Northern Lights over the Midwest's High Bridge

Northern Lights over the Midwest’s High Bridge

Several years ago you folks may remember I headed up to Alaska in February with the goal of catching the Northern Lights. While I did in fact see them, the effect was not quite as brilliant as I’d hoped. Fast forward to this week, when a powerful geomagnetic storm erupted on the sun, sending charged particles toward our atmosphere and lighting up the sky. I happened to be in Minnesota at the time with my husband, and along with our guide, Midwest railfan photographer extraordinaire Nick Benson, we headed over to the Arcola High Bridge to catch the lights.

According to popular lore, the bridge itself is haunted, and locals have been known to see a “mysterious” blue light. The lights that we saw, however, were quite real, and quite amazing. Pillars of greens, yellows, and purples raged behind the old Soo Line historic bridge, which extends over the St. Croix River and connects Stillwater, Minnesota to Somerset, Wisconsin. The bridge is a single track span that is still active, although with very minimal traffic (about a train per day in either direction). Alas nothing crossed it that night, but with the light show, nobody was really complaining.

Enjoy a few photos from the Midwest’s High Bridge, and stay tuned for a forthcoming post on New York City’s famous High Bridge.

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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

If you’re a frequent viewer of this site, then the subject of today’s Trains & Modern Photography post is something you’re probably familiar with – panoramas. The most generic definition of a panorama is an wide view of an area, in which you can see in all directions. For my Metro-North Panorama Project, I used the definition loosely, featuring at least one photo per station that used the technique of stitching, thus giving the viewer a photo that provided a far wider view than one could capture in a single photo’s frame. Using modern technology like Photoshop, one can take multiple photos around a central axis point – either on a tripod, or by standing in the same spot and rotating your body, while holding the camera at the same angle for each shot – and combine them. This technique is called stitching, and is one of the most common methods of getting high quality and high resolution panoramas.

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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A Journey Underground – East Side Access

Over the one hundred plus years of its existence, Grand Central Terminal has reinvented itself many times to keep pace with the needs of its customers. When long range passenger trains were the norm, passengers could sit and watch a movie at Grand Central’s theater while waiting for their train to depart, or sit in the Terminal’s grand waiting room in Vanderbilt Hall. Today, all of the long distance trains have disappeared, replaced with Metro-North’s commuter service where trains are frequent enough that one rarely has to wait long. While today’s dashing commuter would have little use for a theater, they certainly make use of Grand Central’s new market, where they can quickly grab the ingredients for the dinner they’ll make after the train whisks them home. Even the less-used waiting room (which in high-society days had segregated fancy areas for both men and women) has moved out of the large Vanderbilt Hall into the smaller Stationmaster’s Office, converted into event space to capture the wandering person’s interest. Yet even part of that event space is slated for a conversion into more on-the-go eateries for the dashing commuter, an alternate option to picking up the ingredients in the market.

All of this reinvention has kept Grand Central relevant – it has retained its character as a landmark, yet constantly refreshed itself to keep with the times, all while remaining dedicated to its primary purpose of being a train station. As we speak, Grand Central is in fact reinventing itself yet again, although you may not be able to see the changes quite yet – they are far below your feet and deep underground. As cars clog our highways and roads, public transportation on the east and west sides of Manhattan are almost islands unto themselves. The MTA’s two railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, operate from separate stations with little linkage between them. Metro-North’s riders filter into the east side of Manhattan, while Long Island’s into the west. But what if we could change all that – give Long Island riders the option to arrive in the east side, and give Metro-North riders the ability to board trains to Long Island inside Grand Central, all while opening up a far easier public transit connection to JFK airport from the east side? All of these are goals of the ongoing East Side Access project, which is expected to continue for at least the next eight years. The project will create a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, adding a new terminal below Grand Central with eight new tracks, as well as the addition of 22,000 square feet of new retail space.

 
Diagrams of East Side Access, how the new terminal is situated under current buildings (left), and how trains from Long Island will be routed into Grand Central (right).
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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Devon Transfer

Giving Devon Transfer its own Tuesday Tour post may be a little bit of a joke, considering it is only a temporary station, nonetheless it is certainly worth a few minutes to check out. Intended to be in place for only six months, the transfer station facilitates passengers getting from the main New Haven Line over to the Waterbury Branch while Track 3 is currently out of service on the Devon Bridge for work. The v-shaped platform at Devon Transfer skirts the far end of the wye, allowing riders to essentially walk from the New Haven main line right over to the start of the Waterbury Branch and board their next train.

In some ways, Devon Transfer is not a true station – it is inaccessible to passengers in any form other than exiting a select main line train, or Waterbury Branch train. One cannot wait at Devon Transfer for any extended period of time – conductors, along with train masters and/or MTAPD are usually present to herd passengers from one side of the platform to the other and get on the connecting train, nor can one purchase tickets there. It does, however, have the typical trash bins one finds at Metro-North stations, lights for after hours, a public address system if ever necessary, as well as station name signs (I wonder who gets to keep these once work is done) on the platform. Utilizing the same wooden-style temporary platforms we’ve seen at other New Haven Line stations during track work, Devon Transfer is a decent substitute for keeping the Waterbury Branch running during the bridgework. In fact, it is arguably nicer than some of the permanent stations on the Branch (Ansonia‘s low-level platform comes to mind).

