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  • After Sundown

    Text and Photography by Eric Blasko

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 60 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 61

    Photography at Twilight and at Night

    As the sun sinks below the horizon, most fans pack up their gear and head for dinner. When they leave, they miss the show of light that follows. The reds and golds of sunset linger, then fade into the purples of twilight. Eventually bluish tones prevail as the last sunlight disappears. As the rich colors yield to night, the opportunity is prime for making unique and dramatic photographs. This is the time to bring out your equipment, not put it away!

    To be a photographer is to study light, and along with it shadow, the relative absence of light. Twilight, the soft edge between day and night, is the transition from light to shadow. At twilight the color and intensity of the light changes rapidly. Eventually the light fades out, and darkness becomes nearly absolute. At night, the contrast in a photo can be greatest, when you can have a brightly lit subject against a totally black background. This selective illumination makes for striking photographs. The challenge is finding a light source. Many options for illumination exist, and we will explore some of these in this article.

    Night photography isn't simple. It requires extra equipment, at minimum a tripod and cable release. And, for most of us, it requires experimentation. Usually it is necessary to make several exposures (if the train isn't moving), varying the time or aperture, to get the best shot. You can burn up a lot of film this way, often using an entire roll just to get a good shot. But the expense is worth it, for the results can be outstanding.

    Photographing trains at night doesn't require fast film. All of the images in this article were made on Kodachrome 25, except for four made on Kodachrome 64 (the images at Tehachapi, Oakland, and Portland). Because fast films are less sharp, it's better to use longer exposures on low speed film. If the train isn't moving, one to two minute exposures are no problem.

    If the train is moving, you can use slow shutter speeds to depict the train's motion, as in this shot (main photo) of a westbound Southern Pacific manifest blasting through the town of Tehachapi on a warm summer evening in 1982. Low light also allows you to enhance signals and headlight beams, which don't show up well in daylight. A shiny Santa Fe 8 39-8 7402 shows off its headlight at the Richmond, Calif., engine terminal on Aug. 5, 1985 (opposite page).

    Night photography can be hard work. It often means fumbling around in the dark when you could be enjoying dinner at a nice restaurant. It can mean staying up late, or dragging yourself out of bed at an hour when the rest of the world (except the railroad) is comfortably asleep. As photographers, we seek to capture images of the railroad in its environment. Trains run 24 hours a day, so to include night-time imagery is to tell a more complete story.

    The fun of photography, however, goes beyond simple documentation. It lies in creativity and in making, whenever possible, distinctive and superb photos. Such opportunities abound in low light and at night. The satisfaction of making such images is worth all the extra effort.

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 62 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 63

    Twilight

    Photographing trains during twilight is difficult, be cause the light level changes rapidly. In the 45 minutes or so from just after sundown to darkness, the exposure required can go from 1/60 second to one minute or more, an equivalent change of one f-stop every four minutes! In other words, the amount of light can drop by half in the time it takes to set up a tripod and mount the camera. Bracketing helps. (Bracketing is repeating the same shot but changing the f-stop up and down by 1/2 or a full stop).

    Right after the sun goes down, short exposures (i.e. 1/60 to 1/125 second) are still possible, especially when you zoom in on the glowing horizon as in this shot (opposite page, bottom) in the Union Pacific yard at Yermo, Calif. The signals and rails shine brightly in this December 1988 scene.

    As the light fades, longer exposures are required to pick up the colors in the sky. Exposures of up to 1/8 second are enough to stop the motion of a train if it is coming at you head-on. This shot (opposite page, top) of an eastbound Santa Fe manifest at Collier, near Richmond, Calif., was made at 1/30 second at f/4 on Kodachrome 25. During twilight, the sky is bright relative to the ground, so if you expose for the sky as in this shot, there will be no detail in the train. Generally you cannot expose for both, although you can use a split neutral-density filter which has the top half gray and the bottom clear, and then expose for the ground. Such filters are extremely limiting, because the dividing line between sky and ground (or train) must be flat, otherwise the resulting photo may look odd. I avoid filters altogether, because they usually give an artificial look to outdoor photographs. All of the images in this article were shot without filters. Not even a "skylight" (UV) filter was used, as the extra glass often gives a reflected image of the head light (and other bright lights) diagonally opposite to it in the picture. (This can still happen with out a filter if the light is really bright, due to the multiple glass elements in a camera lens.)

    Twilight has been divided into three segments. "Civilian" twilight is the first 24 minutes after sunset. The deepest horizon colors occur during this period. "Nautical" twilight, from 25 to 48 minutes after sunset, is so named because this was when navigators using sextant "fixes" off the sun could be certain it had actually dropped below the true horizon. During nautical twilight the reddish colors in the sky are replaced by ever-darkening blues. The various SP units hanging around the Oakland servicing racks on April 25, 1982, were taken during this period (opposite page, top). Astronomical twilight, 49 to 72 minutes after sunset, is when the very last sunlight disappears and all stars become visible. For the purpose of train photography, astronomical twilight is the same as night, since there's so little ambient light that a manmade light source is required, and the exposures needed are as long as at night. The only difference is that there may be a faint glow remaining in the sky.

