Union Pacific Railroads maintains a couple of its old steam trains and occasionally UP 844 and UP 4014 get to go out for a run. I live in an area that they pass through on most trips, so if the train is on tour, there’s a good chance that it will pass near by.
August 8-9 of 2021 brought the “Big Boy” out, with an overnight stay in Fairbury Nebraska. For those who may not know, Engine 4014 is one of the world’s largest steam engines. It was built in 1941 to help deliver goods for the war effort and retired 20 years later. UP later bought it back from a museum and restored it, putting it back to work in 2019.
This train is a marvel of engineering which also brings out the history of trains and the country. Where ever it goes, people come out to watch it roll down the tracks, hear the whistle and reflect on times gone by.
I’m not obsessed with trains (honest!), but I do love a challenge when it comes to photography. Shooting a dark, black object moving at a fast clip forces me to prepare and plan out my shots. This weekend I made 3 trips out to shoot 4014, 2 trips while it was moving as well as a night shoot while it rested at the depot. Each separate shoot had it’s challenges, and since this is a photo blog, I’ll explain what I planned for and how I worked the shots.
Shoot #1 – Late Afternoon on the Rails
UP publishes a schedule when the steam trains are on tour, and you soon learn that the times posted are more of a guideline than a tight schedule to be maintained. The first time I shot UP 844, the train was over an hour late. People waited in Belvidere Nebraska where they have a great train watching station, and it was a fun day out. For this shoot, I knew that the train was scheduled to leave Belvidere at 4:15pm and should arrive in Fairbury at 5:00pm. I picked a spot about 1/2 way between the two locations. It came by a little before 5pm, so I had plenty of time to set up and prep.
The day before I had driven around the area looking for an ideal spot. Choosing a location can be tough, as you have to figure on the angle of the sun (first and foremost), a background (which in Nebraska can be a little limiting) and then make sure you have access to the location. I was hoping to find something close to the river which runs roughly parallel to the tracks in places, but couldn’t find a suitable spot. I also used Google Maps to narrow what areas I might want to look at. I settled on a spot at Powell Nebraska, which had a crossing area, and a slight curve from which the train would come around towards me. I set up on the south side of the tracks with the sun at my back.
One added challenge I had was the general atmosphere. The skies were hazy due to distant wildfires, and it was also well over 90°F. This meant that I would not have a clear blue sky (despite the lack of clouds) and the heat produced visible waves as it rose from the tracks and surrounding ground.
I had 2 cameras with me with 2 very different lenses. My D810 had the Nikkor 24mm on it, was set low and closer to the tracks. I attached a remote release to it so I could fire it from the other camera’s location. My D850 had the Nikkor 200-500 on it. My reasoning for the big lens was that the compressed field of the telephoto might make for an interesting shot with the haze and heat waves, and then it would give me a good angle as the train got closer and the atmosphere wasn’t as much of an issue.
When the engine finally came through, it was going relatively slow, so I was able to get a good number of shots off from both cameras. The remote trigger was a little intermittent, but it did catch one frame just right.
After all of the prep work and planning, it was over quickly and I packed up and went home. Now I had to start planning for the ‘night shoot’ at the depot.
Shoot #2 – Night at the Depot
Fairbury is home to the historic Rock Island Train Depot and when the steam trains stop overnight, they park them next to this beautiful building. It makes for a great photo op! This night things were a little different. When I showed up about sunset, I found there were still a lot of people and the crew had placed orange reflective cones around the engine! After a little panic, I decided that I would see how I could shoot around the cones and figured Photoshop would take care of any that got in the way.
My plan for the night was to use a combination of long exposures and remote flashes. I brought my 6 SB-800s and 6 triggers for them. I hoped it would be enough to light up the Big Boy as well as provide some unique lighting. I started with one flash and then gradually added all 6 down the length of the engine. I moved them around and tried different options, keeping most them low to the ground and pointing up. The night sky was still hazy, but clear – and eventually some stars were visible.
I edited a few images with toned down colours to suggest a more retro, timeless image. I used the 24mm lens again as I needed to get close to the engine (right next to the pylons) and still get the whole train in the shot. I kept somewhat low to point up and give the engine a more imposing look. After shooting for a while, I tried some other angles, but the classic 3/4 view remained my favourite, I kept shooting and trying different lighting effects.
I also took some with the station included, which was lit up with the yard lights.
I ended up spending a bit of time until I just got too hungry and thirsty and headed home. Despite my initial shock of seeing the pylons, I’m happy with the results I got at night.
Shoot #3 – Morning on the Rails
I originally wasn’t planning to shoot the train leaving Fairbury, but I figured that the weather would be better. It would be sunny and not as hot as the afternoon before. The Big Boy was scheduled to leave at 9:00am, so with luck there would be little haze and heat waves to deal with.
I turned to Google Maps again and picked a spot near Endicott and found a good crossing with a lot of clear space and a decent background down the tracks. I set up the 2 cameras again with the same lenses as yesterday. The train was about 40 minutes late, so I had time to double check my settings and made sure I was ready.
When the 4014 finally came by, it was moving a LOT faster than it had the day before. I was able to shoot about 20 shots off with the telephoto before I had to pay attention to the wide angle set up and then fired off a new batch. I shot rapidly, but still only got one good shot in the split second it passed by.
And just like that – it was over. One day of scouting a location, two days of shooting and a few hours of editing later I have some lasting memories of one of the great steam engines still running. The combination of ‘photographic challenge’, history and local event makes for a great time behind the camera. It usually involves a bit of waiting around, but sometimes just hanging out next to a train track is a good way to spent an afternoon. I’m already looking forward to the next steam engine to roll through.