STEP BACK in TYME with YOUR CAMERA
(This article originally ran in the August, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)


With steam tourist lines, unauthentic passenger cars full of tourists can ruin the old tyme look of a steam train photo. This photo was taken while the open gondola full of riders immediately behind the tender was obscured by the line side vegetation to achieve an authentic looking steam train photo on the Georgetown Loop RR, Silver Plume, Colorado.

Ever since 1829 when a little steam locomotive nicknamed the "Stourbridge Lion" first chuffed down the spindly rails of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company in Pennsylvania, steam locomotives whistling their way across America have excited photographers and caused even casual passers-by to stop and watch in awe. Who cannot appreciate a dramatic photo of a steam locomotive blasting around a curve, plumes of white steam and black smoke roiling skyward! The water tank; the roundhouse; the turntable; the coaling dock; the railway station with its waiting benches and luggage carts beside the tracks; the distant lonesome moaning wail of a steam whistle..... All have become nostalgic icons of Americana.

As a railfan photographer, you may have looked longingly at these old photos of steam trains and wished you too could take similar photos. But those halcyon days of steam are long gone. For although there are over 100 steam locomotives in the U.S. and Canada operating on tourist railroads (click here for a listing), modern buildings, automobiles, or signs not authentic to the time period, as well as the passengers in non-authentic looking passenger cars (such as converted open gondolas, open cars with a canopy roof, or cars with other non-authentic looking modifications), make it hard to get a compelling steam train photo.

Of course, photo excursion trains that offer steam trains of authentic equipment with photo run-bys devoid of modern surroundings are one way to obtain photos that look authentic to earlier time periods. But these special events happen only a few times each year, and may not be convenient or be too expensive for you to attend.

I first stepped back in time with my camera in June, 1980, when, inspired by a photo I saw in a Rail Classics magazine, I first visited the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad's 99 year old steam rail yard in Durango, Colorado. It was truly like stepping back in time with my camera! Everything from the roundhouse to the oily yard dirt was 100% authentic. And I soon found other Colorado steam railroad operations to "step back in time" with (Cumbres & Toltec Scenic which was also part of the original D&RGW system, Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge, Georgetown Loop RR, and the Colorado Railroad Museum which operates steam trains). And I soon was expanding my search for steam tourist lines and museums into other states. Usually as part of a vacation trip or to visit relatives, I would allow time to visit any steam operations near my route.


Photographing the locomotive by itself as it is serviced before or after the day's runs is a good way to emulate the look of an old tyme steam train photo. Including a trainman in your composition adds more interest. Here, the brakeman has just thrown the switch as ex-Chicago & Northwestern 1907 ALCO 4-6-0 #1385 of the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society in North Freedom, Wisconsin performs a blow down to clear the boiler of sludge.

But although most of these steam tourist lines were early 1900s authentic "old tyme" or nearly so, even the best had near-by modern surroundings or equipment that might ruin for me the very compelling nature of this vintage subject matter. I began to devise ways to work around this, to make all my photos look as if they were actually taken back in the 1950s or earlier. With practice I found that regardless of where the line was or what type of passenger cars it used, whether it operated out of an authentic rail yard with authentic structures or modern, as long as the locomotive was genuine, with care you can overcome the modern obstacles presented on steam tourist railroads and take dramatic, compelling photos of steam trains that can look truly historic. All it takes is a little pre-planning to do what is necessary to let you "step back in time with your camera." Here are a few techniques to use:

First, buy a ticket and take a ride. This will allow you to take photos of the locomotive up ahead as it leans into a curve, while letting you see locations where modern surroundings do not intrude, that you can return to for photos. And you will be helping support the railroad's continued operation.

Hide the passenger cars: Some operations use authentic clerestory roofed passenger cars. But for others, compose the photograph where line side bushes or trees hide any unauthentic passenger cars.

Shoot from an angle that allows the locomotive itself to block out the rest of the train, such as near head-on, or as the locomotive leans into a curve blocking the view of any unauthentic cars behind.


Photographing this Cumbres & Toltec Scenic train drifting into Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado from a head-on composition allows the locomotive to hide the open gondola of riders directly behind the tender, as well as the old box cars with windows cut into the sides to serve as passenger cars. But note how the box cars' brake wheels are visible helping with the illusion of this being an old tyme steam freight train.

Sometimes on the first or last run of the day the train may have fewer passengers, and if open passenger gondolas are behind the tender, composing so that only the empty portions of the first gondola(s) are visible can result in the appearance of a steam freight train.

Shoot in the rain or falling snow when passengers may move out of open gondolas behind the tender into any closed cars.

Shoot in the rail yard: Arrive early or stay late as the locomotives are always serviced before and after the day's runs, presenting compelling compositions including under the water tank, on the turntable, or switching moves. Photographing just the locomotive before it couples onto its train is also an especially good tactic for railroads that use unauthentic looking home built passenger cars. There will also be far fewer spectators and passengers around to get in the way of a good photo.


Another example of obtaining a nostalgic looking photo by photographing a steam locomotive while it is being serviced, and including trainmen. Photographing just the locomotive before it couples onto its train is also a great way to eliminate non-authentic passenger cars from your composition. Here, the Black Hills Central 2-6-6-2T #110 1928 Baldwin takes on water before the first run of the day, in the rail yard in Hill City, South Dakota.

