Author: Jake Miille

About Jake Miille

Photographer from Northern California.

Colorado’s Morning Glory

Story Behind the Image

The morning of March 9th, 2020 started early. I was over a week into my photography adventure across the Western United States. The previous day was a mammoth 18-hour day, which started in Canon City, Colorado and ended along the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. I was tired, catching a few hours of sleep in my Glenwood Springs hotel room when the phone rang.

Rock slide issues in Byers Canyon had the Moffat Route shut down overnight. The slides had delayed several trains which were supposed to sneak though the Rocky Mountains under the cover of darkness. With the new information, I quickly packed my gear while still half asleep, grabbed a hotel-lobby coffee and took off on the hour and half drive towards Kremmling.

As I made the drive, the sound of country music and radio traffic filled my truck. Most of the radio traffic was scratchy, a common problem when you are in the mountains and the railroad action is far away. Unsure of what had transpired along the railroad during my hour and half drive from Glenwood Springs, I arrived near Azure, Colorado right after sunrise.

I was trying to figure out a plan of action as I slowly rolled along the rugged dirt roads near Gore Canyon. I feared that I had arrived too late, when all of the sudden, the radio traffic became crystal clear. “BNSF 5686 East, highball Radium out.” I had arrived just in time. After being stopped all night, the railroad was open and there was a train quickly headed my direction. As I got into position, the skies opened up. The once dark mountainsides now beamed with light.

BNSF 5686 roars out of Little Gore Canyon on the morning of March 9th, 2020.

As the train roared out of Little Gore Canyon, additional radio traffic came in. This time it was from the Moffat Tunnel Subdivision Dispatcher. “BNSF 5686, I’m going to stick you in the siding at Gore for this westbound work train. They’re making their way through Troublesome now.” The Gore Siding is located just east of Gore Canyon between Azure and Kremmling. At 6,730′ in length, it is one of the longer sidings in the area.

BNSF 5686 continuing east between Little Gore Canyon and [Big] Gore Canyon. In approximately 5 miles, it will enter Gore Siding for the westbound work train.

As the BNSF 5686 continued east towards Gore, I doubled back west towards Little Gore Canyon. Located only a few miles west of [Big] Gore Canyon, Little Gore Canyon is one of my favorite locations along the Moffat Route. With it’s vertical cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the river below and a view of the incredible Gore Valley extending to the east, Little Gore Canyon provides endless photography opportunities.

I soon found myself standing on the canyon edge, overlooking an incredible mountain scene. The train was taking a little longer than expected, but that bought time, allowing the sun illuminate the eastern edge of the canyon. As I waited, a Bald Eagle made several passes, patrolling his little section of paradise. “This is what it’s all about”, I thought to myself.

Eventually, the silence of the mountains was overtaken by the rumbling sound of a ballast train exiting Gore Canyon. I got into position, being careful to set my feet on the snow covered rocks. A small slip could lead to a very fast and deadly trip to the bottom of the Colorado River.

The sound of the train is getting louder as it works west through Gore Valley.

As the train rounded the bend, the sound became deafening. Like a megaphone, the canyon walls were amplifying the sounds of this incredible display of mountain railroading. The Union Pacific 7890 was in the lead, dragging 74 Herzog ballast cars west. The train briefly ducked into the 294-foot Tunnel 39 as it entered Little Gore Canyon. A frozen Gore Valley provided the perfect backdrop.

UP 7890 exits Tunnel 39 and enters the incredible Little Gore Canyon. Notice the dark shadow just above the train. As I patiently waited, dark storm clouds cycled in and out of the area adding an extra element of uncertainty. Fortunately, the clouds decided to play in my favor this day.

Distributed Power Units (DPUs) are common along the Moffat Route. The extra power on the end of the train makes for a safer journey through the mountains. On this day, the UP 5785 was assigned as the rear DPU, seen here exiting Tunnel 39.

Framed by the jagged rock walls of Little Gore Canyon, the UP 5785 is seen here as the rear DPU, helping guide this westbound train down the Moffat Route.

Soon, the UP 7890 would arrive in Bond, Colorado for a crew change. Unfortunately, do to the overall lack of of rail traffic along the Moffat Route, the few train crews that still work this section are not always available. With no rested and qualified crews available, this train would stay stopped at Bond for most of the daylight hours. Eventually, late in afternoon, a new a crew would arrive and take this train west towards Grand Junction.

The UP 7890 is tied down at Bond awaiting a new crew. At one time, Bond was a busy junction for coal and manifest trains along the Moffat Route. Today, the empty tracks paint a bleak picture.

This underscores the challenge of the Moffat Route. With some of the most incredible railroad scenes in the world, the overall lack of train traffic makes it difficult to photograph. The steep decline in Colorado Coal production, along with a general decline in overall rail traffic means this route is quiet more often than not. Fortunately for me, I got lucky that morning.

