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A Timeless Treasure Brought Into the Modern Age
December 10, 2020 at 9:00 PM
railroad bridge knoxville.jpg

Setting the Scene – The Norfolk Southern Tennessee Railroad Bridge

Knoxville is split by the Tennessee River. To traverse over this might stretch of water, there is a handful of huge bridges. One of the oldest and most historic is the Norfolk Southern Tennessee Railroad Bridge. This is an iconic monument and has stood the test of time – it sits next to the much newer and more imposing Henley Street Bridge.

It is an impressive structure and feat of engineering, and it still has an active railway line. Originally built in 1867, it stretches for 1295ft and is a combination of stone/concrete pillars, and a steel bridge framework. What’s impressive about this bridge, is that most of the original stone pillars are intact despite it being over 110 years old!

I believe it was originally built by the Knoxville and Charleston Rail Road before the Civil War, and it has stood proudly ever since. Obviously, it has undergone restorations, and you can see that one of the stone pillars has been replaced with a reinforced concrete base, however, I find it impressive how much of the original structure still stands!

On both sides of the Tennessee River, there are scenic walkways that offer perfect vantage points of the bridge. On the northern banks, there is the Neyland Greenway that has various piers and a beautiful promenade. Alternatively, on the southern banks, there is the River Walk Greenway which also offers fantastic views of the river and bridges.

Creating the Composition – Showing the age and phases of this historic bridge

Sometimes you have to embrace the elements and persevere to get the photo you want! Picture the scene – I have arrived at the banks of the Tennessee River, with my Nikon D850 in tow. The Norfolk Railroad Bridge looms in front of me – its freezing temperatures but I have a job to do and the weather won’t stop me – I have a bridge to photograph!

I wanted to capture this historical bridge at night time and play with some different photographic techniques. The framing was relatively simple – I wanted the bridge to be the central subject, but I still wanted to show the reflections in the Tennessee River, and also the lights from the buildings in the background.

It also helped that it was a cold but clear night. As you can see, there were no clouds in the sky, and you can see some of the beautiful night stars too – this added to the atmosphere of the photo and provided a subtle backlight for the bridge.

Would long exposure photography work?

To get the lights, and the light the bridge properly, I knew that I would most likely have to use a long exposure shot. A long exposure composition would also help make the water smooth and show the light reflections clearly in the water.

This worked perfectly, and as you can see from the final photo, all the elements combine together perfectly. The bridge is lit fantastically and you can clearly see the details of the stonework and the iron/steel frames. However, the background buildings are still shining brightly, and their reflections in the water look great.

I also had to use a small enough aperture to give a large depth of field and ensure that as much of the bridge was in focus as possible. It is often wise to use a small aperture such as f/11 when taking landscape shots like this to get a large focusing area.

I think the overall effect of this photo is incredibly cool. It shows the detail and architectural genius of the bridge, and how it has stood the test of time despite new buildings and a whole city sprouting up around it. Also, it demonstrates just how powerful night photography can be, and the creative effects you can produce with lighting and long exposure.

What Makes This Photo Stand Out?

I love the lighting in this photo – it is a key compositional element and it really makes the bridge and background buildings stand out. Without the lighting, the photo would look flat, and the details of this historic railroad bridge would be lost.

If you are starting out in photography, you may feel that night time photography offers few creative options. However, as you can see from this photo, you can create your own lighting conditions using different photography techniques.

The angle and position of the bridge set this photo off perfectly – it forms an imposing object and the leading line of the railroad track gently fades away into the distance. You could easily picture a roaring cargo train careering across this bridge and taking it away to some far-off unknown destination.

Finally, the lights from the apartment blocks in the background also cast an amazing reflection on the water. This mirror image looks amazing, and it adds to the overall depth of this night photo.

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