How to take great photos of trains.
This guide is in direct response to several users emailing me asking how to take better photos of trains. It's a great question and a great topic that has a lot of nuance and can be a lot of fun to learn. Trains are exciting, interesting, and often historic. One of the most sought-after areas of historical photography is train photos, and it's because America in particular was built by the railroads. When you take good train photos today you are taking photos that could sometimes be very important of valuable 50-100 years into the future.
First - A disclaimer.
Magnaimages, LLC and all of it's subdidiaries holds no liability for anything stupid you do. Obey the law, Obey the signs, and never trespass on railroad property or get yourself close enough to be hurt by a train. Trains can kill you as fast as a bullet to the brain, they are big, they can't steer, and the area around them can be very dangerous as they pass through. Never break the law around trains, never get onto trains, and never get onto railroad property. In the cases I have been on railroad property for photos I have had written permission and had safety briefings. None of what is posted here is legal advice, and you should look at your local laws before taking photos of trains from anywhere besides public property. Take your railroad photos at your own risk.
Second - The Law!
In most states, it is illegal to cross train tracks at any other place than a railroad crossing. Train tracks and the property near them are owned by the railroad company, and most of the railroad companies post "No Trespassing" signs prohibiting being on their property at any time.Trespassing on railroad property is usually a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from $100 to $1,000, and some jail time, depending on the state. If your trespass results in the injury or death of someone else, you could face felony charges. Railroad property along track is usually surprisingly wide. In places like Iowa this can be up to 150 feet from the center of the track out on each side. When in doubt err on the side of caution when taking photos and don't stand on railroad property, they will prosecute you and they have a right to, being near trains is dangerous.
Photographing trains takes a very particular set of skills. You need to be a great landscape photographer with an eye for what makes an interesting landscape, or at least the most interesting landscape from where you can stand. But you must also be good at shooting moving subjects such as wildlife or athletes. You need to know how to set up your camera to nail the shot on the fly because trains move at high speed and you will only have instants to get your photo taken and look right. You have to imagine what the train will look like and how compose your shot for it before it's there. It's a hard process to learn and takes a lot of practice to get right. You often don't have ideal shooting locations or lighting. You have to know how to work with what you have and figure out ways to compensate. If you aren't getting good photos right away don't be disappointed. Just look at what other people are doing and see what you're doing differently and try to imitate them. Those that are taking great train photos are doing so after much experience. I'm going to be using a lot of the same locomotive on the same day to demonstrate the techniques used because it demonstrates how easy it is to get cool photos of trains from public property.
Consider the lighting.
Normally it's bad to photograph someone at high noon or with the sun behind them. The same is true of trains. What will happen is that there will be harsh shadows that even the best image editing software can't compensate for. Because of this you need to understand the direction of what will usually be the sun in regards to the train you are photographing.
Moving trains need fast shutter speeds and you should aim to never dip below 1/500th at the expense of everything else. Still trains can be treated as any other landscape subject. Pre-focus your lens to a point on the track where you want to shoot your photo of the train as it passes. I like to find visual landmarks such as trash, marks on the track or ties, or other peculiar objects near where I want my focal point to be for the train. I've made mistakes in the past fighting to get a good photo because I hadn't set up my camera for the moving subject.
Scout for locations beforehand
It may seem obvious but for some people planning isn't really a thing they do. You will pay dearly if you try to photograph trains without having a location planned. In my case I spent several years photographing trains along the BNSF Marshall Subdivision in Northwest Iowa and Southwest Minnesota. Most of my time was spent poking around on dirt roads, asking farmers for permission to set up on their property on another day, and looking into locations I could find on Google Maps. It's part of the fun of taking photos of trains but it also takes a lot of work. Poke around public roads and trails along the track you want to photograph on to find good places that might work in the future. Put these spots on a map, even if it's just on your phone. You'll need to reference these if you chase a train or just want to take a photo of a train at a particular time of day.
The 3/4 shot, the "wedgie"
This is your bread and butter of shooting trains. The 3/4th perspective sometimes called a "wedgie" in train circles is the single most common and direct way of conveying the shape of a train. In this case you are shooting between side-on and head-on to the train, so that's why it's called a 3/4 perspective. This sort of photo lends itself well to what you will normally be able to photograph from non-railroad property or dangerously close to a moving train. Always consider the sun direction and stay on the most sunny side of the tracks if possible to get this shot. If the train isn't sitting and you know it's direction of travel set up your shot before the train gets there with the most pleasing landscape you can find and imagine a train cutting through. When the train gets into frame, spam photos and then see what the best one is with the composition you made as you'll never get the shot of the train exactly where you want it unless it's stopped.
You can sometimes cheat at a 3/4 perspective around corners or curves. In this case I'm standing at a crossing using a telephoto lens to compress the image and make the curve look more intense. However it's still using the wedge perspective.
Shoot from the front
There are times where it is possible or acceptable to get the face of the train. Such cases are rare and usually involve stopped trains in a situation where its legal to be directly in front of them. In such cases you will be at the mercy of lighting however they can make for some really cool photos.
If you can't make the shot interesting with the subject alone then try to create interesting and unique angles by getting very low or very high to your subject.(the train) You might find an interesting bridge or overpass that works for such a shot.
In some cases you may be able to legally get under or beside railroad bridges by standing on places such as public underpasses to get interesting shots. The key is to find interesting and unique angles to make the train really stand out from the surrounding world.
Go on photography excursions put on by the railroad.
Railroads such as the various narrow-gauge railroads and historical railroads will often quietly advertise opportunities for photographers to photograph trains from railroad property right beside the track. The photo above is a staged shot taken on the Huckleberry Railroad at Crossroads village in Flint, MI. The cars are all empty and the crew has thrown as much trash oil and grease as they can find into the firebox to make thick, dark, dirty smoke. The result is a photo that looks very dramatic and is not typical of a train on a flat grade like this. nevertheless it is very dramatic and your viewers don't need to know that little secret. Ask around to find out when a railroad will offer a photo shoot of their trains and you might be able to score some really unique photos.
Use a telephoto lens if you need to.
In many cases you will either be dealing with a very long object or a great distance to that object. In some cases your photo can be much more interesting if you either zoom in or compress your image.
As you can see the same location with the same subject gets a lot more interesting if we use a telephoto lens and zoom in on our subject.
The bottom line
The real crux of taking good railroad photos is to practice a lot. Go to your local railroad station, your local heritage railroad, or even your nearest railroad crossing and practice. Trains usually don't set themselves up to let you photograph them, you'll have to learn to shoot them on the fly, and that's why practice is the only way that you can hope to get great photos of trains. However you choose to do it, be safe, use common sense, and be ready to make a lot of mistakes at first. Photographing trains is hard but the reward is really worth it.