A beginner’s guide to photography on the rails
Trains, railway stations and the people who work and travel upon them are some of the most popular subjects for photography. For some the appeal is the trains themselves – both sleek, new and clean electric vehicles and vintage, old and dirty steam engines – while for others it's the often iconic architecture of railway stations and the people that use them. Whatever camera and other photography gear you have there's no barrier of entry to train photography; all you really need is a ticket to ride.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Do your research
You can, of course, just visit a train station with your camera and get to work, but if you do your research you can be in place to capture something specific or special. For example, go to Canning Town tube station on the Jubilee Line in London and you’ll be able to photograph a London Underground and the DLR side-by-side and both coming in from different directions (image above). To do that you’ll need to get yourself to Platform 1 and wait … usually no longer than 20 minutes.
In Japan an elusive bright yellow diagnostic bullet train roams the network testing the tracks. Nicknamed ‘Doctor Yellow’, you can maximise your chances of seeing it if you know exactly where it operates. So detailed research can pay-off.
If you’re after a specific train to photograph then you’re quickly entering trainspotter territory, though however well-researched your plans are you should always be prepared for something unexpected. For example, at train stations on a main line you’ll often see very high-speed trains whizzing past that are difficult to anticipate since they’re not on a schedule for that station.
2 Capturing motion
If you want to capture a speeding train and retain sharpness you’re going to need a fast shutter speed – at least 1/500-second or faster – to ‘freeze’ the train.
However, anything that moves while the shutter is open will blur. So another technique is to try to convey the motion of the train by using a slower shutter speed. Use your camera’s shutter priority mode and experiment with various shutter speeds – which will depend on how fast the train is moving and what effect you want to create – while your camera automatically selects the correct aperture. The slower the shutter speed you decide to use the more likely it is that you will have to put your camera on a tripod to prevent the entire image looking blurred.
If you want to photograph high-speed trains then the most obvious destination is Japan, home of the famous Shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains. Watching a bullet train speeding through a station is a thrilling experience, but beyond the actual trains there’s plenty more to photograph, from immaculate conductors and passengers queuing in an extraordinarily orderly fashion landscapes whizzing by outside the window. In fact, a two-week JR Pass is the most efficient, easy, and affordable way to see the country’s four main islands.
3 Photographing train stations
Train stations come in all shapes and sizes and from historic to thoroughly modern, but the ones that make you gasp are typically the large, open and cavernous architectural structures. For these you’ll need a wide-angle lens to capture as much of them as you can. It’s usually the roofs that become the star of such images, with plenty of diagonal lines, slats and curves to play with. Experiment with symmetry, but also try to use the platforms, railway tracks and roofs to create leading lines in your images. An easy way to create something unusual is to crouch down to take images, thus avoiding a head-height perspective that almost all smartphone-toting photographers unknowingly rely on.
There are dozens of exquisitely designed and constructed train stations all over the world, some historic and some brand new. As well as interior photos of the concourses, platforms and the trains themselves don’t forget the facades, which can often be the most iconic image. Some of the best and most photogenic train stations in the world – both inside and out – include St. Pancras in London, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, Antwerpen-Centraal in Belgium and Grand Central Terminal in New York.
4 Think about angles
As with any outdoor photography, pay attention to where you stand in relation to your subject and to the Sun. For example, the classic shot of a train coming into a station is achieved simply by standing on the platform and having the train arrive in the top left corner of your composition.
"As with any outdoor photography, pay attention to where you stand in relation to your subject and to the Sun."
You then press the shutter button when the train is about two-thirds into the frame. It's best done when the Sun is behind you so that your subject is nicely lit, but even better is to capture a train during the golden hour. Either just before sunrise or just before sunset, during this short period your subject can be lit by a beautiful muted golden light. Also consider getting down low to photograph details – such as a train’s wheels – and be on the lookout for abstract images.
Looking for a good composition is obviously critical for your photography, but bear in mind that stations and railway tracks are extremely dangerous places. Don’t cross train tracks and always look both ways before you get anywhere near them.
5 Don’t forget about people
The people who work on the railways and who travel on them are just as interesting as the trains and Railway stations. Depending on what time of day you arrived at the station, and what country you are in, you can photograph everything from immaculately dressed conductors 2 drawings of people piling onto trains during the rush hour. What's more, everyone you see at a railway station and on a train have a story to tell; they're all going somewhere. Almost any camera can be good for imaging people, but as with street photography it’s wise to use aperture priority mode so you can manually adjust depth of field while the camera looks after the shutter speed.
Author tip: If you want to photograph colourful scenes that include people then consider a trip to India. It’s home to some of the most spectacular railway journeys in the world, but wherever you travel you’ll often get the chance to photograph people at the windows peering out at the world, piling onto trains in unbelievable numbers, and crowds of passengers waiting for hours often in train stations. It’s a travel photographer’s paradise and all you have to do is wait for that extra-special spontaneous moment.
See our in-depth analysis on how to photograph a train as part of our 'How I got that shot' series.