Trains At Night

Ooh, we like the big wide spaces
Yeah, we like a sea of faces
Time is just a rubber band
Time is at our command

Chilliwack, “Fly At Night

I really like photographing at night. I enjoy the change in perspective, the challenge of photographing in scant light, the different techniques… I don’t do it enough.

On April 3 I decided that I would try to capture the Milky Way. It was a clear night so there wouldn’t be clouds in the way. All that was needed was for Nature to show me the light, as it were.

I started out at about 2:30 AM and ended up driving west along the CN main line. I paused at mile 17.8, where I did some night photography on my birthday last fall, but there were no trains imminent and it was still too close to Winnipeg for good night sky photography. Darn that light pollution.

Carrying on west, I ended up just west of Elie, Manitoba. Here it was pretty dark and there were lots of stars to be seen – but no Milky Way. My research had said that the Milky Way should rise in the east around 3 AM, but at 3:40 AM it wasn’t visible.

Unfortunately the moon was fairly bright and also in the east sky, so I think the moon’s light was killing any chance I had of seeing the Milky Way. Dang.

Still, I was outside with a camera in my hand…

East facing signals at East Elie

I put my camera on the tripod and took a few long exposure shots at a crossing. In the above photo I am facing west toward the CN location known as East Elie. The tracks diverge here because there used to be a short siding in the middle between the two main tracks.

As I was taking these photos, I heard a far-off train horn. After a bit, an eastbound train came rolling through.

Train 1 at Elie

The train is a-comin'
The train is a-comin’

Photographing trains at night is a challenge. The locomotive’s headlights are extremely bright, so you need to dial your exposure down a lot compared to what you use when trying to photograph stars.

I think the shot below is slightly overexposed, but it turned out OK. To be honest, I took several photos and threw a few of them away.

3.2 seconds at f/3.5, 55mm, ISO 100

Once the locomotives passed, I dialed the exposure down and tried for a long exposure photo to show the stars.

30 seconds at f/3.5, 55mm, ISO 100

I really like how that turned out. The train ends up looking like a long tube and the stars are visible. The exposure is a bit long, as the stars are starting to streak. There was a LOT of editing for this photo and I ended up boosting the exposure by 3 1/4 stops in Lightroom. It’s amazing how much editing you can do to a digital image nowadays without losing too much quality.

That was fun.

It wasn’t long before a second eastbound train came along.

Train 2 at Elie

1.6 seconds at f/3.5, 55mm ISO 100

I didn’t record any locomotive numbers for these trains. Obviously you can’t read them from the photos! There were no “unusual” locomotives like heritage units or BC Rail units.

For this train, I turned left / east to photograph the train against the Elie grain elevator.

30 seconds at f/3.5, 55mm ISO 100

I really like how the blinking end-of-train device shows as dots across the screen.

The sky is lighter here, both because the town of Elie is “that way” and because the moon was in this area of the sky (just to the right of this image).

It was just after 4 AM by this point. I decided to move on and find something else to photograph.

I drove west to Oakville, seeing no trains, then I headed north on highway 430 to the CP main line near Poplar Point. I didn’t see any trains there either, so I headed to the St. Paul’s Anglican Church a few kilometres east of Poplar Point.

Night Service

St. Paul’s Anglican Church at night. ISO 400, 30 sec at f/3.5, 17mm

I took a few photos here. This one was my favourite. I used the light on my phone to paint a bit of light in the foreground during the 30 second exposure.

You can see a bit of wispy cloud in the sky in this photo at 4:40 AM. There was more to the south, and I could see a bit of lightness in the sky to the east, so my night photography was nearing its end… but there was time for a bit more.

Back to Elie.

Train 3 at Elie

15 seconds at f/3.5, 24mm, ISO 200

As I came to the crossing near the Elie grain elevator (again), I saw headlights to the east. I quickly positioned myself a good distance away from the tracks and grain elevator to get a more side-on view of this train. Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve heard.

