Just as the sun set on an overcast day, CP train D21 switched Colonie Yard with a D&H lightning stripe GP38. There is no room for strobes in the yard (without trespassing) so I took a few long exposures as they worked from the street.
I tried shooting this location and instead of getting an image like this one I got soaked: fell into the Castleton River. If you’ve ever seen the Castleton River, you know just what an insult this is. It looks like a swamp. Maybe you’ll just get your boots wet. LOL, NOPE. Somehow there are tufts of grass right next to six-foot-deep water!
Stephannie and I returned the next week and tried again. She was up at the camera and I fiddled with the lights, 1500’ feet away, while we communicated over cell phone. It was a cold night (in august, even!) but nobody got soaked and we got the shot.
The tracks follow a small river here - three strobes were placed on an old trolley line on the bank opposite the train. The light out of the left side of the frame was mounted on a 30’ tower. The other two were evenly spaced through the 500’ of track and were hidden behind brush. One big light was used on the barn and four little ones softened the shadows.
On a beautiful fall afternoon I didn’t see a single train on the drive between Troy and Whitehall, New York. Excellent news, perhaps it will be a busy night. I was going to Vermont to photograph the Canadian Pacific’s line along Lake Champlain at night. I drove right past magic hour in farm country to twilight at Benson Landing, Vermont.
The North end of the Lake features a ribbon of track tied to cliffs that drop straight into deep water. This stretch is an iconic representation of the Delaware & Hudson’s north end. After considering how many balloons it would take to lift my lights to track level (the lake is a little windy for that), I went looking for some easier geography. I found a long rock cut running along the lake a few miles south of Ticonderoga, New York. Aerial images showed some plants sticking out of the water, two hundred feet off the tracks. Perhaps the lights could float on top of the marsh plants. A nightly local runs up to the paper mill in Ticonderoga so this location would give me two more shots than a scene further north.
“Yeah, alright D-13,” said the scanner as I was loading the canoe. “What is my train doing out so early!” The local rolled north a few minutes later. To my surprise, a caboose terminated the short train. I was energized by the thought that they might return with the caboose right behind the engine.
The crew called the dispatcher a few minutes later to say they were out of the way on a passing track by the mill. An oil train overtook the canoe as I headed south in search for the rock cuts and shallows. Another train past before dark. This wasn’t looking so great.
If you push a light stand down into the muck, the whole stand slowly floats back up on a wave of gassy bubbles. I spread the legs out as far as they’d go and hoped for the best as I set up the lights.
Light no. 1 was set perpendicular to the tracks, about one hundred feet to the north(right) of the camera. This light would do most of the work. A second light of equal power was placed about 100 feet in the other direction and pointed towards the right side of the frame. This light would ensure there were no shadows behind the nose of the locomotive, light the south ends of the cars, and the right side of the frame. I paddled between the two lights and tried a test shot. Nothing. I’d paid close attention to keeping the 120 volt electrical work out of the water, but left the radio slave triggered behind the lights’ batteries. Corrected, the lights worked. I focused the camera using the light atop a flashing bouy, fired up the stove in the canoe for tea, and waited.
And waited. After cooking some dinner, a northbound rolled through. I took a shot to test the exposure and found the left side of the frame was a little dark. I set out two speedlights and set them to the maximum zoom. Now we were set for the southbound D-13. Took a quick spin by the big lights to warm up and noticed they had not settled much. Good.
Five hours after first seeing the train, its headlight illuminated the Vermont side of the lake and then swung around a curve and lit up the New York side. I turned on some continuous lighting to check for the caboose, stood up in the canoe, and took the one shot I’d get.
The short train completely passed before the flashes recycled in the cold. I didn’t care, I was hitting plus, plus, plus on the camera to check the shot. Things looked good enough to call it an early night. With wet, muddy stands in the bottom of the canoe and the camera and lights back in their dry-boxes, I paddled to the boat launch. “Wait, where was the launch?”
