Using The Fuji 50R To Shoot Steam Engines In The Cold Of Winter
I made the classic mistake of taking a new, unused Fuji 50R to perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity where a 3-day photo shoot was scheduled in Ely, NV. Since a technical camera was also part of my kit, limiting the number of Fuji GF lenses was necessary. Three autofocus lenses were packed–the 23mm, 32-64mm and 100-200mm. I also took along a Mamiya Fisheye lens with a 180-degree FOV where it was envisioned to use it inside the engine house to shoot locomotive drive wheels up close.
I had been to Ely, NV in late August of 2018. On that trip, I had signed up to “Be the Engineer” where after studying the 135 page Nevada Northern Railway (NVNRR) “Train Service Rulebook”, I then took a 100 question exam, not unlike taking a driver’s license exam for automobiles. After riding in the cab of locomotive #40 for about 2 hours familiarizing myself with the multitude of controls and gauges, then came my turn at the controls. In a far corner of the rail yard, I was tested as to engine whistle protocol and how to gently engage engine #40 forward and in reverse a few times before heading for the mainline. The NVNRR speed limit varies, but out on the mainline, it is 15 mph maximum.
Needless to say, it was a unique experience to have driven a huge steam locomotive. The fireman and engineer seemed to be the most laid back guys on the RR since their patience level was immense. Perhaps this experience is possible elsewhere in the US or Europe, but I was delighted to be able to drive a steam engine after a 5-hour flight from home plus another 4-hour drive north of Las Vegas to Ely. Why gamble in Las Vegas when this is nearly a sure thing, assuming you pass the written and pre-mainline exams.
As it turned out during two weekends in February of each year NVNRR opens up its engine house, engines, rolling stock and rail yard to photographers. One can get into the engine house at 6 am in order to watch the “firing up” of the steam engines which is much more involved than one might imagine.
Once hot enough the steam engines are taken out from the engine house into the yard for photography from just about every angle possible. I had decided on making sure of stopping the action by using 1/500th with the 32-64mm lens and 1/1000th while using the 100-200mm lens. I varied ISO while outdoors from 100 to 640 most of the time depending on cloud cover using both the 32-64mm and 100-200mm lenses handheld with a single point, spot AF activated (and also OIS on the 100-200) where I selected the f-stop manually in addition to having Constant On activated.
Friday night is a special night because a cinematographer sets up his huge strobe lights outdoors in order to light up the engines in the yard for many hours of shooting, weather permitting. Put your camera on B and wait for the countdown, open your shutter before the strobes go off and then add a few more seconds in order to bring in some ambient light and there you have it. This year, unlike other years past, there had been plenty of snow and on our Friday night shoot due to a 5-6 inch snowstorm, we were driven inside the engine house for 3 hours of shooting. Inside I mainly used the 23mm lens with spot AF, B setting, ISO 100 and around f8.0. It was still fun even though we were not outdoors and after more than 200 exposures we were ready to start the Saturday morning shoot.
Both Saturday and Sunday are similar in that the group shoots the rail yard with the engines assembling the train for that part of the day. About 8:30 am we loaded into a 100-year-old passenger car with an old pot belly stove for heat during trips out on the 3 different mainlines the NVNRR owns and uses.
What was special about this weekend was that we went out to various overlooks, detrained and then the boss, Mark Bassett, radioed the Engineer to back the train down the mainline for several minutes and then he instructed the Engineer to come back past us at full steam ahead. This was repeated several times offering different shooting angles if wanted. Then we got back on the train and continued on to the next location. After many hours we came back into the station for a welcomed hot lunch which was provided by the NVNRR staff. After the leisurely lunch we repeated the morning schedule in the afternoon, but on a different mainline with very different views and a new train configuration.
The two steam engines featured during this weekend were delivered between 1909 and 1910. Number 93, in the first image below, had its 110th birthday in early 2019. Number 40 will be 110 years old in 2020–second image below. Steam in very cold weather just bellows beautifully into the sky making for dramatic images.
