Posts Tagged ‘railfan photography’

Changing Course During the Pandemic and What That Means During Normal Times

March 15, 2021

If your passion is photographing railroad operations, chances are the COVID-19 pandemic that intensified a year ago this month and changed life as we had known it hasn’t stopped you from photographing trains.

It did likely change what trains you photographed and where, whether slightly or greatly.

Such was the case with Dave Beach, who showed during a program presented virtually to the Forest City Division of the Railroad Enthusiasts last week how he spent 2020.

The program title said it all in that it was a different type of year. That didn’t mean it had to be a less rewarding year.

Beach has traveled throughout the United States for decades to capture trains in action. He was aided in that quest in part because his job sometimes required him to travel.

But in 2020, Beach, like millions of other Americans, was forced to work from home and work-related travel halted as did the vacation oriented travel he had expected to do.

He quickly realized he could use the situation to his advantage to focus on railroad operations that he had seldom paid attention to over the years.

Most of these were in his backyard in Northeast Ohio.

How Beach reacted to the pandemic offers object lessons on being nimble and creative in shifting your photo strategy when an unexpected adverse situation arises that forces you to drop your original plans.

It is a matter of making the best of the opportunities you have, some of which might not be obvious. This could require a change in thinking.

For example, rather than taking a week of vacation here and there, Beach took a day off here and there and used that time to make day trips.

One of those involved spending all day traveling around Cleveland to photograph locals and transfer runs of Norfolk Southern.

These were trains that Beach had seldom been able to photograph because they often operated on weekdays when he would otherwise be in the office.

He also kept a watch on social media sites and would get away for a couple hours if he saw, for example, that something was running on the Wheeling & Lake Erie.

Beach’s parents live in an assisted living facility in Massillon and he would keep his scanner on when going to visit them and/or running errands on their behalf.

Some of the trains he photographed he learned were on the road by listening to his scanner while, say, going to the drug store.

You might remember his father, John Beach, who was an accomplished photographer in his own right and a longtime member of the Akron Railroad Club.

Dave Beach also worked on photo projects throughout the year, notably making repeat visits to two regional rail operations he had paid scant attention to until 2020: The Ashland Railway and the former Bessemer & Lake Erie.

One day he drove down to Marietta and spent the day chasing the Belpre Industrial Parkersburg Railroad, a relatively new operation that took over some CSX trackage in far southern Ohio.

In the case of the Ashland, he learned its operating patterns, but sometimes that meant finding a place to sit for awhile until one of its trains came out of the yard in Mansfield and headed for either Ashland or Willard.

Although he scored several hits, the year also brought some misses because there can be a certain unpredictability to railroad operations.

What struck me about Beach’s program is how deft you can be even during adverse circumstances that seem to be limiting if not preventing you from doing that you would have done otherwise.

There can be rewards in that, particularly in focusing on nearby operations that you’ve ignored if not taken for granted over the years.

But it takes commitment, some creativity and patience. The approach that Beach took during the pandemic can be applied to more normal times when you get tired of the doing the same old, same old.

There will always be something out there to go get that you’ve overlooked or ignored in the past. It’s just a matter of doing it.

Facing the Challenge of Strong Lighting

April 7, 2016





Typically most photographers, especially railfan photographers, prefer well lit sunny days.

Sunny days particularly in the morning and evening have strong lighting that brings out the details that would otherwise be in shadow.

This strong lighting can bring with it its own set of challenges. Trees, utility poles and buildings can cast annoying shadows that can sometimes ruin a perfectly-lit photo.

My first example is a former Rio Grande tunnel motor at Spencer. The train itself is well lit except for the shadow of a utility pole toward the rear of the engine.

It couldn’t be helped in this instance and had I waited for the train to come closer the front would be in shadows likely ruining the photo.

My next two examples are of Nickel Plate Road No. 765.

Steam engines bring their own set of challenges to photography. In the first photo, taken at Tyrone, Pennsylvania, I had set up to what I thought would be a clear photo.

The tracks themselves were clear of tree shadows so I figured I was OK. Yet when the train came most of the steam engine was in shadow.

It took me a while to figure out what went wrong when it hit me. The smoke from the engine itself normally a desirable thing actually blocked the sun creating this effect.

This also happened to me at the Monroeville bridge, although to a lesser extent.

I guess in future steam chases I will have to not only factor in sun angles but wind direction as well.

