Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Review: Trains and Grains (Volumes 1 and 2)

Trains and Grains, at the La Salle, Manitoba grain elevator. Sadly no train came along to complete the picture.
This is a review of Trains and Grains Volumes 1 and 2 by Eric Gagnon. I've been eagerly awaiting these two books since Eric announced them back in September 2017. I love both trains and grain elevators, so it almost felt like these books were written for me... or at least people like me.

I'll put a few disclaimers here - I received these books for free as a "thank you" for writing the foreword for volume 2. I also consider Eric a friend. I wouldn't let either of these stop me from writing an honest review. Finally, I received no compensation for writing this review nor do I receive anything for recommending the books, and Eric didn't ask me to write a review. 

These two books are centered around Eric's visits to Manitoba and Saskatchewan between 1976 and 1986. Eric's aunt and uncle lived in Portage la Prairie and he did a lot of railfanning during the days he was in Portage. Later, he visited many of Saskatchewan's elevators, realizing that they were disappearing fast.

Eric had so many photos to share from that decade that he split them into two books!

Volume 1

Volume 1 is subtitled "Trackside Observations in Manitoba 1976-1986". The first half of the book features trains that Eric recorded in and near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba during that period while visiting his aunt and uncle. Eric is a meticulous record keeper and the captions of the many black and white photos are detailed, interesting and absolutely alliteral, again and again.

The train photos were shot from a variety of angles, most from the ground, with some overhead views from the Tupper Street overpass.

The second half features a variety of short articles, such as:
  • Grain car consists
  • Details on CN, CP, federal and provincial grain fleets
  • Several pages of colour photos
  • An article by Mark Perry on "Working CN Grain Wayfreights"
  • An article by Charles Bohi on Prairie train stations
The foreword is by Randy O'Brien.

This is a great book, chock full of interesting photos and interesting details. It took me a while to read due to the dense information content, and I plan to read it again to catch the things I missed the first time.

Volume 2

Volume 2 is subtitled "Grain Elevators in Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1976-1986". The first portion of the book talks about the history of the grain industry in Canada, and how grain elevators are built and operate. This section is relatively brief, and more than half of the book features black and white photos of grain elevators from Eric's trips to Manitoba and Saskatchewan to document many of the wooden elevators still standing.

The foreword is by yours truly.

I would honestly consider volume 2 a companion to volume 1. There is a lot less text in volume 2 and I read it much faster than volume 1 because of that. I don't consider it any less valuable, though!


The photographs in this book are what I would call "documentary". They were clearly taken with the intent of documenting the trains and grain elevators - and the scene around them. These are not "coffee table" picture books full of lovely sunset photos.

That doesn't make them any less valuable - in fact, I would argue they are more valuable than "arty" photos because they thoroughly document the trains and grain elevators of an era long past.


These books are fantastic reference materials for anyone interested in understanding the mid 1970s to mid 1980s railroad scene, and especially for the modeler (like me) who wants to run realistic trains. I was surprised by several photos - for example, a few stock cars were still in evidence, even though I had thought the railways were out of the livestock business by then.

The grain elevator photos are especially valuable as many of these elevators simply do not exist today, so there is no opportunity to see them in person. Volume 2 in particular provides a way to experience the elevators of the past.


Both of these books are well worth purchasing by anyone interested in Canadian railway history or Canadian grain elevators.

You can buy the books from Eric at - the order form is there, or you can email Eric using the email at top right of that page.

See my other book reviews

Friday, June 08, 2018

Making Pictures

I like to think about the craft of photography more than the mechanics of it. I think the thought process that goes on before you press the shutter button matters a lot more than what you do right at the instant of making a photo.

Don't get me wrong - you need to know how to use a camera to take good pictures. However, once you've achieved competence in using your camera, the real magic comes from your ideas on what photos you'd like to take. Or should I say "make"?

Making Pictures

I was listening to Lionel Strang's podcast "A Modeler's Life" and one of his guests, Blair Koostra, is a prolific railway photographer who has been published in TRAINS and elsewhere. One word that Blair used frequently really resonated with me. He talked about making photographs, not taking them.

I think there is a big idea there. When you take a photograph, you are simply recording what is in front of you. When you make a photograph, you are thinking about what you want the photograph to be, and taking steps to realize your vision. I like that a lot.

Continuous Improvement

In every vocation and every hobby, you get better at what you do with practice. You level up. Sometimes this is imposed on you - you get reassigned to a new position at work, or your boss gives you more responsibilities and you have to learn more skills - and sometimes you do it yourself by getting training or watching videos on YouTube or whatever.
CN 5761 in Edmonton, Alberta, June 2010, with blown-out sky
Many times, people get complacent and hit a plateau where they don't improve. It's comfortable to get to "good enough" and stay there, and in many cases that's perfectly fine. I'm "good enough" at some areas of my work and that's fine, but in many areas of my professional life and my personal life, I'm not satisfied with "good enough". My photography is one of those areas.

CEMR 5396, Oak Bluff, Manitoba, December 2017 - sky not blown out
A guest on another podcast, the excellent Afford Anything podcast, quoted a hero of theirs, Roman Mars, who said, "right now I'm embarrassed by the work I did last year, and I'm hoping that a year from now, I'm embarrassed by the work I'm doing right now."

Amen to that.

I'm embarrassed by that photo of CN 5761 above, from 2010. There was no excuse for blowing the sky out (pure white sky), but I did it. I had the exposure wrong, and I couldn't figure out how to expose it properly. I ended up either blowing the sky out or composing my photos to not include sky at all.

Contrast that with the pair of CEMR locomotives, taken with the same camera. I exposed it such that the sun wasn't blown out, yet the locomotives weren't a dark mass of shadow. My technique has improved in seven years!

Details Matter

CN 8930 at Diamond outside Winnipeg
I really try to think about what I can do to make the best picture. How should I compose this for maximum impact? What can I include in the photo to increase interest or better tell the story? More importantly, what can I leave out of the photo?

Have a look at the following pair of photos of the Fredericton train station. See what's different between the left and right photos.
Compare and contrast
I took the left photo, then walked about ten feet and made the right photo. I processed both the same, except that I cropped the right one a bit to remove a shadow. Can you see how the right photo is a better photo? There's no shadow coming from the bottom of the photo; no fire hydrant and yellow poles in the shot. Less distraction = more impact.

Now that I think of it, I could have laid my camera on the ground and tried that angle. There's always an opportunity to make a photo just a bit better.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Don't be satisfied with one photo. Try a different angle. Lay down on the ground. Shoot through something as a frame. Try it from the non-sun side. Turn your camera 90 degrees. Turn it 45 degrees, even.

Sometimes it just won't work out. I know I've come away from some photo outings, feeling like I didn't get any decent shots, like it was just a waste of time and megabytes. Like it was pointless.

Those days happen.

Use those days as a determination to do better next time, to try something different, to take a fresh approach or try a new location. Something will change, and you'll get some magic.

Just get out there and try.