Railway Photography - How to...

1. Introduction.


Up until now Ive resisted the temptation to jump onto the ever growing band wagon of bloggers, in part because I haven’t felt as though there’s any information I may be able to impart to the reader that is of any real practical use or interest. Secondly and probably more importantly, every blog to date that ive dipped into has left me either annoyed at yet somebody else trying to tell me how to think and feel or perhaps even more depressingly its just left me plain bored.
So with such negative attitudes toward blogs and bloggers in general what changed my mind?
Quite frankly im not sure for certain that I have entirely, but an incident or at least conversation I was part of in mid January certainly got me thinking about it more seriously than I had before. I was at the end of that chance encounter, left with the distinct impression that perhaps I do have information that may be of some use and which I could at least offer the reader to make their own mind up about.

Over the last year or two quite a few well-meaning people have mentioned that I should at least put something on my website along the lines of how to photograph planes, trains and automobiles, and until now I think ive been pretty successful at resisting their suggestions. Had it not been for this odd encounter I mentioned above in January I suspect the situation would have remained as it was.
But, and its odd how coincidence can take a hand in these matters. Let me set the scene for you, January 2015 and there’s still a bit of excitement in the rail enthusiast community about the arrival of the new Chiltern 68 locos. So like an industrious little tog off I pop to one of my local haunts a bridge that crosses the line near Princes Risborough. Now normally on a weekday I would have gone the entire day seeing noone else with a camera, but as it turned out this wasn’t an entirely normal day.
At the same time I arrived at the bridge another gentleman joined me with the exact same intention of photographing the mornings rail traffic, and being a reasonably friendly bunch of people, if a little odd, the usual conversation of how to put the world to rights shortly ensued.

Now, my main point of all this is that during this conversation my companion volunteered the information that although having recently acquired his camera and lenses he didnt really understand how to use it all to its full potential or even understand, what I would consider to be basic functions, how to photograph rail traffic successfully. And to be clear here, we are not discussing compact cameras, bridge cameras or even basic SLR models, we in this instance are looking at serious equipment with very serious glass on the front. Having gone through with him some of the more useful settings used in rail photography he thought that a series of discussion pages on my website outlining the basics of rail photography would be of immense use as there were certainly other people out there only just returning to photography after many years away from it and in need of understanding the basics of digital cameras as well as photoshop. So in essence that’s why I have finally decided to post a few articles on how I go about photographing the UK rail network. Let me be perfectly clear at this point, I do not pretend to be one of the worlds experts in rail photography, and im sure the reader will not agree with everything I have to say, but I stress again this is how I go about photographing the railways.
In the text that follows I will stick to railway photography only but if you do happen to look at some of my back catalogue you’ll also that see I go far beyond just railways and into aircraft, motorsports and even equine sports. Nearly all of the camera techniques that apply to the railways also apply to these other modes of transport or sports. There is no unique aircraft photography technique that im aware of thats only used by aircraft photographers, all these techniques apply across the board in my experience. What is important though is that some subjects require much better technique or slightly different hardware from other subjects. The art of panning a fast moving jet aircraft at 50ft across the ground is an art form in itself and not something most railway photographers will ever require, but the basics of the panning technique apply just as equally to the jet aircraft as much as they do to the Pendolino moving across your field of view from trackside positions.



Rather than post everything in one big lump my intention is to post the information section by section, however as I am still a working photographer this may take a bit of time to get all the sections written up, so please bear with me. If there are any specific questions on any aspect of rail photography you wish to know about please contact me through the website and I’ll do my best to answer you.



