Steam Locomotives Up Close….



This past Saturday I joined a photoshoot meet-up at the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association’s soon-to-be-demolished roundhouse in SE Portland.  A “Roundhouse” is a huge lazy susan used to turn around (180 degrees) train locomotives.

P.R.P.A. is a group of railroad enthusiasts who maintain and operate the historical SP&S 700 locomotive.  Click here for more details. For many years the Union Pacific Railroad has graciously allowed the group to house the SP&S 700, other rail cars and equipment, as well as more locomotives owned by the City of Portland, Oregon in the aging Brooklyn Roundhouse building located on SE Holgate Ave in Portland.  I think I heard someone say the rent has been one dollar a year and no charge at all for the electricity and water, the utilities used.  Those days are gone now —  the Union Pacific Railroad needs the property space and — if you saw the building you might suspect it to be near the “end of it’s life”.  The city of Portland, through it’s Parks and Recreation Dept, is in process of building a museum building and grounds to house the historical rail engines, cars, and equipment.  The physical move is to begin in July this coming Summer.  Click here for info about the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation

I’ll try to recount my two hours at the roundhouse…

To begin with… I had little idea what to expect except to not wear the best of clothes since the rail quarters are a work place with it’s share of grease, oil, and tight quarters.

After the half hour meeting of orientation, history, and safety guidelines we all (the 12 of us) headed for the roundhouse building and grounds.  I had brought along my full bag of various lens,  lighting equipment, and tripod but then never used any except my walk-around lens (17-85mm) on my 50D Canon camera and the tripod.  Since I couldn’t carry everything and shoot at the same time I had to leave the bag sitting unattended which made me apprehensive at times.

I walked and scoped the roundhouse for about 20 minutes.   Early on I got mixed feelings about the worth-whileness of this shoot.  It seemed like there was too  close of quarters, too many people just where I wanted to be, and dark aisles between these big ole train engines.  Initially the scenario didn’t “grab me” in a positive way so I went outside… away from everyone else and then things began falling into place for photo chances.  Forty-five minutes later when I’d had my fill of the outside there was generous space available inside.  In the end my feelings were that the old building and aged equipment are rich with unique shapes, faded (and also some freshly painted) colors and uncommon historical train objects.

Some thoughts that struck and motivated me…      I, as a very young boy (in the late 1940’s and early 50’s) would lie in my grandmother’s side yard and watch the steam train travel the B&O Railway along-side US 6 in Northern Indiana.  I can vividly recall the special sounds of the engine as it chugged and sights as it blew huge clouds of gray, white, and gray/black smoke going west toward Chicago or beyond.  I know now that my son and all my nieces and nephews did not ever have or will ever have the chance for that experience since the steam engine was replaced by the more efficient and less cumbersome diesel locomotive before they were born.  The steam locomotive became a part of our history and now we can see them only in museums and on special celebratory occasions.  A thought occurred that “now, today, I’m getting to photograph a little bit of that particular black smoke I saw and smelled 60 years ago.  I’m lucky” — Hope I can make the photographs “worthwhile” now.

Here are some of my favorite captures.  I’d like to go back and do this again next Saturday.

What did I learn Saturday about taking pictures?   Take a look at some of the photos and then I’ll give you my take.  Click the image and then arrow from one to the others.

The weather Saturday was very overcast — inside, the building was additionally dark but with light coming through windows up high on the walls making the interior quite contrasty.  To capture the dark areas and to provide camera stability I used the tripod so to allow longer shutter speeds.  This allowed me to get 3 different exposures of the very same composition to use for HDR processing.  I then blended the three exposures (one overexposed 2 f-stops, one normal, and the third underexposed 2 f-stops.  In my opinion this process is a savior for dark contrasty situations like this.  Most of my images posted with this blog are processed for HDR using Photomatrix Pro.  It allowed me to preserve the “lights” and the “darks”.


1.  HDR processing is useful for more than just to produce that particular arbitrary effect.  It was a savior for me today.  It let me show definition in both the shadow and the highlight areas.  I shoot mostly in Aperture Priority mode.

2.  Take my backpack camera bag when I need equipment choices and mobility.  The way it was Saturday I couldn’t carry the camera, the tripod and the 25lb bag all at the same time.

3.   Do as much research as possible before embarking on a shoot.  Know some of the interesting points by reviewing what others have posted before. and google images are great sources from which to learn.

And… #4… I think I learned some about freight trains.  I seem to always learn from a photoshoot, more than just how to maneuver  the camera settings.

Thanks for visiting.



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One Response to Steam Locomotives Up Close….

  1. Grant says:

    Very Interesting, and well written.

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