The Santa Fe Semaphores

A Rail Photographer’s Guide

In March of 2020, I drove 4,500 miles throughout the Western United States in search of ultimate freedom and a good photograph. The eleven day journey took me through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada before returning home to Northern California. The trip had no defined parameters, no hotel reservations, nowhere I had to be. Instead, I just loaded up my truck and took off, allowing the trains and light to guide my way.

This photographer’s guide is for those who are interested in photographing, documenting or learning about the Santa Fe Railroad’s classic semaphore signals. My goal is to provide you with the information I wish I had before my adventure.

The History

In the desert mountains of Northeastern New Mexico, time seems to stand still. Old jointed rail accompanied by historic code lines and the classic semaphore signals make you feel as if you stepped back 100 years in time. This route was once the heart of the mighty Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Built shortly after the Civil War, the Santa Fe Railroad played a major role in western expansion.

With stops in Trinidad, Raton, Las Vegas, Glorieta and Lamy (Santa Fe), the railroad loosely followed the original Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail was used by pioneers and traders as a connection between the United States and Mexico. The route was dangerous, requiring travel through inhospitable deserts where rattlesnakes and hostile Apache tribes reigned supreme.

For nearly 30 years, this route was the primary connection between the United States and the New Mexico Territory. In the early 1900s, the Santa Fe built the “Belen Cutoff”. This new route allowed trains to bypass the significant 2%+ grade of Glorieta Pass and the 3.5% grade of Raton Pass. Train traffic slowly dwindled until the early 2000s when the BNSF Railway ceased all freight operations along the Raton Pass Route. Below is a map of the Raton Pass Route (“Before”) and the Belen Cutoff.

bnsf.com

Today, the Raton and Glorieta Subdivisions only see two trains per day. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief travels along this route, shuttling passengers between Chicago and Los Angeles. Both the westbound and eastbound Chief are scheduled to travel this particular section during the daylight hours. Passengers onboard the Chief get a front row seat to the scenic American Southwest.

While traveling thousands of miles for only two Amtrak trains may seem crazy, you have to remember that the lack of train traffic could be the only reason the semaphores have survived into 2020. Since the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and congressional legislation requiring the modernization of railroad signals, classic semaphore and searchlight signals have been under constant threat. Railroads across the country have been replacing signals at a steady pace.

The Raton Pass Route is not immune to signal replacement but it does seem as if the replacement projects have been delayed. As of today, New Mexico is home to the last remaining semaphore signals along a mainline route in the United States. As I type this, BNSF crews are actively working on replacing the semaphore signals between Colmor and Levy. Eventually, the semaphores will be replaced and banished to the history books. I urge you to get your shots now before it is too late.

The Route

Between Trinidad, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico photographers have over 200 miles of unique railroad scenes to capture. The route consists of several unique sections including Raton Pass, the great plains, the high desert, Glorieta Pass and Galisteo Basin.

The Raton Subdivision

 

The first major obstacle for the westbound Chief (train #3) is Raton Pass. Climbing out of Trinidad, Colorado, the train follows Interstate 25 and Raton Creek. This particular trackage allows photographers to capture scenic mountain railroading along with Santa Fe searchlight signal bridges. The train reaches the 7,500′ summit of Raton Pass shortly after crossing into New Mexico. Raton Pass was known as the “highest point on the Santa Fe Railroad”.

Raton Pass, Colorado

After crossing Raton Pass and making a quick station stop in the Town of Raton (population 6,000), the Chief continues west (geographically south) into the Great Plains of Northeastern New Mexico. The scenery is dominated by wide open grasslands as far as the eye can see. While not scenic in the traditional sense, this section still has a lot to offer. Just less than 50 miles west of Raton, the Southwest Chief passes the first set of semaphore signals. Located near the town of Springer, the semaphores at mile post 706 mark the eastern boundary of “semaphore country”.

Springer, New Mexico

I have created a google map which shows the location of all the semaphore signals along this route.

Continuing west, the Southwest Chief will pass semaphores at Colmor, Levy and Wagon Mound. Between Wagon Mound and Watrous, the railroad splits with Interstate 25 and follows the Mora River. While the semaphores along this section have been replaced, there are still many scenic views to be captured. Shortly after Watrous, the train arrives into Las Vegas, New Mexico for another quick station stop.

Wagon Mound, New Mexico

Chasing the Southwest Chief up until this point is nearly impossible. While drivers can make good time along Interstate 25, the Chief travels at 79mph for much of the section between Raton and Las Vegas. In order to get setup and in position, I suggest that you only attempt one photograph.

