Lessons From the Performing Arts

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, October 2, 2020

“Leave them wanting more."  This could be a reference to a group of photographs, including a railfan slide show; it’s almost as nice a compliment from these often hard-to-please audiences as “why didn’t you show any of your bad pictures?” (Answer: I left them at home.)

In this case, I’m talking about an individual photograph, however.  Here, Norfolk Southern’s intermodal train 201 is passing the former N&W station at Boyce, Virginia (now the home of the Railway Mail Service Library), on the NS H-line in the Shenandoah Valley, Yes, I did know that the heritage unit was leading prior to actually seeing the train.  For that matter, I’d also photographed this particular locomotive elsewhere, previously.

Visually, the photo includes borders at the top (sky) and bottom (grass) framing three principal visual elements, from left to right, a tree; the locomotive; and the station.  Note that none of these are shown in their entirety.  That could have been done, possibly, with a lens having a shorter focal length, but unless a panorama look was desired, this would have been at the expense of pulling the three elements apart, and loosening their visual connection, in my opinion.

No, this is not a three-quarters “wedge”.  That begins to bring up issues: “but … but you can’t see the nose of the locomotive”; OK, guilty as charged.  “You can’t see all of the locomotive”; same plea on my part.  (And in this case, Norfolk Southern has thoughtfully emblazoned the unit’s model designation --ES44AC-- prominently on the side, so that there’s no need to see what the back end of the locomotive looks like to identify it.) 

Now don’t think that I consciously analyzed each element in this scene as I looked through my DSLR viewfinder when trying to make up my mind about how to frame it.  I did walk around the area, starting with getting on the side of the tracks where the light (sun) was, and considered multiple vantage points.  I also took several test shots (one of the great blessings of digital photography, as well as being able to evaluate the exposure, using the histogram display) to evaluate the potential compositions.

After many years (my first train shot was in 1956; publication quality, in terms of both ability and equipment would come a number of years later), I believe that I have learned something about how to compose a shot that I’ll enjoy later, at least sometimes, by looking at multiple possibilities at a particular location and deciding what I want to include in the finished frame.  I also know that I’ll often find nuances when I look at the shot during, or even after, processing (for example, the leading lines formed by the tree, leaning to the right, and the recently-mowed grass, pointing to the left) that I didn’t see while viewing the scene on the camera’s small screen in the field.

Also in my favor in this case is that I, the train and the sun showed up at the right time, i.e. during beautiful late-in-the day soft lighting conditions, with interesting shadows enlivening the foreground.

The good news?  At least railroad photographers don’t have to worry about the adage of never following an act featuring children, or animals!  And oddly enough, when something like this works, it leaves me wanting more, in terms of future opportunities that might be even better. 

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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