A Steam Train in San Diego: Photographing A Bit of History

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on September 4, 2008

Steam trains are easy to find in museums. But actually pulling a passenger train between two major cities? That’s special.

Steam Train Photography in San Diego
There’s an old-fashioned Santa Fe steam engine  coming to San Diego on September 21st, 2008. This is only the second time since 1976 that a steam train has rolled into town.

A Little History

Engine 3751 was the locomotive power behind the very last steam-powered San Diegan train to leave San Diego in 1953. Now, this historic iron horse has been fully restored and will pull a trainload of passengers from Los Angeles to Old Town San Diego.

The train’s previous visit was on June 1st, 2008-and I was there to photograph it. But before I set up my tripod, I had to figure exactly where there would be.

Location Possibilities

I wanted an image of the engine in motion and without a bunch of spectators standing around. So, photographing at Old Town or the Santa Fe Depot was out. At those locations, it would be stopped and, even if I could capture it coming into one of those stations, I imagined I’d be elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of my fellow photographers who were bound to block my view or step into my frame.

Since the train would begin its journey in Los Angeles, I knew it would be entering San Diego from the north. Examining google maps, I found the only train track coming from that direction and followed its path from Oceanside to Old Town. There seemed to be quite a few places where an interesting photo could be made. I would have to choose only one, since it would be impossible to beat the train to more than one location.

Some of the sites I considered were several lagoons where the track crosses bridges over the water. San Elijo, Batiquitos, Aqua Hedionda, Buena Vista, and Soledad lagoons all seemed picturesque if the light was right. Del Mar, near the west side of racetrack also offers a bridge-over-water photo op. I also considered a couple of non-water views at the Solana Beach Amtrak depot where the tracks run beneath a pedestrian bridge and at Rose Canyon where they make a sweeping turn from westbound to southbound.

Final Decision

I finally decided that Seagrove Park in Del Mar-a bit south of the racetrack location-offered a quintessential California view. When I viewed it on Live View maps in bird’s eye view, I could see that it might be possible to stand on the edge of the bluff and aim down on the train as it rounds a graceful curve with the Pacific Ocean in the background. And the morning light would be coming over my left shoulder at this location-perfect for a train heading south.

So, I printed out a couple of maps, grabbed all of the gear I needed and got going. The train was supposed to arrive in San Diego at 11:30 a.m. I figured it would probably pass Del Mar somewhere around 10:30 or 11:00, so I left in plenty of time to pick up my friend, Shelly, and get to the park.

The Best Laid Plans

What I’d forgotten was that June 1st was also the day of the Rock and Roll Marathon. This event attracts about 20,000 runners to San Diego every year where they run on streets that are closed to traffic the entire morning. So, getting out of San Diego was no easy task.

As it got closer to 10:30 and I was still stuck in traffic, the plan had to change. There was no way to make it to Del Mar before the train got there, so Rose Canyon became the new in-spot. I could make it there in time and I figured that, because there would be a bit of a hike required to get in position, there would not be many other train watchers there.

Rose Canyon

We got to Rose Canyon around 10:30, not knowing if the train had already passed. We parked at University City High School across the street from the trailhead on Genesee Avenue (the school parking lot is open to the public on the weekends) and trotted into Rose Canyon Park. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at a bluff overlooking the track and quickly set up. The train was due any minute.

We noticed that to the west, there was a nice curve in the track that might make a better photo, but we didn’t have time to get there. Besides, the 20-foot high bluff with the track just below us offered an interesting perspective and there were only a handful of other people there. We figured that those rail fans were a good sign. They wouldn’t still be waiting if the train had already passed by.

The Waiting Game

You might think that having arrived just minutes before the expected arrival of the train, boredom would not be an issue. You’d be wrong. We waited. Around 11:30, a couple of cops on dirt bikes rode down the right-of-way and talked to some of the folks gathered near the tracks. Even though this was private railroad property, they didn’t try to chase anyone off. After they left, we heard a rumor that the train had been delayed in Fullerton. There was no estimated time of arrival.

Noon came and still no steam train. There were a couple of diesel Amtrak trains that came by and these gave us a chance to test our technique and re-compose as necessary. Shelly was down at track level when one of them passed and found that the train kicked up too much dust. Our position on the bluff was better.

By 12:30, we were amusing ourselves by tossing rocks off the bluff and trying to hit another rock below near the tracks. We got pretty good at: we had plenty of time to practice. The winner was supposed collect a buck per rock, but no money changed hands.

