Friday, February 17, 2017

That's My Fun Day

Head on into Sunday morning
I wish it was Sunday
That's my fun day
My I don't have to run day
- Manic Monday, Bangles

You may have noticed that I sometimes go out railfanning on Sunday mornings. Sunday is indeed my "I don't have to run day" as the Bangles so aptly sang. Saturday morning is usually spent at my son's curling rink and weekend afternoons are family time. Sunday mornings... often they are my time.

This past Sunday (February 12th) was one of those fun days. I woke up at a reasonable hour, had breakfast, then hit the road. I had a notion to visit the CN Rivers subdivision for a bit, then head up to the CP Carberry sub and hopefully catch a train there.

Track 1 - Manic Monday

First catch was an early train on the Rivers, a westbound heading out of the early morning sun. Not the best light, but you do what you can. I parked near Carman Junction and got the photos above and below at that location. The train was led by CN 5708 (SD75I) and CN 2153 (C40-8W) and featured a lot of autoracks.

CN 5708 rounding the bend at Carman Junction
I hopped in my car and headed west to try to catch them around Diamond. It was not hard to get ahead of them, as the road conditions were good. I shot them splitting the west-facing signals.

CN 5708 splitting the signals at Diamond
I didn't chase them any further. I wasn't really sure whether I should head up north to CP yet.

I had a feeling there was going to be an eastbound freight coming along. I'm not sure why I felt that way.

Track 2 - In A Different Light

I went westward a bit along the CN Rivers sub, and at the route 424 crossing I saw a headlight to the west. I looked around a bit for a suitable location and found a snow ridge to stand on to get a bit of elevation.

As the train hurtled closer I saw that it was a potash train, led by another SD75I, CN 5672, and a Dash-9, CN 2536. They were really moving!

CN 5672 and a lot of potash cars in the snow
Fortunately a westbound train in the morning put the train in a different light than the earlier eastbound.

Those PotashCorp hoppers kicked up a lot of snow.

Mmmm, potash
I decided to give chase and maybe get ahead of them for another shot. Since they were an eastbound, the light would be a lot better.

Track 3 - Walking Down Your Street

As I pursued them, it became clear that there was going to be a meet, as the headlights of another westbound were visible in the distance. I had one thing on my mind - to catch the westbound train quickly, then resume the chase.

Dash-9 (C44-9W) CN 2644 was leading the third SD75I of the day, CN 5716, and a solid grain train.
A different light - side light, in fact
The lighting wasn't great and the location wasn't so good either, but hey, I took a few quick shots and I was back on the chase again...

Track 4 - Walk Like An Egyptian

(man, I loved that song)

I passed Diamond, finally catching up to the end of the potash train. As I slowly gained on the train, car by car, I saw another westbound train rolling by on the south track - a container train. I made a quick decision and gave up on the potash train.

A quick U-turn brought me back toward Diamond to get the container train. No cops - maybe they were hanging out at the donut shop. I pulled over down the road and ran out to grab CN 2968 (ES44AC) at the head end of what I assume was Q101, a hot intermodal train.
CN 2968 leading a container train outside Winnipeg
The train rolled along pretty swiftly, and after a few minutes the mid-train DPU came into view, an ET44AC, CN 3069.

CN 3069 mid-train outside Winnipeg
It was turning into quite a nice morning!

Remember these chairs? Still here, apparently.
Another ES44AC was on the tail end, CN 2961. This one was pretty snow covered, which made me wonder if maybe this was the leader on an eastbound train earlier, and was now heading back west.

Ummm, you have a little something on your face.

After that, I figured if I was going to go see CP, I'd better get on with it.

Track 5 - Standing in the Hallway

I headed up the Perimeter Highway to the CP Carberry sub. There were two CP trains there, passing each other on the two tracks!

I was amazed, because it's good luck to see even one CP train these days. One was heading east into Winnipeg and one was heading west. I had no chance of getting the eastbound before it reached the yard, so I went west, young man.