The Devon Bridge
The Devon Bridge, currently undergoing work, with a six month expected outage on Track 3 (the one closest to the photographer in this picture). Aerial photographs of the Devon Bridge via the Historic American Engineering Record, Jack E. Boucher, photographer, taken April 1977.

For most passengers, the transfer at Devon is relatively convenient, with the exception of anyone coming from/going in the direction of New Haven, who would have to make an additional transfer at Bridgeport for their journeys. Additionally, all New Haven Line trains stopping at Devon will have an increased running time of about a minute, due to the extra stop. However, all of the work here is necessary to address one of the banes of the New Haven Line – its ancient movable bridges. Crossing the Housatonic River, the Devon Bridge (also known as the Housatonic River Railroad Bridge) is a 110 year old, 1,067-foot long rolling lift bascule bridge. It was prefabricated by the American Bridge Company in Trenton, New Jersey, and installed in 1905. Although less problematic as the notorious swing bridges on the New Haven Line (namely WALK), it is well in need of some attention. Suffering from the same lack of standardization found on many of the line’s movable bridges – each one being unique, with its own exclusive mechanical components – it requires custom created parts to fix.

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Dashing Diesels – The Workhorses of Metro-North

While the good majority of service on Metro-North is operated by Electric Multiple Unit cars, the railroad’s dashing diesels handle the rest of the load – largely in the unelectrified territories of the Upper Hudson Line, Upper Harlem Line, and the Danbury and Waterbury Branches. West of Hudson service, operated by New Jersey Transit, is also dieselized, carrying passengers through New Jersey and into New York’s Orange and Rockland counties. Arguably, it is this diesel territory that is likely considered Metro-North’s most beautiful. Spots like Port Jervis’s Moodna Viaduct, views of the Hudson Line from the Bear Mountain Bridge, and the Harlem Line’s Ice Pond all fall into this category.

Here’s a photo gallery of some of Metro-North’s dynamic and dashing diesels, most of which were captured within the past few weeks (although a few are favorites from last year) on the Harlem, Hudson, and Port Jervis Lines of Metro-North. Enjoy!

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The Lost Train Station of the Bronx – 138th Street, Mott Haven

If there seems to be one constant with we humans, it is that we spend much time tearing down vestiges of our past to make room for the supposed future. We build bigger, taller, and seek the more modern, or the more profitable. Many venerable buildings have met the wrecking ball, and although some are well remembered, such as New York’s Pennsylvania Station, others are largely forgotten. One such forgotten New York City gem is the New York Central’s 138th Street station. Upon construction it was considered one of New York City’s most notable examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Featuring a beautiful clock tower, and ornate terra cotta detailing, this is one place that is definitely worth remembering.

In the northeast, Romanesque style train stations were mostly associated with the Boston and Albany Railroad, which designed most of their main line stations in the style (for example, Chatham, which was a joint Harlem Division station), and many by pioneer architect Henry Hobson Richardson. However, the New York Central did have a few – Richardson proteges Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge designed the Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Tarrytown stations located on the Hudson Line. The railroad also hired Robert Henderson Robertson to design stations at Canandaigua (extant, but heavily modified), Schenectady (demolished), and most notably, 138th Street.

R.H. Robertson was born in Philadelphia in 1849, and graduated Rutgers College in 1869. He started his architecture career working in the office of Henry Sims in Philadelphia, later moving to New York and working in the office of George B. Post. By 1871 he established his own architecture firm in New York City, designing a wide array of buildings from libraries to churches, as well as banks, train stations and private homes. Over the years he worked in various styles, including Queen Anne and Victorian Gothic, but by 1880 became heavily influenced by Richardson’s Romanesque revival style. Robertson was, however, described as “[taking] up the style in his own way.” His prolific New York City career led him to design various buildings that are today designated landmarks, including the Lincoln Building at Union Square, and Fire Engine Company 55‘s firehouse in Little Italy.

    
138th Street Station shortly after construction. Original photos from the Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photograph Collection, Cornell University Library. Photo restoration work by HarlemLine.com

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Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Trains and Modern Photography: The Joys of GPS

One of the best tech secrets of modern photography is the ability to never have to write down in a little notebook where you were when you took a photo in order to remember later. Many folks have GPSes in their car, but they aren’t only for getting directions from place to place. A GPS device can also record the very place you were standing when you took a photograph, and save it into your camera’s EXIF data. For those that spend time traveling and chasing trains, a GPS is extremely useful. Photos that have GPS data recorded are known as “geotagged” – and to the modern photographer, it’s the best thing since sliced bread!