All images were processed in Capture One, including conversions from color to B&W, with final touches on occasion carried out with CC Photoshop. I found the 50R images were very malleable when converting from RAW and held up well against processing for my style of photography. In C1 I started with the Highlights and Shadows sliders. Then I checked how Levels and Curves (both RGB and Luma) could improve the image. Next, I converted to B&W and worked the color sliders to my liking. After that, a small amount of Clarity was added with Structure about half the Clarity setting. If any of my work created blown out highlights I would reduce the Highlights slider to bring the image back into acceptable histogram levels without clipping.
Why Black & White you might ask? I grew up with B&W film during the end of the steam engine era. To me, an old steam engine just looks and feels much more authentic in B&W, but that’s me. Here is one example of an interior shot in both color and B&W. You be the judge even though the special Hollywood lighting technique makes the color image very interesting and pleasing versus the traditional B&W.
I took nearly 3000 images over the weekend and I must say the 50R performed in a stellar way. I was getting 400-450 shots per battery charge and made no attempt to keep the camera warm while shooting in very cold conditions which were often 10-20F below freezing. Even though the elevation was around 7000 feet making for very dry conditions, it was the winter storms that brought in the very cold air. I kept replacement batteries under my down jacket. RAW files were just under 120MB so I filled up 300mb/s 64GB SD cards rather fast. Thus, 128GB cards would have been the best choice to use in this situation since at times shooting 15-20 or more images as fast as my finger could activate the shutter set on S was often the norm. Even in extreme cold with fast shooting I never hit the buffer. As a personal preference I chose Single Mode (S) over Continuous Mode (C) and it worked flawlessly with the 50R for this purpose.
I had read reviews about the lack of a thicker grip on the 50R impeding comfortable shooting technique. In fact, the lack of a thicker grip really never bothered me nor came to mind while shooting. While the majority of other photographers used Canon, Nikon or Sony cameras, all but two never noticed I had a MF camera including a few pros leading the group. The 100-200 lens performed flawlessly and with its internal focusing, it did not seem like a big lens without the hood. Once the hood was attached it looked like a 70-200 telephoto lens. In fact, the diameter of the Fuji GF lenses was no bigger than most Sony GM lenses and in some cases smaller in diameter. Here’s a shot that was taken with the GF 100-200/5.6 lens at f16.
My personal experience using the 50R was not only enjoyable but felt like there was nearly no learning curve. After experimenting with a few different settings, I rapidly settled on the ones described above even though I had set up the 3 Auto ISO setting options. The Fuji 50R purchase has been a terrific addition to my gear arsenal and I must note that the GF line of lenses is truly superb. For clarification sake, I have no affiliation with Fuji whatsoever.
Below are a few more images taken on the NVNRR.
After nearly loosing my eye sight, the decision in 2011 to buy a digital camera in order to leave something on earth if blindness were to set in has given me the energy and drive to capture images of all sorts. In one word it is Life that I capture in all its shapes and forms. Life has various meanings to each of us, but it is Life that is crucial to me no matter where it is found. I very much like to see Life and live Life. On one hand, I am a photographer who captures earthy, gritty, emotional and moving street scenes with a worldly emphasis. And on the other hand, I am also a photographer who loves the openess and solitude of the beautiful and moving landscape environment where ones artistic juices are allowed the freedom to flow to their maximum. Sometimes that means dramtic colors and other times it means capturing the scene in stong and intense black & white images. In January 2016 I was again fortunate enough to receive the coveted Jay Colson Portfolio Award at FOTOfusion where 50 professional photographers and photo editors voted my portfolio the best. Winning this Award once is an honor, but now that I have won it three years in a row, it is an overwhelming achievement. Below are links to various articles written about my photography and what moves me to capture my images. Cuba Article-Leica User Forum My Street Photography-Leica User Forum My Landscape Photography-Leica User Forum