One of the the most magnificent sensations that we railfans experience is to follow a train in motion. It’s an amazing thing to watch a large and long physical mass move through the landscape like a snake with ease and grace. Add to this experience, the sounds of the locomotives and the various squeaks of steel on steel. Then there is the adrenaline rush and excitement of beating the train to the next location to grab a shot.
Chasing trains through the landscape is the stuff of railroad lore. It’s been well documented and romanticized in the railroad press for not only the aspect of capturing the train in multiple locations, but also the comradery that often accompanies it.
I enjoy the chase as well, but find that I’m doing it less and less. It’s not that I stopped enjoying the experience, but that I’ve found that it usually doesn’t lead to great photography, at least for me. The problem with the chase is that it leads one to photograph the easy and obvious shots as we don’t have the luxury of time to seek a unique shot if we want to continue the chase. Because of that, the chase always comes off as a series of known “greatest hits” of a rail line.
There are about 228,000 miles of rail lines in the United States, and I feel like we all are shooting the same 5% of that mileage. I know that many of these miles are boring sameness, featureless and some are difficult to access, but why can’t we reach out further beyond the easy and obvious photographic opportunities?
To me, there are two advantages to moving beyond the chase; more creativity and diversity.
If we can switch the dynamic of chasing, to letting the train come to us, we can use time to our advantage. We now have the opportunity to look for new scenes and compositions beyond the obvious ones.
By letting the train come to me, I have opened up my mind to using time and thought to my advantage. With time now on my side, I can scope out interesting and new scenes, angles or vantages. With time, I can carefully and thoughtfully find my composition. With time, I can set up my camera on a tripod and make sure that I get the shot I want and not lose it in the excitement of eyeing the train in motion. With time, I can ensure that I get the technical aspects correct with proper depth of field, shutter and focus.
In addition to getting creative new images, we can also broaden our coverage of the railroad scene. Many of us have the intention of photographically documenting a railroad line and by taking the time to explore new photographic opportunities, we can broaden our scope and increase the depth and diversity of our pet projects. How often do we need to see the same familiar scene and angle with the substitution of a different engine?
For me, getting away from the chase has allowed me to be less rushed and more contemplative about my photography. I would rather come away from an outing with 1 or 2 really good original shots than a dozen mediocre and obvious ones. The chase still has a place in my railfanning, but more for the social aspect than for challenging my photographic creativity.