Starting in the end of November and all through December I managed to get down to Essex and shoot the Valley Railroad’s North Pole Express trains a number of times. With the early winter sunsets, all of these trains ran under cover of darkness, which gave me an opportunity to experiment with my lighting techniques. As a minimalist when it comes to lighting – I typically only use between one and three lights – I wanted to try different layouts of the lights to get different effects. Plus with steam powered trains, the resulting photos easily conveyed motion – something that is more difficult to do with diesel or electric powered trains. In this post, I’m going to talk about some of those lighting layouts and how I changed them over the month, as well as give you a pretty nice, IMHO :-), retrospective of the North Pole Express trains as they parted the darkness in Essex, Deep River and Chester, Connecticut.
Just as a warning – this is going to be a somewhat long post. So if you’d rather not read the details, just click on the first picture below and scroll through them that way. Otherwise, read on. I’ll try and not get too technical, but will also interweave some other tidbits into the story – some relevant, and some that have absolutely nothing to do with things. OK, grab a beverage, and keep reading – on to the story & photos.
Prior to this adventure, my philosophy when it came to light placement has been to concentrate them on the train itself, as well as the foreground elements in the scene. And naturally, I started out that way when I took my first NPE shots the day after Thanksgiving – you’ve got to start somewhere. Actually, there’s an interesting story from that night as well – as I got to Old Deep River Road crossing in Essex to set up for my first shot, I noticed the temp gauge on my car was pegged at the H side and steam was coming out from under the hood – the wrong kind of steam I wanted to see. I had originally planned on shooting at a bunch of different locations, but I seemed to be stuck here. Turned out to be a stuck thermostat, and I had Jill & the girls get a new one and bring my tools down to me. So in between shots, I swapped out the thermostat on the car and got it back on the road! Anyways, the shots from that night were of the traditional front lit variety – the first two were using all three flashes (Lumedyne & Norman studio flashes, and a Canon 420EX speedlite).
|#40 leads a Valley Railroad North Pole Express north through Essex, CT (Lumedyne and Canon 420EX flashes)|
The next outing was on December 8th, where I decided to head up to Chester and shoot the NPE passing by the small station there. Again, this was done with the more “traditional” lighting scheme, throwing the light at the subject in the same direction the camera was pointing. Also, being above Deep River, I got a couple chances to shoot the train with the power on the north side since they shove the train back south to Deep River Landing before running around it for the trip south. Lighting for these were just the Lumedyne and Norman flashes.
|Valley Railroad #40 heads north with the North Pole Express past Chester (Lumedyne and Norman flashes)|
|Valley Railroad #40 shoves the North Pole Express back south past Chester (Lumedyne and Norman flashes)|
Two nights later, I think, was a turning point for me. While pondering the angles and terrain around Old Deep River Road, I was thinking about doing something different with the lights. Inspired by the recent work of Pete Lerro (his website is here), who uses dramatic side and back lighting of subjects on his photo charters, I decided to move the lights instead of pointing with the camera, to pointing at the camera. These two shots were done with all three lights – Lumedyne, Norman & Canon. The Lumedyne was located about 20 feet behind the locomotive, and the Norman & Canon flashes were just off the camera to the right, providing the cross lighting across the nose & pilot of the locomotive. After having seen these shots, I was sold on the back/cross lighting concept. And what really iced it for me was when I showed Jill a print of the #97 shot and she said “now that looks like nighttime – I even can feel how cold it is.” The only difference in the shots is I changed the tripod placement to a little lower to the ground for the second shot, which I felt was more dramatic, and more of what I was looking for.
|Valley Railroad #40 brings the first North Pole Express north through Essex, CT (Lumedyne, Norman & Canon flashes)|
|Valley Railroad #97 brings a second section of the North Pole Express north through Essex, CT (Lumedyne, Norman & Canon flashes)|
Five days after my lighting epiphany was the next time I went out to play in the dark – this time I went up to Deep River Landing to try my hand up there. This night was the night of mistakes – not much went right that evening. I decided on shooting from about halfway up the rock cut at the north end of Deep River Landing, looking down on the train after picking up Santa Claus and his crew from the “North Pole” and they were heading north. I guesstimated on the placement of the lights, and of course the placement was off. I put the Lumedyne behind the locomotive again, and the Norman was off the frame to the left. As you can tell by the first shot, the Lumedyne was still exposed and not behind the locomotive, but the Norman placement looked good. The second one, now with the Lumedyne masked by #40, the Norman wasn’t throwing enough light on the nose, leaving it entirely in the dark. About the only good shot from the evening was one of the last car of the train passing by, with a riding conductor and a boy looking out the window. Live & learn was the theme of the night…
|Wrong Flash Placement - Valley RR #40 pulls the North Pole Express north out of Deep River Landing after getting Santa aboard|
|Not quite enough light - Valley RR #40 pulls the North Pole Express north out of Deep River Landing after getting Santa aboard|
|A North Pole Express peers out of the window as the end of the train passes the Deep River Landing crossing (Lumedyne & Norman flashes)|
Two more days pass and I was back in Deep River. With it being a Friday, the Valley was running two sections of the NPE – the first powered by #40 and the second by #97. For #40 I set up a similar shot to the one I screwed up on Wednesday – this time with proper flash placement. The second, however, I decided on something different. I wanted to get a shot of St. Nick and his crew waving to the passing train. So I set up the Lumedyne on the west side of the tracks by the road, and set up the camera on the far side beyond the fence, closer to the riverboat. I went with no lights on the side of the train I was on, relying solely on the Lumedyne for backlighting. That was for the first shot – the next couple shots were done with no flash, and just a longer exposure. Yes, it was intentional getting Rudolph’s head & nose just sticking into the frame – figured it was a nice balance to the (partially) decorated trees on the left of the frame. Plus I was kind of restricted on where I could shoot from – there was a floodlight directly behind the 2nd tree in on the left side. Had I moved left, right or up that would have been glaring directly into the camera, causing some very unwanted effects.
