The Virtues and Vagaries of Light

Gary Dolzall

October 15th, 2020

Light is the basic element of photography, but its many virtues and vagaries also help tell a story, delivering mood, vibrance, and dramatic impact to your railroad photographs.

Words and Photographs by Gary Dolzall

It is often said – and truthfully so – that the most dedicated landscape and outdoors photographers arise well before dawn to be camera in hand as the first morning rays lighten the sky. Such intrepid photographers practice their craft intently as the sun rises, perhaps take a nap during the harsh mid-day sun, then spring back into action as the golden light of late afternoon and evening approaches.

As railfan photographers, we are largely akin to landscape photographers since more often than not our subject is found out-of-doors and frequently stands in grand settings, whether such be rural or urban. I have known more than a few railfan photographers that do in fact practice the routine described above that begins with an early alarm clock.

Of course, trains have a funny way of running to their own schedule and purpose rather than when the lighting is ideal! That means as railfans, we need to work with what light is given us when, in fact, there are trains to be photographed. And happily, with a bit of creativity, we can come home with compelling railroad images captured in conditions ranging from the vibrant directional lighting of dawn and dusk to dramatically “back-lighted” subjects to even working with little available light.

It is, surely, a given that the saturated and rich light of dawn and early morning, then of late afternoon and dusk, is the “ultimate light” for railroad photography. And whether one chooses to take a nap during the mid-day or not, being trackside during the premier lighting moments of the early and late hours promises memorable images (indeed, often even when trains are not present). Early and late directional lighting also provides particularly good opportunities, by choosing your locations, to play bright sunlight and shadows together in a scene to dramatic effect. Such lighting also frequently provides opportunities for evocative silhouette images. Aside from “high noon,” daytime lighting generally promises opportunities for bright images often with (weather permitting) those beloved “Kodachrome skies.” As the sun rises toward its highest in the sky, don’t be hesitant to use differing and creative angles to optimize the available lighting condition.

What about when the light, due to sun angle or poor weather, etc., is simply bad? Yes, one can head for lunch, or one can also use the time for taking close-up scenes, detail shots, or giving a try to “pan” shots and the like, which can offset the less-than-ideal light with other visual attributes. And when the lighting is otherwise good, but the train is coming “the wrong way” (out of rather than into the sun) photographing back-lighted subjects can often yield dramatic results.

By all means, don’t believe the day needs to be done when the last threads of dusk are gone. Railroading at night is memorable and captivating and many of the best railroad photographs ever taken are night scenes. One of the beauties of night railroad photography is that it can be a salve to poor weather. Gray, rainy, or foggy weather that makes one feel their day of railroad photography has literally gone awash can become your friend after dusk. The negative impact of poor weather on night photos is far less than during the day, and often the spotty weather can even add dramatic impact to night railroad photographs.

Now, about setting your alarm clock at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning... GD0901 Under a beautiful early morning sky still painted with the pastel blues and pinks of dawn, Southern Railway 4501 crosses the Tennessee River at Chattanooga as the legendary 2-8-2 powers an excursion bound for Crossville, Tennessee, in October 1976. GD0902 The author’s alarm clock was indeed set in the wee hours of the morning, thus allowing him and railfan companions to be trackside west of Fort Madison, Iowa, at 6:32 a.m. to capture one of Santa Fe’s hottest intermodals – Train 189 bound from Chicago to California’s Bay area. Dramatically backlit by the rising sun on May 21, 1989, “yellow bonnet” AT&SF GE B36-7 7498 is on the point of the priority intermodal train. GD0903 While the hours of daylight may be short during winter, the often crisp and directional light of the season (not to mention snow, of course) provides marvelous opportunities for railroad photography. Under a blue “Kodachrome sky,” an Amtrak EMD F40PH and its Empire Service consist flash past Lock 10 on the famed Erie Canal near Amsterdam, New York. GD0904 Commuter trains in brilliant afternoon light: A MARC commuter train serving the railroad’s Brunswick Line from Washington, D. C., to Martinsburg, West Virginia, makes its station stop at historic Point of Rocks, Maryland (above). MARC remanufactured “F9PH” 81 began life as a Baltimore & Ohio F7. Some 400 miles farther north, flashy MBTA EMD F40PH 1000 (below) is easing to a stop in Framingham, Massachusetts, at 5:50 p.m. on August 12, 1992. GD0905 GD0906 The rich yellow livery of Union Pacific EMD SD40-2 3523 is made all the more golden by the last lingering light of a winter evening. Early and late directional lighting provides particularly good opportunities to play sunlight and shadows together in a scene to dramatic effect. GD0907 Silhouette images can be both dramatic and evocative and certainly add variety to your collection of railroad images. On bone-chilling January 2, 1989, a Chicago & North Western freight bound for Green Bay strides past snow-dressed farmland near Campbellsport, Wisconsin (above). No train, no problem. Dramatic lighting can provide memorable images even without a train. A thunderstorm has passed, leaving a magnificent sky and rain puddles along the Milwaukee Road right-of-way at Duplainville, Wisconsin, as dusk descends on a spring evening (below). GD0908 GD0909 When the last light of the day has faded, there’s no reason to store the cameras. Indeed, nighttime is a magical time to capture railroad images. Their work done until the ‘morrow, a pair of Metra EMD F40PHs are bedded down for the night at Waukegan, Illinois. GD0910 The magic of the moment. Railfan photography can be challenging and at times frustrating. But it is moments such as these – spotlessly clean diesels, priority auto parts train, the brilliant last rays of a day’s sunlight, a dramatic sky – that make it all worthwhile! At Tunnel City, Wisconsin, on September 20, 1987, Soo Line SD60 6012 and kin have just emerged from the tunnel that gives the small community its name with the westbound “Ford Train.”

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