Did You Get 'the' Shot?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, March 16, 2020

I suspect that most rail photographers have heard this question while out in the field, chasing, etc.  It usually occurs regarding a geographic location that you visited were while photographing railroad activities, in particular a specific train, piece of equipment, lighting conditions, etc.

The implication is that the person interrogating you already has the scene in their mind’s eye, because they, and probably many other people have taken photos at other times there, and therefore, will expect to see something similar when you display your latest effort, albeit with a different locomotive in the lead, a special paint scheme, “killer” lighting (which means various things to various people at different times), or some other distinctive feature.

For that matter, you may have set out to accomplish one of the scenarios above, and there’s nothing the matter with it, if you enjoy what you’re doing.  There also are places, the ex-Western Pacific’s Keddie Wye in northern California as an example, where it’s not surprising that most people’s photos have the same point of view, since there aren’t many readily available alternatives.

There is  the matter of conforming to expectations, as well, since some locations simply look better than others, have more photo “props”, or something that provides a sense of place.  This can be useful when you’re heading into an area where you haven’t visited before, and let's you be reasonably assured of being able to get a pleasing photo; since there may be substantial evidence that others have succeeded previously at these locations.

On the other hand, when the traveling herd of the railfan photography community is on the move for a “big event” (the classic these days relating to mainline steam runs), crowding, parking and photo-line discipline (or lack) can present problems.  Also, sometimes the situation changes, either for the better, or worse.  Signals can appear where they weren’t before, or, probably more likely today, disappear.

For example, in my local area, in recent years, an intermediate signal was placed near a grade crossing on a line which had not been signaled previously.  It has a number plate displaying the mileage location, and while not exciting, has improved the location’s visual appeal.  In conjunction with a steam trip a few years back, I learned of a long-time, well-known photographer’s dismissal of the spot as “not a preferred location”, which likely was accurate “back in the day”, but has not prevented the newer/younger photographers in the area from making pleasant photos of special paint schemes (and probably, steam) at this now-enhanced location.

Finally, and I suspect that many of you knew this was coming, there are plenty of places where there are, in fact, multiple, and sometimes many opportunities at a location.  This can be particularly true with respect to meets, where one train is often sitting, posed, for quite a while.  The opportunities will vary with the situation, of course; following are some examples utilizing Norfolk Southern manifest train 13R waiting for a meet with train 227 at Berryville, Virginia.

There is parking adjacent to the tracks on their west side; those already present when I arrived were clustered there, waiting for 13R to depart, which would provide a relatively close-up ‘wedge’, although it really isn’t a great angle, in my opinion, at least for a train on the siding, like this one, as shown in the photo above.  A walk of less than a minute took me to a location (grade crossing) just to the south accessible to the public, which also provided a reasonable view of both the locomotives and part of the train’s consist, as well as the opportunity to frame the scene from slightly different angles by moving across the tracks, as can be seen here:

Yes, what got me to Berryville in the first place was that colorful unit leading 13R, truth be told.  Another point that’s worth making involves the fact that the sides of unit 1071 were dirty (well, actually, pretty filthy); thus, a head-on shot of the (in comparison) relatively clean nose of the unit probably makes the best of a mediocre situation here, i.e. a locomotive not really ready for its three-quarters closeup:

I realize that “killer light” wasn’t present here, but digital photography, which is virtually universal now, plays better with ‘flat’ lighting than slide film; had the sun been shining when these photos were taken, the trailing consist would have been largely in shadow.  In any case, you don’t have to settle for just “the” shot in all cases.  If you’re not careful, this might even become fun…

(Photos by George W. Hamlin)

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