Since I’ve mentioned EXIF data, it is certainly worth mentioning this other wonderful part of modern photo. EXIF stands for EXchangeable Image File format, which is basically a way that a photo’s metadata is saved. Each photo taken with your camera has this data, which usually records the date and time the photo was taken (provided you have this set correctly in your camera), the camera make and model, and the settings used to capture the photo – usually the mode setting, ISO, aperture, and exposure. In some cameras you can set specific copyrights (my camera adds my full name and website address to the EXIF data) or other messages. If you have a GPS device linked to your camera, GPS coordinates for when the shot was taken (including the altitude in some instances) are also recorded.

Getting GPS data on your camera

So how do you go about getting your camera hooked up to a GPS device? Many new cameras are coming out with GPSes built right in. One of the reasons why I fell in love with my main camera, the Canon 6D, is the built in GPS. The Sony SLT-A99, Nikon D5300, Canon 7D Mark II, Pentax K-5 IIs, and Pentax K-S1 are all examples of DSLRs with built-in GPSes. If you don’t have one of those, however, that does not mean you are out of luck. Most manufacturers make external GPS loggers that connect to your camera. The good thing about these devices is that they add the GPS coordinates directly to the photo’s EXIF data. However, they cost about $200 dollars for one actually made by Nikon or Canon.

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Trains & Modern Photography – High Dynamic Range

Love it or hate it, High Dynamic Range, better known as HDR, is the topic of our first post here in “Trains and Modern Photography.” Many folks, who are quite vocal (for example, the blog I Hate Your HDR), find fault in the often overdone and completely fake appearance of some HDR photos. However, if you do HDR right, and in a subtle way, it can make a great photo.

The goal of HDR photography is essentially to get more detail in the shadows and lights of your photo. This concept, however, long predates digital photography. Back in the days of black and white film photography, the film could capture a wider range of details than could be displayed in a print. Thus using darkroom techniques like dodging and burning, one could bring out more details in highlights and shadows. Ansel Adams was considered a master in techniques like this, and his photo Moonrise is considered a prime example. Compare below, the “straight print” of the photo with no modifications, versus the darkroom edited version. Beyond the sky being darkened, which was clearly a stylistic choice, the clouds and moon which were bright and nearly blown out gain more detail. The somewhat washed out foreground gains contrast and detailing. These are some of the very same things that good HDR photography attempts to do.

  
Moonrise by Ansel Adams, before and after darkroom editing to gain more dynamic range.

In order to do HDR, one must use exposure bracketing (which is often a feature you’ll find in your DSLR). Basically, you’ll take three photos of a subject, one at a normal exposure, then one with less exposure (yielding a darker photo, with details in the highlights), and another with more exposure (yielding a brighter photo, with details in the shadows). Later on you will combine the three photos in computer to blend them together and create a single HDR photo.

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Introducing our new project – “Trains and Modern Photography”

For more than a hundred years trains and railroads have provided an interesting subject matter for photographers. In the earliest years cameras were clunky and few, often in the hands of a professional. As the years went by, especially after the introduction of photographic film, cameras found their way into a railfan’s arsenal in increasing number. We’ve come a long way since then. The modern world has technology abound, and a camera is now found in just about everyone’s pocket, thanks to cell phones. For those serious about photography, technology has opened so many doors, and has made the art of railroad photography even more interesting. While many of the underlying principles have always remained the same, images that could never be captured before are now possible. Railfanning via a camera mounted on a flying drone would likely have been beyond the wildest dreams of early photographers, yet it is one way that people are capturing images of trains today.

A very early railroad photo
A daguerrotype considered one of the earliest known railroad photographs, circa 1850. Via the Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

I consider my upbringing to be on the very bridge of old-school photography and the “modern” technology world. I grew up shooting film, and in art school was expected to develop my own negatives and prints (admittedly, I hated it). Likewise, I remember getting my hands on my very first digital camera as a freshman in high school – it was a clunky beast, taking a 3.5″ floppy disk to save just a few photos. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got my very own digital camera (a simple point-and-shoot), and I didn’t get a digital DSLR until after I had graduated. I never fully enjoyed photography much until I had gone full digital, and since then I’ve attempted to embrace all the newest tech that I can get my hands on.

Grand Central Construction
Image from a glass plate negative of Grand Central Terminal’s construction. From the Library of Congress.

Because of my love of photographic technology, and a suggestion by a reader, I’m going to be starting a new feature project on this blog – namely a column entitled “Trains and Modern Photography.” The column will feature both modern photographic technology, like the aforementioned drones, to GoPros, as well as modern techniques, like panoramic, high dynamic range, and timelapses – all from the perspective of a railfan. Though it will be of most interest to the photographer, I hope that everyone will be able to enjoy it, essentially seeing the “behind the scenes” of how great photos are made.

Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal
Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal

So that is about it for this introduction… look for the first “Trains and Modern Photography” post tomorrow, represented by a light green dot, which you’ll see now added to the category list on the right bar of the site. If you happen to have any suggestions or ideas of technology or topics we should cover, shoot me a message or just comment below!

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