Steam train Strobist

Werner Rolli organized a special steam train event near Solothurn last weekend, and I was able to help out by publicizing the event through the usual Swiss Strobist channels. For those who may not be familiar with the term, “Strobist” is the generic term created by photographer David Hobby to refer to the technique of artificial illumination: primarily the use of off-camera flash units. The usual techniques which I and friends amongst the Swiss Strobist community employ are with small “speedlights” (which would also fit on the camera). The steam train event took these techniques a little further.

When Werner sent me an email to let me know that he was organizing an evening of steam train photography, you might think that I wouldn’t’ve been all that interested. After all, engineering isn’t really my thing. But when he told me how he was planning to shoot the train in the countryside at night using giant flash lights, that was a different story altogether. Steam train geekery isn’t my thing but lighting geekery: well, that’s another thing altogether.

Steam Train Strobist Day

The idea for the evening shots sprang from the American photographer O. Winston Link, who made a living and a name for himself by setting up huge banks of lights to illuminate scenes of classic Americana, featuring drive-in cinemas, steam trains, train stations and viaducts. We wanted to emulate Link’s techniques using modern equipment and shoot colour photographs of the train in action; a volunteer additionally managed to bring a classic Citroën along too, so the group could work with the locomotive and car together, also using some volunteers dressed in period costume to make the scenes complete.

My main goal of the day, though, was to add to my large collection of photos of Jo, so with a special outfit purchased for the occasion, we headed for the tiny village of Rüti bei Büren, whose claim to fame is being the hometown of the ex-president of Switzerland, Samuel Schmid. The first part of the day was spent at three stops along the train line on the approach to Rüti, photographing the train in daylight surroundings at stations and level crossing on the mainly disused branch line. Due to a lack of space in the cars which were following the train route, I volunteered to travel in the cab of the train: more for the reason of taking photos than any special desire to ride on a steam train for the first time. I loaned a couple of fully automatic SB-800 spare flash guns from Werner and spent the next hour in the cramped cab of the train amongst the very masculine crew, observing and recording how they guided the 170 tonne monster through the Swiss countryside.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy the experience quite so much but by the time we arrived in Rüti, I could totally understand how train buffs – in particular the associations which restore and run classic steam trains, such as the host Pacific 01 202 – get so enthralled with the huge machines. Even though I wasn’t much interested in the ins and outs of the engine, the sheer detail and quality of the engineering, not to mention the awesome sight of the large furnace, meant that even I smiled when the train crew let out a long, drawn-out blast on the whistle.

Once back at the station, as the other attendees were beginning to get ready for the evening barbecue, I took advantage of a gorgeous sunset and quieter platform to get the shots I’d come for; Jo in period dress alongside the engine. After dinner, Werner set up the Elinchrom flash units in a nearby field alongside the track and with much to-ing and fro-ing, we all shot the train against a backdrop of wonderfully lilac-tinted sky. Again, I jumped in to get some of my own shots of Jo before the main shooting began: this photo is one of my favourites of the day.

Steam Train Strobist I

As dusk fell, the train was moved to a clear stretch of track in the countryside so that the “star shot” could be taken; the train and foreground, including car and other models, were lit up by the large loaned flash units. This last shot of the day was an excellent end to a photographically interesting and challenging day.

Steam Train Strobist Day