Exploring the backyard

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Amtrak's Empire Builder arrives in Whitefish, Mont. Photo by Justin Franz
I was sitting in my living room one night last week, when the sound of two GP38s kicking cars wafted through the window. I looked outside and saw the sky lit up by a setting sun and decided to grab my camera bag and walk outside. Two minutes later, I was on the overpass that crosses BNSF Railway’s Whitefish, Mont. yard shooting photos of the two locomotives switch a ballast train while a grain train came in off the main line. While the light was beautiful, the pesky chainlink fence on the bridge put a damper on most of the images and, after a few minutes of trying to find new angles, I walked home. Nothing gained but nothing lost.

I can safely say that I have spent more time photographing BNSF in Whitefish in the last six weeks than I have in the previous six years combined, thanks to a recent move that put me just a block away from the tracks. The move, and my sudden spike in time spent down by the yard, is a great reminder that sometimes the most interesting subjects are not ones that you need to drive through the night to see but instead just walk down the street.

I, like so many other railroad photographers, often dream of shooting in far off locations (I still really, really, really want to go shoot steam locomotives in England) Yet local opportunities shouldn’t be missed. With a subject so close you can quickly learn when the light is best and when unique photo opportunities may present themselves. That’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago, when the just a few minutes before 9 p.m., the sun came out on what had otherwise been a cloudy day. Checking Amtrak’s mobile app, I saw that the Empire Builder was just a few minutes out of Whitefish, so I grabbed my camera and headed for the east end of the yard. Seconds after the sun set, the Empire Builder came into view. While the sun had disappeared, a stunning alpenglow illuminated the mountains in the distance. It was a rare photo opportunity that would have never existed had I not looked out the window and headed down to the tracks.

Something gained and nothing lost.

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