Class 1 North American railroading can still offer variety.
Take for example this photo I exposed of a northward Canadian National freight at Theresa, Wisconsin on Sunday, January 20, 2019.
In the lead is CN2500, a mid-1990s General Electric DASH9-44CW built with a four-piece windshield. This is followed by more 1990s-era motive power: a CN EMD-built SD75I, a BNSF EMD-built SD75M in classic Santa Fe style warbonnet paint; then finally two more examples of state-of-the-art General Electric diesels; a BNSF ET44C4 (An emissions compliant ‘Tier 4’ with A1A trucks) and Norfolk Southern ET44AC 3616, a six-motor ‘Tier 4’ model.
This was just one of many photos I exposed on an adventure with Chris Guss and TRAINS Magazine’s Brian Schmidt.
It was bitterly cold and clear when Chris Guss, Brian Schmidt and I set out to photograph the former Chicago & North Western Adams Line—the late-built ‘Adams Cut-off’ that shortened the distance between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
We drove back roads from Waukesha to Clyman Junction, the location of a surviving steam-era coaling tower. Then we explored various potential photo locations.
Train movements on the Adams Line can be infrequent, but patience paid off, and by mid-morning we caught an eastward train in nice light.
The clean SD70M was an added bonus. I made both color slides and digital photos.
The slides remain latent, so here are some of the digital images.
Tracking the Light is a Daily Blog by Brian Solomon
Years ago I’d work vistas along Lost Arrow Road south of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to picture and record Wisconsin Central’s thunderous SD45s.
Last weekend, TRAINS Magazine Brian Schmidt and I revisited this location to photograph a southward Canadian National freight on its ascent to Byron, Wisconsin.
I made these views using my FujiFilm XT1 with 18-135mm Fujinon zoom lens.
Bright sun was contrast from snowy weather earlier in the day. As the freight made its slow progress up Byron Hill we followed with an aim to make more photos, just like in olden times (but with no SD45s this day).
Duplainville, Wisconsin is a busy place for rail freight.
Here are two to four views (up loading difficulties makes the final number uncertain) of an eastward empty unit coal train on the old Milwaukee Road, now CP Rail, with Union Pacific GE diesels fore and aft working as distributed power. In the trailing photos you can see the diamond crossing with Canadian National’s Wisconsin Central line from Fond du Lac to Chicago.
Light snow made for added drama.
I exposed these with my FujiFilm XT1 fitted with an 18-135mm Fujinon zoom lens.
Friday afternoon January 18, 2019, Trains Magazine’s Brian Schmidt and I visited Duplainville, Wisconsin to catch Amtrak’s westward Empire builder, train number 7, as it split the signals in a snow squall.
I was delighted to see that the Milwaukee Road-vintage searchlight signals that I remember from my days in Wisconsin (now more than two decades ago) are still active.
The third locomotive in the Builder’s consist was the elusive Amtrak 156, ‘the bloody nose’—so named for its wearing of the 1970s-era Amtrak paint scheme.
I exposed these views using my FujiFilm X-T1 with 90mm f2.0 telephoto. White balance set to ‘daylight’.
Parallel lines. On the left is Canadian National’s Wisconsin Central line from Fond du Lac to Chicago; on right is Wisconsin & Southern’s former Milwaukee Road line running from Horicon to Milwaukee.
On this day, Chris Guss and I were aiming to catch Wisconsin & Southern’s T-4 freight on its way to Janesville. This train joins CN’s route at Slinger, just a little ways north from our location in the curve at Ackerville.
My goal was to show the parallel routes, while featuring the freight accelerating through the curve, to demonstrate the power of the locomotives.
Complicating my composition were the rows of trees. When I place the train in the distance, the tops of the locomotives are below the tree-line, and the thus less dramatic. When I let the locomotives get closer, they obscure the freight cars and most of the interesting effects of the parallel curves.
If I move lower, the angle would be more dramatic, but the second set of tracks would be nearly lost altogether. Longer focal length lens? Similar quandary, this minimizes the second set of tracks and features the trees more prominently.
Such are the challenges of perfecting railroad photo composition. Often there’s no one ideal solution.
Both feature southward trains on the former Soo Line, Wisconsin Central route ascending Byron Hill on their way south from Fond du Lac, exposed in the morning from the overhead bridge near the top of the grade.
In the interval between the images, the line was improved to two-main track and Wisconsin Central Limited became part of the Canadian National system.
In July (2017), John Gruber and I visited the old Chicago & North Western at Jefferson Junction, Wisconsin. I was surprised to find that the railroad’s old mailbox remained.
It has been more than 22 years since the old C&NW was absorbed by Union Pacific. In 1995 at the end of C&NW’s independent operations I’d made photos of this same mailbox, which for me served as a symbol of the railroad.
Now it’s a faded vestige of another era. More than just the paint has changed.
Here’s a lighting challenge: A freight train crossing a big bridge against an overcast sky.
