A couple years ago, I took a long exposure photograph of a train at night where I lit the passing engine with an off-camera flash. The effect was pretty interesting as you still had the blur effect of the long exposure and also the appearance of the engine being stopped within the frame. I thought maybe I could improve on this concept and add some more things to it.
So as I drive around the area, I have been thinking about this photo concept. I went to a road in Siskiyou County named Tenant Road which happens to have a main Union Pacific RR track that traverses it. While there, I checked the compass direction of the road and found it would be in line with the Milky Way. Unfortunately, this time of year, it would not line up with the road until about 2:00am.
I started to plan out if my photo concept would work. First, this is a rural road with not a lot of traffic. I’m thinking even less traffic during the late evening/early morning hours. I took some test photos and visualized where and how I would place an off-camera flash. The best candidate for the flash is one of my studio lights which I can remotely trigger on demand. I drove away with the belief that ‘theoretically’ this could work.
When I returned in the evening a few nights later, I found a wire fence that I had not seen previously (no idea how I missed it). That changed only my plans on where I would sit while waiting for a train to arrive. In this area, trains run only on an ‘as needed’ basis, except for Amtrak. So there is no guarantee on when or even if a train would actually go by. Nor is there any guarantee on how many trains, thus not a lot of opportunity for trials on the flash or exposure levels.
I made my best guesses on exposures and flash levels. I did take some test photos and based my guesses on how well the flash exposed the railroad crossing arms as there really wasn’t much else to go on. I also had to make my best guess on how long the crossing arms would take to come all the way down and how long after that before the train crossed the road. The more I sat there the more I worried about if I could pull this off with a decent photograph.
There was a train that came by which allowed me to partially test my theory. Of course, it came in the opposite direction I had set up all my stuff which caused me to scramble to move a couple things. Remember, it is dark out now, so this complicates things even more. The result was not what I was hoping for because of the quick changes, but did give me some important exposure and flash information. I moved things back to their original locations and felt I was ready for the next train, provided it came in the direction I was hoping for. In retrospect, I probably should have set up everything opposite of what I did, but a little late for that now.
My planning showed me the Milky Way would basically be positioned so it would come straight down to the middle of the roadway. As the time approached, I could hear a train coming in the distance. I couldn’t believe my luck that a train would actually be there when I needed it. I believed to capture the crossing arms coming down and keeping the exposure open until the train arrived, would be too long and the photo would be overexposed.
The photo of the earlier train showed that the red lights from the crossing arm signals would also partially drown out the night sky. So I decided to take three different photos. One for the crossing arms coming down; the next with the train going by and triggering the flash when the engine is at the road; and the third would be of the Milky Way. All of these would be mostly right after each other. I thought about taking another long exposure photo mid-train, but figured it would just introduce more red lights which would be too distracting. I did have to wait for the train to depart and the crossing signals to turn off before I did the Milky Way shot.
In the end, I think everything went pretty well. Everything worked as planned even though I wish I would have had more opportunities with more trains. Naturally, this is not in my control so am just happy with what I did get. Once back at the computer, I was able to stack all three photos together in post-processing and was very happy with the results.
You can see a video of my planning for this photo on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nErM4A9jGfs&t=2s&ab_channel=DonHasemeyer