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Mastering The Art Of Rail Photography

Nov 5, 2007
To become a master in the art of railroad photography, you have to begin at the beginning. Let.s get started. All Aboard !!!

First off, you have to like trains. That's easy stuff. Everybody at one time or another has ridden on a passenger train, or have been held up at a grade crossing with a freight train that will not budge an inch. Many ride the train every day as commuters. Others are frequent Amtrak travelers, and a select few remember the passenger train of yesteryear. Still others have ridden trains around the world.

The train population can be divided into two basic groups: those that like trains, and those that do not like them. In the group that like trains, there are those that are enthusiasts and the remainder that think trains are just OK.

There are close to a quarter of a million rail enthusiasts over the USA and Canada, and probably double that number all over the globe. A majority of these rail fans have schlepped out their trusty cameras to capture and preserve the excitement of train watching. The hobby has developed so well that webcams now record train activity at places like Rochelle, Illinois and the scenic west.

There is an art to taking good rail photographs. If you go to Webshots and search the topic "trains" you'll see both talent and trash on display. So. lets give you a brief summary of what you should do to become a good rail photographer.

Quality is the name of the game. It begins with your selection of a digital camera. The more expensive and versatile is the digital camera, the greater will be the quality of your work. You simply cannot cut it with a digital camera that has a resolution below 5.0 megapixels per square centimeter. 7.0 megapixels will squeak you into the rail photographers' club. Anything higher will get you the quality you seek. Top of the line digital cameras made by Canon or Nikon will put you in virtuoso class. They are not inexpensive by any means, but what quality product today is bought "on the cheap?"

Okay, let's "shoot" some trains. The first thing you want to consider is the train traffic that will be headed your way. Obviously, you don't want to set up your photo location at a single track location that sees less than five trains a day. You would be better off going fishing. On the other hand, if you have an employee timetable or know in advance when trains are due, you can set up in a scenic location, take your time in composing your shot, and wait for the train to happen along.

If you are like most folk, you'll want to be where train activity is heavy. The Amtrak Northeast corridor is the hottest stretch of rail activity anywhere in the country. Over 120 trains a day pass through there. There are no freights, only Metroliners, Acelas, and other named Washington - New York - Boston hotshots. There are virtually no grade crossings because of the very high speeds in which these trains operate. All of this line is fenced. Photographing any of these Amtrak trains is possible only from overpasses or at one of the few station stops While it's possible to have access to the boarding platforms at these station stops, I recommend you obtain permission from Amtrak security before embarking on a photo jaunt.

Railfans with cameras are not as welcome along the railroad lines of the country as they used to be. The rule of thumb here is that if you are in a railroad terminal facility, you MUST have some form of a permission slip in order to be there. You run the risk of getting arrested fined, and your camera confiscated for examination by Homeland Security. If you are on a public road or vacant land not on the railroad right of way, you are generally all right.

OK ..back to "shooting" trains. The most often used scene is the three-quarter wedge shot. Here is where you stand clear of the tracks, focus on the leading engine, and capture his train that goes back in the distance. What makes this interesting is that railroads frequently use locomotives belonging to other railroads in today's freights.

A variant of the three quarter wedge is photographing a train on a curve. Shooting a train on a concave curve gives you the engine and a good perspective of its train. Photographing a train on a convex curve will give you a dramatic view of the front of the engine and may possibly show the rest of the train as well

Photographing trains from an overpass will produce some very dramatic views of the train as it passes underneath you. All you have to do is line yourself up with the proper sun angle and do your best to compose the shot. Remember again NEVER climb up on a railroad signal bridge to do any photography. You will not pass GO. You will not collect $200. You will probably spend the next 24 hours in jail waiting for the bail bondsman to appear.

There are a zillion different combinations of sun angle, dawn shots, sunset shots, and everything in between. However, since the advent of the digital camera, the most dramatic train photos occur at night. Only the very best of the digital cameras can play in this league, because the lens quality and maximum aperature will determine if you have a night scene or a black blob. These digital cameras cost well over $1000 and are definitely intended for none other than the serious or professional photographer.

Photographing trains is fun, and if you are good at it, it can be profitable. The tools of the trade have become very sophisticated. The rest is up to you.
About the Author
Bob Carper is a veteran information systems consultant with an MBA from Pitt. For additional information go to All About Webconferencing or My Power Mall. You may also e-mail Bob at robertcarper06@comcast.net
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