Everything I know about photography, I learned from photographing trains.

Sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not.

I’ve easily spent more time taking pictures of trains, than anything else. Whenever I’ve gone on holiday, I’ve always tried to make time to take some railway related shots. I’ve got pictures of locomotive engines, or ‘front end power,’ ‘motive power’, or just ‘power,’ as the hard core guys like to call them, from plenty of places in Canada and the US, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, England, Ireland, Scotland, and probably a couple of other places that I can’t remember right now.

Why? Perhaps it’s because a locomotive hauling a couple of dozen cars, blasting by, shaking the earth, and so loud that it’s hard to hear a person standing next to you, is the biggest moving vehicle most of us will ever see.

Perhaps it’s because when I was a little boy, I lived at the top of a cliff that overlooked a sorting yard in Saint John, New Brunswick.

But most likely, it’s because for me, it’s a solitary endeavor, that I equate with fishing. 

Lots of standing, or sitting around waiting, followed by brief moments of high excitement as the train appears, and passes.

Plenty of times you don’t even get a bite. (Of the hundreds, and hundreds of hours I’ve spent photographing trains, I’d guess 75% of the time I don’t get anything -and that’s probably low-balling the percentage.) 

Getting a half decent shot isn’t too hard, but to be able to get something that stands out requires some thought, some knowledge, and some luck.

Where is the light source? What do the shadows look like? What’s in the frame? Have I got a fast enough shutter speed to stop any motion? How’s the exposure?

All of these things need to be considered to get a good shot -just like almost every other type of photography.

Then there’s the element of luck. 

You can’t change where the sun, and clouds are in the sky. You can’t just magically summon a train when the light looks great.

Today, I went out for a little walk just to get out of the house. Of course, I had my camera with me. I went over to the nearby ‘grade crossing’ (railroad speak for a place where a road crosses some tracks) but as it’s a holiday today, I really didn’t expect to see anything.

Surprise! A westbound freight was up the line waiting for a signal. (Second image, above)

I had plenty of time to adjust the settings on my camera for what I thought was best, while I waited for his light to go green. The light was fantastic! One of those times where the sun was about 50% on the horizon, occasionally popping through intermittent clouds. And because the background where I was pointing my camera was cloudy, the scene presented to me was of that somewhat rare occurrence where the ground is brighter than the sky!

I had my camera set, and then I started looking up at the sky to where the sun was. I was really, really hoping that the slight breeze wouldn’t blow an approaching cloud in front of the sun to alter the light. 

The two minutes, or so, that I waited for the train to start moving, and build up speed seemed to take about an hour. 

I kept going back and forth between looking through the view finder on my camera, to glancing up at the sun.

Success! The engine got close enough so I could fire off a few frames, and those mischievous ‘clouds that lour’d upon our house’ were stymied by invisible breezes.

Favorite photos of the year? Decade?

After a cursory, half-assed perusal through some of the thousands, upon thousands of pictures I have taken over the last decade, 
I came up with these three. Actually, I had pretty much made up my mind earlier, while lying in bed.

The first, for my favorite picture of the year, was taken on a Portobello Beach in Edinburgh -something most visitors wouldn’t normally equate with Scotland. Highlands, Scotch whisky, castles, haggis… sure. But beaches? Not so much.

However, there are miles of lovely beaches all over the country, and with my camera, and a couple of tins of lager packed into my bag, I took the time for a few leisurely strolls along a couple of them.

Typically, for that time of the year in the UK, (autumn) if it’s not already raining on your head, you’re about to be rained upon, or you have just been rained upon. The weather changes constantly. Quickly.

Makes for some dramatic light, and interesting skies though.

The second, for my picture of the decade favorite, was taken just a few minutes after I had purchased the lens used to take it.

I was walking up Yonge st. here in Toronto, firing off lots of test shots so that I could check the lens’ performance once I got home.

I was about to snap a shot of something across the street, and just as I pressed the shutter release, this amazing looking character stepped into the frame, and amazingly, the autofocus picked her out. I couldn’t have gotten this shot even if I had tried!

I consider it a self portrait, of sorts. She more or less took her own picture. I was just holding the camera!

And because I own this website, I get to make the rules -so I included a second favorite picture of the decade.

My wife, Pamela, taken a couple of years ago, posing in some stacked slabs of granite here in Toronto’s Trillium Park.

There’s a passage at the end of Anthony Bourdain’s ’A Cooks Tour,’ where, after travelling the world in search of the perfect meal, he comes to the conclusion that (I’m too lazy to look it up, and quote it verbatim) the perfect meal isn’t just about the perfect food.

It’s about having great food, in great company, in an ideal setting.

Same as photography. The above pictures aren’t necessarily award winners. That’s not the point.

They make me happy. I was happy when I took them, and I still get a little happy when I look at them.

The first, I was on holiday.

The second, I had just bought some new shit.

And the third is my wife. No explanation needed.

Happy New Year! 

How good do you think you are? (Do I think I am?)

I’ve never been one to handle compliments very well -which is odd, because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life creating things; plenty of which will end up getting critiqued, complimented, or commented upon.

I know I’m fairly competent; sometimes good, and occasionally, I’ll capture a truly great image. That’s bound to happen if you continue to pursue a passion for a few decades.

Seems to me, that eventually a person who creates reaches a point where it’s beyond their judgement to decide just how good their creation really is. 

Revisiting old shots is a great way to give you a bit of perspective of where you stand, how much you’ve improved, and perhaps, what you can still learn from.

The above two images are from different periods time over the course of my photographic journey.

The first is from, I’d say, about 1991-2? It’s from a slide that I took, and duped to digital many years later.

I titled it ‘Flatland.’ Should have titled it ‘The Horror.’

This shot, is something that I thought was ‘passable’ at the time. (I did think it was worthy of keeping, after all!)

Where do I begin? The horizon is not straight. THE BLOODY HORIZON ISN’T EVEN STRAIGHT!!! (How do you even manage to miss that, Joe?) It’s over exposed. It’s poorly framed. The colours are horrible, the contrast, terrible…

Looking at it, I can sort of see what I was trying to do, but the execution of my ideas was less than poor. 

The scene seems to have a lot of potential. Interesting clouds; great big blue sky; incredibly flat horizon; a slowly disappearing line of old hydro lines.

I saw a semi-decent scene, thought I’d take a picture of it, and fucked it up, in every conceivable way!

I had a reasonably good camera, I was shooting on slide film, (someone MUCH better than I, convinced me that slide transparencies were far superior to film) and, apparently, I had a healthy dose of ‘beginners overconfidence.’

Hello Dunning-Kruger effect!

Ok, let’s move on to the second image.

Please! Lets.

It’s a shot I took about 6-7 years ago, of a little village on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, called St. Martins.

Much better, but there’s still room for improvement.

It’s a little harsh, not only because I took it when the sun was almost directly overhead, but because I over-processed it a bit too much.

I would have liked it to be a bit wider -it seems like there’s too much, in too small a space, but, in  my defense, all I had with me that trip was my little Fuji X100, with its 35mm equivalent lens. I couldn’t have stepped further back, or I would have ended up in the ocean.

Overall, it’s nothing too spectacular; to me, it’s a reasonably well done holiday snap shot.

Two different images. Taken about twenty something years apart. Vastly different technically, and aesthetically. 

I’ve learned some things. But, perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that there’s always plenty of room for improvement.

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