I’m hitting the road to Winterail in Corvallis, Ore. this week with Assistant Editor Brian Schmidt. As with any trip, there is much to do before I leave Thursday; bags have to be packed, batteries have to be charged and memory cards have to be formatted. But perhaps the most important task ahead of me is to sit down for a few minutes and crack open my trusty Oregon Atlas and Gazetteer for some pre-trip scouting.
A BNSF Railway freight train rolls through Pinecliffe, Colo. in March 2017. Photo by Justin Franz.
While some railfans like to see where the road takes them and fly by the seat of their pants, I have always subscribed to the school of thought that it’s best to know as much as you can about a railroad and its photographic possibilities before you go. That mindset was especially useful a few weeks ago while I was in Colorado for a long weekend on the legendary Moffat Line. Anyone who has visited the former Denver, Rio Grande & Western in recent years will tell you that traffic is down - way down. If you see or photograph two or three trains in daylight you’re doing pretty good. Because of that, I knew I wanted to make the most of the few trains I might run into, so in the days and weeks ahead of the trip I spent more time than I’d like to admit perusing Google Earth, SunCalc.net and RailfanAtlas.com (run by photographer Nick Benson, RailfanAtlas.com overlays photos from Flickr onto a map and is essentially the greatest thing since sliced bread. Check it out). When I found a must-hit location, I marked it on the map.
The pre-planning paid off immediately. On the first day of the trip, I found an eastbound BNSF Railway manifest at Tolland, Colo. and before I even made the U-turn I knew what shots I wanted to attempt. A dozen miles down the road at Pinecliffe, I parked my car, ran into the woods and scrambled over some rocks (quickly learning that the air really is thinner in these parts) knowing exactly where I wanted to shoot. After that, I was back in the car for another “must-hit” spot at the legendary Big Ten Curve. Had I not previously spent an evening or two scouting the line at home, I probably would wasted time frantically looking at the map on the side of the road.
Even in a place where it seems the number of opportunities to photograph a train is infinite - say on San Francisco’s Market Street Railway where dozens of streetcars hit the rails daily - I think some pre-planning is in order. Knowing in advance what time of day the light will be best will help you make the most of your limited time in a place.
All that being said, make sure you find the balance between planned shots and spontaneous opportunities. In other words, don’t be so married to your list of pre-planned shots that you miss a great opportunity. If you have the time to work a scene, do it. Walk around, look for new angles, go places that others may have missed. Explore. After all, that’s why most of us got into this hobby in the first place.