A Study of Signals

I got up early on my birthday to do some trackside night photography. I wanted to take some long exposures and maybe include a train or two in them. My alarm went off at 04:30 and I was out the door shortly after 5 AM.

I had decided to visit the CN Rivers subdivision, as it is the busiest section of track around and therefore most likely to have trains. I passed by Diamond and continued west to mile 17.9, where there are signals facing both directions that are always lit. The majority of train signals are “approach lit”, meaning they only light up when a train is nearby to save power.

Here’s the east-facing signals, with the south track signal showing green and the north showing red.

You’ll note the red power pole on the left, showing that the west facing signal on the other side is red! (settings: 8 seconds, f/4.0, ISO 3200)

Red and green, like Christmas!
Red and green, like Christmas!

I shot basically the same scene again a few minutes later, but this time I took three different exposures and used Adobe Lightroom to merge them into a High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo. This allowed me to use a much lower ISO setting and therefore less noise.

Much less noise
Much less noise

The nice thing about HDR is you get more range, so things that were too dark or light to be captured get included. Here you can see the red signal streaming into the distance on the back / west side of the signal on the right of the photo. (settings: 3.2, 13.0, and 30 seconds, f/4.0, ISO 800)

For focusing, I used the technique I described in How To Focus Your Camera At Night. Basically you put the camera into manual mode, use Live View or whatever it’s called on your camera to show the live “through the lens” view on the back of your camera, and zoom into that view to fine tune the focus manually.

After a bit, I picked up the tripod and moved it a bit to get a different angle… still looking at the east facing signals.

A different angle
A different angle

Time to pick up the tripod again to line the signals up.

Signal behind signal
Signal behind signal

By this time (6:24) the sky to the east was definitely getting lighter.

I continued around to the west-facing side to capture the signals and the lighter sky.

Yellow over Red
Yellow over Red

Note that the north signal is showing yellow over red – CLEAR TO STOP. (4, 15, 30 seconds; f/8.0; ISO 800)

Still no trains!

By 7:13 I had switched back to the east-facing signals and the camera was recording a cotton candy sky (1/160s, f/3.5, ISO 800). This was basically right about at sunrise.

Cotton candy sky
Cotton candy sky

Shortly after this, I did get a train – a late VIA 692, described in this post. I had my drone up to record it too, and after the train passed, I used the drone to record one more shot of the east facing signals.

Drone view of the signals
Drone view of the signals

On my way out of the area, I stopped to take a few photos with the rising sun.

Silhouettes at sunrise
Silhouettes at sunrise

There is train content – that’s the mile 16 milepost at the left of the frame.

After that, I went on to photograph the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway

Just One More Thing

I just finished reading Canadian Railway Scenes No. 3 (by Adolf & Okan Hungry Wolf) featuring the Steam Expo at Expo ’86 in Vancouver. It was interesting to read the in-person descriptions of the “goings on”. You can almost feel the excitement from all of the “foamers” / steam aficionados that flocked to this once-in-a-lifetime event. I’m not a steam fan but I can imagine how exciting it would have been.

The book also features the move of the Trans-Canada Limited consist (from the Cranbrook museum) to Expo 86 behind diesel CP 3085. It’s clear the authors chased that one!

This series of books (Canadian Railway Scenes) is similar to the BRMNA books, which are basically photo books with extensive captions. They are quick reads but are quite entertaining. You can sometimes find them in museum gift shops or used book stores. The first four volumes are currently available on AbeBooks (I earn a commission if you buy using that link).

16 thoughts on “A Study of Signals”

  1. Nice photos Steve! Question: You are always so conscientious about safety and trespassing… I’m wondering how these issues come into play when flying a drone near and especially over the tracks.

    • Hi Jeff – excellent question. In short the airspace in Canada is owned by the federal government. Muncipalities and companies can state whatever they want about flying drones over their land but they don’t have control over it. I’m sure you could make arguments about whether a drone flying an inch above the ground is trespassing or not…

      It used to be illegal to fly a drone over a vehicle in Canada, but that has been changed. Now you can’t fly over “bystanders” but people in vehicles are not considered bystanders.

      Of course, other laws come into play – privacy laws for example, nuisance laws, et cetera. One thing I am very conscious of is being distracting to train crews. I don’t “buzz” locomotives and I don’t want to be a distraction more than I am by standing on the side and taking photos.

      I’m told by train engineers that they really can’t see the drone. In the GWWD video I posted recently, I was pacing the locomotive relatively close to it and I’m told the crew were unaware that there was a drone there. It helps that my drone is quite small.

      I certainly welcome questions and comments on this issue. As you said, I try to be conscientious about safety and trespassing and I’m always willing to learn and adapt.

  2. Thanks, Steve! I’m not surprised at all by the amount of thought and care you put into your activities. Hopefully you’ll never end up with an emergency landing on the tracks away from a crossing that could create an issue. (Forgive me… I’m always thinking of the worst-case scenarios. Most of the time it’s helpful, but it can be annoying too 🙂 ).

    • Thanks, Jeff – I hope that doesn’t happen either! Fortunately these drones have a lot of safety features, including collision avoidance and return-to-home when the battery gets low.

      I hear you about worst-case scenarios. My head goes there too much.

  3. Steve, stunning photos. Perhaps it’s the engineer in me, but the “Signal behind Signal” photo is definitely my favourite. Great work!

  4. Best one for me is the one “signal behind signal”. The others, although interesting technical stuff are not that interesting. The cotton candy sky does not show up for me – just a blank frame. I will exit and reload again. Always like your posts!

    • Thanks, Jim, I’m glad you liked the “signal behind signal”. Not every shot is going to be the best… just experimenting and improving my techniques.

  5. Hi Steve, As always a great post. I have photographed much at night but mainly back in the 70’s and 80’s when there were a lot more passenger trains.
    Anyways I have a request for you if you have the time and inclination. Could you make a map to show where you are around Winnipeg? I know Winnipeg a little bit and I have the Canadian Trackside Guide map but when you speak of the “Perimeter Highway” and other roads I have no idea where you are. I presume that’s some kind of a ring road? Maybe you could post the map such that it comes up above all your new posts. Thanks and keep up the good work!

    • That’s a great idea, Ian! But it will spoil a hobby of mine… I used to live in Winnipeg and I’ve been enjoying trying to locate where Steve has been taking his pictures. Between memory, studying the maps, and Google Street View, I’ve found most of them 🙂 I wonder if his blogging software has “spoiler alert” markup so I can keep up the fun.

    • HI Ian, thanks for your comment and your suggestion. I have thought about posting a “railfan map” or a map for particular posts. I try not to over explain my location during a post, because I feel it detracts from the story. However, a map of the common locations I railfan at could be included as a link for reference.

      The Perimeter Highway is indeed a ring road that circumnavigates Winnipeg. I live very close to it on the south side of Winnipeg so it is a convenient way for me to circle around to the area I want to visit.

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