On Photography: Compromises and Quality

Amtrak 48-y

Amtrak 48 going away-x

I like the top photo. I really like the top photo. At the same time, whenever I look at it I see not only triumph, but a significant flaw that prevents it from being a great photo.

This is Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited on the eastern edge of Conneaut last Sunday morning.

Fellow Akron Railroad Club member Peter Bowler and I had left at 5:30 a.m. to be able to get to this location.

Peter had found it searching Google satellite maps. It lies at the end of a narrow dead-end road.

We didn’t know until we arrived that the signals here are mismatched. The westward signals for Track No. 1 at CP 113 are of the modern Safetran variety, but the signals for Track No. 2 are of the old fashioned New York Central type.

Why those ex-NYC signals were not replaced is a mystery to me. Interestingly, the eastbound signals at this interlocking are reversed. The signals on Track No. 1 are modern Safetran signals while those on Track No. 2 are of the NYC variety.

We didn’t have to wait long for No. 48 to show up. I heard it calling clear signals for Track No. 2 several miles away.

Peter observed that the lighting favored the north side of the tracks, but not by much. It was close to being right down the middle.

I had it my mind that I wanted to be on the south side because I had fallen in love with that ex-NYC signal for Track No. 2 and wanted it to be on the left side of the image.

We heard a horn and soon saw a headlight in the distance. Peter had favored going to the north side, but stayed on the south side.

The train was moving track speed and then a cloud obscured the sun. A test shot that I made proved to be rather dark, even after increasing the f stop by two-thirds.

As the train bore down on us, the engineer sounded the horn and I could see early morning sunlight playing on the nose of P42 No. 132.

In a matter of a second or two the lighting changed from cloud-induced shadows to nice early morning light.

I fired away, getting the train in the exact spot I wanted to be as it split the signals.

As soon as he looked at his images on his camera, Peter lamented having decided to stay on the south side.

I looked at my images and concurred. Had we been on the north side of the tracks, the side of the train might have been nicely illuminated.

Instead, the south side of the locomotives and the train are in shadows. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve seen many great photographs that made effective use of light and shadows. Those create contrast, which gives a photograph the visual tension needed to create visual interest and eye movement.

In this image, the nose of the locomotive, the signals and the tracks are nicely lighted.

I also liked the cloud pattern behind the train, which also offers visual interest.

As I was processing the image the next day, though, I noticed that the image is soft. That might have been OK for the train, but I wanted the signals at least to be razor sharp.

Despite shooting at 1/800th of a second, I must have moved the camera ever so slightly. The slight blur still bothers me.

I made a going away image and had I been on the north side of the tracks, I might have been able to get a glint shot.

But in processing that image I found an unexpected and pleasing consequence. The side of the train was in shadows, but not so dark that the detail of the train is lost.

I can see that No. 48 had six Amfleet II cars, five of them coaches, and five Viewliners. The latter included a new baggage car, three sleepers and a diner.

I was quite pleased to see that the vegetation along the edge of the ballast is well illuminated and I like the contrast of that with the train.

Making photographic images is often a series of compromises and choices.

Sometimes those work out well, sometimes they don’t work out much at all and there are even times when the results exceed your expectations.

The Lake Shore Limited is the only Amtrak train we can count on photographing in daylight and even then you might have to go well east of Cleveland to have good lighting.

There is a great deal of subjectivity in judging the quality of a photography. Yes, much of it is personal taste, yet so many average and mediocre photographers want to pass off criticism of their work as a difference in tastes.

Excellence in any endeavor needs to be rooted in a set of standards that distinguish the good from the great, the average from the good and even the terrible from the average. Otherwise, quality becomes a matter of “it’s good because I said it is” or “it’s good because I did it and I like it.”

I’ve long believed that photography is a craft whose development is never complete. If I can find a flaw in any image that I make, no matter how pleasing that image might be, then I have something to work at improving next time. Such is the case with this photo opportunity.

Yet I’m not going to discard them because something didn’t go right. These images may not be ideal, but they are keepers that I’m happy to show.

Commentary and Photographs by Craig Sanders

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