Since moving to California eight months ago, I've had plenty of opportunities to photograph railroads. I live very close to the well known Tehachapi Loop and a couple hours from Cajon Pass. I don't photograph trains all of the time, but since I am around them so much, they've become a regular subject of my photographs.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of ways to photograph trains. Not only are there many ways that I have not tried, but there are ways that have yet to be tried by anyone. There are countless techniques. I just hope to provide you with some ideas or inspiration. You must have your own vision.
If you carelessly snap a picture, you'll have a careless snapshot. You must bring something of yourself to the image for it to be successful. So use your imagination and be creative.
#1 -Capture Movement
|Train Underpass - Tehachapi, California|
Railroads are a moving industry. While it is sometimes hurry-up-and-wait, you can often find trains that are in motion. If you can capture the movement, it adds instant interest and drama to your photographs. To capture movement, you'll need a slow shutter speed and probably a tripod. In the above image, I used the shade of the highway overpass to allow a slow enough shutter speed to show the motion of the locomotive.
Besides shadows, you can use the light immediately before sunrise (as in the above photograph) or after sunset (as in the photograph below) to allow for longer shutter speeds.
|Fast Freight - Cajon Pass, California|
|Quick Train - Tehachapi, California|
Or you can wait until it is dark like in the photograph below. Streaks of light from the locomotive can be interesting, but be careful about high-contrast lines leading the viewer out of the photograph.
|Train And Full Moon - Tehachapi, California|
#2 - Find The Light
The above photograph illustrates what Tehachapi is all about: mountains, wind farms and railroading. I used lens flare to add additional interest to the photograph below.
#3 - Photograph The Cars
|Union Pacific At Mormon Rocks - Cajon Pass, California|
Typically, the hour immediately after sunrise and the hour just before sunset are great to photograph in. Great light can be found any time of the day and night, but these two hours are the most obvious and predictable.
|Four Windmills And Train - Tehachapi, California|
|Train In Evening Light - Tehachapi, California|
|Crazy Bird - Caliente, California|
I've noticed that a lot of railroad photographs are of locomotives, which are large, loud and often colorful. Locomotives are the first part of a train that one usually sees. Most of the train, however, consists of cars that too can be colorful and large.
|Freight Train At Days End - Tehachapi, California|
Trains are rolling canvases to punks and malcontents, and the graffiti they leave behind can be interesting. Finding creative compositions among the spray paint can be both challenging and rewarding.
|Urban Art - Tehachapi, California|
#4 - Change Your Angle
By capturing the industries that the railroads serve, you tell a much bigger story of what trains are all about. While a train is big, it's actually pretty small compared to the large refineries, plants, warehouses, etc., that generate the freight.
#7 - Infrastructure
Trains need rails and signals and a host of other infrastructures to operate. You can add interest to your photographs by capturing these things. You can make it the entire image (as in above) or just a part of the image (as in below).
#8 - Add Human Interest
#10 - Use A Different Camera
|Tehachapi Mountain Railroading - Bealville, California|
Look for opportunities to photograph trains at different angles. Get high, get low, move around. Look for overpasses, tunnels and curves. This alone will add interest to your images.
|Building America - Bealville, California|
#5 - Be Contextual
|Monolith - Tehachapi, California|
The railroad is an industry that provides a service for other industries. Trains in the mountains or across a prairie tell only a small part of the whole story. There is more, and that "more" can be quite interesting.
|Monolith Cement - Tehachapi, California|
|Cement Plant - Tehachapi, California|
|Washer And Nut - Tehachapi, California|
|Switch Stand - Tehachapi, California|
|Rail Lines - Tehachapi, California|
Railroads often leave things lying around or completely abandoned. The rails in the photograph above have been sitting for months near (but not right next to) the mainline. A puddle on the remains of an old siding became the subject of the photograph below.
|Forgotten Ties, Reflected Crossing Signal - Tehachapi, California|
|Excitement At The Loop - Tehachapi, California|
People like photographs of people. Look for opportunities to carefully incorporate humans into your images of trains. In the above photograph, the train provides context for the boy and the sign.
#9 - Creatively Edit
|Railroad Car In Negative Space - Tehachapi, California|
Back in the days of film, I liked to print my transparencies so as to make reversed images. With digital, it's easier than ever to do. This is one example of how creative editing can be used to add interest to a photograph. There are many other options for creative editing if you play around with the features of your software--be creative! It's not something you'd want to do all the time, but now and then it's a good way to be different.
|Elevator And Tank Cars - Goodyear, Arizona|
It seems that everyone has a DSLR. They become better, smarter and cheaper each year. But sometimes they're too clean and too bland. Using a different camera can give your images character. In the photograph above, I used a $20 film camera from China called Holga. In the photographs below, I used a cell phone, which is always with me and has "apps" for editing.
|Train Around Bend - Tehachapi, California|
|Train At Monolith - Tehachapi, California|
With your smart phone it is easy to create a look or feel that would be more difficult to create otherwise. In the above photograph, I made it look like it was printed from a dirty glass plate that had a light leak. I adjusted the tone and added a black border to the image below.
|Sunrise Tracks - Lancaster, California|
The main take-away that I'd like you to grasp is that successful photographs start with a vivid and imaginative conception. You have to be creative. You have to think about what you are creating and somehow give that a voice. There are no rules. Your camera makes no difference. There are only ideas--your ideas.
Hopefully I've given you some ideas to build from. Perhaps something you've read or seen will inspire you to make your own photographic creation. Now get out there and photograph!