“What makes for an exceptional photo?” according to 22 railroad photographers

on Friday, October 25, 2019

Photo by John Gruber. See caption below.

After nearing the end of a yearlong stint curating the “Gallery” for the 2019 issues, I was reflecting on how much I enjoyed putting them all together. I’m sure I was supposed to be doing something else at that moment, which was the real reason why I was dreaming up this idea. Normally, I let things simmer a bit before acting on them, but not this time. I wrote up an email July 12 that I intended to send to all the photographers featured in “Gallery” this year. It was slightly impersonal to send a mass email, but in that moment, I was ready to spill my heart about how I love to see railroading through their eyes, and also ask them for a favor. 

I told them that I’d like to write a blog about railroad photography and the subjective nature of what’s cool and what’s not. I asked them to answer this question in 50 words or less: What makes an exceptional railroad photo? 

I learned several things in this process. One, the response rate was truly impressive: 22 responses out of a potential 27 recipients. Two, all these dudes will work for free! ;o) Three, most didn’t count their words and likely didn’t care to. Four, I owe the ones who kept to the word count a beverage of their choosing. Five, these individuals may consider themselves “railroad photographers,” but their responses indicated so much more about them as artists. As I examined the trends and differences in their replies, I also started mentally classifying rail photographers. Typecasting them? Labeling them? All in fun, of course. 

There’s the …

Classic: “I’ve been taking photos for longer than you’ve been alive!” he says as he wags his finger at the young whipper snapper. This photographer couldn’t take a bad photo if he tried. He will only take the photos that are worth taking because “that’s how you did it back in the Kodachrome days. You didn’t have the luxury of these fancy digital cameras with your hundreds of the same shot for no good reason!”

Documentarian: He will shoot the same location for decades just to show change. He will sprint to his car and drive like a maniac to get that shot of that special locomotive that will be at this one spot only one time ever … like EVER. He will get the first run of a local. He will get the last run of a passenger train. No bit of history will be left uncaptured. 

Storyteller: This photographer takes a hundred photos of the same operation on the same day. He clicks the shutter when the engineer steps up into the cab, and he sticks it out until he gets the shot of the crew tying up that night. He also takes a random shot of a bird perched on the rails while he’s waiting for the train. 

Cliffhanger: This photog will literally climb mountains to get the angle he wants and hang precariously by one hand, if he needs to. He will walk 5 miles through a prairie and suffer 17 mosquito bites to get that angle no one else has gotten. He will camp out in the desert and not even worry about that rattlesnake that sounds too close. He will risk losing his digits in frigid temperatures just to click the shutter at the exact moment the ditch lights bounce off the rails in that oh-so perfect way. He is the Alex Honnold of rail photography.

Night-visionary: He is the vampire of rail photography. He only goes out once the sun has set and beats feet home before the sun rises in the east. And he brings his most sophisticated equipment, special flash bulbs, extra lighting, and an energy drink. Because everything looks more awesome at night. And not every photog has what it takes to get night right.

Jedi Knight: He studies his masters, and maybe he even trained with one. He will go to the sacred spaces, the hallowed grounds, to take his railroad photos. He will do it as those before him have done because that is what is right and just. A great railroad photographer he is.  

Storm chaser: Not just storms, but he is driven by weather conditions. Maybe he only likes to take photos on sunny days, the fair-weather photographer. Maybe he’s driven by cloud formations. Maybe he likes the texture of rain or reflections in water. Maybe he likes lightning or tornadoes as a backdrop. This category is broadly defined. And this photog has no fear.  

 There are more, but I’ll stop babbling. You’ll be more interested in reading the replies from this esteemed list of photographers of all ages and experiences. 

One special note: In February 2019, I dedicated the “Gallery” section to John Gruber’s photos. This month marks a year since his passing. John was an extremely accomplished photographer and made it his mission to preserve railroad images and bring folks together who make them and love them by founding the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in Madison, Wis. I would’ve loved to have asked him what he thinks makes for an exceptional photo. No doubt he would’ve had something brilliant to say. John had many talents, among them his ability to capture the human spirit. See one of his photos above. He captured a Denver & Rio Grande Western fireman reclining inside the cab of a narrow gauge 2-8-2, south of Antonito, Colo., on Aug. 28, 1967.



