Capturing expressive photos when traveling on trains

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Cars of the Grand Canyon Railway going around a curve

Last year I spent about one hundred and twenty five hours on passenger rail in the US, which is how long it takes to get from Portland to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle and then Seattle back to Portland. I also rode on the Coast Starlight, the Southwest Chief and the Empire Builder. I stopped in Arizona to take the Grand Canyon Railway to the south rim and stay for a few days. Here are the techniques and tips I learned along the way.

This is the view from The Coast Starlight southbound.  The route takes 35 hours and you can only actually see the water for about two of those hours.

I love this photo because it captures the feeling of being sprawled out on a train with the scenery passing by me. It’s a bit abstract, but I also shot it after enjoying a wine tasting featuring selections from the vineyards we passed through earlier. The framing is aggressive, but compare it to the picture below without any framing.

Scenery of California farmland from the Coast Starlight is beautiful but removing my immediate environment in this case makes the composition less interesting to the viewer.

I was excited by this photo because I took it from a train going at high speed in poor lighting. However, the viewer has no environmental clues about what’s most interesting about the picture, which are the conditions I took it in. Too often I’ve tried to capture the passing scenery as if I wasn’t on a train.

You can also the car and tracks to use framing more subtly to great effect.

Darkening film on the window helped highlight the distant scenery while letting the viewer know the full context of the scene by highlighting the shadow in the foreground.

Riding on a train adds many difficulty factors to photography. You’ve got the train’s speed and rocking motions. The interior lighting isn’t always under your control. The windows can be dirty, too reflective or don anti-glare film. The anti-glare film isn’t a problem during the day but once the sun goes down, it mutes what little light is left.

It’s tempting to shoot all that scenery by itself but there are hundreds of great views from vantage points that are otherwise inaccessible. Even if your equipment is more capable than mine, and can capture the passing mountains like you’re sitting still, the windows still constrain compositions a great deal.

Remember that train travelers are not tied to seats like on an airplane. Amtrak long haul trains have dining cars, cafe cars, back windows and, of course, observation lounges. Other trains may or may not have that much freedom but every train or light rail I’ve been on in America or the United Kingdom, moving about has been unrestricted.

View of a snow storm from the observation Lounge on The Empire Builder headed to Seattle.  We were supposed to head to Portland, but the pass was closed and I wound up on a bit of a detour.

One option is to make being on the train itself the main subject of your photo, which can add a narrative element to your work. Leave the scenery out or let it blur. In addition to lounge and dining spaces, pictures of cozy sleeping areas or documenting your travel experience are also interesting perspectives to consider.

One technique for train photography is to take multiple exposures and composite them together for a High Dynamic Range shot. I’ve done some of these High Dynamic Range composite shots, but my results keep looking slightly off due to fringing. You might achieve different results based on equipment and experience. I usually shoot fast and in Raw, then poke at it in Lightroom.

Here is an example of how I process my photos. One exposure. As shot on the left, developed on the right. This was taken in a lounge car of The Grand Canyon Railway. This is why I love shooting Raw.

When planning a trip, it’s good to think about framing and what types of shots you want ahead of time. Don’t start thinking about it seriously after you’ve already traveled hundreds of miles, like I did. I was sitting in a railroad hotel at 4 AM, sorting my photos and waiting for the rest of the world to wake up. That’s when I started to really think about the body of work I was creating. I found that my most interesting photos were those that embraced being on a train rather than becoming frustrated with the restrictions.

A good way to prepare for doing any specific type of photography is to study what others have done by searching image sites. The two sites I’d recommend are Google Images and Instagram. You can see Coast Starlight pictures here on Instagram or here on Google Images.  While researching your line is a good way to go, I personally avoid looking at pictures of routes I haven’t done yet. I like to do train routes with as little information about them as possible and have a fresh experience. You might want to look at your own route to scope things out and plan shots. It’s all about what approach you want to take.

The Empire Builder pulling out of Chicago Union Station. This image was taken from my seat at the start of my trip.

One thing you’ll notice from searches is that trains themselves are popular subject matter. I plan to make a project of shooting other trains on future trips to help build my audience. One of the advantages to shooting trains from trains, is that you have a safe and legal vantage point. Photographing trains or tracks from the outside is a whole set of topics for another day.

If you want to include the train you are riding in your shots, be aware of it curving or turning. Some Amtrak employees also love to chat, are train enthusiasts themselves and can be great resources for finding out when a opportune curve is coming up.

Finally, let’s discuss those dreaded reflections.

  • Do not use your flash. If you need to compensate for low light, try using a wider aperture, boosting the ISO or stabilizing your camera better. You can use ledges, your suitcase or other items around you to help stabilize your camera. I often travel with a monopod because it packs small and I can actually use it in tight spaces like train compartments.
  • If you are using a camera phone or a hood on your lens, put it close to or right up to the glass. This will limit composition but still results in some great pictures. Every time I put my camera phone right up to the glass on the train, there are soon people copying my technique.
  • Pretend you are an old-timey photographer and stick your head under a curtain. Those curtains are meant to block light. Block the direction of the unwanted light might save your shot. I do this all the time when in a sleeper car.
  • Polarizing filters can be good at reducing reflections.

Please share some of your own pictures or experiences in the comments. 

You can find more of Dawn Hewitt’s work, on trains and off, on her personal website or Instagram.

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