It took a while to catch up to it, as you have to slow to 50 km/hr through Rosser and the road isn't parallel to the track all the way along. I got ahead of it before Meadows and elected to shoot it with the elevator. Here's the "coming" shot as they approached the Paterson grain elevator, which was off to the left of the photo.

CP 9371 West through Meadows, Manitoba
Since it was morning and the sun was in the east, I couldn't shoot a conventional "passing the elevator" photo without some severe backlighting. I decided to try this shot instead. I'm fairly happy with it.

CP 9371 and the Meadows elevator
Note the birds deserting the elevator as CP 9371 and CP 8702 rumbled by.

I moved around a bit to try different angles as the seemingly endless container train rolled by. I shot the DPU locomotive, CP 8828, from more of the sun side.

CP 8828 passing the Meadows grain elevator
I tromped through the snow to get the last shot of the tail end of the train passing the elevator. Good thing I had my winter boots on!
Container train and grain elevator
I see that CP is carrying Canadian Tire containers again. For a while they were on CN... maybe they are on both now. Anyone know?

So that was fun, but it was time to start heading home.

Track 6 - Return Post

I passed through Rosser again - 50 km/hr grumble grumble - and as I approached the Viterra elevator by the Perimeter Highway, I saw headlights on the rails. Another train!

The funny thing was that the headlights were high on the hood, not in the nose like Canadian locomotives have. At first I thought it was an American locomotive like a Norfolk Southern engine, but it turned out to be CP 2304 running long hood forward.

CP 2304, running long hood forward
CP 2304 is a GP20C-ECO locomotive, one of the rebuilt Geeps featuring a standard cab and an 8 cylinder 710 prime mover. I'm not sure why it was running long hood forward; I'm sure the crew wasn't big fans of the reduced visibility.

I'm quite sure this locomotive and train were headed to Portage la Prairie. The train had the following cars:
  • CRYX 5362, 5349, 5359, 5353, 5590, 4037, 4033, 5374 - Cryo-Trans refrigerated cars, likely for McCain Foods in Portage;
  • TGRX 854834 (lettered for Richardson) and GACX 10003 (lettered for GATX) - for the Richardson plant on the west side of Portage;
  • TILX 793096 (Trinity Industries Leading) - refrigerated car for Simplot just west of Portage; and
  • CRYX 5381, CRYX 5377, CRYX 5364, and CRYX 5296 - probably also for McCain

CRYX 5296 and other refrigerated cars
Often there is a CP locomotive stationed in Portage la Prairie, but I understand that recently the crew either takes the locomotive from Winnipeg to Portage or taxis from Winnipeg to Portage.

I didn't chase the train, but instead headed south. I had some time left so I thought I'd touch base with a few grain elevators and maybe get lucky and catch one more train.

Track 7 - If She Knew What She Wants

There was nothing moving on the CN Rivers sub, nor the CEMR Carman sub, so I headed down the CP La Riviere sub toward La Salle and Domain.
The La Salle grain elevator
The La Salle grain elevator looked much the same as the last time I saw it. The elevator has a bit of a lean toward the track, but it's had that for several years at least. Hopefully it doesn't get worse.

I went to the south end to shoot and a few snowmobilers were zooming by, so I caught one of them in the photo.
Snowmobiling in La Salle, Manitoba
I'd say this looks like fun, but I haven't been on a snowmobile since I was a child. My dad was involved in two snowmobile incidents and let's just say that they didn't exactly endear me to snowmobiles.

1. While we were living in the Soviet Union, we were staying at a dacha [cottage] outside Moscow for a few days. My dad borrowed or rented a snowmobile, which happened to have a broken windshield so it had a jagged edge on it. While driving it, he managed to get into an accident and cut his chin on the windshield, requiring stitches... without anesthetic, of course, because this was the Soviet Union.
2. Back in Canada - either before or after our trip to the USSR, I'm not sure - we were visiting my mom's parents at their farm outside Fredericton. My dad had a snowmobile and I was on the back, and we headed out to run over the farm land. My grandparents had a few hundred acres so there was plenty of room to ski or snowmobile. I did a lot of cross-country skiing there.

