Railway Photography: Tips to Improve Your Odds—The Basics

(text originally reproduced in Irish Railway Record Society Journal no. 177, February 2012)

Photography is an art, not a science; yet it relies technology and it is necessary to master that technology to consistently produce successful images. Railway photography requires the photographer to make a variety of small decisions at precisely the right moment. Rapid movement combined with the operational uncertainties inherent to railway operations makes railway photography challenging and there is no proven sure-fire method of ensuring perfect railway photographs. There isn’t a single defined set of skills required to make pictures, furthermore efforts to impose absolute photo formulas have typically resulted in stale image making. By contrast there are diverse and myriad approaches toward photography each unique to the individual photographer, and it is this endless variety in approach to the subject that has kept the medium fresh and exciting. Many photo opportunities have been missed or ruined, or simply fall short because of the photographer’s momentary inattention or minor technical error. This is not limited to the novice or occasional photographer, as even the most experienced practitioners make mistakes. While formulas lead to dull repetitive images, here’s some simple philosophy and habits that may help you improve your odds at making successful railway action photos:

1) Always carry a camera: If you don’t have one, you can’t make a photograph.

2) Insure that your camera is ready: if it uses a battery, check to see that it’s fresh; if using a film camera, insure it’s loaded; if using a digital camera, insure the recording card is installed and working properly; double check to see that sufficient exposures remain on the film/card to make all the photos you have planned. If you reach the end of roll or fill your card unexpectedly, you’ll miss the critical image.

3) Always carry an extra battery and at least one spare roll of film/recording card.

4) If your camera has a light meter, check to see that it works; if using an automatic or program mode, be sure that these are set as you intended.

5) When using auto-focus, insure it is switched ‘on’; if you focus manually, check (and double check) your focus point.

6) Don’t fight with your equipment! Select a camera that you feel comfortable using. If you aren’t happy with your camera or it routinely malfunctions, replace it post haste.

7) Many fully automatic cameras are designed for making snapshots of children’s birthday parties and scenic vistas, so by design may greatly limit your ability to make successful railway action photos. Especially troublesome are automatic cameras that impose an unwanted shutter delay. Although these are prolific, the only advantages to them are high availability and low cost.

8) Use a camera that allows you to control the shutter speed. While working a camera manually grants the greatest operator flexibility it also requires a high-level of photographic skill and practice; using a camera in a ‘shutter priority mode’ is easier. Be sure to select a ‘fast’ shutter speed to better freeze the action and avoid motion blur. While the speed of the train, your relative angle to the train, and the focal length of the lens all affect the amount of blur, in most instances a shutter speed of 1/500th second is fast enough to stop the action. Any speed less than about 1/125th of a second is probably too slow for conventional railway action photography.

9) Think ahead and select your locations carefully: select an interesting backdrop or setting—is this a timeless scene or one about to change? Consider obstructions and if these may cast shadows; watch for objectionable wires, line-side rubbish, trees, and other items that may detract from your planned image. Pay close attention to lighting and watch the weather.

10) Study the details of railway operations so you may anticipate what and when trains will run and how they will perform. The more you know, the more likely you’ll anticipate a train’s performance and apply that information to your photography. Is the train on an upgrade or drifting? What is the track speed? Is the train approaching a junction, a station, or a speed restriction? Does it run regularly or is it a special move? Will it take the next passing siding or run through on the main line?

11) Arrive at your desired location well before the train is expected.

12) While waiting use your time wisely: make test photos to insure everything is working as intended. If using a digital camera carefully study test photos and check for: focus, exposure, overall composition, the locations of shadows or undesirable visual elements. If trains or equipment pass before the main attraction, always use these as practice for the main event. Some photographers might dismiss this action as ‘waste of time/film/pixels’, but not only will this exercise hone your skills, but in years to come you may find that the photo of the ordinary train dismissed on the day turns out to be more interesting than what you set out to capture!

13) Repeat number 12.

14) Be patient. If you leave before the train passes, your efforts will have been wasted.

15) Study and edit your results. While you should only display photographs that satisfy your expectations; it’s important to study failures and learn from your mistakes.

16) Share your work; idle photographs sitting on hard drives or stored in closets are wasted.

17) Have fun!

In August 2012, I made a few photos along the old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line at Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Several weeks earlier, fellow photographer Pat Yough and I inspected this location and decided the open area on the outside of the curve was well suited for a westward train in the evening. Some photographers might have ignored the common SEPTA Silverliner IV multiple units, hundreds of which have worked Philadelphia suburban services for decades. Yet, this train provided me the opportunity to test exposure, composition, and focus, while keeping my photography skills sharp. For this image I used my Canon 7D with a 100mm f2 lens set in manual; ISO200, f5.6 1/1000. As always, I simultaneously exposed both a RAW and JPEG. Except for the scaling of the Jpeg (reduction of file size for internet display), I made no post-production adjustments to this image.

The main attraction for the curve at Berwyn was SEPTA’s AEM7 powered evening suburban trains. While these run every weekday, summer evenings are the best times to catch them in good light on the Main Line, as most sets only work one turn daily, and tend to lay idle during off peak. In the winter, they largely operate in darkness. Having refined my location based on passage of the earlier Silverliner IV, I was prepared for the arrival of the AEM7 and able to make a more pleasing image. High clouds slightly softened the sun so I adjusted my exposure accordingly; ISO200, f6.3 1/640.

Even after all my preparation, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my results. I found the dumpster, fences and other clutter at the left distracting. You might say, ‘but this was part of the scene.’ True, but it doesn’t add anything to the image of the locomotive at work, and in this case I decided to crop the image square to eliminate distractions—photographer’s perogative. Ultimately, if time allows, I’ll return to Berwyn, and try the location again to make for a more dramatic image. I might go a little lower next time too, to allow for a better view of the wheels touching the rails.