Expose for the train and the sky gets washed out (loss of detail). Expose for the sky and the train is too dark.
So what do you do?
I expose for the sky and then adjust the file in post processing.
Why? Because it is easy enough to lighten slightly underexposed areas, but once highlight detail is lost through over exposure it cannot be recovered.
To balance the exposure in post processing, I lightened the shadow areas globally. This took all of about 30 seconds to accomplish in Lightroom. I also made minor adjustments to overall color balance and saturation. Afterwards, I played with the file to make some outlandish versions for point of comparison.
Of the four, the second from the top is the only image I’d normally present. The bottom of the four is intended to be a little absurd.
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled with Rich and John Gruber to photograph Wisconsin & Southern’s Reedsburg to Madison freight.
This plies a former Chicago & North Western route that in its heyday a century ago was a double-track mainline running from Chicago to the Twin Cities via Elroy.
Today, it is a ambling branch line with lots of 10 mph running: No directional double track, no signals, no fast passenger trains, and the line is truncated at Reedsburg.
On this day a matched set of back to back SD40-2s was an added attraction. We decided on Hatchery Road in Baraboo as our first photo location. I opted to feature the skewed rural grade crossing.
To balance the exposure, I manipulated the camera RAW files in Lightroom using digitally applied graduated neutral density filter to better hold sky detail, while lightening shadow areas and making slight adjustments to overall contrast and color balance.
One of the first standard types of automated visual grade crossing warning was the automatic flagman, a signal commonly known as a ‘wig wag’. [This was] adopted as a standard crossing device by the American Railway Association in 1923. A standard wig wag is actuated by a track circuit and consists of a paddle with a red lamp that gracefully swings back and forth in a horizontal pattern when a train approaches [and] usually accompanied by a bell . . . [at one time] the wig wag was the preferred type of grade crossing protection in the Midwest and far west. [They were] largely supplanted by modern flashing signals and crossing gates.
I was traveling with Marshall Beecher on the morning of August 3, 1996, when I exposed this view of Wisconsin Central’s southward freight ANPR-A approaching a grade crossing on the former Chicago & North Western line in Fond du Lac. This line saw less traffic than WC’s near by former Soo Line mainline over Byron Hill, but the attraction was these antique signals. Notice my use of selective depth of field.
A week ago, I traveled with John Gruber and Scott Lothes for a day’s photography on the Wisconsin & Southern,
A couple of days previously, John and I had made some photographs exploring the line to Reedsburg (see previous posts). So armed with that experience plus good information on operations, we set out with Scott for another run.
Among the three of us we have a bit of photographic experience and a lot of railway knowledge, so we were in good position to make the most of the day. I always like learning from fellow photographers as everyone has their own way of seeing.
I have to admit that the old Chicago & North Western line between Madison and Reedsburg isn’t my strongest field of interest. When I lived in Wisconsin this line (then still operated by C&NW) was largely nocturnal. However in more recent times, John and I have made daylight photos.
Until a few months ago the route still featured some vintage wig-wag grade crossing signals, and these had been the focus of my earlier efforts on the line. Since these are gone, we were able to take a more diverse approach.
The Reedsburg line is now but a branch on the sprawling Wisconsin & Southern freight gathering network, but historically the line was a key Chicago & North Western mainline between Chicago, Madison and the Twin Cities. For me this legacy makes the line more interesting.
We picked up the train at Wisconsin & Southern’s Madison Yard, and over the next few hours intercepted it more than a dozen times.
Sunny weather plus a single clean SD40-2 running short-hood first put us in a good position to make satisfactory images. On the previous run John and I needed to make do with the engine running long-hood first, which is a more challenging subject to photograph.
Here are a few digital photos from our second chase. Any favorites?
I exposed these three photos last week on Wisconsin & Southern at Baraboo, Wisconsin using my old Leica 3A loaded with Ilford Pan F black & white film (ISO 50).
In its heyday, Baraboo was a division point on Chicago & North Western’s Chicago-Madison-Twin Cities main line.
Its glory days are now more than a century past; decline began in the early twentieth century, when this route was augmented by C&NW’s low-grade Adams Line (via Milwaukee), which became a preferred route for through freight and fast passenger expresses.
It was severed as a through line in the 1980s.
As mentioned in an earlier post, on this July 2016 day John Gruber and I were following Wisconsin & Southern’s Madison to Reedsburg freight.
Some photographers might object to the railroad’s choice of motive power: an SD40-2 operating long-hood first. I recall the wisdom of my late-friend Bob Buck who reminded me once many years ago, ‘The railroad isn’t operated for your benefit.’
(In other-words; if a long-hood forward SD40-2 is on offer, that’s what there is and so make the best of it.)
Compare these images:
In one, I’ve adjusted the contrast to compensate for a cloud that momentarily softened the noonday sunlight. In the second, I’ve worked with depth of field and focused on trackside weeds instead of the locomotive. In the last, I’ve included fellow photographer John Gruber to add in a human element.