Anyway, at one point I fell off the back and my dad didn't notice for a while, so I was left alone in the "wilderness" for a while until my dad noticed and came back for me. I wasn't interested in snowmobiling after that.

Track 8 - Let It Go

After La Salle, it's a short drive over to Domain to see the ex Manitoba Pool grain elevator there.
I love these Prairie town signs
I'm pretty sure the elevator is privately owned now. I've seen single grain cars spotted at the elevator so it is still in use.
The Domain, Manitoba grain elevator

That was the end of my "fun day" morning. I hope you liked it, and I'll leave you with a question:

What is your favourite Bangles song?

Leave a comment and tell me why!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

AmazonBasics DSLR and Laptop Backpack Review

I've had a sling-type camera bag for a while, but I wanted to get a larger bag that also included a spot for a laptop. A few blogs had mentioned the Amazon Basics DSLR and Laptop Backpack so I decided to give it a shot.

I lucked into a little sale and got it for $45.99 (Canadian) with free shipping. It arrived quickly and I took a little video while I unboxed it.
The backpack has three compartments - a slot for a laptop up to 17" in size, the main compartment with sections for camera bodies and lenses, and a smaller accessory compartment with pockets and slots for cables, pens, etc.

The Camera Compartment

The main compartment has dividers that you can move to fit your own equipment. I would say that you could easily fit two complete cameras in here.

In my backpack, I've put my camera, with my two main lenses (and my "nifty fifty"), a flash, battery charger, rain cover, and a few other doodads. There is room for more.

I can fit my camera with a telephoto lens on it very comfortably in here.

I think I will be fiddling around with the compartments a little more to get just what I want. I may wish to have the camera closer to the top so I can just unzip the top and slip the camera out, rather than having to open the compartment fully to get the camera out.

The Laptop Compartment

There's not a lot to say about the laptop part. Most laptops will fit here no problem at all. I have two laptops, a giant 17" Dell workstation and a smaller 14" laptop. Needless to say, the 14" computer fits in with no issues. The Dell, however... it's a tight fit. The zippers do close but just barely.

You should keep in mind that my 17" Dell is a large laptop and most people comment on its size when they first see it. There's a tasteless joke in here somewhere.

Here's a photo of my smaller laptop in the bag.

I'm confident that the vast majority of laptops will fit in this bag.

The Front Compartment

Front compartment
The front compartment is for all the miscellaneous doo-dads that you carry around. Laptop charger, cables, pens, business cards, breath mints, whatever you normally carry along when travelling.

The compartment zips open about 60% of the way. The rest forms a deep pocket to retain larger items.

You can see from the photo that half of the compartment is a large mesh bag, closed with a zipper. I plan to use that for passports, boarding passes and other documentation that I don't want to lose.

The other half has a pouch with a number of small pockets for pens and small items, as well as a clip thingie to attach keys or carabiners to. I would use this to attach the little key generator devices I have to carry around for customers' VPNs.

Other Features

The backpack has straps on the outside for securing a tripod to the backpack. I tried this for a little while and it does work, but I generally don't carry a tripod around and I found the tripod was banging into things as I wore the backpack. To me this isn't a very useful feature but "your mileage may vary".

The backpack comes with a rain cover bag. I haven't had the opportunity to use it yet but it's nice to have. I pretty sure the backpack is not waterproof so you would want to use the bag in heavy rain. I know I have used the integrated rain cover on my Lowepro SlingShot a few times.

Wearing the Backpack

Of course I had to try the backpack on to see how it feels. It has the normal backpack shoulder straps and also has straps to go around the waist.
Wearing the backpack
I don't think I will wear the waist straps.

It's comfortable enough and you can see the shoulder straps are nice and broad so it shouldn't dig into my shoulders.


I can't say I have any real dislikes for the backpack, other than it is different than my Lowepro SlingShot 102AW. I am used to wearing the SlingShot and being able to slide it around to the front and get my camera out fast. With a backpack, you have to actually take the pack off and set it down somewhere before you can take the camera out.

I really see different uses for my backpack and my sling pack. The backpack is for travelling and for having on the passenger seat next to me while driving. I think that is an excellent use for it as everything will be accessible. The sling pack is good for being a tourist - to have the camera easily accessible - but not good for carrying a lot of stuff.


This backpack does exactly what it promises to do - carry a DSLR and a laptop in a backpack. The price is great and it is a good basic backpack for carrying your computer and camera around. I'm happy with my purchase.

Buy the DSLR / Laptop Backpack

(The Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning that I receive a small commission if you follow the link and purchase something on Amazon, at no additional cost to you. I was not compensated for this review in any way, nor did anyone ask me to review the backpack. I just wanted to share my experience.)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Philadephia Freedom

I used to be a rolling stone you know
If a cause was right
I'd leave to find the answer on the road
I used to be a heart beating for someone
- "Philadelphia Freedom", Elton John / Bernie Taupin

While looking through my Lightroom catalog for Amtrak images, I stumbled across some photos I took when I was in Philadelphia, PA back in April 2005.

I've never blogged about this trip before, because this was a few months before I started blogging!

This was the only time I've been in Philadelphia (to date) although I have been in Pittsburgh a few times.


I went to Philadelphia for work, for a conference. I did some research and determined that you could take a train from the Philadelphia International Airport via SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

I arrived at PHL and took this train. It was a pretty short trip on the Airport Regional Line to Jefferson Station downtown, maybe 30 minutes.

I'm pretty sure I was staying at the Marriott where the conference was, and it was a short walk from Jefferson station to the hotel. I stowed my bags and took a short walk to the 30th Street Amtrak station.

Amtrak's Station

Amtrak's 30th Street train station in Philadelphia
Columns at Amtrak station
This imposing structure was built for the Pennsylvania Railroad and opened in 1933. It is the busiest Amtrak station in Pennsylvania, being situated on the Northeast Corridor and serving more than 10,000 passengers a day.

Amtrak trains like the Acela Express, Vermonter, Cardinal and Keystone Service stop here. It also sees many SEPTA trains and NJ Transit's Atlantic City Line starts here.

I walked through the large Art Deco waiting room and looked around for a bit. I was a lot more self-conscious about my railfanning in 2005 than I am now, so I didn't do much exploring and I definitely didn't try to go on the platforms. I did notice that there were some great views available from the parking garage...
The cavernous interior of the Amtrak 30th Street station

Return to Amtrak

I went back to the Amtrak station on the 5th after the day's activities ended. I went straight to the parking garage to take some photos of the engine servicing area.

Amtrak yard, Philadelphia
Notice the collection of ballast hoppers on the left side. A little closer view...
Amtrak 200 and ballast hoppers
I was intrigued by the loco in the distance and zoomed in even farther.
AMTK 723 in Philadelphia
Apparently AMTK 723 is a GP38-3, originally built for the Penn Central as GP38 PC 7758. From photos it looks like it is used for yard and maintenance service.

Sister AMTK 724 was nearby with an electric locomotive on the next track.
AMTK 724 in Philadelphia
I took a little bit of video too.
Later that night, I had to have a Philadelphia standard... a hoagie. It's the "official sandwich of Philadelphia", after all!
Mmmmm... hoagie.
It was pretty delicious.

SEPTA Transit Museum

On the 6th I visited the SEPTA Transit Museum briefly. I didn't have a lot of time but it's a small museum, just up the street, so it was all good.

They have a restored PCC trolley car there, #2733. She's a beauty!
PCC car 2733 in Philadelphia
It's pretty nice inside.
Streetcar interior, Philadelphia
I liked the nose of this transit car sticking out of the wall.
Part of car 1312
There was a model train display there as well.
Mmmm, three rail


To wrap up, here are a few miscellaneous photos I took while I was there. My apologies for the poor photo quality of some of the photos. These were taken with a 1 megapixel digital camera...
Part of the Philly skyline

Mural below the Jefferson station

The Liberty Bell and I

See Also

Sunday, February 05, 2017

It's 3 AM, I Must Be Railfanning

Amtrak in Fargo


I've always wanted to photograph Amtrak's Empire Builder in North Dakota. It passes through Fargo and Grand Forks, both places that our family visits now and then for shopping. The problem is that it stops in those two cities in the middle of the night.

Train 7, the westbound Empire Builder, is scheduled to stop in Fargo at 03:24 and Grand Forks at 04:41, while train 8, the eastbound, is scheduled to stop in Grand Forks at 01:02 and Fargo at 02:18. If they're on time, they should meet somewhere between Fargo and Detroit Lakes, MN.

The Setup

We went to Fargo last month to spend the weekend shopping and just getting out of Winnipeg. We arrived on the evening of Friday, January 20th and spent the 21st shopping. As we were relaxing in our hotel on Saturday night, I checked the Amtrak app and noted that the eastbound Empire Builder was an hour late, meaning it was forecast to be in Fargo at about the same time as the westbound Empire Builder. A plan formed.

I discussed my plan with my wife. As usual she thought I was crazy, but was OK with me getting up in the middle of the night to photograph trains, as long as she didn't have to get up.

I laid out all my supplies before bedtime. A partial list:
  • Camera bag
  • Tripod
  • Coat, mitts, hat, scarf
  • Clothes
  • Cell phone
  • Car keys
It was foggy Saturday evening, given the mild temperatures outside, but I wasn't too concerned. I went to bed after setting my cell phone to alarm at 02:45.

The Journey

I awoke, dressed quickly, and snuck out of the hotel room without waking anyone. Good. I took the stairs down to the ground floor and headed out to the parking lot to find our van. After about 15 minutes of driving, I was at the Amtrak depot.

Amtrak station (L) and ex Great Northern station (R)
Amtrak's Fargo station is actually housed in the former Great Northern freight depot. The adjacent station building is occupied by the Great Northern Bicycle Company.

I parked on a nearby street because I didn't know the parking situation at the station. I think I would have been OK parking there but better safe than sorry. There was a fair amount of activity at the station, with a few cars idling nearby and some people were being dropped off at the station.

I went inside and asked the Amtrak agent which train was coming in first. He saw my camera and told me the westbound was arriving first, and said to watch out for his baggage truck when I was taking photos. I didn't plan on being on the platform and I told him that. My plan was to shoot from the crossings on either side of the station.

But First, A Surprise

I went to the North Broadway crossing to set up my tripod and camera. As I was getting ready, I heard a train approaching from the east. It turned out to be a BNSF manifest freight train led by BNSF 6069, 4602 and 8971. I took video with my iPhone.

After that blew through, I finished setting up to wait for the westbound Amtrak Empire Builder.

While waiting, I recorded a little video about how to focus your camera at night here!

The Westbound

The Amtrak train came along not long after the BNSF train went through. The train crawled up to the Broadway Drive crossing, with AMTK 113 sticking its nose into the crossing and keeping the arms down and the crossing active.
AMTK 113 in Fargo, North Dakota at night on the Amtrak Empire Builder
I kinda liked the fog's effect on the lights!

I always get asked what settings I used, so for the above photo I used a 2 second exposure at f/10 and ISO 100. I used the 2 second self timer on my camera (on the tripod) so I wouldn't move the camera by pressing the shutter.

I was playing with shutter speeds of 2-5 seconds when the train wasn't moving. I liked this exposure because with f/10 I could get enough depth of field to get most of the image in focus. A shorter shutter speed would mean I'd have to open the aperture up (e.g. f/8 or f/5.6) and therefore less depth of field.

