RAILFANNING in WEATHER
(This article originally ran in the October, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)
A westbound SP coal empty returns to the mines through Oak Creek on the Craig Branch of the "Moffat Line" in the Colorado Rockies in the 1990s. Heavy falling "oatmeal" snow can provide a dramatic train photo, but you will need manual focus and manual exposure, as all the heavy white stuff can fool camera and lens sensors.
Railfanning in Weather?! If you read general interest photography magazines, you have no doubt seen the oft stated admonition "do not put your camera away on cloudy or rainy days." The same advice can hold true with railfan photography. While you may usually avoid weather conditions if you are a full sun type shooter, there can be times when you may have to photograph under less than full sun. Such as when the train you are waiting on does not come until weather moves in, yet you must get the shot as you may not have another chance at this particular train, locomotive or location. Or you are on a long distance railfanning trip and have to choose between shooting in weather or not at all, wasting the trip if the latter.
There are three ways to approach railfanning in weather conditions. As mentioned above, you can grudgingly take the shot since this may be your last chance at the composition or subject. Or you can give up and wait for a sunny day. Both approaches can lead to missed or less than good photos. Or three, look at weather conditions as a chance for some dramatic or unusual photos. In fact, rain, sleet, snow, fog, mist and dark skies offer some great train photo opportunities. Take a look at some of the weather photos in contests and photo essays in railfan magazines, books and calendars and you will see what I mean.
Rain & Fog
What are the benefits of being trackside in less than full sun conditions? Let us start with rain, which of course can be encountered - and taken advantage of - in any season of the year, not just winter. While mild rainfall will likely be too light to record in the photo, a heavy downpour can add great drama to a train photo. Headlights gleaming off wet rails or from pools of water beside the tracks can add a nice touch. Pavement and rail yards will also glisten with a palette of reflected colors, either in daylight or with night time exposures, especially if red or green signal lights are reflecting in the scene. Misty or foggy conditions often are associated with rainy weather, and can add a moody look to your photos.
"Open shade" light under overcast skies eliminates extreme contrast, resulting in only minimal shadows to show good detail in all areas. You can shoot any time of the day without having to worry about being on the shadowed side of your subject, or having high overhead harsh sun casting deep shadows on the trucks for your roster or equipment shots.
The Denver & Rio Grande Ski Train picks up orders on a snowy Saturday morning at Prospect Junction in Denver, Colorado in the 1980s.
Snow can add drama to a train photo in several ways. On a clear day after a storm, fresh snow on the ground presents a beautiful landscape to photograph a train in. In a snow covered rail yard or landscape, shadowed areas will also be brightened by the reflector effect of light bouncing off the snow. And bright colored locomotives like yellow, orange, and red will "stand out" in a snowy landscape. Trains plowing through fresh powdery snow present a dramatic look, as do fast trains causing billowing clouds of snow to swirl around as they race down the tracks. Heavy falling "oatmeal" snow is always very dramatic. As is the period of clearing after a blizzard when lineside bushes, trees and power poles are plastered with the white stuff. And an early or late day low angle sun casting long shadows on a snow landscape can add contrast and interest to your railroad subject.
A minor problem with photography in snow landscapes is an off-color cast. In shadowed areas on sunny days, snow can have a bluish cast in a photo caused by the reflection of the blue sky. With film, the solution is to use a warming filter over the lens. With digital, use your camera's white balance (WB) function. And underexposure caused by the meter reading the overly bright snow can create grayish snow.
Alternately, if you use Photoshop or similar image processers, you can correct the color cast digitally. With the image open, go into Levels, and using the white point eyedropper tool at the bottom right of the Levels box, click on the whitest spot in the photo. This will readjust the gray snow in the image, and can also adjust other off-color casts, although you may need to experiment here a bit with your click point to get the right color correction. Another Photoshop technique is to use the Hue & Saturation controls to desaturate the blue and/or cyan channels, as long as you are not adversely affecting a nice blue sky or other wanted blue colors in the scene.
Cold Weather Problems
An important consideration is your camera's function in extremely cold temperatures. Cold temps reduce camera battery output, and the lower the temperature, the quicker your battery(s) will loose power, although they will regain power when warmed up. Lenses too may focus more slowly, even if you are focusing manually (which is recommended in some dark weather conditions - see below). The best defense against both battery and camera failure is to keep your camera warm under your coat until ready to use, then return it to cover to wait on the next train. It also helps to have an extra set of fresh batteries in an interior pocket where they will keep warm. When your camera's batteries start getting weak, swap out with the warm batteries and place the cold ones in your pocket to warm up, and rotate them again as necessary.
