Personal Project: Photographing America’s Railroads: Shutterbug Contributor Stan Trzoniec’s Passion Turns Into A New Book

Brute horsepower, large diesel engines pulling thousands of tons of freight, heavy plumes of exhaust pouring from their stacks, sand being put down on the rails for traction, and the rumble of steel wheels passing by—all are part of the American railroad scene. For both the novice and advanced photographer, the challenge of capturing the drama of moving trains and finding suitable locations is all part of the excitement.

Coming across the Harpursville Trestle in New York state, the author caught this Canadian Pacific freight with a Nikon D3S, a 17-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens, and a polarizer to capture that beautiful summer sky. A short 15-minute hike put him in this position.
All Photos © Stan Trzoniec

In Colorado, with the aspens popping, this old steam engine built in 1925 by Baldwin still hustles its load of passengers on a colorful foray to Silverton. (Nikon D2X, 17-55mm lens.)

I’ve been photographing trains for as long as I can remember. What exactly is the draw to photograph the railroad scene? If you think just shooting trains is at the top of the list, you are partially right. But it’s also the spirit of discovery. As you move around, you will see different locations, from the mountains in the east to the deserts in the west. Move in closer and you will notice the details on the older buildings, the abandoned lines and the efforts to conserve them.

“Roddy’s Sag” is a natural depression on the CSX main line in Glencoe, Pennsylvania, and with the help of the Nikon F5 and the Sigma 800mm lens, the compression of the landscape is further enhanced.

Sometimes to get to the best spots involves a little hiking. This famous “horseshoe” curve at Mance, Pennsylvania, is the subject of a long train bending around the curve with the engine at the top center of the photo. (Nikon D2X, 17-55mm lens.)

You don’t have to be a “railfan” to appreciate the trains, as it doesn’t take long to see all the photographic possibilities. The main thing to remember is to stay off the right of way (tracks, ballast, and roadbed). Keeping 30 to 40 feet off either side of the tracks is a good policy, and never, I mean never, walk on the ties (in gauge) between the rails. Even though trains will make one heck of a racket going upgrade, coming downhill with welded rail, they can sneak up on you very fast. For the most part, and where a train might go into a rock cut, I use longer telephoto lenses, stay back from the tracks, and position myself at curves to get those neat profile pictures of trains bending around the curve. Out in the country—the Berkshires are a good example—you’ll be fine with a moderate zoom, which is perfect in combining both the railroad and some fine scenery.

Waiting for a new crew, it will be three hours before this train is on the move again. The use of a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to cut down the light for a long exposure aids the feeling of motion of the train going east. (Nikon D200, 70-200mm lens.)

This is a classic view of a train taking a curve near Becket, Massachusetts. For the rail photographer, this is a perfect spot to be safe while employing the Nikon D3S with a 300mm lens to enhance the feeling of power of the diesel engines on the head end while moving around a wide curve.

And yes, like all photography, good train photography has a lot to do with observing light. Like many subjects, early morning and late afternoon give the best results. Soft light is good all day (cloud cover); front lighting is perfect for engines and, if your position is good, it will carry along to the length of the train. Sidelighting accents an almost three-dimensional effect and backlighting is great for steam engines working hard upgrade on a tourist line.

Since the prime movers are rather nondescript in appearance (after all an engine is an engine), camera angle along with the right location will make the most of your efforts. While you will probably start shooting from eye level, don’t be afraid to shoot from an overpass, hillside, or below track level. While head-on shots get full priority, don’t be afraid to tackle some photographs of a special passenger train moving away from you in the falling snow.

At West Chicago, this Chicago and Northwestern train drifts downgrade under a perfect sunset. Backlighting like this sets the mood of a railroad at work. (Nikon F5, 80-200mm lens.)

If you can find a road that parallels the tracks, like this scene near Bainbridge, New York, panning a train adds another dimension to your rail photography. (Nikon D200, 28-70mm lens, 1⁄8 sec.)

If you intend to sell some of your images, take into account the history of the line, perhaps include a famous landmark, station, trestle, or large horseshoe curve for interest. Keeping the photograph clean is important, as railroads during their maintenance cycles will discard old ties, tracks, tie plates, and utility poles along their right of way, so watch for these eyesores in your viewfinder.

Use shallow depth of field to perhaps zero in on an old station sign or a milepost with the waiting train in the background. Visit older stations and set up your camera in a far inside corner with a 20-24mm lens to capture the ambience of the building before it disappears. The use of a super-telephoto lens can isolate subject matter to your advantage, giving a completely new dimension to the railroad scene.

In the steam days these hefty wheels were part of the famous Union Pacific “Big Boy” locomotive that checked in at over a million pounds! Posing for a perfect still life, it’s now on display for all to see and photograph at Steamtown in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Nikon D700, 24-70mm lens.)

The Grafton and Upton is a short line in central Massachusetts and the combination of the old space heater and the work gloves in this Alco locomotive was pause for this photographer to take notice, turning it into a still life. (Nikon F5, 28-70mm lens.)

In my book, I have a chapter on Details Make the Difference and the Abandoned Landscape. With the former, I deal with the finer points of the railroad scene: useless “Armstrong” switch rods along the tracks, steam engines at rest, mileposts, discarded engines ready for the scrap yard, tired shop scenes. With the latter, which are my favorite, old buildings, diesels cannibalized for parts, vintage railroad cars in storage, a whistle post lying on the ground and surely forgotten are all part of the story. In short, if you run out of mainline action, delve into the sidelines. You’ll never be disappointed for the lack of photographic material.

At the passenger station in Springfield, Massachusetts, a combination of a longer exposure, some fill flash, and a tripod added to the mood of the scene of a train waiting for its passengers. (Nikon D700, 24-70mm lens, 2 seconds, fill flash.)

In Kansas, placing the train below the grain elevator tells the story of how the railroad serves the grain industry in this part of the country. With a 300mm lens, it places the interest on the locomotive while softening the elevator for effect. (Nikon D2X, 300mm f/4 lens.)

A short time back I gave a talk at a local camera club about fleshing out the railroad scene as part of a monthly project by the club. They were all so interested in the idea that to this day it is still part of the club’s yearly assignments. Three weeks after I pen this article, it’s off to California to photograph the famous Tehachapi Loop (trains loop over themselves to gain elevation) and the Cajon Pass (spectacular mountain scenery) where the famous Santa Fe “Super Chief” made its mark.

At Foley, Pennsylvania, you can drive to this overlook to catch trains going up and down the mountain grades. The subject of the author’s book on “Sand Patch,” this train has what they call “mixed power” with engines from various railroads sharing the load. (Nikon F5, 28-70mm lens, Provia film.)

I told you, it’s catching—the book has been 50 years in the making! See you trackside.

Stan Trzoniec’s new book on The American Railscape is a culmination of his photographic efforts on the railroads from one end of the country to the other.

Stan Trzoniec is a frequent contributor to Shutterbug. His latest coffee-table book, The American Railscape is a study in contemporary railroading, available and autographed through his website for $125 plus postage. He can be reached via e-mail at The American Railscape has nearly 300 photographs depicting railroads across the country. These photographs, picked from over 10,000 slides and digital images, are just the beginning of a line of self-published railroad books now in production.

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Railroads plays a big part in our life. It takes us to the places that we ought to be. - Reputation Management