In the mountain sections between Trinidad and Raton as well as between Las Vegas and Lamy, you can photograph several locations comfortably. I would highly suggest being prepared with locations in mind as it can be difficult to “make it up on the fly”.

The Glorieta Subdivision

 

After leaving Las Vegas, the scenery quickly transitions from the Great Plains to the High Desert. Surrounded by colorful mesas and desert mountains, the Southwest Chief navigates the relatively remote section between Ojita and Chapelle, New Mexico. Scenic views accompanied by classic semaphore signals makes this an ideal section for photographers.

Chapelle, New Mexico

Continuing west, the Southwest Chief begins to ascend Glorieta Pass. It is here where the westbound Chief will typically meet its eastbound counterpart (if both trains are on time). The meet will usually happen at Fox or Glorieta based on the dispatcher’s discretion.

Glorieta Pass is likened a rollercoaster for railroaders. With steep grades and sharp curves, the train slowly naviagates the treacherous terrain. The colorful red dirt along with many pristine US&S searchlight signals makes this an ideal section for photographers as well. Once over Glorieta Pass, the train will continue west through Canyoncito, the incredible Apache Canyon and into Lamy. At Lamy (a town of 200 residents), the Chief will make another quick station stop. Lamy is the connection point for Santa Fe.

Glorieta Pass, New Mexico

After Lamy, the Chief will race into the Galisteo Basin. Track speeds begin to pick up again as the train rolls along trackage owned by the State of New Mexico. Here, the Chief will encounter the last five semaphores along its journey to Los Angeles. These semaphores are unique as they are all single mast intermediates. Once past the semaphore at mile post 850 (western edge of semaphore country), the Chief will fly off into the distance en route to its next station stop at Albuquerque.

Los Cerrillos, New Mexico

Radio Communications & Scheduling

Use the following frequencies to monitor railroad radio communications.

Trinidad to Lamy… 160.59000

Lamy to Albuquerque… 160.41000

The Southwest Chief Schedule can be found on Amtrak.com. Amtrak also provides a real time map tracker, which can be useful to monitor the train as it travels between station stops. Visit the following link for more information: https://www.amtrak.com/track-your-train.html

The Photography

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With the threat of replacement on the horizon, the time is now to the capture the last remaining semaphores in America. I hope this guide will help you plan your trip to New Mexico. Good luck on your adventures and be sure to share your images when you get back.

Do you have any further questions or a suggestion for a future guide? As always, feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly through this website.

A Long Day in the Feather River Canyon…

On March 3rd, 2018, I ventured into the Feather River Canyon. With a grain train, MNPRV and ANPMI all due out of Portola in daylight, along with several BNSF trains coming on/off the Gateway Subdivision, things were looking good. The weatherman called for snow showers throughout the day, with the main “storm” arriving at dusk. To my surprise, UP was not utilizing the bronco escort service between Keddie and Intake. Although the day’s precipitation amounts were low, the ground had become very saturated due to several intense winter storms in the days prior.

BNSF 7797 races up the Canyon Subdivision at the Rock Creek Trestle.

The morning started off like most do, lots of maintenance of way. An eastbound BNSF train was feeling the full affect of the work crews. After getting stuck behind an Elsey-bound work train which was playing around in Oroville, the crew was starting to get low on hours. They would need a “straight shot” to make it up the canyon. Unfortunately a work gang at Pulga was in the way, with a foreman requesting “just another 15 minutes to clear up”. It seemed to take more like 30-45 minutes…

I did a calculation and found that the BNSF train averaged under 20mph between Mounkes (MP 173 on the Sac Sub) and the Rock Creek Trestle. That is over 75 rail miles. The crew and dispatch decided to take a chance and make a mad dash for the siding at Virgilia. The train made it just in time and a new crew was waiting at the crossing. They wouldn’t move for another 8 hours or so.

Once the BNSF train was stopped at Virgilia, I drove up to Keddie expecting a westbound UP and the eastbound BNSF. Somehow, the UP 2636 West (grain train) snuck by me near Paxton. Things were still looking good though, considering a couple UP trains were about to leave Portola and the BNSF was waiting to head east.

After an hour or so at Keddie, I heard Dispatcher 57 radio the UP 2636 West. She asked, “hey are you guys still on the move there?” The crew responded with “yes mam, but all of our intermediate signals have been red since West Virgilia.” She then responded with “okay, I have you lined down to Pulga so you shouldn’t be seeing any colors.” Shortly after, the crew toned up dispatch and reported they had come across a rock slide just east of Belden. They were traveling at restricted speed (because of the red intermediates) and were able to stop the train.

UP 2636 stopped just before a rock slide east of Belden, California.

Dispatcher 57 started making calls to the MOW crews. At this point, it was early afternoon. She got ahold of Ken Ross, who provided at 16:30 ETA. Until then, the line was jammed.