Another alternative (if you have such a beast and know how to set exposure without a meter) is an old, all manual film camera (Nikon F or FM, Canon F, Pentax K1000, Olympus OM-10, TLRs, etc.) which will not be affected by the cold, other than the battery which powers the light meter. However, film itself can become brittle and tear when cold, so crank the film advance slowly. For this reason, electronic film cameras with auto film load can also tear the film when loading in extreme cold, so load your film while it is still warm and keep extra film warm in an interior pocket.
Condensation on lenses is another problem in cold weather, and this can happen even in milder cold such as 10 or 20 degrees above zero. Going from outside in these temperatures to back in your warm car can cause condensation to fog the end glass in your lens, as well as the viewfinder, rendering the camera unusable until the condensation clears. This is also not a good time to change lenses as that exposes the end element to condensation. And wiping it off with lens tissue is not a solution, as the condensation will reappear about as fast as it is removed, until the camera and lens temperature slowly warms.
Exposure and Focus
A snow landscape under bright sun can wrongly influence exposure meters to underexpose for the main subject, as the snow reflects a lot of extra light into the scene, causing the meter to stop the exposure down and yielding a too dark photo. Camera meters are calibrated to render everything as a middle tone of 18% gray, but snow is not middle tone, so in bright snow compositions it is best to spot meter off an 18% gray (medium light gray) card or similar toned object (tan tree trunk, dirt, etc.) in the same light as your subject, and set this indicated exposure manually. Or use your camera's exposure compensation dial set for one stop more exposure.
A BNSF train is southbound on the Joint Line south of Castle Rock, Colorado in a heavy misty fog. In dim lighting like this, it is best to meter and set exposure manually before the train arrives, and use manual focus. Autoexposure and autofocus can be fooled by the high contrast between the ambient low light and bright headlights.
Heavy falling snow can also fool a meter as well as autofocus systems. With all the white flakes swirling around causing a very low contrast scene as well as being at different distances from the camera, autofocus has nothing specific to lock onto. Similarly, an average meter reading may lock onto all the whiteness in the air and cause an underexposure of the main scene. Again, spot metering an 18% gray item then setting exposure manually, along with manual focus, are best.
A really major problem when photographing trains in dim light of heavy cloud cover or in falling rain or snow is that autofocus as well as autoexposure systems can be fooled by the train's headlights. Instead of reading the dark ambient light conditions, autoexposure will pick up on the bright headlights and yield a very dark exposure that, depending on how big the locomotive and headlights are in the composition, may be up to 3-4 stops underexposed and the photo unusable. And autofocus will go hay-wire hunting back and forth when it picks up on the bright lights, usually just as the train arrives in position for the photo.
The accompanying photos taken in dense foggy weather are excellent examples where manual focus and manual exposure should be used. Although with digital, an underexposed image might be pulled out using Levels or Curves in a program like Photoshop, the end result may be an image with a very harsh contrast and high amounts of digital noise.
The solution is to determine the proper exposure before the train arrives with test shots, bracketing your exposures until the scene on your LCD screen looks correct. Then use this manual exposure setting and manual focus mode to take the photo.
Weather Photography Precautions
A big problem in wet weather is keeping your camera dry. The obvious way to avoid this is to wait for the train under some form of cover if available, such as a near-by awning or overhanging roof. Or maybe you can park your car in a position to let you shoot out a lowered window as the train approaches.
A camera "rain coat" of some sort is also a good option. You can buy a commercially made camera cover, or if you still get one of those old fashioned printed newspapers in your front yard every morning, save the plastic sleeves that are used on rainy days to make your own inexpensive camera rain coat. Simply cut off the closed end and slip the tube over your camera and lens, holding in place with a rubber band if it fits too loosely. Just be sure the band is not restricting the lens focus ring, and the end of the bag is not hanging in front of the lens. And use a lens hood if you have one to help keep rain or snow off the front lens element.
Of course, none of this helps if you have to point your camera into a stiff wind blowing snow or rain onto your lens. In these situations, it may be better to skip the photo, not only to save your equipment from water damage, but moisture on the lens can blur your photo. A clear UV filter on the lens will protect the lens glass, but moisture on the filter can still cause a blurry photo.
If your camera or lens does get wet, wipe it off with a dry rag as soon as possible (and use lens tissue on the glass), then place it upside down in the camera case or on the car seat so any moisture that got on the top of the camera or lens will be less likely to migrate down through a seam and into the camera or lens body.
Finally, at the risk of getting into much cliché information, I probably need to point out the obvious. Wear the proper cold weather clothing, which usually means dressing in layers with the outer layer waterproof, warm gloves, two pairs of socks in insulated boots if in snow conditions, and a warm hat, or sweatshirt or coat hood. And in stormy conditions if any lightning is present, forget the train photo and stay in your car!
Note the effect of the headlights and time exposure (f/5.6 and 5 seconds on Tri-X film) on the swirling snow in this night exposure of a Denver & Rio Grande Western train waiting for a crew change at Minturn, at the western base of Tennessee Pass in Colorado, in the 1980s.
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