I’ve been photographing steam railways for 20 years. With the Severn Valley Railway being on my doorstop, steam railways have been a constant source of inspiration for my photography. The unique drama of a steam locomotive creates when passing through beautiful scenery has captured my imagination throughout the years, and it is a subject that I think any photographer will enjoy capturing. If you fancy having a go at railway photography, here are a few tips which I think may help you to get the best results.
1. Research The Line
Before you leave your house, research the line you are visiting and find out how you will get access to the best line side spots. Keep in mind that unless you are going to photograph solely at stations, a short hike into the countryside may be necessary to reach the best viewpoint.
Most heritage lines will sell freedom of the line tickets where you can hop on and off the train, allowing you to photograph quite a few different locomotives and scenes on a single days shooting. You may even find that the line you are visiting sells line side passes which allow you to effectively ‘walk the line’ for images.
Always find out which way the locomotive is facing, as there is nothing quite as disheartening as the loco coming round tender first or backwards. Most railways generally don’t have the time to turn an engine so it may be facing that way for the whole day or maybe longer. Most railway staff will help or you can look on the lines website.
Try and find out if any special events are planned. Steam Galas, 1940 weekends, Santa specials, diesel galas, visiting locomotives and vintage car displays all give you plenty of opportunity for unique pictures, with the downside being that they can be very busy . When the crowds are out I recommend that you carry a telephoto in the kit bag to help isolate the locomotives.
2. Time Your Visit
The best times of the year for photography are probably autumn and winter for the quality of the light and the colour of the scenery. You will also find that the cold air will often enhance the steam and smoke. Summer or spring are still great months for photography with the benefits of line side flowers and lush greenery to enhance your compositions.
Choose your location based around the weather. If the day is cloudy head into woodland and use the trees to fill in the sky. On a clear day stick to the open where the white smoke will show up well against the blue sky. Evening light is of course atmospheric but can mute the colours. Mix times of day and year to create some variety in your portfolio. A locomotive is built to run in all seasons so reflect that in your work.
3. Shoot in Raw
Those black smoke boxes are going to give your camera’s auto exposure a workout . Even on an overcast day your camera might well over expose the surrounding scenery . But if you shoot raw you can bring back the engine details and darken the surroundings. Slight under exposure would generally be favourable as highlights are harder to save than shadow details with modern sensors.
4. Compose Yourself
The classic way to photograph locomotives is using the ‘wedge’ composition.
It’s a great way of capturing the drama of a passing steam engine and personally I am very fond of it. This method gets the nickname ‘wedge’ as it describes the shape between you and the train as it passes by you on the line side. It’s very effective at catching the drama and dynamics of a steam engine but it easy to over use it, so remember to look for different compositions to keep your work varied. For example, try standing on a bend and using a zoom lens to get a head on shot. A telephoto lens is brilliant as it allows you to isolate the train and will also give you time to shoot the train from a far and bring a bit of compression into the photo. Also consider photographing even further away from the line, and don’t forget to include the scenery. An example would be trains passing over viaducts or past recognisable landmarks.
Cropping when processing your images can be simple technique to enhance your image. For example, engine and carriages photographed from the side could be enhanced by a wide panoramic style crop.
5. Keeping Focus
Generally try to focus on the ‘face’ of the train to ensure that it is sharp. If your camera hasn’t got a reliable autofocus tracking mode, simply select a single focus point. Steam trains on heritage lines aren’t going at full pelt so you should have plenty of time to fire off a burst of images. Also whilst continuous shutters are useful they aren’t really necessary, especially if you do shoot RAW you will fill your buffer well before the train has passed. Personally I have always used a shutter speed 1/400 upwards to freeze the action and eliminate motion blur – essential to produce a sharp image. Whenever possible, I will also use a nearby fence to rest a camera on to help with stability. However, don’t forget to experiment. A slower shutter speed can give a nice blurring effect to the wheels.
6. Remember the Details
Heritage railways usually have their own culture which has grown alongside the railways which can feature anything from vintage advertisements to period costumes. A railway is a thousand parts, and the tea shops, pubs, shops, booking offices and the staff who run them all play their part. Maybe chat to the volunteers and see if they mind having their image taken. Most will happily oblige and it can lead to some unique photographic opportunities.
Don’t forget to photograph the railway furniture, such as the signals and signs, levers and bridges which accompany a railway line. They add colour and a layer of visual depth and detail to an image. Bridges are the most obvious but look for distance markers or old telegraph poles or signals, which are easy to overlook but can be used to aid the composition.
7. Above all, be safe…
There is never a need to get close to a moving train with affordable zooms meaning you can easily stay far away and still get great images. Be careful crossing the lines and always be mindful of your surroundings because as soon as that train appears you will be viewing through a viewfinder and your spatial awareness may be impaired.
Finally, I hope this article has encouraged you to try photographing steam railways. Enjoy the ride!