    Since twilight is a gradual transition, its division in to sections is somewhat arbitrary. Overanalyzing twilight can take away from its mystical or inspirational quality. Because of the intense colors of the sky, this is an optimum time to capture such a mood on film.

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 64 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 65

    Night: Available Light

    Anywhere a train is stopped is a potential spot for night photography. Railroad stations and servicing facilities are ideal, as they usually have lots of illumination.

    Three examples are presented here. A crew member was captured steam-cleaning SP 4449's driving wheels. Fortunately he held fairly still during the 20 second exposure (opposite page, bottom). The photo was made at Portland, Oregon's Union Station, the evening of April 24, 1981, the night before 4449's departure on its excursion to Sacramento for the opening of California State Railroad Museum. After nearly all the fans had gone off to find s l eeping accommoda tions, a few devoted photographers stuck around to get some unobstructed views of the beautiful 4-8-4, such as the head-on view at left (opposite page, top).

    Santa Fe 507 and 91 were captured cooling their heels after finishing a transcontinental run from Chicago to Richmond, Calif. (above). The 507 was brand new on this Oct. 26, 1990 evening. At brightly lit stations or engine facilities, exposures of 30 seconds to one minute at fl4 to 5.6 are good for Kodachrome 25. You should bracket to get the most desirable exposure. ( A good handheld meter, although expensive, eli minates most of the guesswork). Unlike daytime photography, the advantage here is that the illumination at a given spot is always the same, so if you write down your exposures, you will always know what settings to use.

    Most daylight type color films are designed to be given expoure times of one second or less. If an exposure is much longer than this, it will affect ASA speed and color balance. This phenomenon is called reciprocity failure, meaning that the mathematical relationship between f-stop and shutter speed has been altered by the extreme exposure time. Thus, an exposure of one minute at f/4 might not give the same result as two minutes at f/5.6. This actually can be an advantage for the photographer, since it gives you more latitude, that is, you have a greater margin of error in your exposures. Reciprocity failure can also result in a color shift. Furthermore, altered colors may occur because of the tinted light emitted from sodium or mercury vapor lamps, which are commonly used outdoors. The resulting photographs may or may not be desirable, depending on your taste.

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 66 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 67

    Night: Flash Photography

    If you don't like the lighting, bring your own! Using flash gives you control that outdoor photographers otherwise don't have. Usually we are dependent on existing light, even in the daytime. With flash, you can light up your subject as much as you need to get a proper exposure. As long as the train is stationary, you can leave the camera on the tripod with the shutter open, and walk around firing the flash unit as you go. Generally, stopping at three to five pointss and firing multiplee flashes at each point works the best. Get as close to the subject as you can without getting in the shot. The number of flash bursts you need depends upon the speed of the film, your distance from the subject and the power out put of the flash unit. Again, experimentation is the key to getting the best results.

    On April 26, 1991, at Portola, Calif., we were doing existing light shots of UP 844 on the Sacra mento Rail fair '91 Special, when Jim Boyd, editor of RAILFAN & RAILROAD magazine, showed up with flashbulbs and generously offered to provide light for the bevy of photographers that were present. Multiple bulbs were popped at appropriate locations with the results seen above. The steam lit up nicely, adding drama to the scene.

    Flashbulbs are scarce nowadays, having been rendered obsolete by powerful flash systems like the Metz, Norman or Lumedyne, which give the same look to the photos as bulbs when used with a color correction filter. The light emitted by electronic flash units tends to be slightly bluish; this can be overcome by attaching a color balancing filter to the unit. These units come with their own rechargeable battery packs and have guide numbers for ASA 100 film of 195 to 225. The guide number is an index of light output forgiven flash unit, and depends upon the speed of film that you plan to use. It allows you to calculate the f stop required dependent on the distance from the subject, using the following equation: Guide number; Distance in feet=f-stop

    So, for example, if the guide number of your flash unit is 120 and the subject is 85 feet away, you need an f-stop of 1.4 to capture a decent image with one burst of the flash unit. Or, you can do multiple bursts at f/2.8 or higher.

    With slow film like Kodachrome 25, the extra power of these high-output flash units really helps. However, they are expensive, costing about $800-$ 1,000.