That brings a new level of respect for those steam era photographers.

Lastly, shadows are not always a bad thing. With the NKP heritage unit at Ashtabula the coal train in front casts a nice set of shadows which lead the viewer into the object of the photo.

Article and Photographs by Todd Dillon

Sometimes a Photograph is as Much About the Photographer as it is the Scene Being Potrayed

March 15, 2016

CP 1293 at Pearl

Sometimes you see in a photograph something you didn’t see and/or understand at the time that you made the image. That something may tell you something about yourself.

That happened to me recently as I reviewed slides that I had made during an Akron Railroad Club steam excursion on the Ohio Central on Oct. 4, 2003. The trip featured former Canadian Pacific No. 1293 pulling the train from Sugarcreek to Morgan Run.

The train had halted at Pearl and many of the passengers disembarked to watch and/or photograph the photo runby.

Unloading had occurred at the crossing of a driveway that led to a cheese company store. A photo line then formed on that road.

There is an open grass field between the tracks and the cheese store and some folks stood in various places in that field behind the photo line.

On Photography Logo-xI walked to the far end of the field and stood in some brush just beyond the edge of that field where the property owner had stopped mowing the grass.

I don’t clearly remember why I did that. I had been at photo runbys involving steam locomotives before and was aware of the common practice of establishing a photo line.

I had stood in photo lines myself. I had also stood apart from photo lines because I wanted to get my “own” angle on the image.

But on this day I seemed oblivious to the existence of the photo line.

I have a vague recollection of having walked far from the photo line in an effort to create some open space.

But, as you can see in the image above, that plan was foiled when three folks stepped up close to the edge of the ballast of the tracks with the apparent same idea that I had.

I wasn’t pleased, but not necessarily upset. The behavior of people at photo runbys can be an interesting study in itself.

The guy wearing the hat must have seen me for he kneeled down in order to become less of an obstruction.

It wasn’t until I was reviewing this image that I realized that my standing far away from the photo line says something about me that transcended my desire for a good image.

At the time of this trip, I had been a member of the ARRC for less than two months.

I knew just one person in the club, the late David McKay, and recognized a few other faces I had seen at other railroad related events. But I didn’t know those people at the time.

I still felt like an outsider and my walking to the far end of the photo runby site probably reflected a subconscious lack of level of comfort with this group.

It was for that same reason that I skipped the dinner after the trip at the Swiss Hat restaurant in Sugarcreek.

I’ve also never been one to enjoy being in a crowd so that might have played a role in where I chose to stand.

Throughout the trip I mostly kept to myself and this photograph is a reminder of that.

The image also reminds me of why I’m glad that I now have a digital camera.

You may have noticed that the train is quite some distance from my location. “Best practices” composition techniques say that I should have waited a second or two longer before tripping the shutter.

But if you look at images that I made during this era, I was notorious for making photographs too soon. It is a common error made by novice photographers.

The train looks larger and closer in the viewfinder than it actually is. I have a lot of photographs with tons of “empty space” between me and the front of an oncoming train.

My Canon Rebel G camera could only expose one frame of film per second. My digital Canon 60D can expose five frames per second.

In a way, though, the presence of those bystanders who initially annoyed me saved the photograph.

Another way of looking at the image is that it is about what people do when they watch trains. It is not so much about the train itself even if that was my primary subject matter. In this image the train turned out to be secondary.

I still think this would be a better image if I had waited a little longer for the train to come to me. But if I had, it would not have the dramatic smoke action of this image.

I did make a photo of the locomotive much closer to where I was standing and the amount of smoke coming from the stack had greatly diminished.

By the time the 1293 got to the end of the field, the train had started to slow in preparation for a stop and back-up move.

In 2004, the ARRC had another steam trip on the Ohio Central with the 1293. By then I had gotten to know some people in the club and in fact had been approached about running for president because Dave planned to retire after 12 years in that position.

During the 2004 trip, I stood on the photo line with everyone else. I also went to dinner after the trip at the Swiss Hat and enjoyed talking with those at my table.

My comfort zone had greatly expanded to include even those in the ARRC I didn’t yet know.

Would You Have Made This Photograph?

March 7, 2016

Engineer eat-x

Would you have taken this photograph? Would you have posted it on a railfan website?

I can answer “yes” to both those questions. Let me tell you about what happened.

The photograph shows Gary Bensman eating a sandwich in the engineer’s seat of Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive No. 765 in Ashtabula, Ohio, last July.