That’s when i spotted two yellow reflectors. I padded over hoping they were on the state dock. It was a house cat sitting on the end of the dock. Some nights are lucky like that.
In the fall of 2013, Ron Olsen and I teamed up to shoot a short (600’) segment of the 3000’ foot long Moodna Viaduct. Its a monster, the biggest railroad trestle east of the Mississippi.
How we did it
There is a lot of ground to cover in the park under the viaduct, so I scoped it out during the day, driving around to several locations. I settled on this shot, The tree trunk frames one side and the leaves would frame the other. While this was the biggest area I’ve ever attempted to light up, constraining the view kept the shoot somewhat manageable.
The lights look best when placed near the subject. The tall bridge requires tall lights (if you don’t want awkward shadows). Two 30’ masts were deployed just out of the field of view. Man this thing is big!
A few big, focused lights were used to light up the bridge sections and the train. Other lights illuminate the towers (trestle bents) They are located near the trestle, along an access road that is hidden by tall grass.
Set up took about 2 hours. After getting everything in place, all that was left to do was wait for the sun to go down and the parade of Port Jervis Metro North Trains to start. The bow hunters, portrait photographers, and bird watchers packed up and went home. Some high school kids showed up to party. Later, some local artists showed up to use the viaduct as a backdrop.
Near Albany, NY
I was lucky to get a tour of the Western Maryland Scenic’s line from Sean Hoyden (another night photographer). There are so many amazing locations but this simple fence in the snow really stood out.
I think most photographers work to avoid the fences that divide the landscapes composed of elements that we are trying to connect. Perhaps it’s lazy to work so hard to hide such a conspicuous element of the American landscape.
"stupid chainlink" Troy, NY 2011
…back to Frostburg, Maryland. The split rail fence here separates a parking lot from the railroad’s property. It wouldn’t have made for much of a daylight shot but I thought the snow might be a great partner here: as a silhouette, the fence would be an interesting feature rather than an element competing with the train. I figured a dark fence and bright snow were going to make that effect an easy proposition.
That night, the snow turned to freezing rain. All the gear had to be covered in bags - the bags diffused the light producing a rather dull looking scene. There was only one option: run around and remove the rain protection as the train arrives (don’t leave footprints!)
As soon as the train passed, I collected the gear and tossed most of it in the car to defrost… it all still works despite this repeated abuse.
While diesel engines are just has happy to lead a train facing in either direction, steam engines prefer to face forward. Turntables were once found at any point where a locomotive might need to stop after working a section of the line and return back to its base of operation. They were everywhere.
Stepahannie and I took the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad from Cumberland to Frostburg last summer to enjoy the scenery, ride our bikes on a short section of the Great Allegany Passage, and to locate good photo locations for later in the year. The turntable in Frostburg was near the top of my list: I’d never photographed a steam engine getting turned .
There is a wooden fence around most of the turn table pit and a large wooden staircase along one side that allows riders to watch their power getting turned. I located a couple places where I could get a clear shot without the fence or onlookers (either would ruin the illusion).
On the night I arrived in Frostburg to shoot the steam engine there was no danger of anyone lining the fence to watch as the engine was spun around: it was about 30 degrees and the snow was just about to change over to rain. After taking another shot in town, I picked up two lights and ran them up to the turn and set them in locations I’d already mapped out during the day when I visited with another night photographer, Sean Hoyden.
The crew had to come down and shovel out the turntable pit. Everyone involved got soaked. The staff in the depot did their part and brought cups of hot chocolate to the crew working outdoors. As the locomotive started to spin, I stepped out of a telephone booth where I was staying dry and climbed atop the railing on the staircase and waited for the centenary bridge in the center of the turntable to line up with the space between the 734 and her tender and took my one shot.
A print is available at: https://www.etsy.com/listing/185391590/western-maryland-scenics-turntable
Waiting on a train in Bellows Falls, first day of spring, 2013. This year, there is still plenty of snow everywhere.
A CSX local passes a house on the Rondout Creek in Kingston, NY. Have a listen: