There's something romantic about trains.
It's a love affair that probably started centuries ago when traveling by rail opened the door to a world of which most Americans could only dream.
Trains were massive and powerful. Pullman cars were opulent with carved wood, gleaming brass and velvet adornments. Boxcars and hoppers carried amazing amounts of produce with ease.
Things really haven't changed much since the last spike was driven into the country's first transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. To be sure, most trains no longer belch black clouds from smokestacks and passengers probably don't take their seats on velvet cushions. But much remains the same – including our love for the steel rails.
That affection for all things railroad is often evidenced in fantastic photos shot by local rail fans.
Kevin Aurandt says he's loved trains since he was a boy growing up in Ebensburg.
“When I was 5 or 6, I remember being able to see the trains that came through (town), on the Blacklick Secondary. I remember the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), then Penn Central, and the Cambria & Indiana Railroad. C&I was the Bethlehem Steel-owned railroad that collected coal from the Bethlehem mines in Cambria and Indiana counties and brought it to Ebensburg where it was cleaned for transfer to the end users by the PRR or it’s eventual successors.
“It was easy to bicycle down to the point where the tracks of the C&I and then Conrail, would exchange trains,” he says. “Being around there, I got to know many of the crews, track gang members and others from both railroads.
“I could go on about the kindness of those guys to tolerate and teach a kid about the 'goin’s on' of the operation of the railroad,” Aurandt says. “To a kid, those were things bigger than life.”
When he decided to take up photography as a hobby, Aurandt says it was natural for him to begin shooting trains.
“I found a quality camera and started clicking away.
“I have no training other than the manuals, but you pick things up from experience. As you process the digital pictures, the 1s and 0s of the computer programs can make a difference, but you have to have something to start with. I’ve learned to look at angles, surroundings for framing, color contrasts.
“You know what they say; if you want to take a good picture, take 100. If you want a great picture, take 1,000.”
Bryan Smith, president of Greater Johnstown Camera Club, says photographing trains is not technical. “Use an aperture high enough to keep the train in focus and a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action,” he says.
“If you’re shooting with a digital single-lens reflex (DLSR) camera, I’d suggest starting your photographic session by setting your camera to aperture priority mode with an aperture of F-8 and an ISO of 400. The camera will pick the shutter speed for you when you do this.
“Take a few shots and see how the results look,” Smith says. “If necessary, you can adjust the settings until the photos look good to you.
“Many DSLRs also have a 'sports' setting that should also work well and you don’t have to worry about adjusting any camera settings yourself. The camera picks all the settings for you.
“In most cases, a telephoto lens is a good idea.”
Smith says there are lots of places in the area to safely photograph trains.
“In Johnstown, there is the Cramer Pike, along the Conemaugh River and the Stone Bridge. In South Fork, on Railroad Street; in Summerhill, along Main Street; in Cassandra, at the railroad overlook; and in Cresson, at the Cresson Railroad park.
“I’m sure there are other places along the mainline, but these are places I’ve been to and are safe,” he says.
“The Cassandra Railroad Overlook is particularly interesting to me as you can stand on a very wide foot bridge going over the tracks and photograph the trains.”
Aurandt now lives in Hollidaysburg, but travels a great deal with his job and takes train photos whenever the opportunity arises. “I have pictures of multiple railroads,” he says.
“It's actually therapeutic. Yes, it can be cold and sometimes a lengthy wait for picture opportunities, but it’s a peaceful time – at least for me.”
Phil Andraychak, a Pennsylvania state constable and deputy state game warden from Lilly, says the best advice he can give someone who wants to photograph trains is to have patience.
Like Aurandt, his interest in railroads started at a young age. “A train would pass near my home in Lilly en route to the coal mine. After school, my friend and I would wait for the train to come back from the mine and many days the engineer would toss to us what he had left over from his lunch. On a good day it was a Hershey bar or a 'bucket cake,' many times it was a banana.”
Andraychak's passion for photography started when a friend gave him an old Yashica film camera. “It was totally manual,” he says. “It gave me a real understanding of how ISO, aperture and shutter speed all work together. “It's not like the digital cameras of today where you get results immediately. Back in the day, you waited for results to come back in the mail from Clark film lab. There were no 'do overs.'
These days, Andraychak is one of the Johnstown Tomahawks' photographers. “I have developed a real passion for sports photography,” he says.
Andraychak says the best advice he can give to those wanting to know how to capture beautiful train photos is to become familiar with websites that help track train movement.
“I have been fortunate to have friends that are knowledgeable of these sites and will call or message me when a train of interest will be coming my way,” he says. “One of the most frustrating things that can happen is when you're set up to photograph a train on a certain track and, before it arrives, another train comes on a different track and blocks your view.”
One site Smith recommends to train photography enthusiasts is railfanlocations.weebly.com.
The site is geared to people who enjoy watching trains and provides legal locations to enjoy the hobby.
It contains information on 37 locations in 14 states. Among the recommended spots are sites in Altoona, Cresson, Cassandra and Gallitzin.
According to the site, Cresson is a "busy railroad line" with nearly 60 trains every 24 hours and includes an elevated observation platform made just for watching trains – and for taking terrific photos. It includes a radio scanner to keep up with railroad conversations.
Aurandt says it's important to remember safety first when it comes to photographing trains. “When I take (train) pictures, it is always at a safe distance and from public access places. With the lenses, it looks much closer than I (actually) am relative to the trains.”
Aurandt says he doesn't try to replicate or outdo other photographers. “My competition is myself, to get better as I go.”
Although he has lived in several areas in the country, Aurandt says he appreciates the strength of the people of this area. “The struggles and wins have always kept me grounded,” he says. “Having seen the highs and lows of the economic waves and how they have impacted the local area gives me a perspective that (not everyone has).
“I love the heart of the Allegheny region people – strength, heart and hope. Somehow, I see that in the (train) pictures – the grit and power of this area.”