This past week I viewed a photograph made by a photographer at night that was not much more than a dark, featureless, long block with a string of brightly colored electric lights on its surface. The person that made that photograph commented that she was disappointed with what the result.
I suppose the photographer didn’t know there wasn’t much that could be done with a subject that has no light on it. She might have thought a high ISO would work, and like many others new to the medium of photography, didn’t understand that surfaces that don’t generate light, must have light reflecting off the surface it if we are to see or photograph it.
I thought about that frustrated photographer as I set up my tripod alongside my wife, Linda, and our friend, Nancy. We were preparing to photograph the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train that would be rolling along the railroad tracks that followed the wide South Thompson River a short distance from our home in Pritchard, British Columbia. We had read on the Internet about the train traveling through Chase and Kamloops on December 16 and had estimated the time it would come through Pritchard that is nestled between the two locations.
We positioned ourselves on the beach on the other side of the river so we could photograph the train passing on the opposite side and we would have a wide shot of the engine and all the brightly lit, Christmas box cars.
We arrived an hour in advance while there was still plenty of light and made test shots of a passing freight train. The schedule put the train in our location just at sunset, giving us plenty of light to define the train from its surroundings even with the declining light.
We set our cameras at ISO3200. That allowed my wife to set her camera at 1/250th second with her f4 lens, and with my f2.8 lens I could use1/400th second. Even at that we were both under exposing our images, however, in my experience, a stop or two under exposure when making exposures in the last light of the day usually works pretty well.
I prefer shooting just at sundown when there is still that cool, blue light illuminating the sky. It is easy to select out and brighten up the subject without affecting other elements in the landscape, whether making the final image in a traditional film darkroom, or using a program like PhotoShop.
I wrote that we were using tripods. Tripods are the best way to keep one’s camera still, but with our tests on the freight train that we photographed in advance of the Holiday Train we found that quickly releasing the camera from the tripod as it passed, handholding and panning worked best.
I like to preplan, so we had gone down to the river a week early and selected our observation site. In addition, on the day of the train we arrived an hour early, and that gave us time to test, to move about and experiment with our location a bit, so that when the train rolled by we were ready.
There was a strong, cold wind blowing down river directly at us. But we parked our car at the edge of the riverbank just above us with a good view to see the approaching train. After we had set up our tripods and camera, we sat in the car bundled up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate until the moment arrived. Suddenly exclaiming, “There it is!” we ran laughing and hopping down the sandy riverbank for three exciting, adrenaline filled minutes of photography.
My favorite times for scenics, and for the Holiday Train that was my center of interest for this scenic, is the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset. I am sure one can find great light any time of the day and night, but these two hours are the most predictable when it comes to workable light.
Please don’t hesitate to comment. Thanks, John
My website is at www.enmanscamera.com
Very nicely done John. And your comments about pre-planning are right on! One of the benefits, of course, is that you discover alternatives during the planning stage – a much better time than in the few seconds you have for the perfect shot when the subject is right there in front of you.
A useful article. It’s an interesting question how far down to print an image taken in very low light because logically you should show it as a dark image in a low lit environment but that rarely happens.
I tend to bracket exposures then see what image works best in Lightroom after equalising the exposures – or combine for HDR for a static subject. For an HDR approach you would have needed someone on the track to flag down the train. That would then require a very handsome commission to justify the ensuing fines.
I have sometimes found the hour after sunset and the hour before sunrise to be particularly compelling, particularly with compositions involving water.
Interesting narrative and terrific shots of the train, John. Happy Holidays!
Hey those are great shots, provoking great memories of the Canadian Holiday Train!
Thanks, and I am looking forward to your images from that fun evening on that cold windy beach.
I’m so bummed that I missed it when it was in Montreal at the beginning of the month. Better luck next year I guess.
You got some great shots though 🙂