Posts Tagged ‘railroad locomotive roster shots’

On Photography: Taking A Fresh Look at the Practice of Locomotive Roster Shooting, Part 1

January 6, 2016

First of two parts

“Roster shot” is a term that railfan photographers often use yet seldom define.

In doing some research on the practice, I discovered, though, that the roster shot is as old as railfan photography itself and even has a rather proud and even disciplined history.

In its early iteration, a photographer visited a yard, roundhouse, locomotive shop or station platform and photographed the steam locomotives sitting there.

The objective was to create a photographic record of each locomotive in every class on the railroad’s roster.

Images were framed at a three-quarter angle with the locomotive nose at the far right or left edge of the image.

As explained by Jeff Brouws in the Winter 2014 issue of the NRHS Bulletin, roster shooters developed an unofficial set of rules.

The side rods had to be down, and the smoke box, engine number and company name clearly displayed.

Photographs were made in flat light or with strong sunlight behind the photographer to avoid the running gear and driving wheels being obscured by shadows.

Extraneous matter was cropped out as much as possible. Some photographers painstakingly removed debris from the roadbed around the locomotive.

The best roster shooters used tripods, small aperture settings and time exposures.

Roster shooters considered their work to be “pure” representations. Historian John H. White has described the roster shot as “undiluted by artistic interpretation.”

Not everyone was impressed. Photographer and author Lucas Beebe dismissively called roster shot photographers the “nuts and bolts clique.”

Related to the roster shot was the builder’s photo, which was commissioned by the locomotive manufacturer and made by a professional photographer.

In many instances, the builder painted the side of the locomotive dark gray or flat black for its official portrait.

Some photographers placed a white canvass tarpaulin behind the locomotive to block the background. Other photographers would mask out the background during darkroom processing.

Roster shots were popular because the camera equipment and film of the time did not always lend itself well to action photography.

The 100 ASA film used in the steam locomotive era meant that capturing a fast-moving train without substantial blur was a challenge.

Some photographers didn’t want to sit around for hours and come away with little or nothing. Photographing locomotives at the local roundhouse or station was a sure thing.

Early roster shooters also liked the consistent quality of their images. They usually had more control of their environment than did the action shooter.

Roster shot photography did not decline with the arrival of diesel locomotives nor did the desire to capture the roster end among some roster shooters.

Yet the demise of passenger trains, freight stations and engine service facilities has diminished opportunities to photograph locomotives sitting in public places.

Good luck getting a railroad to agree to give you access to service facilities and shops even if you offer to sign a liability waiver.

Even in the steam era photographers sometimes found themselves being harassed by railroad officials who didn’t want photographers around yards and roundhouses.

The late Otto Perry, who began shooting locomotives in 1913, all but ceased making roster shots and took refuse in the countryside to make action photographs after being arrested in Oklahoma during World War II by police officers who thought he might be a foreign spy.

Some roster shooting can be done of locomotives sitting on sidings waiting for opposing traffic to clear or a new crew to arrive.

Summit Street in Akron, for example, is a good place to make roster shots of Wheeling & Lake Erie locomotives at the head of empty stone hopper trains at Rock Cut siding.

These trains often sit for hours in open view although you must go onto the property of an adjacent business unless you shoot from the crossing with a telephoto lens.

There remain photographers devoted to documenting every locomotive in every class owned and/or operated by their favorite railroad. But they are a minority.

What has emerged is the quasi-roster shot, which is a hybrid of roster and action photography. More often than not, quasi-roster shots are made with moving trains and sometimes produce less than satisfying results.

In my next installment I’ll talk a look at the pros and cons of quasi-roster images.

Commentary by Craig Sanders