Saturday, July 15, 2017

10 Questions for Kevin Burkholder

This series is modeled after the "Interesting Railfan" series in Railroad magazine from years ago. I'm asking each railfan 10 questions, some standard and some customized for the particular person. I hope you enjoy it. (See all in the series)

I put 10 questions to Kevin Burkholder, who is what you might call a professional railfan. He runs Steel Wheels Photography.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a retired flight paramedic, having served 22 years in that particular venue and more than 30 as a paramedic overall.  I reside in the quaint railroad town of Bellows Falls, Vermont, with my wife and soon-to-be 9 children…#9 is due in September.  To be fair, several of the children have graduated and moved on, but we have age range from 21 down to newborn in September, which will then put us at 5 boys and 4 girls.

We affectionately have nicknamed our brood ‘the Burky Bunch’.  Despite the family and the former medical career, through doing various work for the rail media industry since 1988,  I have established many strong contacts in the rail industry, not just with railroads but with various builders, paint contractors and rebuilders.

NS 6920 in Binghampton. Photo by Kevin Burkholder.

2. Why do you like trains?

I grew up on Railroad Street in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, with my great grandfather working as an electrician for the Reading Railroad.  Within eyesight of the Reading Railroad and then Conrail after that, my grandmother would walk me to the tracks to watch the trains go by.

My photographic interest was sparked and I received a 110 camera for my 8th birthday, for which I put to good use shooting the end of the diverse schemes and the beginning of Conrail.  My father would continue to nurture the desire for train photography and had a slide camera that he would take with us on trips to various rail hotspots of the time, including Potomac Yard and other now long-gone locations around the country and Canada.

I started shooting slides in 1980ish and stayed with that until 1999, when my conversion to digital began.

3. If you could railfan anywhere, anytime, where and when would it be?

Back in Australia, where the scenery is as diverse and unique as the rail equipment itself.  I wouldn’t be able to pick any one spot specifically as I love different angles and locations.

NOW – if I could take my current array of equipment back in time, it would be 1955 to the old Chesapeake and Ohio transitional era, where I would likely be in heaven 😊

4. What’s your favorite railway?

The kind that runs…  Actually I don’t have any one favorite railway as I am intrigued by all operations and all types of equipment.  I do tend to appreciate shortline operations a bit more with their typically older motive power, but love to see trains as a whole (just ask my wife)!

5. How did you decide to get into commercial photography full time?

With photography almost always being my ‘real’ job when compared to my 2 or 3 day-a-week paramedic jobs, I had built a strong and growing customer base that were seeking more time and work as the years progressed.

The air medical industry was making turns that I was no longer comfortable with, particularly in the lack of focused patient advocacy, so after consultation with my chief financial officer, aka my wife Tonya, we decided that the timing (2016) would be right to turn the photo business into my primary business.

I had amassed the equipment through time and the client/customer base was growing with such entities as Genesee and Wyoming having more spot or last-minute assignments.

6. Please describe your photography workflow.

Biggest part of the workflow is planning ahead.  This includes the right equipment for the right location for the right environment ALL the time.  There are times that I preplan a scenario and then map out 3 or 4 variants so that in the end, my plan is complete.

Once to the subject, either safety brief or get into position if from public venue and make sure (aka double check) equipment to make sure that all settings are where you want them to be.  If a marginal weather day with intermittent sun, I make sure that I have settings in my head as to what I’ll change if the weather does.  I shoot in ALL manual mode, never using auto anything except White Balance.

Through the millions of images I’ve taken, I’ve established in my head which ISO to use, what speed and aperture to set, all the while thinking about how I’ll do the final edit to supply the customer with the desired result.

I shoot all images in raw, not touching any jpg settings in my camera.

Once complete with the day, I download the imagery onto a couple hard drives to insure their integrity and then go about editing my selected images with Lightroom and resizing and sharpening in Photoshop.  Depending on my customer’s desire, extra editing may be required or even multiple days.

7. How do you develop a good working relationship with railways?

This one is a HUGE and loaded question.  It is not something that happens in a day, or two or even a month, it is a commitment and professionalism you show for an extended period of time.  It is paying attention to safety and knowing the rules of the railroad, essentially, which in turn promotes respect for them back to you.

It is supplying them with quality product that they can use in marketing and public relations every time, not just the occasional marginal image.  It is being able to produce their desired result, no matter what the conditions are, day, night, rain, snow, sleet or whatever, and producing it how they want it.

It is not just being a railfan and submitting your best picture for consideration…
CP Holiday Train, Plattsburgh, NY

8. What's the most important recommendation you would give someone who was interested in professional photography?

I would say it is having the right equipment, the right motivation, the right training and absolutely (reiterating a previous point) knowing what your customer wants in the end.  There is photojournalism, which I also do, but there is also marketing and PR photography, which often means manipulating an image beyond what is out of the camera and having great knowledge of various editing software that will allow the production of such work.

9. What's in your camera bag?

I’m a Nikon guy for decades now, so my current equipment is as follows:

  • Nikon bodies – D4s, D810 and D800;
  • Lens compilation is actually quite simple and I’ll explain one of the choices in a moment, but I have a 14-24 mm Nikkor f2.8; 24-70 mm Sigma f2.8; 70-200 mm f2.8 Nikkor; a 400 mm f2.8 Nikkor; and a 1.7x Nikon teleconverter.
  • In addition there are remote shutter releases, Pocket Wizard transceivers and batteries in there.
Now – that one Sigma lens in the bag – I had both the Nikkor and Sigma f2.8 lens and I put them head-to-head for comparison and in my case, the Sigma had just slightly higher quality in my images.

Was it an anomaly with the Nikkor lens?  Dunno, but I have stuck with the Sigma for that focal length and it is actually my go to lens for much of my work, especially the night photo work.
Genesee and Wyoming, Georgia

10. What projects do you have ongoing or planned?

I always have multiple projects and plans on the table – however right now the biggest project is keeping my super-hyper-active 2 year-old from injuring herself!  On the rail side, I have multiple TRAINS Magazine assignments in process with diverse writing and photography.

I am working on the annual Glory Days of the Railroad Festival for White River Jct., Vermont, (this year Sept 9-10) that I pull together all of the rail equipment for.  This is usually a rather stressful undertaking right up until the 11th hour when all of the equipment arrives on site.

Aside from that, I have been asked to participate in a charity event back in Australia that will be part of the Discovery Channel’s Railroads Australia series, as well as being invited back Down Under for a variety of other specialty/night photo work.

I had a chuckle recently when there was some jealous rumors floating about that said I had ‘terrorized’ Australia with the night photography.  Far from the slanderous accusations, so far that like I mentioned, another few trips are in the works at the cost of the railroads there getting me back there.

I love what I do and take on as much as possible, often being way in over my head, but after nearly drowning in a lake in minus 27 degree F temps, I feel like I can take it on and stay afloat.

Genesee and Wyoming, Millers Falls, Massachusetts
Thanks, Kevin! To see more of his work, visit his web site, read his blog, follow him on Twitter, or see his thousands of photos on Railpictures.NET.

See all 10 Questions entries

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