Lights, Locomotive, Action!

Getting the sun, the earth and a train to align for a perfect shot

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photo traveler
The New Hope & Ivyland train, New Hope, Pennsylvania

One of my favorite things to do in between trips is to find photographic projects that are close to home. If I don’t have to lug my stuff through airports, on and off airplanes and in and out of taxis, I have that much more energy to make pictures.

Currently, my pet project is working on a long-term multimedia slideshow about an historic steam railroad that runs scenic trips out of my town. Whenever I’m home, I try to gather some sound and shoot some new aspect of the railroad, all with the hopes of putting together a really nice multimedia piece for my website and for the railroad itself. Best of all, the station is two blocks from my house!

For this project, I wanted to do a night shot with multiple flash units lighting the engine and the station, a kind of homage to those classic 1950s black-and-white night shots of steam engines in various American settings that O. Winston Link made famous.

By “night” shot, I actually mean “twilight,” that half hour to 40 minutes after sunset (or before sunrise) when the sky is royal or deep blue and not quite black. Shooting at this time instead of full night gives you much more separation of buildings and edges from the sky, and with black locomotives and dark station roofs, I was going to need all the separation I could muster.

Of course, this meant finding a time when the New Hope & Ivyland train would be sitting in the station, all fired up and about to leave for a trip, that coincided with twilight. Most of the year, the last train run of the day occurs around 4 p.m., and most of the year, that’s just too early for twilight.

I inquired about the possibility of having them stay late one night for me to do the shot. The management was amenable if I picked up the overtime for the engineer, crew, station personnel, etc. When I found out just what that would cost, it sent me whimpering back to the drawing board!

Fortunately, in winter, the shortest days of the year featured twilight at about 4:45 p.m. in my latitude. And those shortest days—just before, during and after the December 21st winter solstice—also coincided with the holiday season, when the train made additional runs of its Polar Express train (Santa is onboard!). The last train departure on the weekends at this time of year was 5 p.m., so the train would be in position, ready to go with steam vents open, right at twilight. My first big logistical problem, having the train in the right place at the right time, was solved—or so I thought. More on that later.

The Little Lights That Could. The next logistical hurdle was to determine what type of flash units I was going to use to light the large steam engine and the station. Fortunately, the holiday lighting of hanging “icicles” on the station were doing a great job of bathing the station in warm-toned tungsten light, to the point where I wouldn’t need to add any flash light there at all. That warm glow of the hanging lights also would provide a highlight along the side of the train cars behind the engine.

My first thought was to use some of the bigger AC-powered Dynalites that I’ve owned for decades. I used the heck out of these lights when I was doing a lot of corporate and industrial photography assignments. For the power they put out, they’re remarkably small and light. But AC power, at least for lights placed away from the station, would be a problem, and I didn’t want to get into renting generators (this being a self-financed project!).

I was left with my trusty SB-800s. Over the years, I’ve accumulated five of them, and I find I’m doing most of my lighting work with them these days. Would they stand up to lighting a big, black steam engine, coal car and the like? I knew I could get excellent results from my D300 at ISO 400 and higher, so I decided to give them a try.

When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
The first day that I was home during the prime shooting time was a frigid, blustery Sunday evening. With the help of Josh, a photography student from my local high school, I wheeled over two Hardigg Storm Cases filled with the five SBs and five SD-8A auxiliary battery packs, stands and some PocketWizard radio remotes.

My first choice with the SBs always is to use Nikon’s Creative Lighting System with its wireless control of remote units. However, I knew that I needed to hide at least one or more of these lights behind the engine and that the Creative Lighting System needed a clean line of sight from the on-camera controller to the remote flash to work, so I opted for the radios and using the flashes in manual or ratio mode.

My plan was to kind of triangulate the light. First, I’d have a light hitting the front of the locomotive from about a 45º angle. Then, I’d have a light raking the side of the locomotive facing the camera from behind at a 45º angle, knowing that it would create a big highlight along the black car because the “angle of incidence” (the 45º angle from which the light was coming) would equal the “angle of reflectance” (the 45º angle at which I was standing). You get big highlights when the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflectance. Most of the time, you use that old-school lighting knowledge to avoid reflections. In this case, with the black engine and coal car, I used it to create the highlight!

