of trains on former Boston & Maine lines around Ayer, Massachusetts. Rich has lived in the area for many years and is well versed on the history of the area.
Among the trains we saw was this Pan Am Southern local switching a set of autoracks. In the 1970s, a GP9 would have often worked Boston & Maine’s Ayer local. Today, Pan Am Southern runs the railroad, and the local is a pair of Norfolk Southern GE six-motor DASH-9s working long hood first.
I made several images east of the Ayer station. One of my favorites is the view looking down the street that features a parked postal truck and cars with the train serving as background instead of the main subject. It’s an ordinary everyday scene, yet it’s part of the history, and someday it will be different. Everything changes.
Which of these images will be more memorable in 50 years time? Someone might wonder why the Post Office needed a delivery truck, or what all the wires were for. You just never know.
One of the great features of Britain’s preserved Bluebell Railway is its exceptional attention to detail. Everywhere you look there is something to make the past, alive. Old advertisements, piles of luggage, semaphore signals, cast iron warning signs, and buckets of coal.
You hear the clunk of a rod moving a signal blade from red to green, followed by the shrill guard’s whistle and the slam of a wooden door. Then a mild hiss as the automatic brake is released and the sharper hiss from the locomotive as it eases off the platform. Yet, the Bluebell experience isn’t all about its locomotive, or its trains. The Bluebell is a railway experience.
The time warp ends when you arrive back at East Grinsted, where you insert your ticket with its magnetic stripe into automatic barriers, then board a modern electric multiple unit with sealed windows, plastic décor and space-age loos that look like they belong on the set of Star Trek.
I’ve featured Chicago & North Western 1385 in a number of books, including my American Steam Locomotive (published in 1998 by MBI), and Locomotive (published in 2001 by MBI) and most recently in Alco Locomotives (2009 by Voyageur Press).
The locomotive is preserved at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin, and was operated regularly when I lived in Wisconsin in the mid-1990s. My friend John Gruber had helped save the locomotive in the early 1960s, and it was his son Dick Gruber who introduced me to the engine when we worked for Pentrex Publishing.
Here’s an excerpt of my text from Locomotive on C&NW’s R-1 Class 4-6-0s:
If any one locomotive could be selected to represent Chicago & North Western’s steam power fleet, it would have to be the Class R-1 Ten Wheeler. In its day, the R-1 was the most common, and perhaps the most versatile locomotive on the railroad. A total of 325 R-1 were built, the most numerous type of any C&NW steam locomotive, and they were among the longest lived classes on the railroad as well.
During the last 15 years of the 19th century, C&NW amassed quite a variety of 4-6-0s. Most were products of the Schenectady Locomotive Works, in Schenectady, New York, but some were built by Baldwin.
As I mentioned in Polish Steam Working Disused Track (Published on March 6, 2013), eleven years ago I rode a enthusiast’s excursion from Wolsztyn to Zagan in south eastern Poland led by PKP (Polish National Railways) 2-10-0 Ty3-2. This trip covered a variety of disused lines southwest of the Wolsztyn steam depot.
On that day, the train stopped more than 25 times for photography. This image was made near the end of the run. We were at a remote spot, not far from Zagan. The track was fairly derelict. After we got off, the train pulled ahead making for some nice effluence from the engine. Spring was in bloom and I framed the World War II-era 2-10-0 in the blossoming branches of a hedge.
On the afternoon of September 3, 2005, I made this photo of vintage General Motors diesels working Irish Rail’s Ballina Branch train. The train was working from its connection at Manulla Junction to the north-end of the branch at Ballina. While mixed pairs of class 121 and class 141/181 diesels wasn’t unheard of, by 2005 it was a rare event. Irish Rail’s 071 class General Motors diesels were more common.
Today, the branch passenger service is the domain of railcars. Gone too are the old steam heated Cravens carriages.
I was working with a pair of Nikon F3s (my old F3T and a F3HP). On one I had a Tokina 400mm lens, on the other a Nikkor f2.8 24mm. Both photographs were exposed on Fuji Sensia 100 slide film and scanned.
The program begins at 1900 (7pm) upstairs at the Exmouth Arms, 1 Starcross Street, LONDON NW1, (advertised as a 5 minute walk from London’s Euston station). A nominal donation of £3.50 is asked of non-IRRS members (members £2.50)
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.
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.
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.
On March 30, 2012, a northward CSX auto rack train passes beneath the Bear Mountain Bridge near Fort Montgomery, New York, on its way up the Hudson River. This afternoon image was exposed with my electronic Lumix LX-3. This is the in-camera jpeg, made with the ‘vivid’ color profile with the camera set in the ‘S’ (shutter priority) mode using pattern metering. It was exposed at 1/640 of a second at f 5.0.
Technique: Bring This Camera Everywhere!
I’m a big proponent of always carrying a camera. And as I’ve written elsewhere, ‘If you don’t have a camera, you can’t make a photo.’ As soon as you let this guideline slip, a unique visual opportunity will occur and you won’t be able to capture it. A caveat is: always carry a good camera (why lessen the magic of a unique event with a poor quality photo?). My father had given me an antique Leica IIIa for my tenth birthday and I carried it everywhere and made photos of everything. When I was in school I was ‘the kid with the camera.’ While many of those photos aren’t very good, the point is that I was always ready —constantly going through the motions of making photos taught me how to work under numerous lighting situations. I never relegated my photography to ‘perfect sunny days.’
