How the rain and fog can infuse your photos with mood

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I am 17 years old, and I live in the remote and beautiful countryside of Southwest Virginia, in the small community of Indian Valley. My main interests are photography and railroads; both have intrigued me since I was 5, when I acquired my first camera. Honestly, I don’t know where these interests came from, because I am the only one in my family who enjoys photography or railroads.

I remember taking my first train photo in early 2002, at Montgomery, Va., at the twin tunnels made famous by O. Winston Link. It was a hot and hazy morning when I captured that westbound intermodal blasting toward Bluefield as it charged up the 1.5 percent grade. Shortly thereafter, I was officially hooked on railroad photography and began taking trips to shoot more photos.

Perhaps my favorite weather to shoot in is the rain and fog. Some may think photos taken during dreary weather do not produce anything good, but I beg to differ. If executed right, rainy/dreary photos can be powerful and moody. Some of my favorite photos have been taken under such conditions.

Also, I love that these conditions pose a challenge for a photographer. As you know, it’s pretty hard to mess up a shot in perfect light and bright sunshine. But under dark and dreary conditions, a photographer has to worry about locomotive ditch lights fuzzing the focus, water getting on the lens, the train blurring due to slow shutter speeds, etc. Each could easily ruin an image.

A photographer has to be determined and has to accept that there will be many more failures than successes when shooting in rainy or foggy conditions. Hard work and persistence pay off, though. If you push yourself to shoot in such conditions, you will likely get rewarded with a few images that come out well.

Let’s look at a few of my rainy day rail photos:

As a layer of fog hangs over the valley and the peaceful sound of rain hits the fall leaves, Norfolk Southern No. 272 drops downhill through Shawsville, Va., with a long auto-rack train destined for Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 28, 2011.

How it was captured: I hunkered down underneath a tree to keep most of the rain off my camera while pulling the lens cap off at the last minute and aiming straight ahead. Body: Canon 7D, Lens: Canon 24-105F4L IS, Shutter Speed: 1/200th, F-Stop: 5, ISO Speed: 1000

It is a rainy and quiet Friday evening in the historic community of Abingdon, Va., when Norfolk Southern No. 38Q roars into town with No. 8099 proudly leading the way on its maiden voyage on March 23, 2012. This is the former Norfolk & Western Radford Division that spans from Walton, Va., to Bristol, Va.; Norfolk Southern calls it the Pulaski District today.

How it was captured: Standing on a pedestrian bridge that spans the tracks in Abingdon, I threw a blanket over the camera to keep it dry until the train rounded the curve. Using manual focus, I quickly focused the scene and fired off a few images. Body: Canon 7D, Lens: Canon 24-105F4L IS, Shutter Speed: 1/500th, F-Stop: 7.1, ISO Speed: 800

Continuing farther east, Norfolk Southern No. 38Q grinds uphill through Atkins, Va., during a light rain shower. The trio of ES44ACs is getting a workout keeping the heavy manifest train rolling uphill on wet rails. The train will be going in the siding ahead at Crockett to meet opposing westbound Nos. 37Q and 15T, approaching quickly from Roanoke, Va.

How it was captured: While a friend was driving, I saw a small window of opportunity to acquire a pacing shot of No. 8099 working east in the rain. I grabbed my camera, set the shutter speed, and fired six images — this is the only one that turned out. I love how you can see the logo blurring through the puddle of water in the lower section of the image. Body: Canon 7D, Lens: Canon 24-105F4L IS, Shutter Speed: 1/25th, F-Stop: 7.1, ISO Speed: 250

A layer of fog carpets the beautiful New River Valley just west of Narrows, Va., as Norfolk Southern No. 77A rumbles down river on Aug. 25, 2012. The fishermen have just fired up their boat’s engine.

How it was captured: As the sky began to lighten up and I saw the layer of fog lying along the New River, I thought about this location and arrived just minutes before No. 77A. Quickly jumping out of the car, I ran to the river to frame my shot and set my shutter speed. Shortly thereafter, the train thundered west through the scene. Body: Canon 5D Mark II, Lens: Canon 24-105 F4L IS, Shutter Speed: 1/320th, F-Stop: 8, ISO Speed: 1250

As dawn breaks, Norfolk Southern No. 67N struggles uphill through Shawsville, Va., entering a tight S curve under light rain and heavy fog on Dec. 16, 2012. Signal trouble and a broken rail ahead will cause this train to traverse Christiansburg Mountain under a restricted speed of 10 mph, making it a slow go for the crew.