2. The basic considerations

The first point I need to make here is that this isn’t rocket science. You won’t be eternally damned if you mess up a shot you’ll probably just kick yourself for a few minutes afterwards. Experimentation and getting shots wrong are all part of the frustration and the fun that goes hand in hand with photography.
As with any multistage process in life photography has a basic workflow process. The workflow can be split into three basic areas:

1. Preparation in advance of taking your shot

2. Taking the shot

3. Post processing of the shot – or in common parlance ‘does the shot need shopping’

Preparation in advance largely revolves around the following considerations, where, when, what and how. I think these terms are all pretty self-explanatory, and are issues that need to be considered before even leaving the house.
Taking the shot boils down to selecting the correct settings in the camera, selecting the correct lens and techniques such as panning if necessary. I know the setup could be covered under the Preparation heading, but in general one doesn’t really know the setup in terms of shutter speeds and ISO etc. until seconds before the trains’ arrival on scene. I will assume that the reader has at least a basic working knowledge of their camera, but should I use any terms that you are unfamiliar with I strongly suggest you refer back to your owner’s manual.

And finally the post processing stage. This is an area where you should be able to have the most fun with your images. The hard work in the field is done and now it’s time to sit back and enjoy your days shooting in front of your computer in the warmth of your own house, or at least that’s the theory. But there are instances where I still meet people who are very wary of Photoshop or any digital manipulation software for a multitude of very understandable and plausible reasons. However the bottom line is this, we now live in a digital age where the power of the computer is able to enhance an image very easily and very quickly without the operator needing to be in possession of superhuman computer literacy skills or damaging the purity of the in camera image. I certainly don’t advocate wholescale changes to the original image, but I personally see no damage to the purity of the scene by enhancement through colour saturation, improving shadow detail or even a little bit of edge sharpening, but as with all things in life some people just don’t know when to stop !
I consider my Photoshop skills to be fairly basic and i’m certainly no internationally renowned Photoshop expert but I do know enough to achieve what I set out to accomplish so ill try to cover at least the basics of this.

So as my wife might say at this point……………….what’s the fox in box? And remember we aren’t trying to boil the sea here (I don’t get it either!)




Shot preparation

Even though these may not be conscious decisions you will still go through these initial considerations in your mind before you even pick the camera up:

Location of where to shoot
Travelling time to the location
Time of day and what direction will the sun be shining from or is there the possibility of no direct sun due to cloud cover
If you’re after a specific working is it still running or has it been cancelled
General shooting off spec, what traffic is likely to pass
Is your equipment ready to go?
What equipment will you need?
Clothing & refreshment requirements

Location:
Is it legally accessible – you would be surprised at the number of people that wilfully wander onto the railway just to get a shot of their desired loco. In my experience this is largely, but not exclusively, an issue with photographers trying to capture images of vintage traction, be that steam or diesel. The over enthusiasm can be attributed to the rarity of the working compared to in service traction, which for the latter there is the often muttered cry of ‘oh no not another shed’. This far from excuses the tog that wanders onto the line, as notwithstanding it being a criminal act, it’s downright dangerous for both you and the railway staff that have to come and investigate an unauthorised person on the railway, and it could in time lead to the eventual banning of steam on the network by NR. Anecdotally this behaviour has in part led to the proliferation of the metal stake lineside fencing that runs for mile upon mile upon endless mile along rural trackside locations as can be seen on parts of the WCML. On a purely personal note of indulgence here, if NR must have these fences why use a model that could so easily impale somebody.


Is there going to be room to move to shoot?
This covers a couple of points really, both the crowds at popular points when a steamer comes through, but also for any location where space is tight due to encroaching vegetation. And if the vegetation is on the side you wish to photograph of the oncoming train can you shoot at an angle that is more oblique than just head on.

