One of the discussion groups I’m on has been talking about night photography lately. That discussion prompted me to go through my stuff and pick out some of what I thought were my better images taken between dusk and dawn – both using artificial (flash or flashlight) and natural (ambient) lighting. I’ll also post a couple thoughts on the shot, and how I made it. And I’m not going to restrict it to railroading photos – although the lion’s share will be railroad related. I’ll also include some of my through-the-telescope shots, as well as other tidbids…read on for the scoop.
Note – you can click on the thumbnail to get a larger version right here, or click the link below it to head to the gallery
Night photography has been a fascination of mine for quite some time. And as you’ll see below, I tend to use more natural lighting than flash in my night work. I just think it looks nicer, but hey, that’s me. There’s a bunch of photos in here, so let ’em load. I’ve also put a couple comments under each one to put things in context. As usual, comment if you want!
Artificial (Augmented) Lighting
This first section will feature shots where I’ve added light to the scene – whether that be in the form of a flash unit, or in the case of the first one, a high power flashlight. I do try to include some of the ambient light in the photos as well, adding a bit more to the scene.
First up is my most recent night shot. This was lit with simply a flashlight. Yep, flashlight – but not an ordinary 3-D cell Mag Lite, but rather a 2,000,000 candlepower spotlight. It still took an exposure of over 3.5 minutes to get it, despite the bright light. I basically did this – open the shutter, then move the light over the entire train, ground & trees, while slowly walking towards the rear of the train. And doing this while trying to avoid the rocks, pipes & ditches. I think it was worth the effort.
Next up is one of my all-time favorite flash lit photos. One year, in preparation for the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum’s annual night photo shoot I decided to do a few test images with a different lighting method (fellow photographer and good friend Bob LaMay and I started the night shoot as a fund raiser 5 years ago, and have done it every year since). Usually for the museum night shoots, we employ a portable Lumedyne flash to illuminate the scene. This usually leads to even lighting around the subject since the flash is popped at many different angles around the scene. For this test, I went with a pair of studio monolights to light the subject, which would give a fixed lighting to the scene. I really wanted to preserve some of the shadows on the nose of the FL9, and maintain the night feel of the scene. There was one light directly in front of the nose, and about 15 feet in the air, and another just beyond the treeline, and out of the frame to the right, placed about midway down the locomotive’s body. Each were popped 3 times during the exposure.
Here’s one from the CERM Night Photo Shoot this year (2008). This year, the museum dedicated the turntable, and put it into service a week before the night shoot. That gave us a new area of the museum to shoot in, and this one takes advantage of that. Here we have the museum’s GE 25 tonner on the table, with the 44 tonner looking on from the turtable lead. We had a rainy night this year, so there was a bit of fog in the air, which can be seen in the 25 tonner’s headlight beam. This was lit 100% by a trio of Lumedynes both inside and outside of the roundhouse (thanks to Tom Mik, Shawn McGinnis and Mike Peverett for doing the honors).
One more from this year’s CERM shoot. Here we see both the turntable and the roundhouse in the shot (the roundhouse was rebuilt by CERM volunteers on the original New Haven RR’s foundation), and a pair of Farimont track cars – one open cab on the turntable, and a Railbus inside the roundhouse. I just liked it because it’s different – speeders aren’t something you see every day…
Here’s another organized night photo shoot I help out with. This one is up at the Berkshire Scenic Railroad in Lenox, MA. Being up in the Berkshires, light pollution is at a minimum, and last year we had a crystal clear, moonless night for the shoot. So I took advantage of that, and opened up my aperture a bit more than usual to get more of the stars to record on the image. This one scene we see the Housatonic Railroad’s Alco RS-3M posing at the Lenox station, with Jupiter and the constellation Scorpius rolling by overhead. This one was lit by a single Lumedyne, popped about 5 times around the scene (Thanks to Steve Barry of Railfan & Railroad for lighting this shoot!)
The final artificially lit shot goes back to Willimantic and the CERM. This shot I was trying to get not only the train, but the old baggage cart, into the frame. And the reason why I was aiming for this one, is I botched the same shot a couple years back – well, not really botched it, but I didn’t own a lens wide enough to get all of the cart in the scene. This time I slapped the 15mm fisheye on, and viola, this.
And in this section, you’ll find my favorite type of night photography – using what’s around me for light. All of these photos were done with the available lighting around me – whether it’s from the moon, or street lights – I’ve only used what was floating around, and none of it was augmented. As you can probably figure it out, most of these are static scenes – there are a few action shots depicting motion, though…
First up is a shot that I happened to stumble on one winter evening. The New England Central Railroad for a time was storing their engines in Willimantic yard, and one night they happened to be in the right spot to get one of the locomotives and the constellation Orion in the same frame.