The locomotive was being ferried to Youngstown for Saturday and Sunday excursions on the Youngstown Line of Norfolk Southern.

On Photography Logo-xThe 765 and its train went into a siding in Ashtabula to get a pilot crew and to wait for the westbound NS train 145 to go past.

This photograph wasn’t planned. I was waiting for the 765 to move on when I noticed that the engineer – I didn’t know his name at the time – was eating a sandwich.

At that point my journalistic instincts took over.

I posted this image with other photographs of the NKP 765 on I posted most of those images on the steam board where they were well received.

That was where I learned the identity of this engineer and that he has pulled the throttle on many, if not most, of the mainline steam locomotives in America.

But I posted this and some other photos on the eastern railroads board and that is when the “fun” started.

Shortly after those images went up, a guy I know casually and who lives in the Akron area wrote a one-line comment suggesting the photograph was a little too personal.

Another irate poster changed the heading to use the word “inappropriate” and spewed some ridiculous rhetoric.

I should have expected such comments, but somehow I didn’t and they caught me by surprise.

No one likes having their work criticized even if you have to expect that when you perform for the public. By the afternoon, a few other critical comments had been posted and I became angry.

As much as anything I was upset because none of the critics explained why he thought the photograph was inappropriate, too personal or wrong.

Instead, they just gave one-liners that said little more than “I don’t like it.” No one seemed to grasp the story that the photograph sought to tell.

* * * * *

It had been a long day for the NKP 765 crew. They had gone on duty early that morning and waited in Rockport Yard for permission to leave. Then they had to wait for a parade of NS trains to go past or around them.

Such is life for a ferry move of a steam locomotive.

By the time they reached Ashtabula it was late afternoon and there were still many miles to go before tying up for the day.

They didn’t have the luxury of stopping for a lunch break. In such circumstances you grab a bite to eat when and where you can. Bensman was eating a sandwich he had brought along and ate while sitting in the engineer’s seat.

The photograph illustrates a facet of the life of a steam locomotive crew. Yet that seemed lost on some who viewed and commented on this image.

* * * * *

Implied in the criticism of the photograph is the belief that I invaded the engineer’s privacy. In that way of thinking, eating is a private matter that is not of public concern and therefore should not be photographed.

And what about the fact that the engineer was eating his sandwich in a place where he could be seen by others?

The response might be, “Well, that’s true, but you don’t photograph people engaging in private moments even when they can easily be seen in public.”

And therein lies the crux of the matter and how my thinking differs from that of many railfans.

Kenneth Kobré is the author of a textbook on photojournalism used in college-level photojournalism courses.

He writes in the first chapter that candid photographs are what set photojournalism pictures apart from other types of photography. “The photojournalism style depends on catching candid moments,” Kobré wrote.

And that is what I saw when I noticed the engineer of the NKP 765 eating a sandwich.

As I read the one-liners from those who thought this photograph was inappropriate, I was reminded of final exam of a photojournalism course that I taught a couple years ago.

I showed my students a photo made by Arne Svenson, a professional photographer who makes images of people going about their lives inside their apartments in New York City.

Svenson uses a telephoto lens that he aims from the street or an adjacent building toward the windows of apartments to make photographs.

His approach is controversial because none of those he photographs are aware that they are being captured nor does he seek their permission before displaying their images in galleries or selling his work.

I would not do what Svenson does. I draw a line between what people do in their homes where they can expect a high degree of privacy and what they do in public where they should expect to be seen by others.

A steam locomotive attracts a lot of attention. There aren’t that many of them that are operational and when they travel large number of people turn out to watch.

Many of those spectators will make photographs of the locomotive and its crew. The NKP 765 crew knows this. They also know that much of what they do will be seen by the public.

They can expect their activities to be photographed, including taking a lunch break while sitting in a place where they can easily be seen.

That argument probably won’t win over the critics of this photograph. They would probably respond with, “yeah, but you still shouldn’t have posted this photograph.”

* * * * *

One of those who responded pointed out that the image showed what could easily be seen in a public place and therefore by law was not an invasion of privacy. That’s correct but doesn’t address the underlying ethical issue.

I hammer home the point when teaching that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical.

On the same exam in which I posed questions about the ethical dimensions of the work of Arne Svenson, I also showed an image made by a photographer working on behalf of a wire service.