Shooting from the side, the intensity of the headlights isn’t as much of an issue so I could use a longer exposure. I was able to capture a few stars along with the train as it streaked across the horizon.

While I was waiting for the train to arrive, I took the following HDR image, using three images at different exposures, and combining them together with software. I like how it turned out.

HDR image of the Elie grain elevator
HDR image of the Elie grain elevator

After that train passed, I chased it west toward Oakville and Portage la Prairie. I didn’t really have a plan other than I wanted to see more trains. I didn’t really expect to catch it.

I managed to get to the crossing at Newton – west of Oakville – just before the train did, but I had no time to set up and so I just sat and enjoyed the sight and sound of the train thundering by.

I do enjoy this pixelated iPhone photo of the mid-train locomotive…

Pixelated blur
Pixelated blur

It was almost 6 AM by this point and the sky to the east was brightening. Long time readers know that I do love sunrise photography, so why not stay out a few more hours and capture a few more trains? (picture my wife shaking her head at me when I told her when I actually returned home from my “few hours of Milky Way photography”)

Those sunrise photos will wait for the next post. More to come…

14 thoughts on “Trains At Night”

  1. Hi Steve,
    Back between 1977 and 1981 I photographed A LOT at night. At the time I was photographing CP’s Lachute Subdivision at Lachute. There was two winters in particular that made it special. 1979 and 1980. The first was a shortage of RDC’s for the passenger train and the second was an airline strike. So CP/VIA put on conventional passenger trains. Friday night would have an F-unit (from the Montreal commuter pool) followed usually by an RS-10 s (a steamy). Then 1 or 2 baggage cars and 1-3 2200 series coaches. The baggage cars were for better braking on the curvy line. Saturday morning would have the F-unit, One baggage car and one 2200. The remainder laid over in Ottawa until Sunday night when the remainder returned to Montreal. The Lachute passengers could easily fill a 2200 coach by themselves. Sometimes two.
    Knowing the train times of course I was setup with camera and tripod for the trains to come to a full stop. Then I shot night exposures until the train started moving again. That was about 5 minutes as the crew picked up coffee from the operator and sold it to the passengers. The results were spectacular. My standard was F-Stop F5.6 and then vary the length of each exposure.

    Reply
    • Hi Ian, it would’ve been a treat to see those short conventional trains instead of the RDCs for sure. I’ve never heard of adding passenger cars just for braking but I can see it would help a lot.

      That’s the nice thing about station stops – you know exactly where the train is going to stop. You could almost put your tripod legs into the holes left from the previous night! 😉

      Are your night photos online somewhere? I’d love to see them.

      Reply
  2. The photographs are amazing but what I really like as a bonus is the thought that goes on behind and into the image.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Mike, I’m glad you like the “behind the image” thought process. I like reading about others’ photography thought processes and I’m glad you like mine.

      Reply
  3. I enjoyed all these images, and also your explanations for their construction. I think there are few things more evocative that seeing the lights of a train passing in the dark. Passenger cars with lighted windows are majestic.

    Reply
    • Hi Dale, thanks so much! I agree with you about lights on a train in the dark. I have a vivid memory of waiting for the VIA Rail “Ocean” near Dalhousie Junction in New Brunswick at night and seeing those bright windows roll by.

      Reply
  4. Hi Steve! Great shots! Love the combination of stars and trains – two of my interests. Many years ago I did some astrophotography with the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada – at their observatory south of Winnipeg in Glenlea. At the time, it was a great spot to shoot the southern sky, which would include the Milky Way (no light pollution) but I can’t say how much it has worsened over the last 30 years. Might be worth a try next time you are game for catching the Milky Way – on a moonless night 😉

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff, I had no idea there was/is an observatory in Glenlea. I’ve been in the area several times to see the new elevator there. I’ll keep that spot in mind.

      Reply
  5. Nice! I like to try more night photography myself. It can be challenging at times to remember which settings to use, but like how your photos turned out!

    Reply

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