On Photography: Turning Trail Into Triumph

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H Saturday 006f

Trail versus Fail. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of lampooning that pithy phrase since the day that I first encountered it.

That is because like so many all-inclusive bromides I want to challenge it. Always? Uh, No.

And yet I understand why it came to be. Check out the photographs that some guys post on railfan chat lists of railroad heritage locomotives in the trailing position and you’ll see that trailing units don’t always make for compelling images, even as roster shots.

Recently, I was in the Pittsburgh area when word filtered out over the railfan online grapevine that the Illinois Terminal heritage locomotive was in the motive power consist of a westbound tanker train, the 65R.

Alas, it was trailing. But that wasn’t going to stop me from photographing it.

I’ve bagged the IT unit just once. It was sitting in Ashtabula in the staging yard for the Lake Erie dock.

What I made wasn’t a very good image. So NS 1072 has long been on my list of H units to do over.

Today would be that day even if I knew that it would be mission half accomplished.

The last thing that I wanted to do was make a poor roster shot. That would look amateurish and fail to do the locomotive justice.

The results can be seen above. I set up on the bridge in Leetsdale that leads into an industrial park.

The setting is far from ideal. There is a sidewalk on the north side of the bridge but not on the south side.

For a westbound train, the vantage point is against the concrete wall on the south side.

From there you have an open view of the four-track mainline and the signal bridge for eastbound trains at CP Leets.

For now, that signal bridge has Pennsylvania Railroad position light signals. It is a classic PRR scene.

The risk, though, is standing on the edge of traffic coming around a curve. A lot of heavy trucks use that bridge.

The driver of an automobile honked at us, apparently displeased that we were “standing in the roadway.”

I wanted to make two types of images. The top image is a wide view that shows the train after the head end has passed beneath the signal bridge.

My intent was to create an environmental portrait that included not just the train, but also the surrounding town and hills.

Railroads pass through environments and what you see in this image is typical of the region along the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh where life and infrastructure revolves around the river and the hills.

In this image, the IT heritage locomotive was not the focal point. The image shows the train with the IT unit clearly visible, but without much detail.

Note how the train stretches back out of sight around a curve. I got lucky because the 65R had those newer white tank cars. You can make some interesting images of those cars because they contrast nicely with their usually dark surroundings.

The second image I made was close to being a roster shot. I went for a side view but made it wide enough to incorporate some of the town and hill behind the locomotive.

Much of the time, the best way to defeat “trail equals fail” is to create a side view in a pleasing if not compelling environment.

Some photographers try to make the typical three-quarter “wedgie” out of a trailing locomotive. It usually doesn’t work well because the nose is covered up by another locomotive or the first freight car in the consist.

The view that I made had the advantage of showing the detail of NS 1072, including the livery. Yet it also showed the locomotive in an environment.  I wanted to have the houses and hill in the background to add interest.

I’m a big fan of environmental portraits and I’ll explain why in a future posting.

To be sure, I would have liked to have had the IT unit in the lead. But that isn’t always possible.

So I made the best that I could of the situation and turned trail into triumph.

Commentary and Photographs by Craig Sanders

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