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.

Story Behind the Image: An Unexpected Journey

Due to a derailment near Dunsmuir, the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight made a rare appearance in the Feather River Canyon. Here the train rolls along the banks of the Feather River just east of Belden, California.

Due to a derailment near Dunsmuir, the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight made a rare appearance in the Feather River Canyon. Here the train rolls along the banks of the Feather River just east of Belden, California. July 14, 2013.

Summer Time Is Finally Here

This has to be one of my favorite story behind the image as it combines two of my passions: baseball and railroad photography.

In the summer of 2013, most of my time was spent playing baseball. I was a pitcher for Yolo Post 77 which is an American Legion team based in Woodland, California. My primary roll on this team was to be the “closer”, which meant I was in charge of finishing games. But as the season went on, I was morphed into a long reliever and spot starter, while also being “the closer”. I ended up throwing 55 innings throughout the summer for Yolo Post 77 which led the team.

Part of the Yolo Post 77 season is the Doryland Tournament in Chico, California. We were going to spend five days, playing a total of five games against teams from around Northern California. The tournament ended up going very well and the entire team was “living the life of a ballplayer”.

The Twist

But while the team was strictly focused on baseball, I had something else on my mind. Wednesday night I received a text message about a possible derailment at the Cantera Loop near Dunsmuir, California. As more information slowly trickled in that night, it sounded like a number of cars had jumped the tracks right near the Sacramento River. The mainline was blocked and all traffic was stopped.

Quickly, the attention of the rail community veered towards the Amtrak Coast Starlight. This premier passenger train is suppose to pass through the Cantera Loop during the middle of the night, but with the tracks blocked, the trains sat. The southbound train was held in Klamath Falls, Oregon while the northbound train was held in Sacramento, California. Unlike a freight train, you cannot park a passenger train for a few days until the issue is resolved. Therefore, we all knew Amtrak and the host railroads were scrambling to find an idea.

The first rumor that came out was that the passengers on both trains would be bussed between the two points. Each train set would then be turned around and take the passengers to their final destinations. But unfortunately for Amtrak, they could not find enough buses capable of hauling all the passengers on both trains. Therefore they had to revert to plan B.

There are two ways to travel by rail from Sacramento to Klamath Falls. The first way is the one we have already discussed and is known as the “Shasta Route”. This would take the Coast Starlight on its normal trip via Chico, Redding, and Dunsmuir. But then there is the other way; Via the Feather River Route and Inside Gateway.

This route would take the train through the spectacular Feather River Canyon before splitting off at the world famous Keddie Junction and heading up BNSF’s Inside Gateway. During the early morning hours of June 14th, 2013, Amtrak prepped its train to travel via this route.

Time to “Get The Shot” 

I woke up early on the morning of June 14th, 2013 and checked my phone. It was on. The Amtrak Coast Starlight was headed for The Canyon.

My dad was quickly awake and we quickly packed up the car. The northbound train was already through Oroville so we knew we would be playing “catch up” through a lot of the canyon. After grabbing McDonalds to go, we were on our way, trying to catch up as fast as we could.

I still remember when I first saw the train. It was just east of Belden, California in an area know to railroad photographers as Serpentine Canyon.  The stainless steel cars were shining bright in the early morning sun as they rounded in and out of curves along high cliffs above the Feather River. My focus was now on capturing some of this morning glory.

A lot of things go through your mind when trying to pick out a location for a photograph. The first thing I always look at is the light. Without good light, I have nothing to work with and won’t be able to capture usable content. The next thing is composition. If I can’t find a spot that visually makes sense, there is no point in even stopping the car. Once a location passes the first two tests, I have to figure out the logistics. Is there a safe place for me to be while taking the picture? Is there a safe place for the car? What lens will I need to capture the scene correctly? What are the optimal settings on my camera? Will stopping at this location potentially jeopardize a better shot a little farther down the line? Lets just say, a lot of things go through your mind and it is not always easy to make the correct decision when you have a train only seconds behind you.

Luckily for me, years of experience have made my judgement very good. Most of the time I don’t really have to “think”, I just see it and react by pointing to my dad where I want to go. From there, I jump out of the car and run to the exact spot to capture the image. This type of photography is hard and can lead to a lot of mistakes, but it is also necessary and very exciting.