Note: Always be respectful if passengers are in the way of your otherwise "authentic" looking composition, and patiently wait for them to move away. Never shout at them to move so you can take a clear photo. Remember that it is these paying passengers that make the steam operation possible.

Photograph the trainmen: The restrictions on including people in your photos do not apply to a fireman, brakeman, or engineer who is dressed appropriately (such as overalls and engineer cap). This adds human interest and a further touch of authenticity.

Period railroad structures: Including original water tanks, roundhouses, coaling towers and depots in your compositions not only helps eliminate modern surroundings, it greatly adds to the illusion of the genuine old tyme photo that you are trying to achieve. Even close-ups of these structures by themselves make for some very nostalgic photos.

Plan for smoke: The most dramatic photos will include a locomotive throwing out plenty of black smoke and / or white steam, such as when the locomotive is starting up after a stop, or climbing an uphill grade. For plumes of white steam, photograph at road crossings or anywhere else the engineer is blowing the whistle.

As most steam trains are as likely to run without showing much smoke as they are with heavy smoke, one technique, if you can make the acquaintance of a friendly engineman in the yard before a run without interrupting his work, is to ask where the train may likely be putting out good smoke. Some may even agree to show you smoke if you tell them where you will be waiting. Even steam photographers in the 1940s and '50s have been known to ask a fireman for smoke at a certain location.

Use long shutter speeds: You may have noticed that many train photos of a century or more ago have been "posed." The train is stopped, and trainmen and passengers are standing around the locomotive, all holding still. The subjects are sharp, while any smoke and steam is recorded as a soft blur, due to the long shutter speeds often required in that era.

Emulate this blurred smoke effect today by using a 1/8th of a second or slower shutter speed on a stationary locomotive. A low digital or film ISO, cloudy days or during dawn or dusk, a red filter (with B&W) or neutral density filter to bring the effective ISO rating down several stops, and stopping the aperture way down are techniques to help you achieve a slow shutter speed. Of course, use a tripod and cable release to avoid camera shake during the long exposure.

Cold weather can cause a dramatic effect with steam. And in some snowy situations, a steam plow may be run to clear the tracks, throwing sheets of snow to one side.

Work trains: Most tourist railroads that run work trains will generally use a diesel locomotive, but some will use a steam engine, and if pulling one or a few flat cars or gondolas of supplies and equipment or ballast, as well as probably a caboose, the result can be a very authentic appearing steam freight train. Your best approach to finding out about the possibility of a work train being run is to talk with the trainmen or even inquire at the railroad's office.

Grain: The extreme grain / noise and contrast of an ISO 1600-3200 speed film or digital capture setting can be used to greatly enhance the nostalgic or vintage old tyme look or mood of a steam train photo.

Beyond the Camera for a Vintage Look
Now that you have taken some authentic old tyme looking steam train photos, there are ways you can further enhance the vintage look when making a print, or processing for a digital slide show. (NOTE: As it would be impractical to provide the specific steps in each of many image processing programs, all instructions are given for Photoshop or Elements. The noted functions generally will be similar in other programs. Please e-mail me if you have any questions.)

Vignettes: Many old time photos were oval, or in oval frames. To achieve an oval vignette effect, in the computer image editor, use the Elliptical Marquee tool (with a feathering set to 0 pixels for a hard edge oval, or with a feathering set to about 10 pixels to softly fade the image out to a white background) and draw the oval around your subject and portion of the background you want to retain. Then use SELECT > INVERSE to switch the selection to the background, then hit Delete to remove the background.

Or in the darkroom, simply cut an oval shape in a piece of opaque cardboard, then while holding this mask over the paper when making a print, move it in a slight oval motion to cover the background. The constant movement during the exposure will create a soft edge to the oval image, fading to a white background.

Or mount the print in an oval mat, in either an oval or rectangular frame.


Georgetown Loop 1921 2-8-0 Baldwin #40 eases off the high Devils Gate Viaduct on the Georgetown Loop RR out of Silver Plume, Colorado. A rainy morning has kept the open gondolas free of riders, creating the look of an early 1900s steam train. Sepia toning and printing with an oval vignette add to the old tyme look.

Sepia: Some digital cameras can be set to capture in a sepia mode. Or you can convert to sepia in an image editing program. In Photoshop, first convert your B&W image to "RGB" (color) mode (the image will still look B&W) with IMAGE > MODE > RGB COLOR. Then use IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > VARIATIONS > MIDTONES. In Elements, convert to RGB in the same manner as in Photoshop, but then use ENHANCE > ADJUST COLOR > COLOR VARIATIONS. Final adjustments (in both programs) can also then be made with LEVELS > SATURATION or COLOR BALANCE.

B&W darkroom prints can be sepia toned using a product like Kodak or Berg Sepia toner solutions. Full strength solutions can provide too much of a saturated sepia color, so experiment with diluted, weak solutions for a very mild sepia tone, to more closely resemble the sepia look in vintage photos.

Sepia slides: If a traditional slide show is your goal, a good method to obtain sepia slides is to make B&W prints and then re-photograph the prints using a close-up lens and daylight balanced (outdoor) color slide film, but indoors under ordinary house light bulbs. The resulting brownish color cast caused by the daylight balanced film in incandescent light will provide slides with a nice sepia color.

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