Night photography of moving trains

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Night photography of moving trains
Posted by mapman on Thursday, September 30, 2010 3:21 AM

The Editor of another magazine has recently placed a piece in his publication extolling the art of night photography of moving trains.

As one involved in train crew training and risk assessment I, and I suspect the entire industry, consider the practice of setting off a powerful flash at an approaching train to be highly irresponsible and place the train crew in danger.

He claims to have set off a couple of warning flashes as the train approached but this is simply not acceptable from a safety perspective. Engineers have a lot to concentrate on, the last thing they want is to be distracted by a powerful photographic flash outside. In fact the exposure to a “warning flash” could make the situation worse in that it could well attract the crew’s attention meaning that they could be looking directly towards the flash source when the main exposure is made and cause temporary blindness. Just imagine how you would think or react if someone fired off a flash in your face whilst driving your car along the road.

Imagine that there is a signal displaying an approach aspect just in advance of the photo location (it might not be visible to you and you might not be familiar with the line) which as a result of your flash the crew fail to spot. As a result they could approach a red stop signal with insufficient braking distance available resulting in a SPAD (Signal Passed At Danger) incident and possible collision. Even if there is only plain line, temporary loss of vision could result in some obstruction or defect not being spotted and appropriate action being taken.

Here in the UK the excellent Photographic Guidelines for Enthusiasts published by Network Rail (the infrastructure operator) specifically prohibits the use of any form of flash photography on railway property at any time for these very reasons. Standing outside railway property and pointing a flash at a train would also fall foul of this rule. The heritage railways would also take a dim view of such practices involving moving trains.

He refers to the superb work of Winston Link but remember that those photographs were made with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Norfolk & Western. The crews knew exactly what was happening, when and where and were therefore instructed to look away at the critical point. There was, as a result, no safety issue. 

It might be possible to do such photography on a railfan-friendly shortline or tourist line where the cooperation of the management can be had to ensure safety is not compromised but please do not continue this potenially dangerous practice on the main line.

Continuing and expanding this practice can only lead to an even more draconian approach from the railroads and law-enforcement agencies towards the hobby. At times, we can be our own worst enemies.

Mike Walker UK

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Posted by Paul_D_North_Jr on Thursday, September 30, 2010 9:22 AM

This kind of technology and effect - a 'light gun' - was a major plot device in Tom Clancy's 'Jack Ryan' series novel Debt of Honor about 15 - 18 years ago. 

Much more recently and closer to here, some jerk was recently prosecuted for dazzling and blinding a police helicopter pilot with a laser pointer device, to the point that the pilot testified that he was incapable of handling the aircraft and it would have crashed if the co-pilot had not taken over.  I'll see if I can find a link or some other reference to it . . . .

I wonder how Mel Patrick and the other practitioners of the classic multiple-flash night photo shots as published in Trains over the years handled that problem ?  Perhaps fear or concern about supporting or tacitly encouraging that practice is why we see so few of those kind published anymore . . .

But what about the special and classic places that are specifically set-up for viewers and photos, like Horse Shoe Curve and the various 'railfan platforms' ?  The Curve actually isn't a problem now for several reasons - legal access is only on the inside of the curve, so shooting directly at the locomotive is geometrically impossible; it's now closed at night year-round; and the vegetation growth is so heavy that the flash wouldn't reach the locos in most places anyway . . .  Are there 'No Flash' signs posted at Rochelle, the Folkston Funnel, the Cresson, PA platform, and the others that are open 24 hours a day ?  Do the train crews just get accustomed to it and more or less expect it at those locations ?  Or has common sense by consensus broken out among the railfans at those places, so it just isn't done

- Paul North. 

"This Fascinating Railroad Business" (title of 1943 book by Robert Selph Henry of the AAR)
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Posted by Norm48327 on Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:14 AM

"This kind of technology and effect - a 'light gun' - was a major plot device in Tom Clancy's 'Jack Ryan' series novel Debt of Honor about 15 - 18 years ago."