Here is a list of trains stopped by the rock slide:

UP 2636 W Grain Train @ East Belden

UP 8136 W MNPRV @ Keddie

BNSF 7797 E QBCKDJ @ Virgilia

BNSF XXXX W Baretables @ Quarry Road (Keddie)

UP 7508 W ANPMI @ Blairsden

Also in the picture was a work train, ethanol train and grain train east of Portola as well as another eastbound BNSF train headed for the canyon.

Because the baretable train was stopped at Quarry Road, the BNSF 7797 had nowhere to go. They would have to wait until the fleet of westbounds had cleared before they could head for the hi-line.

Since nothing was moving, I headed towards Belden to get a look at the slide. Sure enough, the UP 2636 was stopped just east of the slide. An hour or two later, Ken Ross showed up and began clearing the rock slide. Within an hour, the rocks and damaged slide fence had been cleared.

Late in the afternoon, maintenance of way equipment arrives at scene and begins clearing the rock slide.

Because of the delay, the crew of the grain train was running low on hours. Unfortunately, their train was too long to fit into any sidings. The decision was made to pull down to Tobin where a new crew would meet the train in approximately 30 minutes. At this point, the main brunt of the storm had descended upon Belden.

In the “blue hour”, the UP 2636 heads west through a snow storm at Belden, California.

Eventually, the rest of the trains would fall in behind the grain train, making the slow, snowy journey down the canyon.

Nothing is easy up here.

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the photos. Winter in Northern California can spell trouble for the railroad. With hard work and grit, the trains keep moving and the railroaders keep “Building America”.

New Technology on the Shasta Route

The Route

Once operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Shasta Route connects California and Oregon by rail. It was the route traveled by the famous “Shasta Daylight”, back when passenger trains were luxury travel. Scenic views of the Sacramento River Canyon and snowcapped Mount Shasta were often featured in railroad advertisements.

Today, the Shasta Route is still a thriving artery for rail traffic. Lumber loads traveling from mills in Oregon are often seen on southbound trains. Along with four or five manifests (trains with all kinds of cars) per day, the Shasta Route also sees a super high priority Z train  traveling between Brooklyn, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight even uses these tracks, although it usually passes through during the middle of the night.

Along the Shasta Route lies a quiet railroad town called Dunsmuir. Trains traveling along the Shasta Route will crew change here, before heading north to Klamath Falls or south to Roseville. It is a nice place to stop for lunch and watch trains slowly pull in and out of town.

The Adventure

On the morning of October 26th, 2016, I met up with my good friend Kelly Huston in Chico, California. We loaded up the car and headed north towards the Shasta Route.

Kelly and I make up a unique team. Kelly recently became an FAA licensed drone operator. He has an incredible ability to read flight conditions and get the drone where it needs to be. I can assist Kelly with drone operations, but more importantly it is my job to know the “when” and “where” for the shot.

Shooting with a drone has some unforeseen challenges, such as timing. It usually takes a minute or two to get the drone from the ground in to position. Drones also have a limited battery life, meaning you cannot be flying for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Therefore, you need to find the perfect window of time to get the shot. That is easier said than done when shooting a moving subject such as a train.

20161026-dji_0181

The effects of the California Drought are still being felt. Near Lakehead, California, a Union Pacific manifest crosses the northern section of Lake Shasta.

20161026-dji_0154

A Union Pacific manifest traveling from Portland, Oregon to Roseville, California crosses Mears Creek on a cool fall day. Heading south from Dunsmuir, the train follows the Upper Sacramento River through rugged mountain territory.

 

What do you think?

Will drones change the way we think about photography? Imagine all the images that have never been seen before. Where would you like to take a drone?

 

Summer Days in Northern Arizona

Why were we in Arizona?

With a short break in the baseball season, my dad and I jumped in the car and took a trip to Northern Arizona. One of the primary goals of this trip was to visit the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen before. The weather forcast was looking good so we headed off to the Southwest.

Since not everyone reading this knows railroad terminology, let me explain a few things first. The BNSF Seligman Subdivision is the set of tracks between Needles, California and Winslow, Arizona. This set of track is part of BNSF’s Southern Transcon, which is a high speed route for trains traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago. This route is famous for seeing up to one hundred trains per day. It was also made famous by the Santa Fe Super Chief that ran this line between 1936 and 1971. You can still ride this route on the Amtrak Southwest Chief.

 

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BNSF trains operating along the Seligman Subdivision cross through the Hualapai Indian Reservation near Peach Springs, AZ. The Hualapai (or Walapai) have a unique way of brining income to their reservation. The northern border of the reservation goes up to the Grand Canyon, which allows the Walapais to earn income through tourism. While many tribes rely on casinos, the Walapais rely on “Grand Canyon West” (home of the skywalk) and the only one day rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. Even with this source of income, life of the reservation is hard.

