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Mojave Desert 2016: Trains in the Desert Captured with Sigma Lenses

Desert Light. Geography has a profound impact on the eyes perception of daylight. Areas with large volumes of water (while necessary for life), causes variables that reflect, soften, and at worst completely obscure the essence of daylight. To limit those variables this photographer chooses the Mojave Desert in south-eastern California to maximize an entire day’s lighting aesthetics.

To be camped out in the Mojave when black skies full of stars slowly give way to the deep blues of the first hint of morning is an awakening of the soul on so many levels. For me it’s the excitement of the day’s possibilities, it’s what drives us to be in position for passions such as photography. Never mind the uniqueness of the landscape in this desolate yet beautiful landscape. All it takes Is being their, you’ll see.

The subtleties don’t last long as black and blue turns to pink. BNSF has been pushing trains past our campsite all night. An eastbound sneaks out from behind a high fill with the western sky in full pink. I’m able to handhold this shot already with subtitle golden rays just hinting on the nose of the lead locomotive. It’s 5:26 am, I’m at ISO 2000 on my Canon 5d Mark III and shooting with my Sigma 150-600 Contemporary F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens. I’ve talked about the stabilization before, but I must reiterate how clutch this lens is in low-light situations with the stabilization active. But sharpness is only one of its strengths, I really enjoy the fineness of detail the lens reproduces, its very pleasing to me, and I’m sure those who use this lens will agree!

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© William Beecher 2016

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

At 5:30 when the first rays of pure sunlight clear the top of the Bristol Mountains, and I turn to record the moment. The BNSF parade is non-stop so we move to a higher vantage to get some of the layers of the surrounding area’s geography.

Up on a small volcanic bluff a westbound comes out of the sun at Ash Hill and lays over the undulating profile of the desert floor on this high desert plateau. Sun kisses the rails and they radiate like mirrors. A mile of train strung out over the golden dawn from well over a mile away, the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary Lens renders all the details, from the stark elevation changes behind to the scene, to the fine pole line that helps keep traffic moving safely by supplying power to the vital signal system that keeps moving trains separated. We shoot the parade here for several hours, bagging several more westbound’s.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

Unfortunately, the sun will get high. Were in the desert right? So there really is no place to hide. I know, some would rather put away the gear then endure this inevitable part of the day from the comforts of their cars A/C or possibly a diner near the interstate. I endure, using the time to search out new locations for when the lighting will indeed get good again. Route 66 is stenciled on the pavement at Ash Hill as part of the “National Trails Route 66 Highway” I use my Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye to highlight the geography and an eastbound BNSF tagging along in the background, “High Sun” can also be a good time to try different techniques and conversions.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

I pivot and change lenses again back to the Sigma 150-600 contemporary lens, to catch this falling eastbounds container train against the contrast of the Granite Mountains several miles distant of Amboy Ca. The meandering road is beat, and sizzles under years of no respite. The sun, few vehicles and plenty of wind equate a typical desert day on Route 66 at this location. I like the Black and White conversion and I’ve used this image as a holder shot, used in one of my programs depicting the relationship between the BNSF and Route 66 in this expansive theater.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

One of the things I like about this part of the Mojave is the layers of earth on just about every horizon. Late volcanic activity produced these peaks and valleys, some as late as only 6000 years ago. Their beauty has come at the expense of the railroads, making for extreme grades slowing the progress of trains in both directions here, as observed below.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

Afternoon light has moved in and we catch the drama of a meet between trains. A climbing westbound’s locomotives exhausting all their worth to keep tonnage moving up the steep ridge and S-curve leading into Pisgah comes nose to nose with a speeding eastbound. Miles and miles of open desert ridges and peeks contrast on the horizon, the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary Lens pulls in all the action in amazing detail on my full frame sensor.

Helper engines controlled remotely from the headend push west as the eastbound container train exits the S-curve. Two BNSF locomotives glint, holding back the weight of his eastbound imports as he falls downhill toward Ludlow, while stirring exhaust and sand.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

The magic happens again as the sun closes back in on the horizon. “Golden hour” is what we call the minutes leading up to the darkness, and Mojave Golden Hour never disappoints! It’s been a long couple days of sun-up to sun-down (and then some!) in the desert, and I’m beat, but this last couple of minutes of daylight makes it all worth the effort. Gorgeous last rays fall on another eastbound, heat shimmers off the locomotives adding to the drama pulled in by my Sigma 150-600 Contemporary Lens at Ibis.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

With very few obstructions like tree’s or man-made obstacles to block light here, I’m once again able to keep right on shooting as the sun falls behind the horizon. The open expanse of the area allows me to soak up every last bit of light, long after I may have given up in a dense city or heavily wooded area.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

I’m chasing a last westbound climbing out of the Colorado River valley, at Ibis. Luck rolls in my favor and I stumble into another meet between trains. This sky is slowly moving back towards pink, blue tones have already taken over off the far away mountain forms, and glint reflects off new locomotive flanks. I positioned myself between the converging mainlines where I am able to shoot an incredible sequence from a safe yet unique vantage point well out harms way! The Sigma 150-600 Contemporary Lens once again proves its value reaching in for this special fast paced sequence!

I continued upgrade, chasing into “Blue Hour”, when out of my rearview mirror I notice the top crest of the moon rising over the Colorado River Valley.  I work feverishly, using my car as a makeshift tripod and the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary Lens to capture the last seconds of this Lunar treat touching another far off peak. It’s been a great trip and a wonderful experience, thanks to Sigma quality I’m thrilled with the end results!  I end the evening racing into Vegas hoping to extend my good fortune, and for some well deserved relaxation with family and friends, but will be back out on the “High Iron” shooting and capturing the rails with Sigma soon. Until next time!

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016
Comments (1)
  1. Gerard Lewandowski says:

    Great Train images

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