    Smaller units can be used, but for slower films you need to set the aperture wide open and use lots of flash bursts. My Vivitar 283 (guide number 120 for ASA 100 Film) was used for this shot made on Kodachrome 25 (above) of SP 6769 West in the siding at Selma, Calif., near Fresno. While waiting for an eastbound hot shot to pass, we got permission from the crew to blast them with the flash. About four bursts were fired at each of three spots near the 6769, then more at three spots near the second locomotive. Unfortunately, dirty SP gray doesn't reflect as well as bright red and yellow, so the second S D45T-2 didn't show up as well as the 6769. A more powerful unit or more bursts would have helped. I used a Quantum Turbo Battery to power my Vivitar 283, so that repeated bursts could be fired in quick succession. Using regular AA batteries in the 283 results in slow recycle times of a few seconds between bursts. Using AAs, it would have taken a long time to fire off the 24 bursts needed for this shot.

    Flash units can be exploited for many other types of shots. Using fast film, they can be used to shoot moving trains, either stopping the motion of the train completely, or combined with light streaks in a long exposure. Flashes are also excellent for filling in dark spots when doing available light photography. For example, if the side of a stationary locomotive is nicely lit, but the nose isn't, you can do a few flashes to "fill in" the dark area. The wonderful versatility of flash units allows you to be imaginative and go beyond the limitations of available light photography.

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 68 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 69

    Other Light Sources

    An obvious source of light that I had overlooked for many years was the train's head light. You can use the headlight for illumination whether the train is coming from behind or coming at you. An SP helper set drifting downgrade west of the Siskiyou summit tunnel provided the light for this shot of the semaphores at milepost 409.7 on Sept. 20, 1985 (opposite page). Using a locking cable release, I opened the shutter just as I could hear the SDs rounding the curve beind me. The units were moving slowly enough to light up the signals and some of the surrounding mountainside. The shutter was closed as the cab of the rear unit passed between the semaphores, which explains why the streak caused by the numberr boards stop there. This shot was made at f/2.8 on Kodachrome 25. This method works best if the train is on a straightaway or moving slowly, so that objects are illuminated long enough to register on the film. Faster films are needed if the head light doesn't linger very long. The advent of ditch lights has really helped for doing shots like this.

    In this twilight image taken at Christie, Calif., on the Santa Fe (opposite page, bottom), the train is coming toward us. I left the shutter open from the time the telegraph wires first began to reflect the headlight, until just before the headlight itself came into full view. Leaving the shutter open a few seconds longer would have resulted in the headlight being blindingly bright. Any source of light will do for photography, even lightning, as seen in this shot (left) at Sunset-Whitney on SP's East Valley line between Roseviile and Marysville, Calif., on Aug. 12, 1983. To photograph lightning, aim the lens at the area where the most bolts are coming down. Open the shutter with a cable release, and keep it open until one or more lightning flashes occur. You can catch several flash es on a single frame of film, which can be more interesting than just one bolt. Lighting shots look best when some foreground is included. For Kodachrome 25, an aperture of f/2.8 to f/4 usually works best.

    If you use your imagination, you can think of other light sources. Flashlights and car headlights have even been used in photographing trains at night.

    RailNews - April 1997 - Page 70 RailNews - April 1997 - Page 71

    When the Sun Returns

    As the color-rich light intensifies, the approach of sunrise can be awe-inspiring. It is also gratifying since shooting trains gets easier once sunlight returns. For me the hardest part of photography at this time is simply getting up. It's hard to get out of a warm, cozy bed when you don't even know if you'll be rewarded with a train when you get to the tracks. But if you don't go, you won't be there when spectacular light and a train come together. As Woody Allen once said, "Ninety percent of success is just showing up."

    One time when it paid off was on March 17, 1985, at Basin, Calif. Here at the east end of Afton Canyon on UP's Los Angeles & Salt Lake line, I could see the headlight of a westbound coal drag for over 15 minutes as it crossed the desert. This gave me enough time to drag myself out of my sleeping bag and set up the tripod and the camera with a 200 mm lens. The sun came up just after the train passed. This wasn't an ideal situation, but it yielded the two photos which you see here (opposite page, top and bottom).

    Luck often plays an essential role in photography, especially in situations where you have to shoot a train within a narrow time window. The Santa Fe at the east end of Port Chicago, Calif., at 7 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1990, was the right place at the right time. This westbound hotshot (above) barreled around the superelevated curve just east of the siding about 10 minutes after sunrise, with the train nicely reflecting the light of the newborn sun. For "glint" shots such as this one, set up your shot looking in the direction of the rising sun, then meter on the scene behind you to get a sampling of how much light will be on the train. Use this exposure or one stop under, depending on how shiny you expect the train to be. Do not meter on the sun, unless you plan to include it in the photo. Unless it is hazy, the sun is usually too bright to shoot directly. The rule of thumb I use for Kodachrome 25 is 1/250 f/4 if the sky is clear, f/2.8 or lower if the sky is hazy. Timing is crucial for sunrises or sunsets. Sometimes you have to go back to a spot again and again to get a train in low golden light.

    Photographing trains during twilight and at night requires determination, extra work and a willingness to be out at odd hours. But with a little perseverance, you can create some outstanding photos.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Eric Blasko
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date April 1997

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