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Springtime on the California Zephyr: 2019 Photography Project

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I just returned from my spring trip aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr.  Halfway through this project already?!

This trip was significantly warmer than my January trip, but that’s not a high bar to beat – you can read about that winter trip here.

I could give you a rundown of the route but I’ve already done that in other posts.  So I’ll just share some nuances from this trip, and of course, the photos. That’s why you’re here, right?


I had a serious case of FOMO on the last trip.  FOMO is Fear Of Missing Out for you old-school types.  And if you’re really old school, old school means you’re not hip.  I kid, I kid.

Anyways, on the last trip, I’d sit in my seat, either in the lounge or coach, with a death grip on that camera, anticipating shots out both sides of the train.  From sunrise to sunset. For three days. It was exhausting.

Not on this trip!  I relaxed. I learned how to say, “I don’t give a fuck,” a mindset I’ve been pursuing for years.  If I missed a shot, oh well. There’s always a better one around the proverbial or literal corner.

And you know what?  I was relaxed and, in my opinion, got better shots than the last time I was FOMO’d out.  It was quite enjoyable.

The conductors have been great.  They all have their own little antecdotes about the route, useless trivia that’s right up my alley.  I feel like I’m collecting all of them. They’ll sit in the lounge car and tell everyone which movies were filmed at the ghost town you’re passing, where the bald eagle nests are, and so on.

This type of photography is still a challenge!

Taking photos out of a moving train will always be a challenge, one that I will never perfect because that’s impossible.

The windows are dirty and there’s glare from inside and out (especially when the sun is on that side!).

You also want crisp, sharp images, but balancing that exposure triangle can be a bitch when the light is low and you’re moving 60mph.  Despite having taken thousands of photos so far, the perfect balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO still eludes me, thanks to the ever-changing situation.  I’ve been using 1/1000 second more to keep my foreground sharper, and accepting f/2.8 more at wide focal lengths where I’ll still have depth of field, to keep ISO down (like below 4000 with three zeros).

I did buy a rubber lens hood from Amazon before this trip.  It screws on to the front filter thread of your lens (pro-tip: size up to your largest lens and use step-up rings for smaller lenses!).  It expands to three lengths, the longest one only working at focal lengths greater than 55mm to avoid vignetting. The nice thing about it is that the hood is flexible.  You can press it right up against the window to keep the interior glare out and then slightly point your camera around so you don’t have to shoot perpendicular to the window all the time.  The metal threading ring has a tendency to unseat from the rubber when I expand it, but it cost seven bucks, so no expectations.

Enough of that, here’s the photos.

I thought I’d do something new with the photos – a letterbox crop for most photos, which is really only cropping out empty sky and blurred foreground, leaving just the panorama I want you to see. I’d love your feedback on this format versus normal 2×3 format for all the photos. I’m thinking this would present better if, say, a book came out of this project at the end of the year.

Nevada desert
Late-April snow covering Star Peak and Thunder Mountain near Lovelock, Nevada.
Moonrise over the Nevada desert, east of Winnemucca.
The California Zephyr’s route parallels Highway 6 in eastern Utah prior to arriving at Green River, gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
The same scene as above, in winter
Riding through eastern Utah in early morning provides an extra three-dimensionality to the scenery as the shadows move across the folds of the landscape. East of Green River.
colorado farm
Farmland along the Colorado River near the entrance to Red Gorge
farm winter
The same scene as above, in winter
colorado farms
Farmland along the Colorado River near the entrance to Red Gorge
winter farms
The same scene as above, in winter
trains passing
The California Zephyr #5 & #6 approach each other near on parallel tracks near Gore Canyon, along the Colorado River.
Women working on a crossword puzzle together in the California Zephyr’s observation car.
Fishermen on the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colorado.
colorado river
River rafters on the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colorado.
The California Zephyr makes its way up the final grades of the Rockies before descending into the Denver plains. These are the last of the 42 tunnels that the Zephyr passes through on this day.
Views of farmland as the California Zephyr descends the east side of the Rockies and into the plains near Denver.
winter farms
The same scene as above, in winter
ottumwa stop
Smoke break in Ottumwa, Iowa. Drastically different than the last time I passed through, when the wind chill was at least -20F.
Iowa farms
Farmland in eastern Iowa. For whatever reason I never get sick of taking pictures of these farms.
I remember passing this small farm near the Mississippi River in the winter and couldn’t wait to see what it looked like in the spring. I also keep wondering who Charlie is.
iowa farm
The same scene as above, in winter.
illinois farm
Farmland west of Galesburg, Illinois.
The Galesburg Railroad Museum, Illinois.
illinois museum
The same scene as above, in winter.
illinois farm
Farmland near Mendota, Illinois.
mendota farms
What the farms in Mendota looked like three months earlier.
chicago skyline
The Chicago skyline visible as we back into Union Station.
train station
Amtrak platforms in Chicago’s Union Station.
flamingo sculpture
Flamingo, a popular sculpture that stands out amongst the gray buildings in Chicago’s Federal Plaza.
cloud gate bean
“The bean,” one of the most recognizable sculptures in Chicago, at Cloud Gate.
iowa farm
Farm near Burlington, Iowa.
farm sunset
The farm landscape in central Iowa at sunset.
farm sunset
The farm landscape in central Iowa at sunset.
iowa sunset
Remnants of the destructive flooding in Iowa in early 2019.
The California Zephyr’s shadow falls on gravestones at the veteran’s memorial at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.
window cleaning
The stop at Denver Union Station is close to thirty minutes, and maintenance workers use this time to clean the Zephyr’s windows.
colorado river
Springtime on the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colorado.
colorado frozen over
The same scene as above, in winter
Spectacular geology – mixed in with farmland – along the Colorado River in Gore Canyon.
Engineers on the Amtrak #6 as they pass us on the #5, in Gore Canyon, Colorado.
The observation cars of the Amtrak #5 and #6 had some intimate views as they passed at slow speeds. I wonder what song he was playing for everyone.
Peach farms near Grand Junction, Colorado.
Farmland near Grand Junction, Colorado.
bald eagle
Springtime is a great time to look for baby bald eagles in the many nests in Ruby Canyon, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Here an eagle peaks out of the nest at the passing train.
ruby canyon rafting
The Colorado River in Ruby Canyon, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area near the Utah/Colorado border. River rafters and rail passengers are the only ones to see this beautiful canyon.
cisco utah
The California Zephyr passes close through the ghost town of Cisco, Utah. The snow-covered La Sal Mountains are in the background.
utah cliffs
The desert landscape east of Green River, Utah, displays a rare carpet of green in spring months.
helper utah
The massive rail yard at Helper, Utah. Helper got its name from the “helper” engines that were staged here to help freight trains up the steep grades. The mine and power plant that supported the town have shut down, and now it struggles to survive. It has become a haven for artists.
nevada sunrise
This is a nice picture to wake up to while rolling through the Nevada desert. The Humboldt River sink east of Winnemucca.
history lesson
Volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum read about the fascinating, important history of the railroad between Reno and Sacramento, to the passengers above them in the observation car.
observation car
Passengers in the observation car admire the Truckee River west of Reno as volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum read about the history of this stretch of the line.
You can view all of my California Zephyr spring photos by clicking here.
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Mac dunlap

Saturday 9th of January 2021

GREAT SHOTS!! Im stealing the letterbox idea too. I have ridden most of the long distance routes w thousands of photos myself and was trying to find a way to show them more dramatically. the letterbox is perfect.

John Peltier

Saturday 9th of January 2021

Thanks! Yeah it's difficult to get out of that "original crop" mentality but why not chop off the top and bottom?

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