Much of the Seligman Subdivision is paralleled by Route 66. The stretch of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman does not see much traffic since Interstate 40 provides a much faster route. Some believe the movie “Cars” was based on this stretch of road. In the movie, Radiator Springs is a small town located along an old bumpy highway in the southwest. Peach Springs is very similar to this in real life.

Our Experience in Arizona

We ended up spending three days in Arizona. Here is what we encountered.

The first day (July 12) saw us driving from San Diego, CA to Williams, AZ. As we were driving along Interstate 40, we saw train after train go flying by. By late afternoon we were Kingman and met up with David Carballido-Jeans (slug96). David lives along the BNSF Seligman Subdivision and is an expert Transcon photographer. To see his photos, click here. Unfortunately, traffic levels were low on this Sunday afternoon. We were lucky to capture a few shots before heading to Williams.

The next day we woke up early and planned to do some shooting between Williams and Flagstaff. Unfortunately clouds to the east were making the light difficult to judge, meaning the clouds kept going in and out. Along with this light problem, the train traffic was again lackluster. We decided it was time to head up to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

It takes approximately an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrived to perfect temperatures and a relatively small crowd gathering at the visitor center. We quickly decided to start hiking east along the Rim Trail. Monsoonal moisture was bringing thunderstorms to the area, which made for great texture in the sky. It also made for some interesting lighting conditions on the desert rocks. Here is what we were able to capture.

After a full afternoon visiting the South Rim, we headed back to Flagstaff. Thunderstorms made for an entertaining evening around the town.

An Epic Afternoon Along the BNSF Transcon

Unfortunately, the following morning did not go as planned. I was hoping to get more opportunity around Flagstaff, but the clouds were still ruining any chance at good light. We headed west towards Seligman, Arizona where we planned to catch an eastbound track geometry train. A great shot was setup with good light and a cool composition, but a westbound train came flying by on the near track right as the eastbound train passed by. This blocked out any shot of the eastbound train. With no other train coming, we drove to Kingman to grab lunch and regroup.

After lunch, we met up with David again. Since I had been having terrible luck, I was hoping the expert could show me around. Of course with David’s help, we ended up having an excellent afternoon between Yampai Summit and Hackberry. We got some great light and a ton of trains to photograph. It was just an awesome afternoon trackside. Once there was no more light left in the sky, we made the long drive from Kingman to Barstow. We arrived in Barstow late that night.

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To see a map of all the locations I photographed, click here.

Headed Home

We woke up early the next morning and began heading home. On our way, we stopped at Tehachapi. We ended up shooting a BNSF stack train at Monolith and the UP ‘Brooklyn Trailers’ at the Tehachapi Loop. With all of those “shots in the tin” (-Peter Lik), we headed home. It turned out to be an awesome trip with a lot of photo opportunities. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Have you ever traveled to the Grand Canyon? If so, feel free to share your photos in the comments.

 

Newest Photos Added

It’s summertime! I just finished up another awesome semester at Chico State. Now that classes are over, I can focus more on creating, editing and sharing my images. Instead of staying up late to work on managerial accounting homework, I can stay up late posting photos. What an awesome time this is!

I recently posted a number of new photos to the website. You can find all of them in my portfolio on jakemiillephotography.com. I thought I would take a minute to share with you some of my favorite images from the most recent upload. Take a look and tell me what you think!

The Spectacular Feather River Canyon 

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Bridge in the Feather River Canyon.

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle in the Feather River Canyon.

This image is special to me for a couple of reasons. First off, it shows just how spectacular the Feather River Canyon is. I am so lucky to live 45 minutes away from this epic place. There is nowhere like it. I am also lucky that I can share these places with good friends. On this day, I had a good friend come along with me and experience what “the canyon” is like. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Searchlight Signals: A Fading Piece of History

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

Recently, I have been focused on capturing searchlight signals. Back in my childhood (which wasn’t too long ago), these signals were everywhere. Due to Positive Train Control (PTC) legislation, these signals are being replaced system wide. It is only a matter of time before there are no more searchlights left. I was able to capture this image at the north end of the Anita siding (north of Chico, California) a week before the searchlights were removed. Included in this photo is a rare “dwarf” searchlight.

Western Pacific Lives!

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

For those of you who are involved with railroads, you know what makes this photo special. Let me explain it for the people who don’t know. The Western Pacific Railroad (“WP”) originally owned and operated the Feather River Route, until it was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. In 2005, Union Pacific painted a commemorative locomotive to honor the Western Pacific Railroad. This unit is known as UP 1983 and is seen above crossing the Keddie Wye, a well known junction originally operated by Western Pacific. There is nothing quite like seeing “WP” on old WP trackage. To learn more about the Western Pacific Railroad, visit http://www.wplives.org.

