I had the good fortune to spend last weekend with my good friend Steve Howes at the annual Photographer’s Weekend hosted by the Sumpter Valley Railway in Sumpter, Oregon. Steve is an avid rail buff and seems to have a never-ending knowledge base about every thing railroad… track lays, locomotives, stations, people… it goes on. He has mentioned this annual weekend opportunity to me several times but I never made it before this year. He was a bit concerned that I’d be bored or put off by the cast of people who show up for these events. Let’s just say that railroad buffs are PASSIONATE. It was really interesting to me to see the variety of camera gear people brought along. Everything from point and shoot to multiple DSLRs. My personal favorite was a man who had 3 film cameras along and frequently mounted them side-by-side or stacked them one above the other. Judging from the polished lens barrels he used I know that he has been at this a LONG time. He told me he started about 1969. There were a handful of videographers along with the still photographers. Two of these chaps had traveled from North Carolina and worked as a team to get different views of each train “pass by”. We all learned that the video guys would really prefer that everyone else be as quiet as possible and they bristled a bit when someone (aka, me) made some rocks roll or clicked a camera too close to them. I appreciate that their chosen method to record the train has differrent and demanding needs but I can’t bring myself to think that they are the priority since we all paid the same entry fee. We tried to be accommodating but sometimes the space was limited, the best view angles were always in high demand and sometimes things just happen. Anyway, it was an interesting mix of people and gear.
Saturday started at 06:00 with coffee and sweet rolls along with juice and fruit. People bantered among themselves as they prepared for the day.
Engine 19 rolled into position at the depot to allow people to load. We had about 15 minutes in which the locomotive was stationary as the sun started to come up. I, along with a few others, lined up for a few shots of the train as it warmed up and the light matured. The image below was shot for 10 seconds using the Fuji. There is movement in the cab as the engineer prepares and the breeze caused the steam to drift backward. I have digitally modified the image to remove power lines and poles. Some purists will undoubtedly take issue with this treatment but I think the image is vastly better without the clutter.
We spent Saturday moving up and down the 4 mile track following much the same sequence: train stops, conductor gets off and puts a step for others to use as they leave the train, video guys rush to the front so that they can get the best sight angle, others get off and find their way to the photo line, the photo coordinator radios to the engineer, aka “19”, that all are clear and the locomotive should move up the track to begin its “pass by” run, coordinator tells them to go heavy on smoke and at a certain pace, engineer complies, photographers shoot, video guys wonder how much chatter will be in their audio, repeat 2-4 times then reverse the drill to get everyone back on the train for the next location. We started shortly after 06:00 and ended about 16:00. Approximately 800 images found their way onto my memory card.
The next morning began the same way only we’d lost a few people from the day before and gained some new folks. Locomotive 19 pulled into the depot as before and I was ready for the morning light. It was colder than the day before and frost was forming on the ties. The light came up as I shot, this time using the D800. Steve and I had gone through the previous day’s images and critiqued them. I learned that I shot at too slow a shutter speed, focused too high and did not allow the locomotive to get close as I shot. The Fuji files are really quite nice but I still am a bit perplexed trying to use the mirrorless camera to follow a moving subject. It works and the images are sharp but I don’t have 100% confidence while shooting. I know my way around the D800 thanks to all the bird photography I’ve done in the last few years. A train is vastly easier to photograph compared to a bird… you know exactly where it is going to be and it is not subject to random and rapid changes, the speed is much slower, the train is MUCH bigger, the contrast for focusing is much better. Really, there is little reason for not getting a good photo if you mind some fundamentals. For me that meant shutter speeds of at least 1/360 but more frequently 1/500th, f/8, continuous focus, manual mode and ISO as low as I could go and maintain the speed and aperature I wanted. With birds I almost always shoot Auto ISO but this train gave me a lot more flexibility. Plus, as an added bonus, the train backs through the scene to prepare for its run and you get the chance to view the scene, think about composition and test exposures. Then when the train comes through you shoot so that composition is maximized. This means that you want to minimize the amount of brush or weeds that are obstructing the wheels and getting the steam engine and the tender car both into the frame. I found it interesting that before the train came through it was common for someone of the verteran photographers to go out and pull weeds, trim brush or, on occassion, fall a sapling to make sure the view is unimpeded. I guess that a railroad right of way is different from my work experience on public lands.
I will post several more images of the train in the coming days but the image below was taken Sunday morning as the train sat waiting for passengers to load and for the sun to begin lighting the scene.
And the sun did come up.
More to come….