We See the Light

Around 12:50 p.m., our rock-tossing game was interrupted by the sound of clanging bells from the nearby crossing gate. Probably another Amtrak train, we figured, but dashed to our nearby cameras anyway. From our perch on the high ground we could see quite a way down the track to the east, and this time we saw a light. It was the headlight of the tardy engine 3751 heading straight for us at high speed.

The engineer must have been trying to make up for lost time because this train was flying at probably 40 mph. We started photographing as fast as our shutters would let us, first with our long lenses and, as the train arrived at the bluff, with our wide-angles. Between my three cameras, I was able to squeeze off about a dozen photos and about 30 seconds of video before the train disappeared around the bend to the west.

Rose Canyon location. Click the map for a larger view on google maps.

Rose Canyon location. Click the map for a larger view on google maps.

Photographically Speaking

We found that only two parts of this train were photogenic: the engine in front and the last car in the rear. In between, there were 11 modern Amtrak passenger cars. These you can photograph anywhere. Judging from the website dedicated to this train trip at Overland.com, the train on September 21st will pull vintage passenger cars, up to 26 of them. That should make for better photos.

The engine was everything a photographer could hope for. The gleaming black steel with its rivets, pipes, and churning wheels was worth seeing in action. Though smoke poured from the stack, the speed of the locomotive caused the exhaust to lay down low to the train and disperse quickly. At a slower speed, I imagine there would be a more satisfying plume.

Photographing the coal-black engine and tender requires careful exposure. Although I prefer to use aperture-priority mode, on this day it was full manual exposure. Fortunately, the light wasn’t changing much and I was able to take an accurate exposure reading by pointing my camera at a section of clear blue sky away from the sun. Then, I verified the exposure on my LCD as I photographed the surrounding landscape and the Amtrak trains that passed us. By the time the star of the show arrived, I had the correct exposure locked in.

Bringing up the rear was the California Zephyr, a streamlined antique passenger car with a bubble-top observation deck. With a few passengers leaning out the side door and peering out the back, this vintage car offers one last chance at an old-fashioned looking photo of the train before it speeds out of sight. There is no mention of this car on the Overland.com website, so it may not be included in the September 21st trip.

If you have time, I’d suggest you visit a few of the locations I’ve listed-or your own choice of sites-a few days before the steam train arrives. You can practice on the other trains that travel that route and really get a feel for the area and the kinds of backgrounds you’ll be dealing with. Then, you’ll probably get some better photos than I did.

Equipment and Techniques

I used three cameras on this trip: a Nikon D300, a Nikon D70, and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2.

The Panasonic is a nice little pocket-sized camera that shoots raw and is easy to carry when I don’t want to bring the big rig. I brought it this time for the sole purpose of using its movie mode to make a video of the train. I set it up on my lightweight travel tripod, an old Velbon MAX I 343E , tripped the shutter to start the video way before the train came into view and shut it off after I was done shooting stills with my other cameras. Afterward, I edited the movie in Adobe Premiere Pro to remove the boring parts. (Adobe Premiere Elements would be just as effective and it’s a lot cheaper.)

The Nikon D70 was my first digital camera and now fills in as my second camera until I can justify buying another D300 or even a D700. I mounted my Nikon 18-70mm lens and hung it around my neck for close-up handheld photos as the train whizzed by. I didn’t use a polarizer on this one because I’d be swinging it rapidly from right to left as the train flew by  and would have no time to re-adjust it. Exposure, set to manual, was f/8 at 1/640 second. I used ISO 400 because the train would be close and fast and I wanted to keep the shutter speed up to avoid motion blur.

The Nikon D300 is my main camera. It can photograph at 6 frames-per-second, a speed I could have made more use of when the train was close by, but I’d already decided to use the D70 for those photos.  I used my Nikon 70-200mm VR lens-the best lens Nikon makes, in my opinion-with a polarizer. Manual exposure was set to f/6.3 at 1/500 (ISO 400). The D300 was mounted on an old Gitzo G1325 Mk II tripod with VR turned off on the lens.

Disappearing around the bend.

Disappearing around the bend.

End of the Line

If you do get out to photograph the steam train this month, or if you already did in June, I’d love to hear about it: good or bad. Please leave a comment at the end of this article so we can all learn from your experience.

Related Stories:

Steam Train Update: Photo Locations

Steam Train in San Diego: The Final Chapter

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