Why I Love The Drama of Winter Photography

I like getting out to photograph trains in the winter. Why?

Well consider the very top photo on this page of a train passing under you on Norfolk Southern’s Cleveland Line near Brady Lake in the summer.

Although nice, such a photograph lacks drama and feeling. Is it a pretty picture? Yes.

But in a winter photo you can almost hear the softer sound, feel the thin air, sense the cold, see the speed- more than just your visual senses are triggered.

The July photo and the January photo could each have a 50 mph train as the subject, yet only the image with the train kicking up the snow “shows” you that it’s a moving train.

Consider the middle photo above of NS train 11G, which was photographed at Brady Lake on Feb. 25, 2011. This is an example of wanting to create a photo that puts the viewer “there.”

Make no mistake. It’s cold out there and this train is moving fast. Many wonder if I got “dusted” after I took the photo and the answer is “yes!”

Now imagine this same photo shot in the summer. It would essentially be a dark train against a dark green background with not much else of interest going on in the photo, just another “train and trees” boring photo.

There would be nothing to indicate the train is actually going 50 m.p.h. With the snow flying up behind it in the winter scene there is no doubt that it’s a fast-moving train.

Many details that make the winter photo all the more interesting would not be seen in a summer shot. The summer trees, the “big green blowout,” as I call it, would hide some of the items that I think add interest to the winter photo.

The old tower, highlighted by a snow-covered roof and the old pole line add some subtle details to the overall scene. The train itself stands out much more against a white backdrop of snow. You don’t feel the heat in a summer shot here, but make no mistake about it. The viewer of the winter photo is thinking “cold!”

In the lower of the two photographs above, I’ve attached a closer view of the train in the photo to illustrate another point. First, this is a crop of a wider scene just to show what I mean. The main focus in this image is the locomotives, but it lacks the appeal of the wider image above.

As fans we all too often shoot like this, concentrating on the engines and nothing else. That’s fine for roster photos, of course, because the unit is sitting still. But it’s a waste of a good photo by not including the whole scene in this case.

Winter is a good time to get out and railfan if the conditions are right. Remember, the railroad is more than just locomotives.

A winter photo of a fast train kicking up the snow is about as close to a movie of the same train we can get with still photography.

Yet the conditions have to be right to achieve that goal. Just having snow on the ground doesn’t automatically make for a great photo.

A dreary day is a dreary day and snow doesn’t make it much better. A photo of a train in the snow is, well, nothing special unless the dramatic factors are coming into play.

It needs to be snowing and/or cold enough to allow the snow to be drier so it can be kicked up. A train that has been traveling through winter conditions often has a lot of snow build up on it.

Everything from wheels and couplers and hoses to windows and EOTs get covered in the white stuff, a nice touch to help a photo say “cold” to a viewer.

A very common mistake that railfan photographers make is concentrating on just the engines, often cutting off the train’s cars in a photo. That’s a bad composition choice for sure.

Frame the photo to include the train, especially if it is kicking up a lot of snow. The cars may disappear in the “mini blizzard,” but that really drives home the whole cold and speed idea.

A shot of just the locomotives and a car or two with the rest of the train cut off not only looks bad in winter, it looks bad anytime.

Don’t be afraid to point your camera at other things while out shooting winter photos. Freight cars, containers and EOT’s take on a whole new look with a layer of “icing” on them.

Technical aspects come into play, too. Know your camera and learn how it behaves while shooting in manual mode.

A camera’s light meter reads all that white as a shade of neutral gray if you shoot on auto and your photos will take on a monotone cast to them with the “white” snow not looking so white. Auto focus can go nuts while shooting during a snowfall so go to manual focus or a different focus mode.

The better your original photo looks to start with the less work you have to do in Photoshop to fix it, if it can even be fixed.

Winter weather has more to offer the photographer than summer. The “big green blowout” of summer is just that with little variation. The nuances of the winter season, if you take the time and effort to get out and see them, can offer a photographer many more opportunities to add interest to his photos.

Article and Photographs by Roger Durfee

2 Responses to “Why I Love The Drama of Winter Photography”

  1. jake Says:

    Nice work, good tips! It would have been nice however, to include the July photo to further accent your article.

  2. walter maki Says:

    winter shots are a lot more interesting

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