Currently, my pet project is working on a long-term multimedia slideshow about an historic steam railroad that runs scenic trips out of my town… I try to gather some sound and shoot some new aspect of the railroad, all with the hopes of putting together a really nice multimedia piece for my website and for the railroad itself.

Finally, to highlight the steam coming from the locomotive, I’d place a third light behind the engine, aimed up at the plume of steam coming from the stack. I did all this light placement when the engine train wasn’t there, but I knew from experience where it positions when waiting to take on passengers and used that as my guide.

I took a stab at the lighting ratios and had the two backlights on full power and the front light on half power. I did a rough exposure check using my student helper as a stand-in for the locomotive (he’s a lot smaller), but I got an idea that with the dusk sky and my 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 Nikkor set on ƒ/5.6 and the tripod-mounted D300, at ISO 400, set to about 1⁄4 sec., I’d get a good blend of flash and the available light of the fading twilight sky. Now all we needed was the train.

The sun set at about 4:25 p.m. and the train was due back at 4:35 p.m. Whenever the train comes in, the crew needs to detach the engine, bring it off on a side track to turn it around and add more water, a process that takes about 10 to 15 minutes. At 4:45 p.m., there was no sign of the train. I checked with the stationmaster. They were running late for some reason, how late, he really didn’t know.

This, along with the brutal cold, was throwing a wrench into my well-laid plans. If we couldn’t get this shot off before the end of twilight, I’d have no separation of the building and train from the sky. Of course, Murphy’s Law being the operative law of my universe, the train didn’t pull in till about 5 p.m. And it seemed to take forever to get turned and watered, so by the time it pulled into place, I basically had no light left in the sky. But that wasn’t the worst of my problems!

The wind was coming from behind the train, blowing right toward my camera position. The big beautiful plume of steam that emanates from the engine’s stack was blowing horizontally right at the camera and swathing the entire platform in hot, thick steam. I shot a frame, determined that my exposure was in the ballpark and then tried to shoot as quickly as I could (but not too fast, since the units were firing at full power and I didn’t want to melt them down), hoping for a frame in between gusts of wind.

But basically, I was caught in a cloud of coal steam, and then the train was gone! Rats! I did manage one or two clean frames, and they looked best in black-and-white because, for some reason, the separation of the station roofline from the sky was more noticeable in monochrome.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Because of my travel schedule, I’d have only one more crack, the Sunday before Christmas, at getting the train in the station at twilight before the railroad went back on its regular, non-holiday hours. It was less cold, with very little wind, and Josh and I were confident as we set up the three lights again and waited for the train.

This time, it was right on time. The engine repositioned, re-watered and was pulling into place—and kept going! It moved up another 20 yards or so past its usual waiting spot right next to the station before coming to rest, well past my lighting setup. A quick panicked conference with the engineer, and I found out that the holiday trains are so popular they had to add extra cars, and he had to move up a bit to accommodate them.

We managed to reposition the three lights without poking anybody. The platform was so jammed, though, that Josh had to hold the third light (the stand would have been a safety hazard), and with twilight fading faster than the crowds were dissipating, I took a test shot; not good!

With the engine farther from the station, it wasn’t picking up any of the glow from the lighted building. One flash raked across the side wasn’t doing it! Quickly, we cracked open the strobe case and I gave Josh a fourth light to help light the side of the engine. He aimed one light straight on to light the coal car and one raked toward the engine.

I wasn’t as pleased with the composition with the train being farther from the station, but at this point, beggars couldn’t be choosers, so I fired away. The fourth light did the trick, and there was still enough twilight for separation. Finally, as the crowds began to dwindle, there were a few frames with good steam and just the right amount of people in the right places. Still not the composition I had in mind, but as Josh in his young wisdom reminded me, there always would be next year to try it again!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.