Three Tips for Making Better Railroad Photos

1) Use your foreground. Unless you’re a ballast enthusiast, avoid emphasizing the ballast. Too many railroad photographs suffer from excessive foreground clutter and other distracting elements, so when you’re composing an image pay attention to the bottom of your frame.

2) Watch your focus. Although most modern cameras have auto focus systems, too many use center-weighted auto-focusing sensors. These produce an unfortunate side-effect of encouraging novice photographers to center their subject, which tends towards bland and ineffective composition. More advanced cameras have tools such as variable focus points and focus locks that help you get around the centering problem.

Although an imperfect image, take notice the focus: A center weighted autofocus system may have resulted in the front of the locomotive appearing soft, while the hoppers at the center of the image being  tack sharp. Alternatively, I  may have had to alter the composition to suit the failings of the auto focus system, which would have produced a compromised photo.

3) Avoid Flare. One of the reasons traditional photography technique stressed over the shoulder lighting was to avoid the unpleasant effects of lens flare. This is caused when the primary light source hits the front element of your lens and cause streaks and patterns across your image while lowering overall contrast. You can make successful backlit photographs by finding ways to minimize direct sun or other primary light sources; stand in the shadow of a tree, building or other object; no shadows available? Make your own with a flat piece of cardboard, book, or spare copy of TRAINS magazine. One last point: while you should avoid flare, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should eliminate it entirely. In certain circumstances, a little flare can improve a photo. Watch the way Hollywood uses flare for dramatic effect.

To make this backlit shot work, I used a 28mm wide-angle lens and shaded the front element with my left hand to avoid unwanted lens flare. Notice how the clouds and foreground elements frame the primary subject, adding interest and balance without becoming overly distracting. Also, would a dark colored locomotive have produced an equally effective photo? The effect of slight backlighting on a silver train can result in a dramatic effect.

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4 thoughts on “Three Tips for Making Better Railroad Photos”

  1. Just to make contact, let me introduce myself.

    I am an 80+ yr old lifetime rr aficionado/photographer.

    My earliest shots were of the B&O around Pittsburgh taken with a Brownie Reflex (127 film). I published a sorta blurry action shot of a B&O 4-6-0 (commuter train) in my second self-published book: RAILROAD VISTAS: A SCENIC ALBUM.

    I now-of course – am all-digital (latest camera SONY 6000) but am tempted to “warm-up” my existing Leica 35-mm camera just to experience bxw photography once again (no Kodachrome).

    I am in the process of donating about 15k slides (from 1960) to the PITT University archives. ( I got the brush-off from the rr archive in Madison.) Slides cover 48 states and 15 foreign countries, including Bolivia and Thailand.

    For the archival, I developed my own alpha-numeric code to identify each slide’s information.

    One more thing! Am currently producing an article on Pittsburgh’s rr bridges for Western Pennsylvania History Quarterly, for which I reference your wonderful book published by Voyageur. Thanks.

    Paul Roth

    Pittsburgh and Sarasota

  2. ” . . . or spare copy of TRAINS magazine.” I’d hold up their DVD which includes all issues up thru 2010, instead, and hope the sun warps it. You probably have some influence there – please tell them that their indexing/search capability is so atrociously bad and useless that they MUST have another indexing system on their next DVD (all issues thru something more recent). Try to search for your first published photo in TRAINS on that DVD, for example, without knowing the date or issue. I would be able to do that on my PC with software I have * ONLY IF* the individual issue PDF’s weren’t encrypted. TRAINS must do better if they are going to produce only a closed system.

  3. Contax G2?
    Palmer offered an unobstructed view of tracks and Amtrak was sporting a rather attractive paint scheme on their locomotives.

    28mm is a prime train shooting lens!
    Good photo points.

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