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The Story of a Photograph

All Photographs by Jack Hykaway

PART ONE  - Take a Step Back


A bright blob of light flickers in the distance, slowly splitting into three as the sound of laboring prime movers fills the air.  The sheer power of the locomotives and the immense weight of the freight cars pounding rail joints shake your bones, and the warm wind kicked up by freight cars’ rolling wheels reeks of creosote-soaked cross-ties.  There’s no other experience quite like standing next to the railside, taking in the passing of a speeding freight train.


However, from a photographer’s point of view, standing twenty feet off of the right-of-way doesn’t always yield the best photo.  Though many incredible shots have been composed looking down the pipe at an oncoming freight train, it might be worth your time to investigate alternative angles.  Take a walk around and in between trains, and spend some time scouting out different angles that catch your eye. Keeping your personal safety in mind and being conscious to stay on public property, look for fences, buildings, signs, unique vegetation, and geographic formations that can be included into your shot.  Any small details and elements of the surroundings give depth and context to the photograph and encourage your viewer’s eye to wander longer.


The majority of my images are captured in the wide-open spaces of the prairies, where there’s always plenty of room to step back and capture a broader scene and many opportunities to get close to the details.  In July, the fields of canola are in full bloom.  The canola’s bright yellow blossoms provide a spectacular foreground – or background – to any image.  Getting low among the buds frames the subject nicely.  From across the field, a VIA Rail passenger train seems to glide through the bright yellow flowers.


The same is true in photographing models, and specifically in photographing model trains.  Build up a scene; include a foreground and background, and position your subject strategically in the frame.  There’s a balance that needs to be struck between the foreground, background and the subject – one strives to put together an interesting foreground, but it mustn’t take away from the subject.  In other words, make it interesting but not too interesting; it should complement your subject but not distract viewers.  The same goes for the background:  it should be there and viewers should notice it, but it shouldn’t be the star of your image. 


The composition is critical to making or breaking a photograph – especially when you have the power to, quite literally, move mountains in your own miniature world.  Place buildings, signs, signals, and many small details so that they frame your subject well and complement your subject.  Obeying the rule of thirds – laterally (across the frame from left to right) and/or longitudinally (from the top to the bottom of the frame) – is crucial to keeping your audience’s eye wandering around to each corner of your image.

PART TWO - There is always a Shot


Finding something interesting in the uninteresting is a sense you will develop as your photography improves.  Photographers develop an ability to capture the atmosphere of a scene even on the bleakest of days.


We’ve been taught as photographers to never shoot towards the sun and to be wary of the sun’s position on the subject.  This is important to take into account when composing your photograph.  Unfortunately, as railroad photographers, we’ve also been taught that a photograph taken whenever the sun isn’t shining is not as good as its sunny-day counterpart. 


This quite simply is not true.  Sure, the colors don’t pop as much under cloudy skies but think of the diverse photographic opportunities that open up now that the sun is shrouded.  Now, you can successfully shoot on the “shadow side” of the tracks without having the bright sunlight ruin your image.  In addition to new angles, cloudy, rainy, foggy, or snowy days have a different atmosphere – photographs captured in these conditions often make for a more interesting shot because of this.  They show that railways never sleep:  trains are running rain or shine, hot or cold.


Take, for example, this article’s cover image of a train’s headlight piercing through an early March blizzard.  I distinctly remember thinking I was crazy to stand out in the blowing snow to capture the moment that the headlights appeared through the whirling drifts.  The 60 MPH winds made standing outside a feat in itself, and the raging gusts made harmless, fluffy snowflakes into abrasive shards, which were being embedded into my jeans by the winds.  I was only outside for about fifteen minutes to capture the shot before I retreated to shelter, but that didn’t stop small drifts of snow from forming around my stationary feet!

They were indeed crazy conditions for photography, but I look back at this image more fondly than most I have captured.  This is one of my favorites not only because it was a memorable moment, but mostly because of what an incredible story it tells of the train crew’s determination and perseverance to battle the storm with the help of an incredible machine.


It’s hard to photograph delicate models in adverse weather conditions.  However, with a few tricks and practice, these conditions can be simulated without risking any of your model’s detailed and fragile components.


Using appropriate lighting is the key to constructing the setting for your image.  As an example, using a cool, diffused light gives the viewer an impression that your image was shot on an overcast day where the light was flat and the shadows non-existent.  Dimming/brightening the lighting gives hints to the time of day and helps add to the story of your photograph.  It’s important not to forget about the placement of your lights either – If you can’t take your models outdoors, try to emulate the lighting from the sun, ensuring the shadows cast by your models are realistically positioned (Ideally, all shadows should be pointing in the same direction).


Shooting models in the dark is especially spectacular if there are lighted buildings, signals, and signs.  Spot-lighting from miniature model streetlamps and traffic lights can be useful to frame your subject in darkened environments.

PART THREE - Learning from Others


Everybody sees something different in a scene, one photographer might see one shot while you want to try another.  Sometimes, a second opinion will lead you to try a shot you never thought you would.  Whether that second opinion comes in the moment or weeks later, it is worth acknowledging.  Learning from more experienced photographers is a great way to develop your eye and broaden your skillset.  Find an online community of photographers and ask questions, make connections and share your photographs.


PART FOUR - Learn your Gear


To execute a photograph successfully, you need to familiarize yourself with the equipment you’re using.  Each camera and lens performs best under specific conditions – whether they are external conditions (lighting, weather, etc...), technical conditions (shutter speed, aperture, etc...) or a mix of both.  There is only one way to know under which settings you will receive the best image, and that’s through trial and error.


To achieve the best possible result while shooting, you must try to control as many conditions as possible.  When shooting photos of model trains, for example, external conditions such as lighting can sometimes be controlled, especially if shooting indoors.  If a smaller aperture yields a sharper image from your camera, then brighter lighting will be necessary to expose the image properly.  Or, if you wish to capture the movement of your subject with a blur, a slower shutter speed is necessary and therefore less light will be needed.

PART FIVE - Express Yourself


This is what it’s all about – photography allows one to get their creative juices flowing and to share their efforts with others.  Being creative and trying new things is how each individual photographer defines themselves; it’s how they develop their unique flair and their unique style to reflect their individual personality.


The best advice I can give a photographer who is just starting is to try everything.  Don’t be limited by the boundaries of the box – go crazy with different angles, different camera settings and different adjustments made after-the-fact in your photo editing software.  Find what you enjoy, and find what works for you.  A trial-and-error process is simply the best way to discover what you enjoy shooting and how you prefer to capture your subject.  Always try pushing the limits of your photography gear and your photographic eye, and always keep an open mind to suggestions from others.  With springtime around the corner comes warmer temperatures and, as with any other season, photo opportunities abound!  Hope to see you out shooting!



About the Author


Jack Hykaway is a student, currently attending a post-secondary institution in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada.  He is an amateur videographer and writer and enjoys exploring and documenting nearby railroads and railroad operations in both written and visual formats of his work.

Jack’s main focus of late has been producing his column Jack's Junction for The Modeler’s Journal.

Follow along with Jack's videography on his YouTube channel at


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