On July 20, 2007, Canadian Pacific Train 417 heads north along the CSX Oak Point Link, which skirts the Bronx shore of the East River. Photographed from the Third Avenue Bridge, this scene includes other well-known spans including the Willis Avenue Bridge, the Triboro Bridge, and the Hell Gate Bridge. With only a few opportunities during the longest days of the year to photograph this train, it was a risk to try new locations instead of familiar standbys. The purpose of this photo was to place this "foreign" train amongst the infrastructure that connects New York City to the world, and the results were well worth it. Photo by Otto M. Vondrak
Camera Bag: A Sense of Purpose
By Jim Boyd
Why do you photograph trains? For most of us, I suspect, it's at least initially for the thrill of the hunt. Once you discover that you can capture trains on film, it becomes a lot of fun to get pictures of everything in sight. Then you become more selective and venture out to find unusual or colorful subjects. Before you know it, you've got half a roomful of yellow slide boxes and know your way around Tehachapi Tunnel 2 and Horseshoe Curve and Proviso Yard.
At least that seems to be the pattern for the typical young, male railfan. It's a hobby that requires time and money — you don't find too many struggling minorities or working mothers out chasing trains (it's not a matter of discrimination it's simple reality). Railfan photography can become a very rewarding if sometimes self-indulgent pastime, but few can sustain the pace for an extended period of time. As we grow older, work, family and social obligations require more and more time and attention, and the railfanning has to take its place in the overall business of living
So, as time becomes more precious, how do you spend it to make your railfanning more productive and rewarding? For many of us it's a matter of developing a sense of purpose for our photography. In my case, I have to deal with rail subjects as an integral part of my work, and casual weekend railfanning becomes almost a "busman's holiday" exercise in more of the same. As a result, I find railfanning a lot more fun if I can give it that sense of purpose: material for a multi-media slide show (like you'd see at Winterail or EastRAIL) or a magazine article or book project.
The article ideas tend to require the most immediate action. As soon as this issue of the magazine is out the door, Mike Del Vecchio and I are going to take the first sunny weekday and visit the two Baldwin switchers working at the Pureland Industrial Complex south of Camden. Hopefully you'll see the results in an upcoming issue.
Something similar happened during the fall color season in October, when I spent a day chasing Susquehanna trains on Sparta Mountain (to get "psyched" to work on Kelly's Susquehanna Loop article in the January 1995 issue) and a long weekend with Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 261 on the annual New River Train excursions on the C&O in West Virginia. The 261 was enough purpose in and of itself, since it was my first look at the resurrected Midwesterner. The chance to illustrate potential future magazine articles made the trip even more rewarding.
And since I'm also working to convert my "Countdown to Conrail" tape-slide show into a hardcover color book, I took a day on the return from West Virginia to get some Conrail super-cab action in the fall color west of Horseshoe Curve — the "dead Monday" doldrums had the Pennsy main nearly deserted, but three of the five trains I saw that day yielded "keepers" for possible book use. Without that sense of purpose, it would have been a frustratingly unproductive day considering the sunshine and fall colors and so few trains.
The result of four days and six rolls of Fuji Velvia: one R&R news photo of the 261, shots of Rich Melvin at the throttle for an upcoming article and Conrail GE and EMD super cab shots for both the slide show and future book. That was definitely no wasted weekend, and I returned to work refreshed and remembering what got me into this business in the first place.
Being too subject-specific early in your railfanning can become self-defeating, though, because in your early years you need to get out and experience as wide a variety of railroading as possible — you never know today what you'll have use for tomorrow (that day spent in Louisville in August 1965 had no purpose at the time other than the sheer fun of exploring a new railroad town, but the 45 slides shot that day would prove very useful 28 years later on the cover and page 55 of this magazine!). But as you become comfortable and reasonably satisfied with your rail photography and the demands of life become more pressing and the time for railfanning diminishes, a sense of purpose will go a long way toward making your photography more entertaining.
Gathering material for publication or presentation in slide shows (or prints for photo albums) also encourages improvement in your photographic skills of composition and documentation. Proper exposures are demanded and soon become second nature. The need for a variety of imagery "texture" encourages more creative composition or more exacting documentation. The need to complete a topic will drive you to places and situations that a more casual approach would probably not include. All of this adds to the "thrill of the hunt" and the value of the resulting photographic "trophy."
Why do I take train pictures? Thirty years ago I'd have answered, "For the fun of it." Today I'd probably give a more immediately specific answer: "I'm working on a book" or "for a magazine article." But that still translates, "For the fun of it!"
This "Camera Bag" column originally appeared in the February 1995 issue of Railfan & Railroad.