I hope you enjoy my new photos. Let me know what you think! Am I missing any awesome locations?

-Jake

The Day of the FRC Derailment

The Call

Ever had one of those morning when you’re trying to sleep but your phone keeps ringing? You play off each call as just another spammer until it reaches that certain point where you know someone is trying to get ahold of you. Well that was me this morning. Once I mustered up enough energy to roll over and check my phone I read “Wake up dude”!

What could possibly be so important that I need to interrupt my morning of sleep? Well it was the fact that a grain train derailed in the Feather River Canyon and I needed to go get photos.

Time was already running low as it was 11:30am and I was 2.5 hours away from the derailment. It’s amazing how fast your light will disappear on these winter days. I raced around packing up all my gear making sure not to forget anything super important like the camera or the computer. Shortly after I left Davis to make the long drive up to The Canyon.

On Scene

After a long drive that was made longer by PG&E construction (yeah PG&E, great day to shutdown the highway), I was on scene of the derailment. In terms of location of the derailment, it couldn’t have happened in a much better place viewing wise. Right across the river from the downed rail cars was a very large turnout, allowing employees and passerby’s the opportunity to safely park and view the wreckage. If you’ve never been to The Canyon, just know most parts put you right between the speeding traffic of Highway 70 and the rushing waters of the Feather River.

So now that I was on scene, it was time to get to work. I immediately started shooting photos as I knew my light was just gonna get darker and darker. Using my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II and 24-105mm f4, I was able to capture some impact shots of the derailment. In this instance, it was really important to have a good camera body and solid glass. Lighting conditions were not conducive to photography.

The derailment itself looked a lot worse than it actually was. Because the derailment happened towards the rear of the train, the crew was not hurt. Inside the overturned cars was corn from Nebraska which does not present any kind of biohazard or threat to the river. Also, because the cars fell so far away from the tracks, Union Pacific only had a few cars to remove from the scene before they could relay the rail line. This means the backlog of trains was soon moving again. On the day of the derailment, UP did utilize Donner Pass as a detour route for many trains headed towards the FRC. This will give cleanup crews larger work windows to get everything cleaned up.

The derailment occurred along the UP Canyon Subdivision, also known as the “Feather River Route” or simply “The Canyon”, at approximately mile post 265, “Rich Bar”. This area appears especially treacherous do to the steep rocky walls of the Feather River Canyon.

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What if?

The biggest hit the railroads will take because of this derailment is the “what if?!?!” factor. Over the past couple years, there has been a large fight between railroads, the government, and environmental groups over the increase of crude oil shipments. There has been a lot of attention given to the BNSF crude oil trains that travel the Feather River Canyon once or twice a month. Many groups fear that if a crude oil train derailed like this grain train did, it could have catastrophic effects on the Feather River and its ecosystem.

These groups are already asking the “what if?” question to the media and I will bet that this is just the beginning. What eco groups don’t know is that railroads have been asked to haul hazardous materials through the Feather River Canyon and other environtmetaly sensitive areas for decades. The only reason this became an issue is because of the derailment in Lac Megatic and the media fire storm that ensued.

At this point, both the railroads and environmental groups have evidence to why their side is right. It’ll just take time to get this issue settled where it should be, the courts.

Back On Scene

So what should you do if you are asked to photograph a scene like this? Well it can be a challenge since shooting a still subject can be a lot different than shooting moving trains. My first piece of advice would be to explore. Check out every angle, get high and low, look for things that might be visually interesting. Great photographers don’t get cool shots by zooming in and out, they get them by moving their feet. Unfortunately, there was not much room for me to move around at this scene.

Also, make sure you shoot Raw (especially in difficult lighting circumstances). When I arrived on scene, the entire area was under canyon shadows. These shadows can cause your white balance to get funky so you’ll want to be able to adjust it in photoshop (if needed). Raw allows you to do that.

Lastly, talk to people. Get a sense of the scene. Find out who might be able to point you to a good spot or someone that can give you information that you’ll find helpful. If you’re in a derailment situation, chances are other people have been around there longer than you have and know more about what’s going on. Talk to those people.

Wrapping It Up

This derailment looks big in a number of ways. First is it just looks like a big derailment. You won’t see eleven cars clinging to the cliffs like that everyday. This derailment has also added heat to the “crude by rail” debate. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Give me your thoughts. Should oil trains be allowed to travel through the Feather River Canyon? What are the risks and alternatives in your mind? Also, have you ever seen a derailment? If you have, I would love to see the photos.