Paul,

If I may chime in here, it is well known among pilots (the aviation variety) that white light destroys night vision much more so than red. Green lasers also have the same effect as bright white. Tom Clancy had it right but used a description the general public could understand.

If you've ever noticed, towers that have white strobes in the daytime switch to red at civil twilight. Designed that way to protect night vision while still making the towers visible.

That said, and on to the original question, yes; I think an unsuspecting train crew could be temporarily blinded by a huge array of flash guns going off all at once. It's not something that I would do unless with prior permission of the railroad and the knowledge of the crew involved. If they expect it, and are not looking toward the flash, their night vision may not be compromised.

That doesn't mean I recommend it to photographers. The results are spectacular, but for the unaware, so can be the consequences.

Norm


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Posted by henry6 on Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:18 AM

O. Winston Link did a lot of night photography...but it was all "staged", arranged, even rehersed in some cases.  And trying to do the same thing without proper authority and arrangements is certainly dangerous.  Digital, especially high end, equipment today can provide unique opportunities with existing light and might be feasible.  But shooting flash off at a moving train today is a good invite to meet those enforcing Home Security or members of other police agencies. 

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Posted by Paul_D_North_Jr on Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:24 AM

Here's the link -   

  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2010/09/28/police-helicopter-pilot-i-was-afraid-we-were-going-to-die/  

It happened to a Philadelphia Police Dept. helicopter at the Northeast Phila. Airport in April 2008 - apparently the testimony was in Federal court on this past Monday, Sept. 27th.  The defendant is from Williamsport, PA.

What's really scary is if you do an Internet search for recent news articles including the phrase ''laser pointer'' and the word ''helicopter'', how many incidents of this kind there are involving police, Med-Evac, etc., etc.  There must be an epidemic of 'dumb' happening out there . . .

So yeah, Mike's 'words to the wise' above are probably justified.   After this amount of such stunts, I would not be surprised if the Feds had no leniency at all for even a simple and innocent photographic flashgun towards a train crew.

- Paul North. 

"This Fascinating Railroad Business" (title of 1943 book by Robert Selph Henry of the AAR)
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Posted by Norm48327 on Thursday, September 30, 2010 12:36 PM

Paul,

 

We all know the media thrives on sensation. "If it bleeds it leads" and that type of thing. After all, ratings count, and they will do anything to achieve top ratings.

IMHO, today's reporters don't have a clue what they are typing about. They are just following orders.

Now; back to the discussion please.

Norm


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Posted by BaltACD on Thursday, September 30, 2010 6:32 PM

Paul_D_North_Jr

Here's the link -   

  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2010/09/28/police-helicopter-pilot-i-was-afraid-we-were-going-to-die/  

It happened to a Philadelphia Police Dept. helicopter at the Northeast Phila. Airport in April 2008 - apparently the testimony was in Federal court on this past Monday, Sept. 27th.  The defendant is from Williamsport, PA.

What's really scary is if you do an Internet search for recent news articles including the phrase ''laser pointer'' and the word ''helicopter'', how many incidents of this kind there are involving police, Med-Evac, etc., etc.  There must be an epidemic of 'dumb' happening out there . . .

So yeah, Mike's 'words to the wise' above are probably justified.   After this amount of such stunts, I would not be surprised if the Feds had no leniency at all for even a simple and innocent photographic flashgun towards a train crew.

- Paul North. 

Local TV did a vignette on the problems with the laser pointers and aircraft.  The problem as illustrated in the vignette was that it appeared the laser diffused on the aircraft glazing and thus made the entire canopy a lit area thus blinding the pilot.  I don't know if this is the REAL problem or just something that was 'cooked up' to fill several minutes of air time.

While I have no fear that a suitably powered laser, when shown directly on a pilots eyes, could cause situational blindness, I find it difficult to believe that a pocket laser pointer powered by a couple of AA batteries used at a distance of a thousand or more feet from the aircraft has sufficient power to situationally blind a pilot, if in fact the laser user could keep it aimed at the pilots eyes from such a distance with the aircraft on the move.