The image showed a woman grieving at a memorial in honor of the 26 people killed in a December 2012 shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

The woman was angry because the photographer did not ask her permission before making the photograph.

“All of a sudden I hear ‘click click click click click’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal,” she said later.

The photographer, Emmanuel Dunand, later told National Public Radio that he was simply doing his job of making photos to “help tell the story to the world.” He said he didn’t ask for the woman’s permission in order to not bother her and to respect her private moment.

A lot of people probably won’t buy Dunand’s explanation and that’s fine.

Yet I see a difference between photographing someone who is grieving and someone who is engaging in a mundane everyday life activity.

I understand that a personal moment is a personal moment. But not all personal moments are alike. Some are more personal than others.

A person eating a sandwich in public is not in as vulnerable of a position as a person grieving shortly after a tragic event.

* * * *  *

I’ve never worked as a railroader so I can’t speak from experience as to what it is like to go to work and be subjected to being photographed because others find your work and your employer’s equipment to be fascinating.

Few people find what I’ve done for a living to be fascinating enough to photograph.

Some railroaders don’t like being photographed while on the job while others are indifferent about it.

What bothers those who dislike being photographed at work is their lack of control. They have no way of stopping photographers from making images or showing them to others.

I understand Dunand’s point about just doing his job. I also understand the point made by the grieving woman of feeling violated during a highly personal moment.

The courts pretty much have settled the conflict of whether it is or is not an invasion of privacy to photograph someone without their permission if their activities occur or can easily be seen in a public place. The ethical issue, though, is far from settled and probably never will be.

To be sure, there are nuances in the law and not everything done in public is fair game for photographers. But your public activities are public property to a degree that makes many people uncomfortable.

Ideally, photographers should always ask permission before photographing others. But it doesn’t always work that way.

* * * * *

The vast majority of railroad-oriented photographs that I’ve seen online or in railroad club programs are devoid of people.

It’s a challenge to make human-interest photographs when track side because the machinery dwarfs and obscures those operating it.

Most of those who enjoy photographing railroad operations are primarily interested in the machines and not necessarily those who operate them.

Photographs such as the one I posted above are not the norm in railfan world and some would rather keep it that way.

I don’t know if Gary Bensman saw this photograph or what he thought about it if he did. I wasn’t thinking about that when I made the image or when I posted it. I simply saw a moment and recorded it.

It told a story and ultimately that is what photographers do. They tell stories with images.

All of us who consider ourselves photographers must decide what type of stories that we will and will not tell with our photographs. Our work reflects those choices that we’ve made and the values that we bring to the endeavor of photography.

On Photography: What Makes Warm Memories?

March 1, 2016

I can’t think of better title than the one that Marty Surdyk came up with for his program at the February Akron Railroad Club meeting last week.

“Warm Memories for a Cold Night” conjures up images of walking in out of the cold and sitting down in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace while sipping hot chocolate and swapping railfan outing stories with old friends.

On Photography Logo-xThere is something about reminiscing about the past while looking at photographs that can make you feel safe and secure on the coldest day or hold at bay whatever is causing you stress, even if only for a few moments.

In particular, I find myself lingering over images that I associate with my own memorable outings.

But what makes an outing memorable? It is not the same thing as having a memory of the event.

I’ve been to Berea to watch trains scores of times, but few of those outings were memorable. They were enjoyable at the time, but were soon filed away and forgotten as just another day of railfanning.

They thus joined a class of vague recollections that all run together. You remember not specific outings but a series of similar outings.

In the case of Berea that might be, “I remember going out to Berea a lot on Saturdays.”

Maybe you remember a series of rituals associated with those outings, but no specific one stands out above the others.

When I think about specific outings that I find memorable a number of factors come to mind that make them stand out.

Something happened to cause an emotional link to the event whether it was the trip from hell or a day filled with unexpected pleasures.

It might be that the trip featured a first, a last or a one of a kind. It also might be that during the outing a number of special occurrences unfolded.

Such was the case for me on a Saturday in late January 2015 during a trip to Pittsburgh when we spotted six Norfolk Southern heritage locomotives in a single day. That’s right, six of ‘em. We were able to photograph three, including two that were double-headed.

That same day began at Summit Cut on the Fort Wayne Line on a morning with single-digit temperatures when I made one of my most dramatic winter images.  An eastbound train came around an S curve with thick layers of ice on the walls of the cut.