After about 8 minutes they pulled forward a bit to spot the second half of the train at the platform.
Amtrak baggage car and Superliners in Fargo
That brought baggage car 61025 and the Superliners more into view.

After a few more minutes, they took off westward and that was the end of that train.

I walked around to get to the 4th Street North crossing to shoot the eastbound. On the way, I stopped to take a decent photo of the old Great Northern station. She's a beauty!
Ex Great Northern train station in Fargo
On to the other Empire Builder...

The Eastbound

Long exposure of the Amtrak Empire Builder arriving in Fargo, North Dakota
I shot a long exposure of the Empire Builder's arrival while recording video on my iPhone. This was a 15 second, f/13 exposure.

The train's head end stopped well across 4th Street in an inaccessible location. I elected to stay put and take a few photos of the Superliners gleaming in the available light. See lead photo for a black and white view of the Superliners.
Superliners on the move
They did a re-positioning move here too, so I took a brief photo of the move. The green lights on the side seem to indicate that the doors are closed. I saw them turn red for a bit while the cars were at the platform.

I shot video of their arrival but not of the departure.

Amtrak Video

I combined both trains into one video.


After the other Empire Builder left, I packed up and went back to my hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before going back out to railfan again. But that's another story.

I'm glad I made the effort to see the Amtrak trains. I'm not sure if I'll do that on every trip! I think I'll have to get out in Grand Forks to see the trains there, even though the Amtrak station in Grand Forks is much more modest than Fargo's.

Other Amtrak Posts

Saturday, January 28, 2017

How To Focus Your Camera at Night

If you've tried to take a photo in the dark of night, you may have found your camera had a hard time focusing... or never focused at all.

Digital cameras focus by looking for contrast within the image. They are looking for areas where a bright part of the image is next to a darker part. This is why cameras focus best on sharp edges like door frames, building edges and so forth.

The problem with focusing at night is that everything is dark so there is very little contrast. This causes cameras to "hunt" for focus and often fail to lock in a good focus, resulting in blurry photos. My camera will often refuse to take a photo at all because it didn't focus.

Two solutions for focusing at night are:
  • Using a light to assist
  • Live view

Using a Light

If you have a light handy, you can use that to illuminate your subject and provide enough contrast for your camera to achieve focus. You can use a flashlight, your car's headlights, or even your cell phone to put a little light on your subject.

Once you achieve focus with your camera, put it in manual focus to keep that focus point and start shooting.

For the photo at the top of this post, I used my portable flashlight (which is ridiculously bright) to light up the signal tower.

First I put my camera on a tripod. Then I lit the signal tower up with the flashlight, and focused on the tower using my camera's auto focus.

Once it achieved focus, I flipped the switch on the lens to put it in manual focus and turned the flashlight off.

As long as I didn't zoom in or out, or change the location of the camera, the focus would stay "good" and I could take as many photos as I liked.

Live View

Another option is to use the "live view" feature of your camera. This is a feature of most DSLRs where it will show what the camera's sensor sees, in real time, on the display on the back of your camera. Normally when you look through the viewfinder, you are seeing a reflection off the mirror in your camera.

Live view has its benefits because it is brighter than the viewfinder, and you can zoom in. In the video below, recorded in Fargo, North Dakota, I used live view to focus on the clock tower of the Fargo train station.

The basic idea is this:

  • Put the camera on a tripod
  • Put the lens in manual focus
  • Turn live view on
  • Expand the live view as far as you can go
  • Use the focus ring on the lens to focus using the live view as a reference
  • Turn live view off and take photos

In this case I had the benefit of a relatively bright clock face, but it works pretty well in darker situations as well.

Live view really sucks the battery, so you don't want to use it long term.

This should work well for mirrorless cameras, where you are basically using live view all the time. I don't have a mirrorless camera so I don't have any personal experience of this.

I hope this helps you take some great night photos. Shooting at night is a totally different experience and I enjoy the challenge and the different perspectives it brings!

See Also