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Behind the Photo: Justin Franz’s railroad photography -
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Behind the Photo: Justin Franz’s railroad photography

A Siemens Mobility ALC-42 Charger locomotive leads Amtrak’s Empire Builder east across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. As seen from a DJI Mavic Air 2S. May 22, 2022.

Justin Franz is a writer and photographer based in Whitefish, Montana who has been photographing trains for over twenty years. During the pandemic, he purchased his first drone and started experimenting with getting aerial perspectives of these fast-moving machines across the North American landscape. DPReview recently interviewed him to discuss how he used his DJI Mavic Air 2S drone to capture the epic shot above of an Amtrak ALC-42 Charger locomotive and cars crossing the Flathead River.

What sort of pre-planning goes into capturing a shot like this?

A lot of the time it starts with looking at maps or Google Earth and seeing the bends of the landscape – curves are always better than a straightaway. If there’s not a dramatic backdrop or interesting foreground, it’s just not going to work. I spend time just looking at the landscape online and thinking of past places I’ve been. Sometimes you get there and you throw the drone up and it just doesn’t work.

When Amtrak got these new locomotives I knew I wanted to get some glamor shots of them with the drone. There’s a long tradition in railroad photography of photographing the newest and brightest locomotives in the most iconic landscapes that the train travels through. If you look at the last 100 years, anytime the Great Northern Railway had a new locomotive they would have their publicity people take pictures of it along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. I knew that I wanted to sort of replicate that with these new locomotives.

How early did you arrive on site to get set up?

That specific spot is a 10-minute drive from my house, and just west of me is a busy station where the train stops for about 20 minutes. I knew that once the train was in Whitefish I could make the 10-minute drive to the location. I probably got out there like 30 minutes ahead of time to get the drone set up, calibrate the GPS, send the drone up to look around and get an idea of exactly where I wanted to be.

I knew that once the train was in Whitefish I could make the 10-minute drive to the location.

Amtrak has the little train tracker that you can queue up on your phone and see where the train is on the map, but that doesn’t always work because sometimes you are in an area with no cell service. If you’ve done railroad photography for a long time, you start to understand how the railroad operates. If it left the station at a certain time, and it’s X miles away, theoretically it should arrive at a certain time. I always sort of wait until it’s about the right time before I send the drone up. The railroad people also use radios to talk to each other and you can tune in and listen to figure out how close the train is and if it’s time to send the drone up.

How many shots did you have to take to capture the moment?

With the drone, you really only have one shot at it – and of course sometimes there’s a delay [between pressing the shutter button and the shot] – most people might not notice that delay, but if you’re doing railroad photography with a drone, you quickly notice that delay. Even a second or two too late and the train is in the wrong spot – the train is going 50 or 60 mph.

With the drone, you really only have one shot at it.

With the Mavic Air there is a setting where you can shoot in bursts of three, five or seven. Those bursts are in really quick succession. When shooting in bursts or three or five you don’t really notice a big difference in the frames, but with seven there always seems to be a delay because of the buffer. Usually I set it to capture bursts of three because it at least gives me an option, even if the train has only moved a foot or so. It’s not like shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, where you can just sort of spray and get 30 different options.

What tips would you give to someone who wants to get started with railroad photography?

A friend of mine, another railroad photographer, jokes that railroad photographers are just dumb landscape photographers. We’re looking for great landscapes, but it would be better if there was a train cutting through the landscape. It takes a lot of patience, it’s challenging at times, but it’s also a lot of fun. You should learn as much as you can about the railroad and how it works and obviously be safe while shooting. Trains are big, fast-moving machines, so never trespass and be careful.

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