The Outdoor Studio: Photographing Trains At Night
Have you ever stood on the side of the tracks as a train passes at night? The experience is all encompassing. The train is louder and brighter than anything else around. The ground shakes. I take photos of trains at night for two reasons: I like capturing the drama of railroading at night and I like controlling the light on my subject and the environment that surrounds it.
I was always inspired by the work of Jim Shaughnessy and O. Winston Link. The former lit stopped trains at night with the camera on bulb and a hand-held flash gun (while this approach is low-tech, it requires a whole suite of other skills like getting a railroad to pose a train for you). The latter wired up elaborate synchronized flash systems. Encouraged by the (somewhat) recent developments in wireless synchronization and speedlights, I set out to photograph trains at night. In this article, I’ll cover bringing the studio outside at night. The next will cover the technical aspects of lighting trains.
A drive to increase efficiency, reduce liability, and to secure against the threat of terrorism has made railroads a vastly different place than in the 1990s, when it was common to allow photographers onto their property to photograph trains. If you want to have a long career of photographing trains, everyone agrees you should stay off railroad property. I take it a step further and try to work in a way does not appear to add risk or potential for delay to the railroad: You don’t want to be seen running back and forth over the tracks as a train is approaching to adjust a flash. Even if the gates are still up, running around while a train is in view just looks dangerous. Some railroaders complain about rail-fans sitting trackside in folding chairs. They say it just looks sloppy. What ever it is, its worth keeping that perception in mind.
Changes aren’t all bad. Railroad groups and smart phones provide he photographer with research material and trackside updates. Freight trains rarely run on a fixed schedule but postings by rail-fans help paint a picture of ‘normal operations.’ Bing and Google maps both have great aerial and street level maps. “Bird’s eye view” is awesome for spotting potential locations. Work from other photographers is also a great resource. I look at new photographs to get an accurate measure of the amount of brush lining the right-of-way (trees are probably my biggest enemy).
Armed with a location and a vague idea of the expected traffic, its time to head out outside. I bring a time table (which is a map that has mileposts and place names only used by the railroad) to help decipher messages received on the radio scanner. The radio chatter rarely offers a complete picture but can help answer the question, “its midnight, should I wait another hour for this stupid train?” The first thing I do after turning on the scanner is to get a camera on deployed on a tripod. It’s good to have a plan before setting up the lights. It’s better to look like a photographer when the neighbors call the police!
After setting up the lights and testing the exposure comes the biggest challenge: doing nothing. The next step is to just sit and wait for a train to arrive. In rural areas, I bring a stove and cook dinner or make tea. In cold weather, I walk around checking the batteries in the strobes and put them in my pockets to warm them up. In populated areas, I walk around to ensure nobody is eyeing my photography gear that could be spread over several hundred feet. Mainly, I just walk around stay warm. Sometimes I post reports from the field to help other photographers.
At night, you can hear the train coming from miles away – especially if it is coming up a grade. Before it arrives, I power up the lights and take a test shot. At full power, the lights can take a few seconds to re-cycle. If time allows, I like to fire off the lights to provide the crew with a heads up that they are about to be photographed. When the train rolls into position, I take my one shot.