For many photographers, the lure of a machine is an addictive draw to the camera and lens. Airplanes, cars, trucks, tractors, wristwatches, cameras, super colliders, and factory machinery are the subject of many photographs around the world. And, for a small group of passionate photographers, the appeal of photographing railroads is forever intoxicating. Locomotives, commuter trains, subways, and railway landscapes come together to create visual poetry that blends nature and man-made landscapes, as well as the human love for complex machinery.
Dennis Livesey, who works at B&H and is a railfan photographer, put me in touch with a small and tight-knit community of superb railroad photographers. I asked them, as well as railroad photographer and art-school classmate Wizzy Strom, for tips on how to improve one's railroad photography.
Before we dive into the tips, let's start with the most important tip.
When it comes to railroads photography (or any photography at all), SAFETY IS FIRST. Photographing trains or standing near active train tracks can be dangerous. This article discusses photographing trains, but the danger is plainly illustrated in the recent trend of using rails as leading lines in selfies and portraits, which has led to the death of many photographers in the past few years.
"Only cross train tracks in designated areas, and remember that trains can come in any direction at any time. Even if you 'know the schedule,' trains can be late, there can be work trains, or there can be other non-scheduled trains (deadheads, moving the train cars from one point to another without passengers). You should never walk 'in the gauge' (in the middle of the tracks), or photograph subjects there (we don't like that trend of school portraits on the tracks). As a person who works in the railroad industry, it is depressing to hear of the trespassers killed daily by trains," says Emily Elizabeth Moser, a photographer who works in the railroad industry. Livesey recommends a 12' safety buffer between you and the tracks and Strom adds, "Stay off live tracks. Do not be tempted to step in-between those shiny rails to get a better shot. It can be a deadly mistake."
Operation Lifesaver, the nonprofit rail safety education organization, urges professional photographers to refrain from taking photos of high school seniors, wedding parties, and other subjects on train tracks or trestles.
Here are Operation Lifesaver's six "must-know" facts for professional photographers considering a photo shoot near the tracks:
1. Trains can't stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.
2. An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train's distance from you—and its speed.
3. The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet.
4. Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and rights-of-way are private property.
5. No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.
6. People mimic your behavior when they see your photos on the Web and social media.
Now that we have that out of the way, here is a fantastic introduction to our railroad photography tips from Dennis Livesey.
"Photographing trains is a particular, (some would say peculiar) form of photography. You must have the skills of a landscape shooter with attendant great concern for light, weather, and composition, then also have knowledge like a wildlife/birder shooter who know where the animal lives but combined this all with the chops of a sports/action shooter who knows the camera's capabilities cold so that when that split second presents itself, you are ready. Remember, you are composing for something that is not there, something that will not stop for a second take, and something that can kill you if you are too close."
2. The "Wedgie"
From Dennis Livesey: "Like with a musical instrument where you learn scales, you have to learn the basic building block of railroad photography first. We call it the 'wedgie.' This shot is accomplished by standing near the track, pointing the camera toward the oncoming train, seeing the complete front and most, if not all, of the rest of the train in frame. This ¾ angle or 'wedge of pie' is where the term 'wedgie' comes from."
Livesey recommends the sun behind your back, zero obstructions between the camera and the train, and to also keep an eye out for structures and other things that may cast shadows onto the train as it passes. The front of the train—Livesey specifies the number board on the locomotive—should be in focus. He says you can manually focus on that point before the train arrives, but today's autofocus systems might be fast enough to keep up with a speeding train. Also recommended is at least 1/500-second shutter speed and a rule of thirds composition for the locomotive.
"While all of this seems obvious, it is not as easy as it sounds. When that huge mechanical monster bears down on you, you may be thinking more about survival than holding a camera and pressing a button," says Livesey. "What a rush! Congratulations! You have made your first wedgie."
"Scouting out locations is a big key to getting the best images possible," says Wizzy Strom. Like many forms of landscape photography, location can make your images stand out from the others. Strom continues, "While shooting the images, try every angle possible that can be used. Instead of using a spot where other photographers may be, look for another unique spot where you can get a different picture, whether it is a change in angle or scenery. It may require additional effort, such as off-road vehicles with four-wheel drive to get to alternate locations. If necessary, seek permission from the owner of the property if the location is on private property. In most cases it is fruitless to seek permission to be near the tracks from the train corporation. It is always a negative response due to safety reasons. I do not encourage anyone to trespass on railroad property; it is against the law and comes with very steep fines."
Strom adds: "Part of the thrill of taking images of trains is the chase involved in getting ahead of them and set up in time for your next photo shoot."
George Hiotis scouts with the calendar in mind, being aware that "some subjects are good summer shots, others are best in winter" due to the angle of the sun for a given time of day.
When the train is in motion and the lighting is favorable, timing is everything. English rail photographer Robin Coombes and his son Taliesin shoot the rails in the U.K. and around the world. Coombes states, "The trick, if there is one, is to stand in the right spot at the right time. In was a lesson learnt long ago that the difference between a master shot and an also-ran shot can be as little as six inches (150mm). You must remember there are 360 degrees of angle in the horizontal plane from which you can shoot a static object. There are another 180 degrees in the vertical plain. Plus, for a train, the object is moving, so in any given location, there are literally billions of possible positions. Fortunately, limited access and obstacles will cut down the options, but never believe the guy who says, 'There is only one position at a certain time of the day.'" He adds, "Most of the shots I take are actually taken in my mind's eye, days or even years before they are shot."
5. Shutter Speed
When photographing things in motion, the photographer has to make a decision to freeze the action with a fast shutter speed, or slow the shutter to allow for motion blur. Trains, of course, are no different.