Over the years my philosophy has resulted in towing around various and different amounts of equipment. Constantly carrying a film-based SLR with a full set of lenses really was pretty awkward, not to mention the big bag of film! It’s one thing to have a camera, it’s another to try to anticipate every possible situation all the time. Beginning in 2001, my ‘everywhere camera’ was a Contax G2 range finder, which had its benefits, but was comparatively heavy, and while it came with interchangeable lenses, these tended to fill my pockets.
In summer of 2009, my digital guru Eric Rosenthal lent me a Panasonic DMC LX-3; I was immediately convinced of its merits and bought one. Since then I’ve made great use of it, and I feel it is as near as perfect an ‘everywhere camera’ as I’ve ever owned. The LX-3 has a variety of kin, including the newer LX-5, as well as the almost identical Leica D-Lux3/4/5 models, with newer models recently introduced. I’ve only used the LX-3, and I’m not intending to compare my camera with the gamut of similar models or its competitors available to photographers today. Rather, I describe its pros and cons, and how this tool has benefited my photography.
The LX-3 offers several key qualities that have allowed me to make numerous excellent photographs: it’s compact, versatile, flexible, fast, durable, and offers exceptionally high quality images for its relatively small size. I can bring it just about everywhere (within reason), and with it I have a dependable tool to make photos. Three of my principle objections to many small. ‘snapshot-style’ cameras are their low-quality optics, an inability to operate the camera manually, and an unavoidable delay from the time the shutter-button is pressed to the time the shutter opens. With the LX-3, not only I can get around all of these problems, but I get performance that rivals that of much larger camera systems.
The LX-3 is equipped with a great lens — a Leica Vario-Summicron f2.0-2.8/5.1-12.8 [mm] ASPH, which is extremely sharp, fast, and offers a nice color palate. While the LX-3 has a variety of modes, it has manual capabilities that allow me to set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus settings (although manual focusing is awkward). Furthermore, when automatic settings are used, these allow for a degree of manual override including the ability to change metering modes and make adjustments with exposure compensation. The degree of delay varies depending on how the camera is set; when the LX-3 is used as a fully automatic camera, or allowed to ‘sleep’ between exposures, there is an objectionable delay. However, when operated manually, setting focus and exposures using the toggle switch, and leaving it ‘queued up’ and ready to go, exposure can be made virtually instantaneously. I’ve used my LX-3 set at 1/2000th of a second to capture a German ICE-3 gliding along at more than 160 mph—no easy feat even with an SLR. If you ever want that ‘deer in the headlights’ feeling, try photographing a truly high-speed train full frame with a standard lens (and no 10 frames-per-second motor drive!).
I’ve found several failings with the LX-3. It lacks a built-in view finder. While there is a separate viewfinder attachment, I’ve shied away from this for two reasons: it’s relatively expensive, and I’ll surely lose it. So while in most situations the window at the back of the camera works reasonably well, it suffers in bright daylight, and I don’t like to stand around with the camera at arms length trying to compose an image. While other models have longer zooms, the LX-3’s range is limited to a view roughly equivalent to 28-65mm on a traditional 35mm film camera. This ranges suits about 85 percent of my requirements, while having the side effect of taking away the ‘telephoto crutch’, which forces me to work with more conventional focal lengths. The battery life on the LX-3 is poor, so as a result I carry three or four batteries with me, especially in cold weather. On a busy day, I can easily tap through three batteries.
Another flaw is slow cycle time, which is partly a function of how I’ve set up the camera. I expose both a RAW and large JPG file simultaneously. While jpegs suit most of my requirements, I’m not just taking photos for today, and I’m uncomfortable with long-term storage problems and compression qualities inherent to JPG format. Furthermore, RAW files offer considerably more data, and this can be valuable both for publication and situations where post processing manipulations are necessary (both topics for another day). But, I’ve made prints from in-camera jpegs up to 13×19 inches that are fantastically sharp and colorful (including the photo displayed here). And I’ve used LX-3 jpegs in books and magazines.
The LX-3 also offers a variety of in-camera color profiles with various color palates and saturation levels; while these are strictly applied to the jpegs, they allow for added creativity when composing images. It has an excellent image stabilizer, which allows for very slow shutter speeds hand-held, and can be switched off when necessary. Another distinctive tool is the ability to control the aspect ratio (external dimensions) in camera; its four standard ratios range from a square to 16:9. In addition, there are myriad controls that enable a high-degree of customization for both user convenience and file output.
Control, flexibility, and high quality are the prized qualities that sold me on the camera. The LX-3 may appear as a snapshot camera to the unknowing observer but it offers most of the control and quality that I’d expect from a high-end SLR. My intended purpose for LX-3 was as a ‘everywhere camera’ to be carried when I wasn’t carrying my full camera kit, but it soon developed into my staple tool for railway photography, as well as urban adventures and other projects. Later installments of Tracking the Light will highlight images made with the LX-3, to demonstrate its abilities as a high quality image making machine.
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!