Congratulations to Tom Nanos of Lebanon, Connecticut, our October #SigmaSuperFan. This accomplished railroad photographer impressed us with his passion for capturing the spirit of railroading with his Sigma gear in his winning essay.
Tell us about yourself
I’ve been a life-long resident of eastern Connecticut, and have been interested in photography since the early to mid 1980s when my parents gave me a basic darkroom kit for Christmas. Using my father’s Minolta XE-5 (which I still have and use occasionally), I taught myself how to shoot, develop and print black & white photos. I made the move to autofocus cameras in about 2001 when I purchased my first Canon EOS body, shooting mostly slides, with the occasional roll of Tri-X for old time’s sake. Late 2004 I made the move to digital and have been there ever since – starting with a Canon EOS 20D. As for the non-photography end of myself, in my “day job” I’m a business technology manager at a major pharmaceutical company, and am married with two wonderful pre-teen daughters – who are also becoming quite interested in photography.
Is photography a passion or a career?
In the railroad photography genre, outlets for photos are very limited, and usually have tight budgets, so it’s not something I can rely on as a career. My day job pays the bills – the photography without a doubt is a passion – one that thankfully due to my career, I can pursue. I have found some success in exhibiting in art galleries around the area – participating in a number of group exhibits, as well as the summer and fall of 2014 featuring my first solo exhibit, consisting of 39 prints featured in the gallery for a 6 month period. But by no means of the word is this a career for me…I simply love it.
What kind of images do you shoot?
I primarily concentrate on documenting railroading operations around the northeastern US. I photograph their operations in all weather conditions, as well as day and night – I have been concentrating more on the nighttime part the past 8-10 years. After dark, I shoot with both ambient light (longer exposures) as well as with flashes to freeze action. I primarily use Alien Bee and Lumedyne studio strobes in the field for the flash lighting – I have 3 Bees and 2 Lumedynes in my lighting kit, which offers me quite a bit of flexibility in lighting up a rather large scene. But my overall goal with photography is to not only document the scene as it happens, but also try to put an artistic slant to the photos. Hopefully making them stand out as unique, but accurate, representations of railroading activities.
I use the word “documenting” above intentionally, as all of my photographs are not altered in any way beyond the “traditional” darkroom techniques – such as exposure and color corrections, dodging and burning, crop and rotation. As a photographer who does work for a number of publications that are relied upon as a part of the historical record, adhering to representing the scene as it appeared before the camera is Rule #1. So anything in my photographs – from the motion blur of the train to the waves of heat distorting the background – is as the camera and my eyes saw it. Nothing is added, removed or altered within the content of the photograph. The same goes for the prints I hang in art galleries – they are true to the scene as the camera saw it.
As I mentioned above I have two young, and quite active daughters, so I do find myself holding my cameras – and Sigma glass – along the soccer fields, concert stages, softball diamonds and basketball courts quite frequently.
Tell us about your first Sigma lens
My first Sigma lens was the 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC. After making the switch from film to digital in late 2004, the only option for me and my budget was a crop-frame sensor, and since I had a bag full of Canon EOS glass, my logical choice was the Canon 20D. After getting the body, I realized how not-very-wide my old wide angle lens – the Canon 28-135mm IS – was when strapped on the 20D. After some researching, I went with the Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 for a couple reasons. First off, it was a constant f/2.8 aperture through all focal lengths – something I wanted in my wide angle lens. But also, it was quite inexpensive as compared to comparable Canon lenses. With the limited family budget, the choice was clear – I made my first step towards filling my camera bag with Sigma glass! Unfortunately, at about 9 years old, this lens gave up the ghost in October 2014, and I quickly picked up the new version – the 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS. I’m just as happy with the new one as I was with the original nearly a decade ago.
Was it a discovery or a research project or a recommendation?
Pure research on my part. Doing many online searches, viewing a number of online reviews, and comparing it against a comparable Canon pro-level lens – in addition to the features I mentioned above. I felt that the (very minor) shortcomings of the Sigma lens (most notably on this lens, the slower focus motor – I love the HSM on the 17-50mm), didn’t warrant me spending the extra money to get the Canon. After receiving the lens and beginning to shoot with it, I was quite pleased with its performance and very happy with the resulting photos.