 

Cool Stuff: New Forum for Nor Cal Photographers

North State Photographers

There is a new place for photographers in Northern California to share their photos and interact with other local photographers. This place is North State Photographers.

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North State Photographers is an online community dedicated to photographers who are located in and are dedicated to showcasing the beauty of Northern California. We’re open to all skill levels of photographers, so feel free to register and join in the conversations.

The best part of North State Photographers is it is open to any kind of photography that shows off Northern California. This will give you a place to showcase not only your railroad photography, but other photos you might shoot as well. This will allow you to share your photos with “experts” in other photography fields and get appropriate feedback on your images.

Also, this website is run by a great group of photographers. Not only do these guys take great photos, but they are able to keep online groups focused and drama free.

This website is meant for you as a photographer, so what are you waiting for? Register, Comment and Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We All Start Somewhere

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Tonight’s Throwback

So I was just recently going through some of my older photos on Flickr, and believe me, MY EYES HURT! It really shocked me I even took these photos, and then somehow thought they were good enough to post. What was I thinking?!?

Well we do all start somewhere. Most people cannot pick up a camera for the first time and start capturing compelling content. Becoming a photographer takes work.

So let me show you what I am talking about. Here are some of the images that were still posted on my Flickr as of October 2014. Warning: These could cause pain to the eyes and possible blindness.

Just look at the beautiful colors, composition and photographic ingenuity!

 

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Please take some time to wash out your eyes.

Now, back to business. You might ask “Jake, why did you post these in the first place?” Well that’s a great question and one that will help you understand what I am trying to get at. See, back then I had a much different mindset. The only thing I was focused on was documenting “cool” railroad equipment. I didn’t care how the image looked, what the light was like or how I could edit the photo, all I wanted was the image. This gave me something to look back on and go “wow that was cool!”

Notice a theme with these images? All of them have “unique” or “rare” equipment. The first two have heritage units, which are a huge deal in the foamer community. The next photos depicts a freight train on Cuesta Pass and the final two show vintage equipment. All of these things made me post the photo even though the photo itself was terrible. I thought this equipment was more important than the photo.

 

The Transition to Railroad Photography

Now you might be saying “well the equipment IS cooler than the photo” and if you are saying that, cool! You obviously have a strong passion for trains and you should keep that. This next bit of advice is for folks looking to make the transition from “equipment documenter” to “railroad photographer”.

Like I said before, we all start somewhere. I guarantee when you first start out, the reception will not be warm. You might here “This photo will never be on RailPictures” or “This, this, and this are wrong with the photo”. It happened to me and many others out there.

And this brings me to my first point: Don’t be defensive. 

It is easy to say “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “screw him, he’s just a terrible person”, but by doing that, you potentially cut yourself off from quality advice. I’ll tell you a story from when I was just starting out. I remember Steven Welch telling me “you need to learn the railroad” and “your photos are horrible”. For awhile I was defensive and arrogant. I thought, no way are my photos that bad and I certainly know the railroad. Luckily, I eventually came around to listening to him. He ended up teaching me the basics on composition, lighting and the railroad. By listening to him (and others of course) I was able to vastly improve my photography. So don’t get mad, start listening!

Next you need to: Want to learn. 

Photography is like anything else. If you want to succeed, you have to want to learn. This will require time, energy and resources ($$), but can be worth it in the long run if you truly want to improve your photography.

 

What To Do Right Now

1. Go watch videos about photography. Go to youtube and watch a ton of free videos or buy a program done by a professional (I recommend CreativeLive).

2. Find photographers you like and view their work on a regular basis. Constantly view photos you like and that style can slowly come to your work.

3. View photos that are not of trains. To be great at railroad photography, it helps to know the basics of other kinds of photography (landscape, environmental portraits, photojournalistic approach).

4. Then ask yourself “what elements of this photo do I like or dislike”. Do your own critique. Figure out what you like, then go find a way to capture it. To this this day, I still view at least 100 photos a day.

 

Now there is a lot more that goes in to becoming a good photographer and I’m sure I’ll touch on those in future tech tips. But the last point I wanted to make was about keeping a quality portfolio.

Like I showed you above, there are a lot of images on my Flickr that should be in the trash. This is a good reminder that you need to occasionally go back through your portfolio and delete the “trash”. Deleting photos can sometimes improve your portfolio as much as adding photos. So if you’ve been shooting for awhile, go back through and take a look. Don’t end up like me!

What do you think? Do you edit your portfolio often? If you find some laughable throwbacks share them with me. I’d love to see them!

Comments, questions, concerns? Leave a comment or hit “Contact Jake“! I love to hear from you guys.

