The Outdoor Studio: Large Scale Strobe Setups


This fall, I spent several nights shooting track side on the Valley Railroad near Essex, CT. With four North Pole Express trains each night, there is plenty opportunity to refine the lighting arrangement. Steam looks best in cooler weather (that’s when you get the big white, billowy exhaust). On this particular night, I set up in a marsh. It was about 35 degrees and raining. Because of the remote location of the bridge, the gear had to be brought in and set up via canoe.

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Before I started shooting trains at night, I read up on lighting with speedlights. Much of the writing focuses on human sizes subjects and smaller. I learned as much as possible and then tried to modify the knowledge for (much) larger subjects. At close range, defusers, soft boxes, and umbrellas all work the same way: they sent light from a variety of angles onto the subject to reduce the intensity of shadows. Since there are no train-sized softboxes, it is necessary to approximate the look with an array of lights instead of one light spread over a large area.

Steam Engine at Night

A steam train backs over the Deep River Creek on the Valley Railroad in Essex, CT

For the bridge shot, I had several things I wanted to achieve.

  • Light the steam and exhaust from behind the locomotive to create more depth in the image (it can look flat when you light the engine and exhaust from the same angle.)
  • Increase the dramatic effect by lighting the nose of the locomotive from the opposite side of the tracks from the camera
  • Light the whole length of the train exposed in the marsh, all the way back to the tree line (there are a couple ways to accomplish this)
Lighting Diagram

Lighting Diagram

To light the steam and separate the train from the back background (check the bright fog under the plow), I placed a large light (Alien Bee 1600) with an 80 degree reflector on the opposite side of the bridge from the camera. I pointed this light up, towards where I expected the exhaust to be when the train arrived. I set it to 100% and covered the light stand with a clear trash bag (it was raining). Because this light was behind the bridge, the Pocket Wizards would not trigger it reliably.

I set my tallest light stand across the tracks from the camera to bring a LumoPro 160 speedlight up to the same height of the locomotive. Along with the speed light, I placed a Pocket Wizard radio repeater on this light stand – the camera had line-of-sight connectivity to this light stand, and this light stand was visible by the light set up behind the locomotive.

Lighting the passenger cars extending back into the scene posed the biggest challenge. It would be easiest to place a few lights along the tracks and hide them behind trees, rocks, or shrubs. However, moving in the marshy bramble was nearly impossible so I deployed a large parabolic reflector to solve the problem. A light was placed near the camera and aimed such that the light would stay off the nose of the locomotive. This light did a good job of highlighting the edges of the passenger car windows. Had the light not been kept off the locomotive, it would have become much brighter than the background of the scene, ruining the lighting effects. In the future, I may employ some barn doors to control the amount of light that spills into the foreground.

In my test shots, the camera side of the locomotive was completely dark. I wanted a dramatic scene but not that dramatic! To even things out a bit, I placed two LumoPro 160s on the camera side of the tracks, perhaps 80 feet from the train. At this distance, these two lights added just a bit of fill.

I got the shot in two tries and then moved the camera down into the marsh to capture a wider view of the scene. Five hours after arriving, the last train passed and I piled the soaking wet gear back into the canoe and set a course for the nearest public boat launch.


About Author

William Gill is a nocturnal photographer in Troy, NY currently focusing on railroads. You can follow his progress at

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