"Pay attention to your shutter speed. Decide what look are you trying to go for—do you want the train (or the scenery, if you are on a train) frozen in place? Or do you want to convey the motion of the train and have it blurred? If you want an extreme blur, you may need a tripod. Just make sure that if you choose to go for a blur, the effect is exaggerated enough that it looks intentional. The effect often looks better if you're taking a picture of the side of the train—if you capture a train with the front of it slightly blurred, it may just appear that you didn't select a fast enough shutter," says Moser.
Rail photographer Eric Williams admits to getting excited and losing his compositional ideas when the train approaches. "Use a tripod and predetermine where you want the train. Having the camera on a tripod allows me to visually follow the train without worrying about breaking my composition," he says.
Shooting wide-angle lenses low to the ground (or rails) really lends itself to dramatic train photos. Again, be extremely careful working in close proximity to the rails. Hiotis says, "Turn what might have been an ordinary photograph into an interesting picture by going low and wide. Low afternoon sidelight and motion blur work to good effect [for these images]." He even uses a right-angle viewfinder to help aid in the compositions when working at ground level.
No, I am not talking about the cliché, very overdone, and very dangerous use of tracks for leading/vanishing line portraits.
Responsible rail photographers can use this visual for their rail photos. Tracks create strong leading lines as does some rolling stock, and this can be used for dramatic effect.
Light is a crucial element in any photography, but some extra thought can help improve your rail images. Emily Elizabeth Moser says, "Because trains run on tracks in generally expected ways, you can usually research in advance good places to photograph trains, and where the light will fall at certain times of the day. I like to use SunCalc.org, but there are many sites and apps that perform the same function. Even if you don't plan in advance, pay attention to the angle of the sun, and make sure to shoot in such a way that your subject will be covered in the sun's rays. Sometimes you'll have to make adjustments, like taking a picture of the side of the train, if you know that the front of it will be in shadow."
The rails, and railcars, are often surrounded by unique infrastructure. From Eric Williams: "Look for details. Most photographers go for the big picture and include most of the train and landscape. This is great, but there are wonderful details that can add depth to the story of railroading."
George Hiotis says that "railroading is more than engines and cars: it's people, track, stations, and the surroundings, and it's about those who work on them and those who admire them. Some great rail pictures don't even contain a train."
Eric Williams adds his take on the subject: "While it can be a challenge in these days of restricted access, I try to find ways to add the train crew and provide the often overlooked human element. Train passengers are also part of the railroad story can often be more accessible—especially in urban areas."
Steam locomotion used to be the norm, but today, finding steam trains with dramatic smoke pouring from their stacks is a rarity. U.K. steam enthusiast Robin Coombes has the following tips for steam trains:
- Cold conditions are advantageous because the amount of condensed steam is directly proportional to temperature. At more than 60ºF (15ºC) you see very little, other than high pressure steam from a lifting safety valve.
- You see the most steam when the locomotive is working hard, so either just starting off, or working up a gradient.
- Steam looks best in dramatic lighting or weather—from low winter sun to a thunderstorm.
13. Personal Concepts
Sometimes, having a deeper-than-postcard concept for your railroad imagery can help focus you, and your images. George Hiotis encourages the newcomer to rail photography to "think about what you want from your railroad photography" and think about what draws you, as a photographer, to photograph rails in the first place. He continues, "Then think about how you will interpret attraction. For instance, if trains impress you because they are fast, let them blur. If locomotives impress you because of their size, use a low angle to emphasize their presence."
14. Study the Masters
Many in the railfan photography community agree that there have been some masters of the craft. Richard Virgil Dean Steinheimer, O. Winston Link, Jim Shaughnessy, Philips R. Hastings, Robert O. Hale, and Ted Benson are legendary photographers in the railroad community. And, from my perspective, their work stands on the same level as great photographers from any other genre of photography. Studying their images is a must for any fan of railroad photography. Robin Coombes admits, "Based on looking at the published works of the great railroad photographers, often late into the night with a torch under the bedclothes when I should have been fast asleep. Some of this must have stayed with me and when about 15 years ago I had the chance to take up photography as a hobby it was natural, I would be taking railways photographs."
Rail photographer Matthew Malkiewicz says, "Study the works of fellow photographers, both colleagues and strangers. The ones who are consistently stepping out of their comfort zone, pushing the envelope to freeze in time what their mind's vision sees. Make mental notes of what appeals to your tastes and what does not. Mold it into your own style." He adds, "Always shoot first and foremost for yourself. Have outside influences on your brand but don't emulate others."
15. Create New
There is a rich history to this genre of photography, but modern railfan photographers are constantly pushing themselves to create new and beautiful images. George Hiotis provides this wisdom: "Be a creator. Everyone knows what a train looks like; show us something new that only you can capture."
Robin Coombes shares this experience from the early days of his train photography: "When I started railway photography, my aim was to get one photo published in a magazine. I rang up the magazine, Steam Railway, and asked for advice. The answer was simple and straightforward: 'Make it different, we get thousands of technically good shots at ¾ angles and nicely lit, but they are all so similar and boring.'"
He continues, "My recommendation is to visit a heritage railway, visit your local railway station or some vantage point along the railway and first sit back and look and watch and think. Go at different times of the day, in different weathers. Look on the Internet at what others have done. Ask yourself, how did they do that, why did they do it, could I do it, how would do it, could I do better?"
Are you a fan of rail photography? Do you have some tips you'd like to add or questions for these modern masters of the craft? Let us know in the Comments section, below!
And, as an additional treat for all you railroad photography enthusiasts, you can read more and listen to the B&H Photography podcast about the "Golden Spike" and some gripping chat with some very talented railroad photographers.