Wednesday the 21st I was actually on a mission. The 7pm train had some special passengers aboard – Jill’s sister and her family were on the train, and I wanted to get a shot of the train to give to Jill’s nephew Adam for Christmas – he loves trains, and I thought a shot of the actual train they were on would be pretty neat. So for the 5pm run, I went up to Chester to do the station shot again, but this time using the back & cross lighting techniques I’ve suddenly become fond of. I set up one flash (the Norman) by the CV hopper so it would be behind the locomotive and pointing at the camera, and the Lumedyne was set up on the same side of the tracks, pointing across the nose of #40, also illuminating the station. The trick here was to make sure I trip the shutter to not only keep the Norman behind the train, but also not have the Lumedyne cast the shadow of #40 across the front of the station. For the 7pm shot, I set up at Deep River Landing again, and got a shot of them pulling into the station, along with some more shots of Santa and crew waving to the train – but this time using the Lumedyne as well as a slightly longer exposure for a different effect. After the train got Santa and headed north, I moved to the crossing just to the north and got a shot of #40 pulling away from the train (which is the one I printed for Adam), then another low angle shot at the crossing as the Mikado was starting to run around the train. Lighting for these was the Lumedyne across the tracks providing the backlight, and the Norman on the nose & crossing.
|Valley Railroad #40 shoves down the main, running around the train in preparation of the trip back south to Essex.|
The following evening I set my sights again on Old Deep River Road in Essex, once again using the Lumedyne as a backlight, and the Norman as a sidelight. The first shot was with the Norman off to the right of the frame, providing a shot with a more “traditional” all lit look. That was OK – still had some depth with the back light, and the fact that the crossing signal was only partially lit by the flash. The other reason why I went the old route with the lights is I knew Chris Hennessy was on board getting a cab ride, and wanted to try and get a shot of him in the fireman’s window. If you look carefully, you can see him leaning out the window partially. The second shot of #97, however, had both lights on the far side of the tracks. I really liked the way this one came out – not only the train, but also the signal. Plus I popped a shot off of the last car of the train passing by, and you can see the Christmas lights inside the coach. Just something different…
|Valley Railroad #40 heads for Old Deep River Road in Essex, CT with the first North Pole Express of the evening in tow|
|Valley Railroad #97 leads the second section of the North Pole Express towards the Old Deep River Road crossing in Essex|
The final night of synchronized flash lighting was on the 28th – the second to last night #97 would be operating under her own power. The consolidation only had a few days left on her 1472 day FRA mandated operating time, where when finished, she’d go in for a thorough inspection and rebuild which could take years to complete. So this evening, all four of us went, and I decided to use the girls in a couple shots. The first shot was up at Chester, where I had the girls stand next to the station, and wave at the train as they passed by. Then on the return trip of the NPE – and as a reward for doing the first shot so well – the girls did a goofy pose that I think came out pretty cute. Lighting for both of these shots was the same as the last time up at Chester – Norman behind the train by the hopper and Lumedyne on the same side of the tracks and a bit further north. After that, we took a swing by Essex and got a couple shots of the static displayed #2 lit up by the entrance, and a couple shots of passengers getting off of the train.
|Callie (L) and Katina (R) wave to Valley Railroad #97 as she pulls a North Pole Express north through Chester, CT|
|Callie and Katina do a goofy pose in Chester as Valley Railroad #97 shoves the North Pole Express south|
And that was it for my synchronized flash extravaganza in December 2010 – a month where I learned plenty about shooting at night, and how I liked to set up the lights. I did wrap up the year by getting a few last shots of #97 as she headed for the engine house for the last time under her own power. That post will come up pretty soon…stay tuned.
And if you’re reading this, thanks for getting to the end! Hope you’ve enjoyed the photos & story behind them.
Thanks for looking!