Later, we parked in an active traffic lane on a street in West Park, jumped out of the car and literally ran to a bridge to photograph that train with the double-shot of H units, led by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western and with the Central of New Jersey trailing.

At the same time, five other guys were doing the same thing and you should have seen the reaction of a couple that was cross country skiing at the time in the park as this herd of guys with cameras came running from nearly every direction to descend upon the bridge that they wanted to cross.

Furthermore, we had made a wrong turn and barely got there before the train. I thought for sure we had missed it.

Such is the stuff of memorable outings. You look back and feel good about having done them.

During his program, Marty mentioned outings that featured heavy rain, multiple flat tires and a dead battery.

At the time, having to respond to such situations was unpleasant and stressful, but with the passage of time you realize that the adage “this, too, shall pass” holds a lot of truth. Everything turned out all right in the end and you survived.

As much as I enjoy viewing the photographs of others, there is something about seeing my own images made during memorable outings that creates an emotional connection I’ll never quite have when seeing the work of others.

Not only is it a way to remember and feel good about the future, but it is also motivation to go out and create more memories by doing it again.

There Just Might be Legitimate Reasons Why You Haven’t Made Some of Your Dreams Come True

February 22, 2016

A few years back I was speaking with a fellow Akron Railroad Club member about whether he had ever considered taking a trip to Poland to photograph the steam locomotives still operating there.

He is quite a fan of steam locomotives and visiting one of the few places left in the world with operating steam locomotives might seem like it would be at the top of his “to do” list.

He was silent for a moment and then said, yeah, he’d like to do that but he didn’t have the money.

On Photography Logo-xAnd with that the conversation ended. There was no need for it to continue because we both recognized a hard and painful truth.

Some dreams and desires are beyond reach and there is little to nothing that you can do about it.

I thought about that anecdote after reading Marty Surdyk’s commentary about how he missed out on railfanning the former Clinchfield line.

CSX has ceased using the ex-Clinchfield as a through route and Marty lamented that he missed out on visiting that scenic railroad property even though it was something he had thought about doing.

Railfans don’t often explain why they haven’t done something they’ve dreamed about.

In many cases the reasons for why they haven’t pursued their dreams involve factors that people don’t want to admit or acknowledge.

Chief among them is lack of money. It can be quite expensive to travel to distance places. If you don’t have the money to travel to those places, you aren’t going to do it.

But there are other factors that people don’t talk about for fear that it might make them look bad or diminish their reputation in the eyes of others. Some of those can be painful to discuss.

Many are reluctant to acknowledge fears and anxieties for fear of being belittled.

Someone might not want to admit not traveling to China to see steam locomotives because the idea of being in a foreign culture makes them feel anxious.

In other instances, dreams are not pursued due to lack of initiative.

If you are going to travel to a place you’ve never been, you need to do some homework. That can take time and you need to be organized and motivated to do that work.

It is just too easy to go with the flow of daily life rather than making the effort to do what it takes to make something happen. No small part of that effort is making the commitment to do it in the first place.

More often than not it is a combination of factors that explain why railfans have not pursued their dreams.

Underlying commentaries such as the one that Marty wrote is the idea that if you haven’t visited a place then it is your own fault. Marty didn’t say that in his commentary, but it is implied.

There is a lot of truth to the assertion that if you haven’t done something it’s your own fault because you’ve haven’t undertaken the needed steps to make a dream come true. But things are seldom that simple.

I would never disagree with the thrust of Marty’s advice to not put off that trip to that place you’ve dreamed about visiting because you can’t always count on it being there or always being what it is now.

All of us need to be reminded of that and reminded of it often.

Yet it just might be that some dreams are not realistic undertakings given the circumstances of your life.

That doesn’t make you a bad person or mean that you’re not having a worthwhile and enjoyable life.

More to the point, the question that needs to be asked is whether you are doing as much as you can to fulfill your dreams and desires given the resources that you have available. Are you making the best use of your time that your circumstances will allow?

There might be some painful answers to those questions, but not always. There is only so much that all of us can do. We only have so much money, so much time and so many opportunities. We all face challenges that hinder what we ideally would like to do.

Still, we all have opportunities and the time to pursue them. Are you making the most of that?

On Photography: The Emotional Power of an Average Image Made During a Memorable Outing

February 17, 2016

Ashtabula April 22 2007

For more than 13 years the photograph shown above sat in a plastic sleeve in a binder on a shelf in my home office.

