Article & Photography by Nick Rynes | Owl Staff
The August sun rises over the Allegheny Mountains as a thin layer of fog blankets the valley below. It is an amazing sight as I overlook a massive freight train transporting everything from car parts to underwear.
From New York to Indianapolis, Baltimore and Jacksonville, I have been all around the United States for my hobby of railfanning.
Railfanning, in simple terms, is going out and watching trains go by, most of the time with a camera to take photos of them. This hobby has been around since the first railroad steam engine was created in 1830. The fascination of these giant machines captured the attention of people then, and lives on in the hearts of railfans today.
Jim Kleeman of Perry Hall, Maryland says, “I was a model railroader in my late 20s, and then became interested in photography. Both of those eventually came together for me.”
I had no clue what railfanning was when I actually began going out to watch trains. My grandmother would take my brother and I down to the Amtrak station in Aberdeen, Maryland. The high-speed passenger trains would zoom by us, one after another. It was such a fascinating sight as a four-year-old. This was the root of my now obsession with trains.
Eventually, I picked up a little point-and-shoot camera and took it with me to the tracks. I was officially a railfanner. Ever since then I have acquired professional equipment and taught myself how to use it, which has exponentially benefited me over the years.
When one gets hooked into railfanning, or as I like to say, obsessed, one starts to feel like traveling the country in search of new places and trains to take photos of. Many people have traveled across the entire United States of America, and some around the world, simply for trains. With these massive trips across the country, some great memories are made.
I recently traveled to the Folkston Funnel in Folkston, Georgia solely for railfanning. The people in the town fit the stereotypes of southern hospitality, and it was great to visit. I also make numerous trips to Pennsylvania from Amish country to the Allegheny Mountains. Some of these places I would have never seen if I did not go there for the trains.
Another seasoned railfan is Brock Kerchner of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. In May of 2013, Kerchner traveled to the historic Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania with his four-year-old daughter, Gabby.
Kerchner chose to take his daughter on this exclusive train ride with tracks built on one of the great railroading landmarks in the world. “It had been my first time to actually ride around Horseshoe Curve, and to share that experience with my daughter, who also loves trains, that was pretty special,” says Kerchner.
“The best part about this hobby is probably the friendships you start and grow,” says Kerchner. “My photography has grown leaps and bounds just because of what people in this hobby have taught me.”
Through the use of social media, like Facebook, you can make connections with railfans across the entire planet.
Europe and Asia are two major continents with a great number of railfans like myself. With each country you visit, including the United States of America, there’s always a nice variety of what can be seen.
Railfanning has grown a lot in the technology age with websites like railpictures.net and trainorders.com. These two websites provide amazing photography, as well as information on the best places to go see trains. Also, you can join a historical society to help preserve the railroads that are no longer in service. These societies are great ways to get started in the hobby, and are full of very knowledgeable people.
Taking photos of trains utilize basic principles of photography. By learning how to take photos of trains, I apply those same principles to taking photos of almost anything else including sports and nature. This has led to being published in national railroad magazines, as well as inside Union Station in Washington D.C. The opportunities are endless as you progress into the hobby.
No matter what happens in my life, nothing will be able to come as close to exciting as railfanning to me.