At one time the wig wag signal was the standard grade crossing protection. Now the type is all but extinct.
I learned a few weeks ago that Wisconsin & Southern had finally removed the last of these classic American signals on its former Chicago & North Western line to Reedsburg, which had survived at Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Over the years, I’d photographed wig wags at various locations in Wisconsin.
I made these photographs at Baraboo with John Gruber in February 2008.
Brian is Traveling, so Tracking the light is on Autopilot!
In the dim early hours of September 9, 1995, I spotted Wisconsin Central’s recently acquired former Santa Fe FP45 leading a southward train through Duplainville, Wisconsin.
Normally I walked to work. I lived just a few blocks from the Pentrex Publishing offices on Grand Avenue. That morning, twenty years ago today, I’d been prowling around in my Mazda looking for angle to photograph the Wisconsin Central.
WC’s FP45 6652 was a one of a kind, and a prize to be scored! When I saw that engine roll across the diamonds at Duplainville, knew I’d be a little late to my desk.
WC freights tended to roll along, and chasing was difficult.
However, this southward freight had to make a meet at Vernon, south of Waukesha. The resulting delay was both long enough for me to make a swift drive on country roads to Burlington, Wisconsin, and for the sun to rise high enough to expose Kodachrome.
I set up in the park on the east side of the tracks. The Canadian Geese in the pond were an unanticipated bonus.
My intent of this image was to show a simple juxtaposition between C&NW GP9 4153 and the steam-era coaling tower in the distance.
By this late date, steam was four decades gone, and C&NW was already part of the Union Pacific system, having been absorbed just a few months earlier. Yet, despite UP being the operating company; in Adams, Wisconsin things still appeared to be business as usual on old C&NW.
To put the GP9 and coaling tower in relative perspective, I used my Nikon F3T fitted with a 200mm lens, and found a suitable angle at a distance from both subjects. My aim was to minimize extraneous elements and focus on the railroad interest.
Since the locomotive was static, I used the opportunity to make photos from a variety of other angles. Some of these photos appeared in my book on EMD F-units published by Specialty Press about 2005.
Canadian National had acquired WCL a few years earlier, and while many through freights were operating with CN locomotives a few trains out of Fond du Lac were still assigned WCL SD45s.
I’d made a project out of recording the sounds of these 20 cylinder dinosaurs, while using choice moments to make photos.
This freight had struggled up from Valley siding, where its lead unit had warranted attention from the mechanical department before ascending the five-mile grade to Byron.
The freight was paused short of the grade crossing at Byron, and I exposed this view in the last throes of daylight using my Nikon F3 with Fujichrome slide film mounted on a Bogen tripod.
As regular viewers of Tracking the Light might recognize, I’ve made a variety of photos at Byron, Wisconsin over the years. Key to this composition is my positioning of the codeline, which conveniently switches from one side of the tracks to the other just shy of the grade crossing.
The advantages of being up early include being treated to cosmic light. On this August 1996 morning, I was photographing Northern Pacific 4-6-0 number 328 as it was being prepared for a day’s excursions with the Minnesota Transportation Museum.
The engine’s rods, bathed in boiler steam reflected the muted glow of the rising sun. A magenta hue had graced the Wisconsin sky. The effect lasted only a few minutes, and before long the sun was shinning brightly.
I worked quickly, making many detailed views of the locomotive equipment and its crew. At the time I was researching for my book The American Steam Locomotive (published by MBI), while working as editor for Pacific RailNews
It had been a busy morning at Byron. This southward freight had made a meet and was just coming out of the siding, so I had ample time to make images of these SD45s.
As the train grew close, I made a couple of final images on Kodachrome with my Nikormat FT3 and 28mm Nikkor Lens. I took this low view with a wide-angle to get a dynamic photograph.
I was Editor of Pacific RailNews, and we often had a need for photographs with lots of sky to use as opening spreads. It was a style of times to run headlines, credits and sometimes text across the top of the image. I had that thought in my mind when I made this particular angle.
I was also trying to minimize the ballast and drainage ditch that I found visually unappealing, while making the most of the clear blue dome and allowing for a dramatic position for the locomotives relative to the horizon.
Variations of this image have appeared in print over the years.
Here, a potpourri of images illuminated the net; covering everything from unit oil trains to obscure eastern European transit. So, looking back, 2013 has been a productive and busy time for Tracking the Light.
My original intention with Tracking the Light was to disseminate detailed information about railway photographic technique. Over time this concept has evolved and I’ve used this as a venue for many of my tens of thousands of images.
Among the themes of the images I post; signaling, EMD 20-cylinder diesels, Irish Railways, photos made in tricky (difficult) lighting, elusive trains, weedy tracks and steam locomotives are my favorites.
Since March, I’ve posted new material daily. I’ve tried to vary the posts while largely sticking to the essential theme of railway images. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts and will tell your friends about this site! There’s more to come in 2014!