It shows Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited passing the former New York Central passenger station in Ashtabula on April 22, 2007.

No. 48 has never stopped here to receive or discharge passengers.

On Photography Logo-xI’m with Marty Surdyk and this is our first photo opportunity of the day. No. 48 is on time, having left Cleveland on the advertised at 7 a.m.

This image is the third of six that I made of this passage of Amtrak No. 48 on a splendid spring morning through Ashtabula.

I do not consider it the best of the lot, although it might be second best. When I looked at this image initially, I saw flaws. What you are seeing is a cropped version.

I was using an 18 to 200 mm zoom lens with my Canon Rebel G camera and given where we were standing, this was as far in as I could get with that lens.

The best image of the six I made is a wide-angle shot that shows more of the locomotives and train. It was the image we had in mind making when choosing where we stood to make photographs.

Shooting the train with the depot in the frame was almost an afterthought. The slide – probably made on Fuji film – sat in that binder until this week.

I was working on an article for the soon-to-be launched Akron Railroad Club eBulletin about one of my most memorable railfan outings.

I saw image and decided to scan it. It was only when I was processing the image in Photoshop that the meaning of it began to come into focus.

This image captures less than a second of an outing that lasted about 12 hours. Yet that was enough to make what photographers describe as “a moment.”

As moments go, this one is not likely to resonate with many people because they don’t see what I see. You probably see an Amtrak train and an old depot. There is nothing out of the ordinary or dramatic about this scene.

More sophisticated viewers are thinking it would be a better photograph had the photographer waited a millisecond or two before tripping the shutter. That would have put the lead locomotive more to far right side of the frame and helped to cover some of the clutter.

The poles in the foreground are also clutter even if there is nothing that anyone could have done about them short of removing them from the image in Photoshop.

If this image was being judged, it probably would be rated as average. Next!

But as I looked at this photograph again I saw something that is not so obvious to the casual viewer who does not know what I do about this moment and image.

Winters are long and harsh in Northeast Ohio and this photograph was made during one of the first, if not the first, warm and sunny day of the year when I had an opportunity to get out to railfan.

The image was made not long after Amtrak rescheduled No. 48 to depart Cleveland at 7 a.m. That meant opportunities throughout much of the year to photograph an Amtrak train in daylight in Northeast Ohio.

This was the first opportunity that I had to take advantage of that. Amtrak is one of my favorite railroads and I seldom have opportunities to photograph its operations in Ohio in daylight.

Those 7 a.m. departures from Cleveland did not last long. Today, Amtrak is scheduled to leave Cleveland at 5:50 a.m.

I also like the juxtaposition of a passenger train passing a station that has not served that purpose for almost 18 years.

At one time Ashtabula was the northern terminus for NYC passenger trains originating in Pittsburgh and coming up from Youngstown. Sleepers were interchanged here with Chicago-New York trains.

What a busy place this must have been. Passenger trains on the Youngstown Line lasted through the late 1950s.

But aside from all of that, this image reminds me of one of my better railfan outings. Spring is the season of renewal so a good spring day is a promise of good days ahead.

Getting this Amtrak train was a promising start to what turned out to be a special day.

Above all it reminds me that although moments are fleeting they live on in our memories and warm, entertain and even inspire us time and again.

On Photography: Taking a Fresh Look at the Practice of Locomotive Roster Shooting, Part 2

January 7, 2016

Second of two parts

I might as well get this out of the way. I’m not a big fan of roster shots.

At least I thought that way until recently. It is not that I’ve changed my mind about them so much as I’ve begun to look at them in a new light.

The inspiration for that new perspective came from an odd and unexpected place that had nothing to do with locomotives or, for that matter, railroads.

There is nothing wrong with roster shots. We all have made them and I have many in my collection. Some railfans envision themselves as roster shooters as well as action shooters, which is a form of dual citizenship if you will.

Roster shots can be interesting to view, but are not always compelling images.

This, of course, raises the question of your purpose in making railroad photographs. If you want to study the detail of a locomotive, the roster shot is king.

Yet it is difficult to make the type of “pure” roster shot that early photographers in the genre were able to make.

On occasion a photographer might gain access to railroad property where locomotives are idling between runs.

But more often than not the contemporary roster shooter must practice his trade with a moving train. The result is a quasi-roster shot because the photographer lacks the ability to compose images just so.

The photographer captures the lead locomotive on the fly in the three-quarter angle pioneered by the original roster shooters.

