Photography of Trains

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, September 23, 2019

Recently, I’ve given a presentation to several groups that has a one-word title: “Trains”.  The presentation’s subtitle (no, not a reference to foreign language translation) sheds more light on the content, however: “A less locomotive-centric look at railroad photography”.

Railfan photographers often concentrate their efforts on the locomotive(s) leading the train; the typical “grade crossing wedge” has the train’s consist trailing off into to the distance, and becoming visually smaller as it moves to the shot’s vanishing point.  Additionally, this also places a premium on getting sunlight on both the front and sides of the leading locomotive.

Obviously (since the presentation has about 200 photos), I’ve been able to get more than a few shots over the years that feature train consists, both coming and “going away”, as well as other smaller groupings of equipment to illustrate the concept, as well as taking a look at the interface between train consists and light.

Last Friday, I had the chance to put this philosophy intro practice again, when Norfolk Southern’s train 955, an “OCS” (Office Car Special”) traversed the Hagerstown District on its way from Lynchburg, Virginia back to its home base in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

One of the attractions of this set of equipment is that in recent years it has been powered by the four-unit set of EMD F units that NS acquired specifically for this purpose.  I’ve shot these a number of times, including back in the Spring with their recently-assigned three-digit numbers, and truth be told, have some nice wedges, as well as shots of the trains from other angles and perspectives.

This one did have a relatively unusual, and attractive, reason for going out for a short chase, since it was powered by NS “heritage” unit 8099, in Southern Railway green.  I’d photographed the 8099 on freight in several places on the former Southern Railway here in Virginia, but not on an OCS, so I grabbed the camera and scanner quickly and hopped in the car, since train 955 was nearing Manassas, and was making good time on its trek north. 

Where to go?  Once north of Manassas, the train would be heading basically west, away from the morning sun, until it reached Front Royal, Virginia, on the NS “B-line”, and then turning to the northeast on its way to Hagerstown.  While this relatively old piece of railroad twists and turns as it crosses Virginia’s Piedmont region and climbs over the Blue Ridge prior to traversing the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, there is no possibility of a “sunny wedge” in the morning between Powell interlocking in Manassas and Riverton Junction in Front Royal.

However, at Marshall, in the Virginia “Horse Country”, the B-line curves to the southwest just north of the town, with a pretty farm in the foreground.  While foliage growth over time has obscured parts of the track at this location, it’s still possible to get a shot of the first two locomotives, with some of the consist also showing in this semi-broadside.  There is no need to worry about light on the nose of the lead locomotive; the nose of the first unit can’t be seen at all from this vantage point.

Since the railroad really twists and turns through the area between Marshall and Delaplane, including significant speed restrictions through Rectortown, it was easy to beat 955 to Delaplane, via I-66 and its 70 mph speed limit.

The sun clearly wasn’t going to light the nose at Delaplane, so I chose to set up for more of a side shot, which required the use of the “wide”portion of the 16-85mm zoom lens that I was using.  Dark nose nothwithstanding, I like the shot; you’re free to decide for yourself. 

I’d continued to photograph the train’s consist as it rolled by; it’s hard to resist the regal red NS office cars: shiny, elegant and classy, in my opinion.

I’m very glad to have this photo.  Among other things, it is a look at considerable history, still rolling in the present, and hopefully for many years into the future.  NS 13, the “Georgia” (previously Southern 18) was built in 1925; four of the NS business cars, the “Pennsylvania”, built in 1911, the “Illinois” in 1917, and the “Alabama” and “Buena Vista, in 1918, are over 100 years old.  If they could provide an oral history of their travels, it would be quite a story.  Data from

In summary, don’t ignore what’s behind the locomotives, and consider photographic possibilities beyond the wedge. Finally, do what the light lets you, not what conventional wisdom tries to command.  I suspect that you’ll come to enjoy the results.

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