Next up is a shot I call “Steel Salad.” It’s from a derailment on the New England Central in Mansfield, CT. Luckily nobody was hurt in this derailment, and the only thing spilled was soybeans…lots of soybeans. I filed this under the available light section even though it was lit by the floodlights RJ Corman set up to aid in re-railing the cars. I was using the available light, and not providing the light via flash, so I thought it fit here.
Who says night shots have to be taken outdoors? I’ve also shot a number of concerts (mostly of friend’s bands), and this one is one of my favorites. It’s a shot taken of Steve Rodgers playing his guitar along with his band, Mighty Purple, during a show at his coffee house/live music venue, The Space, in Hamden, CT. I just liked the neck of the guitar in focus, contrasting with the out of focus candles in the background. As a side note, Steve’s a good friend of mine, as well as an incredible model railroader. I had the honor of spending an afternoon photographing his basement layout – you can see it here if you’re interested.
Here’s one of my favorite in-cab photos. I was riding with an engineer freind of mine on CT DOT’s Shore Line East commuter railroad between Old Saybrook and New Haven, CT. As we were heading west for New Haven, and approaching Union Station, the skyline struck my eye, so I got this longer exposure shot of us moving towards New Haven.
This one was a completely unplanned, spur of the moment shot. At the end of the 2005 Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum’s annual night photo shoot, the museum volunteers were moving the equipment back into position. And while I was standing on the platform of the Chaplin Station, something struck me as some ex-New Haven coaches and FL-9 were heading back towards me. So I quickly set up, framed the shot, and got this one of the stainless steel washboard sided coach and FL-9 slowly rolling past me. Even though you can see another photographer’s tripod near the station, I think the shot turned out rather well.
Ahhh, another unplanned shot at the end of another CERM night shoot. This one was at the end of the 2007 shoot, where we were hit by a bit of rain. After all the equipment was put away, the museum volunteers took the car mover off of the rails to return it to the roundhouse. I caught this shot as they were backing the car mover towards the crossing (away from the camera). I really liked how the rails were illuminated, and you can see small details like the switch stand target, some equipment on the telegraphers desk inside the Chaplin Station, and a subtle silhouette of a museum volunteer to the right of the switch stand.
Not every day does a smaller regional railroad like the Providence & Worcester add a new job to the roster. So despite the new job from Plainfield to Willimantic, CT – symboled NR-4 – being an overnight job, I still went and shot the first run of the train. Here the train is pausing in the Willimantic yard, where traffic is interchanged with the New England Central Railroad, on the chilly, and quite foggy night. Unfortunately, due to a communication error between the NECR and their crews, the interchange traffic wasn’t ready yet. So after they dropped their cars for the NECR, the P&W crew headed back to Plainfield as light engines. Hey, but I got the shot!
Another shot of the P&W’s night job, NR-4, in Willimantic. This time a few weeks later, and from ground level. Here the train pauses under the moonlight of the night. Lighting graciously provided by the street lights. Pretty standard stuff as far as rail photos go, but I really liked the way the lighting worked out. Only had to tweak the white balance to get things to look normal, color-wise.
P&W train NR-4 again? Yep. But this time you can’t even see the train. I took this one at the Scotland Dam, and I intentionally didn’t use any other lights other than what was there. For this shot, I used my 15mm fisheye lens to get as much of the scene in the frame – including the old telegraph pole. Focused on the lights down by the dam, and opened the shutter about 10 seconds before the train rolled across the frame. All in all, 55 seconds later, I came away with this shot. Yeah, it’s just some light streaks floating above the tracks, but I think the addition of the dam in the background, and the pole in the foreground make the shot.
Oh, no, not another NR-4 shot! Well, living 5 minutes from Willimantic does have its advantages. This one was shot from Bridge Street in Willimantic, which is where the P&W main meets the NECR main. If you’re curious, the P&W main veers off to the left, and the NECR main crosses Bridge Street. The reflection off of the rail head is what makes this shot work for me.
OK, one more. This is the final P&W NR-4 shot – I promise! Here the crew pauses at the north end of Willimantic yard for a moment, and I got this shot, again with my fisheye, of the power, and one of the apartment buildings along Railroad Street. If you look just to the right of the handrails, you’ll see the clock tower on the old court house. This one worked for me on a couple levels – first, I really liked the lower angle of the shot, and the look that the fisheye’s distortion gave it. I also liked the contrast between the well lit nose, and the completely dark side of the train. Hey, I like contrast, what can I say?
