Getting Ready for the Holidays — Photographing Special Events at Night.

Rochelle and I had a wonderful photographic opportunity last week — photographing festively decorated trains at Railtown State Park.    It was a lot of fun, but it was also quite a challenge.  Simply put – it’s almost impossibly difficult to shoot things that are moving in the dark. Railtown Sierra No 3

Railtown 1897 is located in Jamestown California.  Jamestown is one of California’s many Gold Rush towns, and is located just north of Yosemite on Hwy 49.  It is home to vintage steam engines, historical buildings and movie memorabilia, as many movies and TV series have been shot there over the years.  Each year Railtown puts on “Santa’s Starlight Express” by offering railroad rides at night in holiday-themed railroad cars and engines.Railtown at Night

We knew before we got there that good photos were going to be difficult to come by.  We were going to be shooting big black steam and diesel locomotives at the end of the day.  And if we wanted the holiday lights to show up, we’d have to keep shooting into the evening.    And we also knew we’d have to shoot in the middle of a crowd of families, all anxious to take their own family photos in front of the trains.

We were pretty well prepared, with big tripods, wide angle lenses and shutter remotes in hand.   But as well prepared as we were, we knew we’d have a fight on our hands because you just can’t combine short exposures (to freeze movement) with small apertures (to get the whole train in focus) in the dark without increasing your ISO to limits you’d really rather avoid.

It all became a balancing act.  Railtown EngineerDo you just focus on one little bit of the scene and let the rest of the out-of-focus image “tell the story”?  Or do you go for the highly detailed long exposure, and hope the movement of the people, the trains and the steam look good “stretched out”?  Railtown Starlight ExpressOr, use the third option and increase your ISO, possibly subjecting your photos to “Death by Noise”?

In short, we tried all three.  And we had some good results too.  Personally, I preferred the longer exposures, but I like getting a lot of detail in my photographs.  I liked some of the shallow depth-of-field photos as well.  Railtown Getting Ready to RollBut my high ISO shots didn’t work out at all.  I guess I might have to get that full-frame camera after all.  Ah shucks.

And for all of you using iPhones, compact cameras or DSLRs on “automatic” mode, shooting scenes like this at night is a good reason to upgrade your camera, or upgrade your camera skills.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with “point and shoot” photography, compact cameras and DSLR automatic modes really don’t do low light scenes justice.

As far as the crowds went, well yes, they did get in the way. And Rochelle was asked “Could you take our picture” more times than I can count.  But as far as crowds go, it was pretty small by most any standards, and everybody was having a great time.  Rochelle even got a young boy to risk his life by laying down on the tracks.  Railtown on the tracksWe had to wait for people to clear off for a moment or two to get the shots we wanted, but that was a small price to pay to experience so many families having such a good time.

The moral of the story here is when you’re presented with a difficult situation, try shooting every way you know how.  Play with your settings.  Overexpose.  Underexpose. Focus on small things and the big picture. And don’t forget to move around the scene too.  You may think your patience will pay off if you stay in one spot, but chances are you’re missing out on a dozen other photographs if you don’t move.

And always remember to use a tripod and a remote control shutter release when you’re shooting in low-light situations.  It’s the only possible way to get anything in focus.  Even with modern “anti-shake” technology, you really can’t hold a camera still for more than 1/60th of a second.  Even less if you’re using a long lens.

One final note about shooting in a State Park, the employees and volunteers are used to having their picture taken.  If you ask nicely, they’ll even jump up on a train to give your photograph “personality”.  Railtown Employees are the  bestOf course, it helps if the person asking is a good-looking woman like my wife.  That’s why I always have her do the asking.

And just because the sun goes down, there’s no reason you can’t keep shooting.

Railtown is open all year, and they have train rides throughout the warmer months.  The trains only run in the winter for special events.  It’s well worth a visit.  For my RVing friends, the parking lots at Railtown are pretty small, but the spaces are big enough for a Class B.  So no worries there.   There is a Wal-Mart in nearby Sonora that usually has a few campers staying overnight in their parking lot. There’s also camping spots with hook ups at the Motherload Fairgrounds, just a couple of miles up the road.  If you’d like to camp on the water, check out Lake Tulloch, which is about 15 minutes west off of Highway 120.

5 Responses

  1. I like your shot with the train moving with the streaks of colored lights. It was definitely hard to get moving trains in the dark. I didn’t keep any of mine that were moving.

  2. I’m never sure what I like most about your blog, Kevin – the photo tips or the illustrations. (Actually it’s both, not either/or). I wish I could join in these night shot excursions, but since I can NOT carry a tripod around any more, I’m content to enjoy your results. I do use my camera’s high ISO a lot and the latest Lightroom is amazing at eliminating the noise, but there’s a limit even with a full frame dSLR. I wonder if film is any better? Staci?

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