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Posted by Semper Vaporo on Thursday, September 30, 2010 7:08 PM

The pocket laser pointer that you buy at the counter of the five and dime is not what is being used by people to deliberately cause problems for pilots.  The people doing that are using the lasers that are used for laser light shows.  Those will illuminate the entire cockpit of a plane and can cause retinal damage if looked at directly.  It is a real problem, but thankfully it is not widespread.

Semper Vaporo

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Posted by Steve Barry on Thursday, September 30, 2010 8:35 PM

As the editor in question here, let me address this. I have talked to two engineers who have been "flashed" and both say the flashes are inconsequential -- a "pop" in the dark and that's about it. Both said warning flashes mitigate any surprise factor, and the actual flashing is nowhere near as spectacular as the results would indicate. One engineer said he appreciated the warning flashes because it eliminates generator flash-over as a source of the flash when it happens.

A few facts here -- while you might assume that night photography has benefited from super-powered flashes, the truth is the flashes are less powerful than those used by Link, Steinheimer, Benson, Patrick, et. al. Each strobe has about half the power of one of Link's flashbulbs, and not a whole lot more power than a large camera-mounted strobe. The advancements in cameras in low-light situations and the advancement of Photoshop has made this possible.

More facts -- each of these strobes (I have four, but usually use three) are pointed at 45-degree angles from the tracks inside deep eleven-inch reflectors. When the warning flashes are fired, the reflectors block the actual light source -- the flash tubes -- and only a small sliver of the inside of the relector is actually getting direct light the crew can see. The rest of the light is getting shot into space, visible but highly diffused. Whatever else that's being lit other than the train (signal bridge, tower, etc.) is getting lit, but since the side facing the photographer is getting the light the crew may see a silouhette of the flash, but that's about it. The first warning flash gets the crew's attention, the second lets them see where the flash is coming from. A third warning flash may be fired, but in no case is a flash fired when the train is closer than 200 yards or so. The whole effect is no worse than a car passing on a parallel street with its high beams on.

When the train gets into the "flash zone" remember that we're lighting up the locomotive and train. That means only one light is actually ahead of the cab when the flashes are fired. The cab has passed the other lights at this point, which are lighting the train. One light, and not as high-powered as you might think. Cameras with exceptional low-light capability and liberal use of Photoshop's shadow/highlight tool do more for the final image than the flash.

Getting back to the crews -- I have lit up several trains and have never heard a crew call me in on the radio. Two passing trains joked with each other about the flashes ("I need to back up and do it again; my eyes were closed"). When shooting the Cardinal in Crawfordsville at the semaphores, I fired warning flashes and after the second flash I got a toot on the horn -- an acknowledgement from the crew that they knew I was there. The two engineers I have talked with said that its no worse than lightning and is not blinding by any means.

So there you have it. Advances in technology are now allowing far more train to be lit with far less flash than we could have ever imagined.

Comments welcome.

Steve Barry

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Posted by RudyRockvilleMD on Thursday, September 30, 2010 9:10 PM

To answer your  question about flash photography of moving trains from railfan parks, I visited Folkston, GA this year, and I did not see any signs prohibiting flash photography nor did I see any signs prohibiting flash photography at the Cresson Railfan Platform several years ago. 

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Posted by ChuckCobleigh on Thursday, September 30, 2010 10:03 PM

henry6

O. Winston Link did a lot of night photography...but it was all "staged", arranged, even rehearsed in some cases. 

Exactly.  Link worked very closely with N&W documenting the line and the America it ran through at that pivotal point in time.  You might also notice in his work that little if any of the light was directed from ahead of the train.  You can bet, though, that when all those big flashbulbs (about the size of a 100-watt light bulb) fired in synch, it was definitely spectacular.

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Posted by coborn35 on Thursday, September 30, 2010 10:15 PM

Typical thread make by someone complaining about something they know nothing about. Flash night photography poses no danger...

Mechanical Department  "No no that's fine shove that 20 pound set all around the yard... those shoes aren't hell and a half to change..."

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