Like his older counterpart, the contemporary roster shooter seeks to crop out extraneous subject matter as much as possible. Digital post-processing software enables photographers to remove items from an image and/or crop it out.

Some roster shooters photograph a trailing unit if it is “rare” or “foreign.” But the railfan photography fraternity tends to frown on such photographs (“trail equals fail”).

Some quasi-roster shooters think of their work as action photography even if their intent is to emphasize the lead locomotive.

I was a quasi-roster shot photographer for years without realizing it. A train would be approaching and I’d get it in my sights through the viewfinder.

As the locomotive got closer, I’d zoom in on it and slowly move the camera to the left or right, depending on what side of the track I was standing.

The result was the typical “three-quarter wedgie” in which little, if any of the train’s consist and surrounding environment is shown.

In time I became less satisfied with these images, but breaking the habit of making them proved to be difficult because it seemed natural to follow the lead locomotive with my lens.

You learn the basics of railroad photography early and those lessons are reinforced by what you see in railroad club programs, on railroad photography websites and in publications.

Unless you had a mentor or have taken the time to study photography in-depth it may be that no one has bothered to explain the finer points of making action, environmental or artistic photographs.

Making static roster shots doesn’t require much skill. Find the proper exposure, focus the image and press the shutter release button. The composition is pretty straightforward.

But not everyone can consistently create good roster shots with a moving train. If you spend time online looking at railroad photographs you will find fuzzy and/or poorly exposed images, off kilter images and photos in which a portion of the locomotive is cut off.

For some photographers, railfan websites and club programs are a version of the old grade school show and tell time. The photographer shows what unusual locomotives came down the pike and how “I got it.”

That’s fine. Most photographers want audiences want to see there work.

Yet the photographs that I find most memorable and which evoke the strongest emotional reactions are environmental and artistic images, not documentary ones.

Railroads operate in local environments and the roster shot usually doesn’t convey that as vividly as the environmental photo.

Most roster shots and many quasi-roster shots could have been taken just about anywhere. They show little to none of the environment in which the train operated. There is no strong sense of place. It is all about the train.

I had a fellow Akron Railroad Club member tell me about the latter after one of my programs in which I had emphasized environmental and artistic photographs. He wasn’t being critical, just making an observation. Maybe he was describing himself.

The thought that for some it is all about the train sat filed away in my mind for several months.

More than a year ago I joined Flickr and starting following guys who shoot the equivalent of roster shots of aircraft, primarily commercial transport planes.

I would see images of planes operated by airlines that doesn’t exist anymore and get excited.

After this happened a few times, it dawned on me why some railroad photographers make roster-oriented photographs. If you have a passion about something you enjoy seeing it, whether it be in person or in photographs.

Guys who make roster shots of locomotives are no different than guys who make roster photographs of airplanes. They are photographing something they find pleasing to view.

I enjoy looking at those older aircraft because they bring back pleasant memories of times past. So it can be, too, with roster shots of locomotives.

The roster shot will always have its adherents and as documentary evidence it will always serve a useful purpose. Roster shots can be interesting, particularly when they portray something from a bygone era.

Nonetheless, given a choice I’d rather make and view the environmental shot rather than the roster shot. The environmental or artistic image affords more room for creativity and style not to mention showing something in a new and refreshing way. That is more difficult to achieve with roster shots or quasi-roster shots.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

On Photography: Using Foreground Shadows

November 10, 2015




Foreshadowing is a tactic used by story tellers, writers and film makers to hint at a plot twist or something that is going to happen later in a story.

It is a way to hold the interest of the listener, reader or viewer as well as move the story along.

It can also be used by photographers to add interest to their images by providing contrast and visual tension.

In the case of photography, the term might be better described as foreground shadowing because you are making use of a shadow in the foreground of the image.

Shown above are two techniques that use foreground shadows to enhance an image.

The top image was made at Boston Mill of Nickel Plate Road No. 765 during a photo runby on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

The shadow in the foreground resulted from the sun sinking behind the hills and trees behind me.

In this image, the shadow has the effect of covering what otherwise would be empty space.

The reader’s eye is naturally drawn over the shadow to the locomotive, which gleams brightly in contrast to the foreground shadow.

Many photographers would rather that their trains be pristine, meaning free of bystanders cluttering up the environment.

But the 765 was executing a photo runby and the people watching it are part of the story being told by this photo.

