Lessons Learned From a Master Photographer

Robert “Sam” Butler presented many striking images and made several insightful observations during his program at the Akron Railroad Club last November. But the image that stood out to me above all was a photograph looking eastward down the Norfolk Southern tracks in Fostoria.

What made it memorable was what Sam said as the photo lingered on the screen. He pointed to a spot on the horizon just above the tracks in the distance and said that at this time of year the sun rises “right here.” I was impressed by his level of attention to detail.

Sam knew this because he had done some homework on a website that allows you to plug in a location and determine precisely where the sun will rise there on any given day of the year.

Chance favors the prepared mind.

Sam knew that if he went to Fostoria on this day that there he could get a photograph of a westbound train coming out of the sunrise. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. There might be no train at the optimal moment. But if there was, Sam was prepared to get a killer image.

I couldn’t help but contrast Sam’s approach to my own. I go out with my camera and hope to get one, two or more pleasing images that day. If they are striking, that’s fine. If not, well . . .  I had a nice day watching trains.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach. It’s a hobby and we are all out trackside to enjoy ourselves. But what if you aspire to create images that turn heads and rise above the level of the average railfan photograph?

Chance favors the prepared mind

So often when a train is approaching I am still trying to make up my mind how I want to frame the image. More times than I can care to remember I wound up with an average or mediocre shot because I was not prepared.

I had not thought through or tried to “see” all of the possibilities. I wasn’t seeing the entire picture. I wasn’t thinking about how the image might feel. I was just making a photograph of a train.

Chance favors the prepared mind

Sam is not your usual railroad photographer. Most of his work is done in the hours from twilight to sunrise. He often leaves his home at 3 a.m. to drive to Bellevue, Willard, Fostoria or some other place to get, if things work out, one spectacular image.

Then he goes home. He doesn’t chase trains all day as many of us do. He is not hung up on how many trains he photographed that day. Such an approach takes patience, persistence and vision.

Chance favors the prepared mind.

As striking as Sam’s image were, I can’t say I came away from his program with a strong urge to do nighttime photography. I admire his work and that of others who know how to capture captivating images in low light situations. But that is not where my dominant interests in railroad photography lie.

Still, we can learn something from Sam about how to improve the photography that we do. This includes the value of studying a location, thinking about the possibilities there and what they show, and paying attention to how a location changes as lighting conditions change and as the climate there changes.

Paying more attention to detail and thus being better prepared will enable all of us to make more appealing images. It will move our photography away from snap shooting and into the realm of storytelling.

Essay By Craig Sanders

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One Response to “Lessons Learned From a Master Photographer”

  1. Peter Bowler Says:

    Sam’s approach works for him, while other approaches to rail photography work for other people. What is interesting is that when one becomes fascinated with a particular kind of niche photograph, such as Sam, or Gary Knapp and his spot lighted night photos on RailPictures.net, the person becomes associated with that type as a sort of signature. Roger’s winter shots are his signature with which we in Akron are well acquainted. Many fine rail photographers do not have such a “signature” and it is clear that the “signature” is a form of branding and you think about the person in that context.

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