 

Tech Tip: SunCalc

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Finding That “Perfect Light”

One of the hardest things to understand as a young photographer is the concept of “good light”. Other photographers will often throw phrases at you like “High Sun!” or “Backlit!”. You’re going to want to learn light as quickly as possible as it will make a dramatic change in the quality of photographs you are able to capture. Luckily, there is an app for that!

SunCalc is app that can help you accurately measure the sun’s angle right on the internet. Once you get comfortable with how to use it, you will know exactly how and when you can take incredible photographs, with awesome light. Check out these examples where SunCalc helped me capture that perfect light.

So I wanted to capture a train coming around this cool curve at Oroville. I wanted light on both the front and side of the locomotive,  so I knew I needed a good light angle. I went on to SunCalc.com to see when the light angle would be the best. I selected the date I was shooting, which happened to be January 20th, 2014. Then, using the sun slider at the top of the page, I moved the sun angle. After playing with the slider for a few minutes, I found the perfect angle. I marked down the “perfect” time along with the bookends of “good” time. You’ll learn quickly that a train won’t always show up right at the “perfect” time.

My “perfect” time ended up being right about 15:45 (3:45pm) but I knew I would get a pretty nice shot anywhere between 15:00 (3pm) and 16:30 (4:40pm).

 Early bookend (15:00)  

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 Perfect Timing (15:45)

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Late bookend (16:30)

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So I packed up my gear and headed trackside for the afternoon. I ended up getting very lucky as a MOW (Maintainance of Way) work window was just clearing up, meaning a backlog of trains were headed my direction. The first train came at 16:11 (4:11pm), right in my window of “good light”. I think the light this shot turned out very nice. What do you think? (Let me know in the comments below.)

 

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

We’ve All Shot In Bad Light

I’ve certainly done it. A number of times in fact. Now my reasoning varies from “I’ve never been to this location before so I’ll shoot everything I see” to “This train is just too cool not to photograph”. And at the end of the day, shooting in bad light is fine, if you want to “document” whatever it may be. . But when you want to take your photography to that next level, you’ll need to be shooting in good light.

Here are some shots I’ve taken in bad light. Notice how in the first shot, the nose (front) of the locomotive is completely in shadow. That is not very attractive considering the photograph really does feature the nose. Now check out the second shot. The side of the locomotive is dark because of shadows. Again, not very attractive to the eye!

 

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To avoid taking shots like these, use the SunCalc like I did in that first shot. Once you become more comfortable out in the field, you will learn how to quickly “read” light, and SunCalc won’t be needed as often. But until then, use SunCalc and capture that train in perfect light!

What About High Sun?

Now you might be wondering, how can SunCalc help me with “High Sun”. Well first you’ll have to understand what exactly “High Sun” is. If someone says, “that shot has high sun”, they are saying the sun was at an extreme angle, causing bad shadows across your train along with overall unattractive light. High sun is usually only a problem during the summer months when the sun passes overhead around 1pm. This graphic might help you understand sun angle.

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Here is an example of a shot taken during a high sun time vs a shot taken during late afternoon light. Look at the difference light makes!

 High Sun

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Late Afternoon Light

 

“Well how can SunCalc help me with high sun?” I have a general rule which seems to work well when trying to figure out if I’ll be shooting in high sun or not. If the angle line (in SunCalc) is less than half of what the sunrise/sunset line is, then you will be shooting in high sun. Let me show you what I mean using the following example.

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Notice how the orange line is about half the length of the yellow line? That means high sun will be starting right about 11:00am this time of year. Generally, anything shot before 11:00am will not be affected by high sun, while anything shot after 11:00am will probably be affected by high sun. Now of course, there is a big difference between shooting at 11:01 and at 1pm (when the sun is at its highest angle this time of year), but it gives you a general time frame to work with. If I were to go shoot around Chico on August 9th, 2014, I would want to spend my time shooting trains between sunrise and 11:00 and then from 3pm to sunset. This would allow me to rest during the period of bad light and focus all my energy when there is good light.

Can you see the unattractive light in the following shot? Notice how the sun angle has created very unattractive shadows on the side of this train. Also notice how the rail is completely covered in shadow. These two clues, along with the overall look of the picture tell me this was taken during high sun. Could you imagine how nice it would have looked in good light?

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Do Not Be in Denial

It is hard to accept as a young photographer that you have to wake up early and stay up late for good light. In an ideal world, the best light would come during the middle of the day, allowing us to sleep in and then get home for dinner. But getting yourself out during the best light of the day is crucial if you’re wanting to take your photography to the next level. Capturing an awesome scene is only “good”, capture an awesome scene in amazing light is “great”.

So get yourself out there! Get up early, rest during high sun, and then capture more amazing content as the day draws to a close. If you capture something “great”, I would love to see!

How about you? What are tricks for calculating “great light”? Which photo of yours do you think has the best light? Let me know in the comment below.