How it was captured: I arrived at this location early in the morning and, to my surprise, a layer of fog and drizzle was creating a dramatic scene. Then the train passed through it! Body: Canon 7D: Lens: Canon 70-200F2.8L, Shutter Speed: 1/400th, F-Stop: 7.1, ISO Speed: 800

Traversing the former Virginian Altavista District, Norfolk Southern No. 820 passes through Stone Mountain, Va., under a thick fog and light rain during its trek from Roanoke to Crewe, Va., on Dec. 16, 2012. The two 70ACes on the head end provide more than enough power for this 150-car Norfolk-bound coal drag as it travels a flat section on the former Virginian.

How it was captured: Standing on a small wooden overpass freezing my tail off in the cold, I grabbed my camera and set up for No. 820’s arrival. After five minutes, it rounded the turn. Body: Canon 7D, Lens: Canon 70-200F2.8L, Shutter Speed: 1/320th, F-Stop: 5.6, ISO Speed: 500

Just minutes behind Norfolk Southern No. 820, No. 764 moves along at track speed as it passes through the rain just outside the town of Moneta, Va. Unlike No. 820, No. 764 is bound for the Hyco Power Plant in South Boston, Va.

How it was captured: Much like the way I got the previous photo, I was standing on a small wooden overpass awaiting the train in the bitter cold. It was worth it, though! Body: Canon 5D Mark II, Lens: Canon 24-105F4L IS, Shutter Speed: 1/500th, F-Stop: 6.3, ISO Speed: 1250

I will be blogging monthly about my trips and photography. I also plan to write about the rail lines near my home. Please share your thoughts in the comments, and if there is a particular subject you’d like me cover, let me know. Thanks, and Happy New Year!

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  • An excellent method of conveying mood in gloomy weather is to shoot in black and white.  After the Bilandic Blizzard in January 1979 (Chicagoans will know what I mean), I climbed on top of a huge snowbank to shoot a locomotive dead line at Chrome Crankshaft/Hyman Michaels in Hegewisch.  I shot in black and white and the snow-covered switcher in that shot looked like it had been exiled to Siberia.

  • Rain and Fog works well if there is good light. But a dark gloomy day just sucks all around, better to pack it in and find something a bit dryer to do. 9 months of rain and drizzle in western Washington can make one a bit cranky. Moved back to the east side to enjoy some sunshine on a more frequent basis.

  • Hi Samuel! Thanks for sharing these beautiful pictures with us. You have a lot of talent and a willingness to go out at get a great shot no matter what the weather - that's vital for a railphotog. I especially liked the New River Valley shot where the setting is as important - if not more so - than the train. In rail photography I feel that showing a good deal of the surroundings actually enhances the image of a train by putting it more in context. I read somewhere that the Native Americans said that horses make a landscape more beautiful. We railfans would probably say the same for trains. Looking forward to your next blog!

  • Excellent!

  • Nice images and a well-done presentation!

  • Great composition ... you certainly have an eye for it. Your "mood" shots are outstanding.

  • Nice. Of course having a $2500 lens and a $3000 camera to shoot with certainly helps with the low light situation. I can't afford that now, much less at 17! I'm jealous........

  • Nice article and great photos Samuel!  My favorite is the early morning photo of what appear to be "oil cans" being dragged into the S curve.  I love how the locomotive lights are visible off the rails in many different locations, and not all of these straight ahead as you would think - nice effect!  All these photos show well thought out composition and artwork.

  • I like it. More please...

  • Outstanding work Samuel!  I really enjoyed your images and the descriptions of how you captured each one.

  • As someone who sees a great deal more of Samuel's work than that presented here due to a common membership to a local list serve, I'll be the first to say he has an uncommon talent that I can only hope continues as he matures and expands his horizons beyond the mountains of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, and his subject matter beyond rail photography Yes, poor light presents a lot of challenges, but the lower contrast and wrap around effect of the light helps to eliminate harsh and deep shadows, too.. Keep up the great work, Samuel!!!

  • Wow! Great photos. Thanks for sharing!

  • I especially liked the "Norfolk Southern No. 67N struggles uphill through Shawsville, Va., entering a tight S curve" photo for its excellent overall composition with just the right camera angle to catch the glinted rails.  Well done, Samuel!

  • That puddle of water reflection in the pace shot is really cool. Sometimes everything falls into place. Great series man!

  • Hi Samuel,  I have taken some great pictures of CSX trains coming out of the fog

    and also at night the long beams of colored light shinning from wayside signals and

    the engine headlights and ditch lights too.                Thanks  >Joe

How the rain and fog can infuse your photos with mood