An exceptional railroad photo is an image that makes you feel something. Like listening to music, this image has the power to give you goosebumps or elicit feverish nostalgia. There are no rules to what makes this photo exceptional, but you will know when you find one.— Ryan Gaynor (April 2019)

To me, it’s the light. Growing up shooting slides when you (usually) could not get great results in bad weather, I think an exceptional shot starts with good (sunny) lighting. Even the subject matter is secondary to the light. Does that limit me? Yes! But since I’m out there to enjoy myself (mostly), I like to shoot in good weather. But many people are doing great work with digital in bad weather today. I’m just not one of them! — Steve Glischinski (September 2019 issue)

I believe composition makes a photo stand out. Anyone can take a snapshot of a railroad. It takes time and planning to shoot an exceptional photograph. You work for your photos to stand out and that's what catches people's eyes. — Ryan Clark (April 2019 issue)

I suppose it is one that evokes an emotion within me. One that has me thinking I wish it had been me making that photograph. It is usually something I notice from the moment I first see the photograph, but not always. Occasionally one will grow on me. — Frank Keller (September 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photo involves straying away from what others may call normal. I often spend hours looking for that perfect spot, or for somewhere I haven't seen anyone else shoot from. It's mainly about being creative, and not being shy to try something new. — David Gray (September 2019 issue)

A good railroad photo is one that conveys the drama of railroading, but I think an exceptional one is an image that tells the story of railroading. It includes details about why the railroad is there and who or what it serves. Basically, it’s a photo that with one look, you can understand why that railroad exists. Or you could also just look at any photo taken by the folks on my “Mt. Rushmore of railroad photography,” including Blair Kooistra, Ted Benson, Greg McDonnell, and George Hiotis. Anything they do is exceptional. — Justin Franz (April 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photograph exploits Mother Nature’s elements and earth’s geography in a way where the train almost becomes secondary. Leveraging spectacular lighting or unique angles transforms an image from ordinary to extraordinary, setting it apart from the typical/average lit wedge, naturally drawing viewers. This strategy often demands persistence. — Ray Lewis (August 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photo is one that invokes a sense other than vision. Some photos show action that I can hear: a Nathan six-chime steam whistle or Leslie air horn blaring for a crossing, flanges squealing, a pair of crossing bells in an out-of-sync cadence, the wheels pounding a joint. Others, I can smell; a big plume of coal smoke from an N&W A 2-6-6-4, a black fog of diesel exhaust as a set of Rio Grande tunnel motor swing helpers leave a tunnel, salt air on a coastal bayou as an L&N manifest slams over a bridge, the compressor oil-laced dust blown around a cab when an hoghead sets air, or creosote mixed with a pine forest. I can feel others, the ground shaking as a UP 4000 passes the water tank at Speer, the wind off a 70-mph pig train on the Santa Fe Transcon, or that familiar firm slap a throttle makes when you pull it the last notch into eight, climbing out of a hogback. These are the things that make exceptional railroad photos. Some of these dramatic and theatrical sights I've been fortunate enough to see and do, others I'll never have the opportunity. However, a great photo can almost instill the memory into your mind whether you were there (or even alive), or not. — Zach Pumphery (October 2019 issue)

“Wait… What was that?!” There’s something about a railroad photo that manages to pique your curiosity – be it through choice of subject, artistic interpretation, photographic technique – or some combination thereof. It makes you circle back and look a little closer, rather than simply turn the page.— Ron Bouwhuis (April 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photograph isn't something profound, but simply an image that captivates one's attention. An exceptional photograph is born when a photographer uses all the elements in such a way you're sucked in and feel what's going on. Sometimes this happens when a photographer, like myself, has a particular love for an area that drives one to capture it in a unique way that reflects how you feel. This opens the door for something special and outstanding. It goes beyond just pulling off the side of the road and taking a normal image, but rather infused with drama and passion by the photographer to capture what he/she sees in a certain area reflecting their love for the subject. Incredible photographs rarely just happen, but rather they are works of art birthed by a person who envisioned something uniquely special and was able to position themselves at the right place and the right time." — Samuel Phillips (March 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photo goes beyond the document when it can show us something that we may not see for ourselves. When the image captures the soul, mood or personality of the railroad it becomes an interpretation of it and reflects the photographer’s subjectivity or vision.— Eric Williams (July 2019 issue)