To deal with the first issue of crowds at popular hotspots. There are many legal positions from which one can photograph the railways and many of these provide suitable parking space and good views along the line if chosen with care. However these spots are not infinitesimal and under normal circumstances one can roll up midweek at one of these points and see nobody all day. But the exception to this is the phenomenon of the ‘steamer’, or the charter train, or the special, in short anything that’s a bit out of the ordinary.
The crowds will always turn out for a steam loco working, they may turn out for a heritage diesel loco but most couldn’t care less if it’s something they can see under normal working conditions on a daily basis. This attitude is totally understandable and to be honest I’d rather drive 25miles to see a King go by than drive 5 miles to see a shed (shed being an often seen class 66 diesel loco that seems to multiply on the network year on year much as a bad cold might in the winter months)
So on days where a steam charter is running on the network you have to be judicious on choosing where to shoot from. Let me give you an example. A few years ago a private steam charter pulled by a Castle was on the return leg to Tyseley via Banbury. Now, a most obvious spot to shoot from for this loco was at a very well know spot in Kings Sutton just south of Banbury. It’s a very popular spot due to its view along the track, the backdrop of a church, the direction of the light and ease of accessibility. As I hadn’t shot from this point before I selected this as a good place to be, I got there early setup my gear and waited. However I wasn’t alone for long, within 15 minutes the bridge was full with tripods, monopods, video equipment and a rather dubious character whose outline still haunts me to this day. The train duly came along, with the bridge now lined two deep with people trying to get the exact same shot, and even motorists stopping on the bridge on this main road to get a quick glimpse of the passing spectacle. My shot taken I returned home, was pleased with my shot and duly post processed it. Now since then a few specials have been through that point but with the exception of one more return visit to that bridge I have never stopped to shoot a steam special from there again, although I do still return there to shoot normal traffic workings on occasion. So why haven’t I returned there to shoot for example Lizzy or Braunton, simple, because there will be around 30 people all taking exactly the same shot. Why bother, why follow the crowd, I’ve done that shot once, I liked the outcome and I used it. But why repeat the process of shooting what is in effect another similar looking train that’s just in a different colour as far as the non-enthusiast public are concerned. And in this day of instant news and social media platforms there will be a plethora of shots of any given steam train from any multitude of different locales on line and ready to view before I’ve even got back to my car for the drive home.
Why not instead look for somewhere different, somewhere that if you see another photographer you’re instant reaction is ‘oh bugger!’ I’m not saying that finding shootable locations that aren’t frequently visited by other togs are easy to find, but they do still exist, and with the huge amount of lineside clearance work that’s been undertaken by NR in the last few years new locations are being opened up all the time. On the downside though, there are old favourites that are being closed down due to fencing or in the case of the GWR the extensive electrification works.


The second point to consider is lineside vegetation which is a bit more hit and miss and can be somewhat dictated by the lighting conditions and time of day. Usually I want to shoot a train showing the full length of the rake either by compressing the image with a long telephoto lens or if space permits to string it out by using a wider angle, typically a fl of 35mm or below. This is fine if you have enough room to shoot across the metals or obliquely from a distance. Flat, side on shots present their own issues as the sensor geometry of a 35mm camera when compared to the length of a normal train usually results in a lot of foreground and sky with a small band of train across the middle. This is generally not desirable in my opinion and there are a couple of ways around this, however a flat side on shot including the full length of the train for me doesn’t normally look aesthetically pleasing. However its not always possible to shoot across the line even though this generally gives a desirable result. The decision now is do you continue shooting across the line even though some factors may not be ideal, such as lighting direction, or do you shoot at a much narrower (more head on angle) which aesthetically isn’t as pleasing but other factors make the ease of the shot more desirable.

So what are the factors that can affect the shot within a narrow working space: If we look at shooting across the line we will have more room in which to shoot the full length of the train and possibly include some trackside furniture if present and or scenery. But it maybe that the backdrop isn’t open but is a thick hedge line of trees and the sun light is from the direction of the hedging and not on the side of the train you wish to shoot. So in effect you’re now faced with partially shooting into the sun, shooting the shadow side of the train and run the risk of deep shadows appearing across the trains form caused by the backlighting of the hedging. In essence your great composition is correct aesthetically but will most likely look a disaster due to either a blown sky and correctly exposed train or a correctly exposed sky and very dark train. But what about shadows & highlights in PS or ND filters, yes they can help for sure. But ND filters are not the easiest piece of equipment to use on a constantly moving object in my opinion and shadows and highlights are only good to a point as noise can easily corrupt the image if pushed to far. Ideally, if possible get the image right in camera as it saves time and heartache in photoshop later. As with all things in life compromises are sometimes required, so ultimately as the person on the spot you need to decide will the image be saveable if I shot a nicer composition but take the chance on it needing much more work in PS later or do I shoot to better lighting conditions but with a less pleasing composition.
Moving on, if we cant shoot the train as we compositionally want to is it feasible to shoot with the light in the right direction and get a shot other than just a head-on image. The answer to that is very much down to you as the photographer to decide as to whether its possible at that point in time. This is where the room to shoot argument comes into effect though, because if you’re tight against the backdrop with not much physical room to manoeuvre then any lineside vegetation will be accentuated in a more head-on style of shot. With a more oblique and distanced shot vegetation if present is largely unobtrusive in the image but for a tighter shot the presence of even one tall weed stem seems to be magnified and you can end up looking constantly at this interloping weed rather than the nice yellow front end of yet another unit passing by. I personally try to avoid head-on shots if possible as I don’t think they convey much of the train or setting to the viewer, but that’s just my opinion.