So that’s the story. The image above was created by large amounts of luck and a split second decision. After I took this image, I continued to chase the Coast Starlight to Keddie where I captured some more incredible content. Later on in the day, I was able to shoot a number of images of the southbound Coast Starlight as it traversed the Feather River Canyon.

Reflecting back, I realize how lucky I was to be able to capture the images that I did. This was the first time the Coast Starlight detoured via the Feather River Canyon and I just happened to be an hour away in Chico, California for a baseball tournament. There is no way I would have been able chase these trains if I was anywhere else. They also just happened to detour on a day where we didn’t play till late at night. Lastly, they detoured over a line I was familiar with and one I was comfortable chasing. All the stars just happened to line up and I was able to take advantage of it. It was an awesome day.

What about you?

Have you ever had a crazy experience while traveling with Amtrak? Will you ever ride with Amtrak again? Let me know in the comments below.

Story Behind The Image: Alone with Snow in the Canyon

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

When I first started shooting trains, it was always me and my dad. We both had variety of responsibilities every time we went out. I was in charge of finding the trains, the location and capturing the shot. My dad was mainly in charge of driving and making sure I didn’t do anything that could kill me. As many photographers know, when the scene begins to develop in front of you, its hard to keep track of everything else going on. Anyway, my dad and I worked great as team.

As I moved up to Chico State, I took on all of the responsibilities. I became the photographer, tracker, navigator, driver, risk manager, etc. Things were a lot different and I struggled on my first few trips. One time, I drove all the way up to Graeagle which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from Chico. As I got out of the car to check the shot, the door closed behind me. I quickly realized my keys were laying on the seat, and the door was locked. After a few minutes of hurling expletives at myself for being so stupid, I decided to call for help. Unfortunately, in this part of the mountains, cell service can be bad to nonexistent. I ended up having to hike up to Highway 70 where I was lucky enough to get a call through to AAA. Eventually a tow truck came out and managed to get my door open.

The reason to tell that story is to show you how I was way outside my comfort zone. Before, I never had to worry about getting locked out, calling for help, or driving. My entire job was focused on capturing the shot.

Crazy Weather or Winter Wonderland

A couple months after that incident, I was again heading up into “The Canyon” (Feather River Canyon) to shoot some photographs. The date was December 7th, 2013. The night before, an extremely cold storm blew into Northern California. It was so cold in fact, it started to snow in Chico which is located only 250 feet above sea level. I knew the canyon was about to become a winter wonderland.Snow in the FRC

I remember my mom calling me and saying “Jake, this weather is pretty crazy. Make sure you stay in Chico the next couple days and avoid the icy roads.” At that point, I had already made up my mind that I was going to shoot some photos. I played it off well and the next morning I was on my way up into the mountains.

The first snow I came across was near James, California (900 feet). I remember being surprised at how much snow was actually on the ground as I winded my way up Yankee Hill. Lucky for me, the chain controls that were in affect at Pulga when I left Chico, had been moved up to Belden, so I kept on slowly driving the winding roads, constantly worried about ice.

Rock Creek Trestle

I soon found myself sitting sitting at the Rock Creek Trestle, deep in the Feather River Canyon. A westbound BNSF train was out of Keddie and it was just a matter of time before it showed up. As I sat there taking in the scenic views and watching the snow slowly fall to the ground, I thought to myself “How lucky am I to be here?” Most people don’t get to live only an hour away from a place like the Feather River Canyon or truly get to enjoy it doing something they love.

As I continued to sit in my truck waiting for the BNSF train, my experience became even greater. Suddenly from around the bend in the canyon, flying right above the water came a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagle’s are known to migrate to this area during the winter, but seeing one can be a challenge. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared off into the distance. The inner-photographer in me was disappointed I wasn’t ready to get the shot, but I was also happy on some level I got to view the majestic bird in person, and not through a viewfinder.

A few minutes later, I began to hear a faint rumble. It grew louder and louder until four BNSF locomotives came screaming across the Rock Creek Trestle allowing me to capture the image.

I still don’t know weather it was cooler to capture this shot or have the awesome experience I had in the canyon that day. But when you combine both, it definitely goes down as an incredible day.

What About You?

What was your first experience with photography outside your comfort zone?  I’d love to hear about what you did and how it turned out.  What did you learn?  Leave a comment below and tell your story!