I believe an exceptional railroad photograph tells a compelling story. A story that draws the viewer into a conversation with the image and elicits an emotive response that resonates at a deeper level. We each experience the art of railroad photography in an uniquely personal manner. We tend to know an exceptional image almost immediately when we see one, where our first look is then drawn deeper into a conscious and subconscious level, triggering memories and associations that are uniquely bundled to our accumulated lifetime of visual and intellectual experience, what I call visual library or ‘intellectual baggage’. A great image finds a way to trigger these touchstones of personal experience and connections that in response sear a new chapter into one’s soul. This compelling story has several key components: context and place, light, composition, serendipity and delight. — Todd Halamka (June 2019 issue)

An exceptional railway photo is one that doesn’t just capture the railway as you normally see it, but captures either what you don’t normally see, or something you normally don’t notice. Stars, lights reflecting, and the railroaders that make things happen. — E.B. (March 2019 issue)

It's a photo that “Brings Home The Bacon.” A scene that the publication is willing to pay for. Subject matter enters into the equation of an exceptional railroad photo, but when it comes down to it, is the editor or magazine willing to pay for what they have before them? — John Roskoski (October and December 2019 issues)

An exceptional photo is one that uses supporting elements to help enhance the overall look of the train.  The use of interesting foreground or background props can make today’s cookie cutter looking trains into something that really stands out from the rest. — Frank Orona (March 2019)

I think my best answer would be that a great railroad photo needs to have an even better story behind it. For example, ripping a pair of pants on barbed wire and running across a field in a thunderstorm near the New Mexico, Texas border. When someone asks me why I take railroad photos, I explain that it's my excuse to travel to new places and meet new people. — Brandon Townley (March 2019 issue)

In my case, it’s partly luck and partly composition. The steamy Milwaukee Road photo you mentioned is mostly the former [See this photo in December 2019 Gallery], because that E unit was putting on such a steam display that almost anyone could have gotten a good photo of it. Composition is another thing, and it is much more important. In my early years, I followed the example of such classic rail photographers as Gerald M. Best; I sought to get perfect, sunny, three-quarter views of stationary locomotives (preferably with rods down, if a steam loco), or equally perfect wedge action photos with good smoke. But then I began to realize that truly creative railroad photography was more than that. It was exemplified by Philip R. Hastings, Jim Shaughnessy, Richard Steinheimer, and other such visionaries.  Those men captured the true mood of a rail scene; they had the proverbial “good eye.” I’ll never be quite in that league, but in later years I too have tried for the “good eye” photo, rather the cookie-cutter still or action shot. Luck is nice, but good composition can transform even a humdrum rail subject into a work of art. — J.W. Swanberg (December 2019 issue)

Honestly, if you use the same mentality as landscape photography with your railroad photography, you will see that your results will look more artistic. Look around at your surroundings and try to incorporate more than just a locomotive or train into your subject matter. Your results will be great.  — Scott Sparks (December 2019 issue)

What makes an exceptional railroad photo? When you visualize the photo before taking the shot and when you see it, the photo talks to you. Then you know you have something special. — Bruce Stahl (December 2019 issue)

An exceptional railroad photo consists of an intriguing scene with well-thought-out composition, which is illuminated by distinctive lighting. Such photos require a sense of creativity and being able to compose the photo in the photographer’s mind before taking the photo. Exceptional photos are also ones taken from unusual angles, such as from at or below ground level, and from overhead. — Alex Mayes (December 2019 issue)

In a word, lighting. The quality of light should grab the eye of the viewer toward the subject of the photo. And hopefully evoke emotions as the photo is viewed. All else is secondary.— Alan Miller (December 2019 issue)

What makes an exceptional railroad photo? Tell me a story. What unique attributes of place, people, or railroad right-of-way did you experience that drove you to capture a slice of it? One frame need not reveal the whole story. Some mystery makes me curious for more. — Bryan Bechtold (December 2019 issue)

Thanks again to all these great folks for taking time to answer this question. Their thoughtful replies were inspirational.  

 So, what do you think makes for an exceptional railroad photo? Tell us in the comments below.



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