Here’s a shot with my telescope. The scope is a Celestron Super C8+, 8″ f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that I’ve had since I graduated high school (way back in 1987). We were graced with a total lunar eclipse this year, so I broke out the scope and did a little shooting. I got this shot just before totality, where there was only a sliver of the moon left not covered by the Earth’s shadow.
My new job has me down in New Jersey quite often, so of course the camera kit comes along. Well, one time I was there a few days, I brought my tripod along and did a bit of night shooting. Here’s one that I took at the end of the New Jersey Transit Gladstone Branch in, you guessed it, Gladstone, NJ. Here is where NJT stores the trains overnight, and has a crew base. And no, I had no problems at all shooting around NJT stations & tracks, day or night.
Boom! Yep, had to get some fireworks in too. This is from this year’s (2008) Lebanon, CT fireworks display. The town puts on the fireworks near the town green for everyone to enjoy. It’s always a great show, and we look forward to it every year. It also helps that, first it’s free (but we do usually contribute money), but most importantly it’s 2 minutes down the road from home.
OK, back to the railroad related stuff. Here’s a shot of the signals guarding the south approach to the Romulus diamond, in Romulus, MI (south of Detroit). I had to go to Detroit for a week of training back in 2006, and with the help of a few local photographers (Mike Valentine and Jeff Mast, to name two that I also met while out there), I had plenty of spots to shoot around the greater Detroit area (I was staying in Novi, so it wasn’t that far of a drive). Thee signals are on the CSX tracks, to the south of the diamond. The diamond is the crossing between the north-south CSX line and the east-west Norfolk Southern.
And a few minutes after the last one, I got this shot. Here we have a northbound CSX freight train heading towards the Romulus diamond just as dawn is beginning to break. The signals above the train are the same set of signals I shot above, but obviously from a different angle. I also went with the 15mm fisheye for this shot to get as much of the train, signals and sky in the shot.
Sometimes less is more, as it is in this shot. At one point during the 2006 night photo shoot at the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum in Lenox, MA, one of the BSRM volunteers left his kerosene lantern sitting on the stone driveway. The glow from the lantern just struck my eye, and I set up a quick shot before the volunteer picked up the lantern.
Boo! There’s a farm down the street from our house in Lebanon, CT (R-Farm would be their name) that has an annual tradition. Prior to Halloween, they sell pumpkins. As all-hollows-eve approaches, they begin to carve the leftover pumpkins into a variety of jack-o-lanterns that they light up and display on Halloween. In 2006, there was nearly a full moon and some clouds in the air, which gave the scene an eerie look. Quite literally, they have hundreds and hundreds of jack-o-lanterns carved. That a ton of pumpkin seeds to toast up!
Another unplanned shot from the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum night shoot. This time from the 2007 shoot, I decided to get a little creative with some lanterns sitting on the rear of the museum’s Alco S-1. I started the exposure as the “ghostly” looking person was adjusting the lantern – he was pretty still. Then about halfway through the exposure, he climbed back down the stairs. But I kept the shutter open to get the details behind him, giving him a somewhat transparent look.
Another shot from R-Farm’s annual Halloween display. This one is from the 2007 display, and they added something – a smoking spider! The owners made the spider from PVC pipe, and added a smoke machine inside the shed to give some life to the plastic arachnid.
This one is from one of the days I spent riding with the crew of Connecticut Southern Railroad train CSO-1. The train originates in CSX’s West Springfield yard, and runs bridge traffic to Cedar Hill in New Haven, CT. This ride was in September, so it wasn’t quite cold enough yet to leave the units running all night long, and they had to be started first thing in the morning. Here’s a shot of the first two idling along, as the engineer Tony fires up the third unit, which is out of view behind the shut down CSX units. And, yes, that’s my shadow in the foreground – yep I get the bonehead award…
The town we live in – Lebanon, CT – has a bonfire ever year at the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, and we bring the kids ever year. Two years ago, there was pretty much a full moon the night of the event, so I tried to work it into some of the shots. This one was my favorite of the night, since it showed the crowd, and the sparks rising alongside the moon as the fire department stoked the fire.
Finally, another moon shot. This one was actually a test of my new camera body – a Canon EOS 40D, and was literally one of the first frames I took with the camera. I was more curious about the Live View feature, and how it would work on the telescope. Well, let me tell you, focusing using Live View is head and shoulders above the Ronchi Grating and knife edge focusing tool I’ve used for the past 20 years. I got a much sharper, in-focus image using live view. But anyways, a pretty nice shot of the moon.
And that’s about it. Again, just an overview of some of what I consider to be my standout night photos. They may not be the best technically, and they may not be cutting-edge photography, but they do have one thing in common – I’m happy with them. And in photography (and life in general), that’s all that really matters. If anyone out there agrees with me, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Thanks for looking!