When was the moment you realized that Sigma products were special to you?
When I started seeing the results I was getting with the 18-50, I knew Sigma glass was for me. Next I picked up my 15mm f/2.8 EX Fisheye second hand, and most recently – if you can consider December 2006 “recent” – I sold my Canon 70-200mm f/4L to purchase my Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO HSM Macro. Again, I’m very happy with my Sigma gear!
What differentiates Sigma from other manufacturers that you’ve used/worked with?
Honestly, for me, it’s the quality at a significant cost savings. By using Sigma, I can get quality equipment that won’t kill my budget.
What is your most memorable day as a photographer?
Hands down, the first time riding along in the locomotive with a freight train crew to document their day wins this contest. Prior to this, I have taken some cab rides on tourist railroads – which is fine to get a glimpse at what the locomotive crew does through a day. But that kind of ride only lasts an hour or two – a very limited time. To shadow a crew working nearly a 12 hour day, switching cars in and out of customers and interchanging with other railroads was an incredible experience. This particular ride led to my first published article – which appeared in the November 2005 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine. Since then I’ve had photos and articles published in nearly every major railroad publication, a variety of calendars, as well as many historical and railroad preservation society newsletters and journals. And the vast majority of those photos were shot with Sigma lenses.
Tell us about a Dream shoot/dream equipment/dream photo of yours.
I’ll go the “dream equipment” route here – for me that would be a Canon 5D Mk III with a bag full of Sigma EX and Art series glass, and at least a dozen Alien Bee flashes. That’ll let me light up just about any railroad scene at night…
What’s one atypical thing in your camera bag?
Prescription safety glasses with side shields and a few sets of ear plugs. Railroads are a noisy and dangerous place, and Personal Protection Equipment is an essential tool to stay safe.
Who is your photo inspiration? Why?
Over the past decade or so, with my focus on nighttime railroad photography, my inspiration has been mainly an individual who most consider to be the master of nighttime flash photography – the late O. Winston Link. I have pored over his books, studied his prints and visited his museum in Roanoke, VA. The work he did with ASA 25 film and flashbulbs is nothing short of amazing – and translating that to the modern equivalent of ISO 1600 and studio strobes has been a fun adventure. There are others in the field of railroad photography I also draw inspiration from – some are well known legends in the field. Those who I consider to be legends include the late Richard Steinheimer, as well as some who are still producing photos like Jim Shaughnessy, David Plowden and Mel Patrick to name a few.
What inspires you?
Truthfully, my family. They are the ones that drive me to better myself, and not simply rest on my laurels. And the truly inspiring thing is having my daughters not only want to come shooting with me, but also want my feedback and lessons around photography – those are the moments I will always cherish.
What do you know for sure about Sigma?
I’ll get quality equipment for a reasonable price. But also looking to the future, I’m sure we’ll see more quality choices. I’ve only sampled a couple of the Art series lenses at my local camera store, and they are nothing shore of amazing. I’m sure I’ll be adding “A” series lenses to my kit at some point in the future…
What is your prize lens choice?
I’m choosing the 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM C EOS Mount for a couple reasons. First off, it would be a nice alternative to lugging around two lenses for the less-than-critical type shoots (family outings, etc.), but also I’ll let my budding photographer daughters use it, as they only have moderate wide-angle lenses on their SLRs. Yes, both shoot Canon 20Ds, just like dear old Dad started out with. And it would be a nice fill-in for when I send my 70-200mm f/2.8 EX in for a little TLC…figure it’s due after 9 years of pretty heavy use.
My current equipment
Canon EOS Elan 7 (35mm film)
Canon EOS 30D – Modified to record infrared only, and a converted sensor to only record black & white (Bayer filter removed)
Canon EOS 40D
Canon EOS 50D
Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX Fisheye
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DC APO HSM Macro
Sigma 1.4x Teleconverter
Canon 50mm f/1.8
Retired (broken beyond repair): Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC
And thanks to my friend and fellow photographer Nick Palazini for snapping my portrait with some of my Sigma gear in hand – he used my Canon 50D with the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM. In my hands are the 70-200mm f/2.8 EX and the 15mm f/2.8 EX Fisheye.