Most of those along the tracks watching are also spotlighted by the late day light.

Another way to use foreground shadowing is to allow clouds to provide it.

That is what is happening in the middle photo above that was made of a Wheeling & Lake Erie train awaiting a new crew west of Norwalk.

When I arrived on the scene, a cloud was covering the train in shadows. But the cloud began moving and the shadow moved with it.

What does this foreground shadow add? Compare the middle image with the bottom one.

In the bottom image there is some cloud shadow in the field about half-way between where I am standing and the train.

The foreground shadow of the middle image softens the harshness of the green of the corn crop. Although this image was made just after 4 p.m., the sunlight is still harsh because it is late June.

The foreground shadow also creates a slight illusion of shortening the distance between where I am standing and the train.

As in the case of the image of NKP 765, the foreground shadow also draws the viewer’s eye toward the train because your eyes pass over the shadow. The foreground shadow creates visual tension, which encourages eye movement.

Foreground shadowing is not necessarily something you can set out to create in your photographs.

In the case of the 765 shot, it was a matter of timing. The photo runby occurred when there was still enough direct sunlight to illuminate the train.

Had it occurred a few minutes later, the shadows would be covering the train. As it was, there are some shadows from the trees on the 765.

In the case of the W&LE train, I had the right cloud conditions. I would not have been able to use foreground shadowing in the W&LE train image had it been a clear day.

As is the case in making any image, shadows can hinder your shot or they can be your friend if used in the right way.

How the shadows fall is something to watch for in the environment next time you are out trackside on a sunny day.

Photographs and Commentary by Craig Sanders

On Photography That ‘National Geographic’ Approach to Photographing the NKP 765

October 3, 2015

September 20 765 05-x

September 20 765 07-x

A couple of years ago a friend sent me a link to a gallery of photographs that documented Amtrak operations in the middle 1970s.

The photographer had received a grant that he used to pay to travel aboard Amtrak to show life on board and to charter a helicopter to make aerial images of Amtrak trains cruising on the Santa Fe through small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma.

The latter were accompanied with a short commentary that explained why he made the images in the manner that he did.

He acknowledged that his approach differed from how a typical railfan would approached photographing the trains. Railfans tend to hone in on the train, particularly, the locomotive.

But in these images of Amtrak SDP40F locomotives on the point of the Chicago-Houston Lone Star and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Limited, the photographer pulled back to show a wider perspective.

It was a tactic he said is frequently practiced by photographers working for National Geographic. The objective is to  lace the subject of the image in an environment by showing the context in which something was captured.

In this case, the photographer wanted to show Amtrak trains traveling through rural Kansas, a state known for its Great Plains topography and small towns.

I was impressed with the photographer’s compositions and unsuccessfully did a Google search to find out more about the National Geographic approach to photography.

The magazine is world renowned for its photography and articles. If you can get your work published in National Geographic, you are among the elite.

The National Geographic approach was on my mind as I stood atop the Ohio Route 82 bridge over the Cuyahoga River valley in Brecksville recently as I captured the passage of Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive No. 765.

It is not common to be able to get enough elevation in Northeast Ohio to provide a wide perspective. It doesn’t help that our region’s numerous trees tend to reduce the available vistas.

So in photographing the 765 at Brecksville, I made sure to zoom out and get some images such as the ones that you see here.

The top one is my favorite because of the clouds that seem to hover just over the tops of the trees on the horizon.

Both images convey a sense of the railroad and the train being located in a broad valley. We often use the word “valley” when talking about the Cuyahoga. The railroad and the national park even incorporate “valley” in their respective names.

There are many places to make photographs that convey a sense of place in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Yet most of the time the photographs we make of CVSR trains or even of the features of the CVNP fail to convey a sense of this being a wide river valley.

There are a few vistas in the CVNP that enable photographers to get enough elevation combined with enough openness to convey a sense in their images of this being a “valley.”

One of those I need to visit this fall when the foliage is at its peak. But the only place I know of in which you can photograph the CVSR and show that it is in the Cuyahoga Valley is on the Route 82 bridge.

There is nothing wrong with zeroing in on a train or its locomotive to capture its detail. Steam locomotives in particular have much to study and linger over.

Yet there are times when stepping back, even if it feels like you are moving out of the scene, can yield a rich image that helps to tell the story you are seeking to convey.

Commentary and Photographs by Craig Sanders