There’s something about the south in the spring. The dark hills giving way to green signs of life, blue skies among the sweet smell of blossoming life returning from the long winter slumber. Since this happens almost a full month before it happens in my home in Wisconsin, I needed little incentive to leave winter behind, for the promise of spring in full bloom! My friend Mike from Cincinnati and I had talked about getting away and heading down into South-Eastern Kentucky/ Northern Tennessee for a couple of days of shooting in the hills and mountains.
Things came together, the next thing I found myself pulled up alongside the CSX CC Subdivision, which ultimately stretches between Cincinnati and Atlanta, at a place called “Robinson.” In the pitch black 3 AM darkness of April 19th, I parked my car and found Robinson, a mysterious place nestled quietly between surrounding hickory trees, small hills, farms and the south fork of the Licking River. My first impression besides the darkness was it was quiet… too quiet! Thoughts of dozens of evil eyes staring back at me from the dark, thinking my presence was not welcome ran thru my mind! No time for demons, I quickly went to work! It wasn’t even five minutes and the normally dark signals controlling traffic on this piece of railroad came alive, signaling an impending southbound train. It may have been dark out, but that doesn’t mean the gear stays packed away. Out came my Canon 5d Mark II, my SIGMA 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, my wireless cable release and favorite tripod. The train rounded the curve and I fired the shutter using a wireless cable release.
CSX Train L541-19 streaks thru, the signals go dark again, the dogs in the surrounding hills stop howling – quiet returns. I climb back into my car and close my eyes for precious seconds.
Blue hour creeps in, but not before Mike arrives to join the festivities. Out comes the gear again as we photograph the scene transform from dark night to blue. Like snake eyes, the signals light up again, another southbound is out here somewhere. Luckily for us this train is a ways off and we work the signals as the sky slowly changes. Contrasts of the rich deep blue hour sky and red signal indication, plus the classic signal hardware, makes for a solid silhouette.
The Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM lens is a great lens for exaggerating perspective. It’s very much a personal preference, but I love the “in your face” keystone effect. Get up close and personal with this lens! I crank the ISO up to ISO 2000 to soak in every bit of color in the sky and work the scene hand held at 1/20th of a second.
Finally, CSX G539-19 can be heard whistling down the valley, and we move onto roughly the same position as I was setup for the last train. The sun is now getting closer to the horizon, so I want to use the yellows and orange of the horizon to shadow the train and signals in a broadside silhouette.
I again change lenses to the trusty SIGMA 24-105mm F4 DG (OS) HSM Art lens. Our perspective is below rail level, which helps give a larger than life appearance to your subject. Our train is moving right along, so I go with a high shutter speed and have the lens in manual focus! This is a very important step, because of the high contrasts and fast moving subject, the chances of your cameras auto-focus getting confused and losing complete focus is high! So pick a focal point and live with it. As the train whistles for the next crossing up, I notice an early flight sneaking up from the horizon making for a morning meet. CSX on the terra and the other at 30,000 feet!
By now we have intel that two other trains are due soon and we decide to move south and find a spot for the action, in full sunlight.
Mike knows of a great little farm down the road a ways at a place the railroad calls “Poindexter.” The highlight of which is a barn that is perfect for northbound’s with sun on the nose. What turned out to be a shot of the barn, turned out to be a neat shot FROM the barn. Post processing the image in black & white, I think adds to the rustic qualities of the image, and helps minimize some of the shadows on the nose of the train. Again the SIGMA 24-105 DG F4 is on my full frame body and is the perfect choice for such a documentary type view. We ended up having a splendid day in central Kentucky, as we moved south, chasing trains all day. We tied up for the night near the Tennessee border, with big plans for the next day!
Moving south, some of the highlights are the larger bridges crossing the growing valley’s and gaining elevation as the railroad tries to keep to a manageable constant grade. Habersham Tennessee, is home to the Davis Creek Trestle, which vault’s over the road and creek on this impressive steel trestle. We decided to park the car below, ford Davis Creek on foot, and climb the south embankment. Obviously bringing your entire bag is a risky proposition. I’ll be honest, I’m a klutz, and thoughts of falling in the water and wasting my entire bag, did not seem like a brilliant idea. I chose my go-to medium-to-wide telephoto the SIGMA 24-105 DG F4. This lens enabled me to get a strong telephoto view vertically and wide shot horizontally as the train slowly grinded up past with one body and one lens.
We got the shot! The day started cloudy and was supposed to clear, but it’s no big deal as this spot is not well lit for this shot at this time of the morning anyways. It may be somewhat gloomy, but the fact that this train is crawling on its hands and knees, allows me to use a slower shutter speed and higher F stop to gain depth of field throughout the entire image. The stabilization of the SIGMA 24-105 DG F4 is fantastic, so I don’t worry too much about my body’s motion blurring the image without a tripod. This CSX loaded Grain Train is gaining one foot of elevation for every 100ft of horizontal run, making this their 1% grade called “Duff Mountain”. A 3rd engine is helping on the rear on this short steep section of railroad, moving traffic thru the Davis and Hickory creek watersheds.
The sun did come out, as CSX W097 rolled down hill past the former L&N coaling tower at Chaska Tenn. Once used to fuel steam engine tenders with locally mined “Black Gold”. Imposing, this coaling tower hasn’t been used in almost 70 years, silently saluting trains moving up and down the mountain. It’s important to use props like this from the past to add interest to your images, showing progress and sets a time frame moving forward. Austerity in the form of corporations demolishing all past assets that have no value or use, has been the norm for years. As a result, few of these coaling towers remain today. The lesson here is do not wait to shoot that old building or structure, as their lives must surely be on borrowed time. Someday it will be gone!
The remainder of the day was a leisurely afternoon of photographing the Norfolk Southern’s scenic 2nd District, south of Oakdale Tennessee. We arrived just outside of Oak Ridge Tennessee to catch this southbound loaded NS grain train skirting the scenic Tennessee Valley Watershed. I switched to my Canon 7d Mark II, with APS-C sensor giving me a bit more reach into the hills with the SIGMA 70-200 F2.8 EX DG lens. I love the elements of this image: clean power, well maintained right of way, the hills are alive with life, and the exhaust prove he is not wasting any time! This “Thoroughbred” roared by reminding me why I love modern railroading. This is what we came to see.
Tunnel 26 is quite remote. The tunnel itself cuts a bend in the Emory River connecting Oakdale, Tennessee and Harriman, Tennessee. This line is affectionately called “The Rat Hole” due to all its tunnels. Times have changed and with newer line relocations and modern methods of earth removal, Tunnel 26 is left as one of only four tunnels remaining of the 27 originally built on the line! Nestled along the Emory River, a mile or so walk down a river path from a location called “Waters” is required to get here. Mike and I had never been here before. We knew the tunnel existed, but really didn’t know what to expect. Again the thought of dragging several bodies or lenses along a rocky river bank was not appealing. So flexibility was important, shadows were starting to get long so having medium reach and wider flexibility to use narrow slivers of sunlight between the rapidly growing shadows was key (see a trend here?). We knew NS had this last southbound to squeeze thru the single track tunnel before we would loose the sun behind the surrounding steep ridge.
The hike along the Rat Hole proved to be very worthwhile as Sigma decided to use this image for their advertisement in the September issue of Trains Magazine. It looks impressive as a double page opening spread.
It was a great trip. Mike and I both had to be to work the following day. We bid farewell and I beat it thru the night, to get to Wisconsin for a few precious minutes of sleep again. Thanks to SIGMA Lenses, I’ve got hundreds of quality images to pour thru and share.
Will see you track side again soon, until then!