RAILWAY STATIONS

Railway stations are an obvious place for photographers to gravitate to, and this is especially true on days where a Special is scheduled to make an appearance. If we start by looking at the normal working day, the likelihood, unless you’re standing on a city station platform, is that you will have the place to yourself. In effect you will be able to position yourself almost anywhere you like along the length of the platform and on any of the platforms. This is of course subject to the proviso of you not causing an obstruction to staff or passengers going about their business. On a busy platform, for example Kings Cross, York or Manchester there is in my experience usually no issue with the odd photographer mooching around taking photographs, again subject to not causing an obstruction. The only restriction I have seen imposed on the busier stations is the use of either monopods or tripods. Videographers are especially keen on the use of tripods and there are good reasons as to why they would wish to use that equipment, however it is not normally welcomed by station staff as it causes H&S issues and potential trip hazards for people who have to work and walk around them. For the stills photographer, unless there is exceptionally low light there is no real reason why a tripod should be required. Most lenses now come with built in IS, some camera bodies also come equipped with IS and if the conditions aren’t totally favourable the ISO, as one option available, can always be increased to allow for low light.

Railway stations on a day where a special is due to pass through or stop at is a completely different animal from the normal working day however. The phenomena of the Special without fail attracts inordinate numbers of people onto the platform, whether they be enthusiasts or the casually interested party taking little Timmy to see his first steam train. One of my local stations on the WCML is Cheddington, a country station literally in the middle of nowhere and where only one service train stops in either direction per hour. On a normal day, because of the view one may see another photographer but most likely not. However on the occasion when Tornado first passed through on a charter towards the north all four platforms were crowded to such an extent it was almost impossible to get a shot, let alone a clean one without the bustling crowds encroaching. As always appears to be the case with these events within five minutes I was again alone on the platform and was the only witness to the passing of an intermodal running north with the obligatory Freightliner 66 stationed at point. This I suspect is a typical scene played out across the country on most weekends of the year, but for the railway photographer these events can be as much a photographic challenge as well as potential mana from heaven to those interested in photographing while people watching.

The technicalities of photographing from a platform are numerous as any semi covered outside structure is susceptible to rapid light level changes. Shooting from the end of a platform where light levels remain reasonably constant, or at least as far as they can be in the UK, is generally an easier bet to get consistent images in my opinion. What station you are standing at will of course determine how pleasing the resulting composition is. The view looking back from Clapham Junction toward London City is in my opinion a staggering view of converging metal lines, imposing buildings in the distance and any number of trains rushing down the track at any given time. However it may be the case that you are stood at the end of a platform on a rural station out in the back end of nowhere. Will an image taken from here have the same visual impact as that bustling image taken from Clapham Junction on the viewer? That very much depends on what you’re trying to convey to the viewer in my opinion. The image from Clapham Junction will inevitably be busy with plenty to look at visually and with lots going on outside of just the railway boundaries, assuming of course the image is not just a close up of a single train heading toward the station, but a wider angle shot that includes the view beyond just the width of the tracks. This sort of image conveys a message of city, business, people and the general hustle & bustle of life, whereas the image from a country station may convey an image of stillness or the quietness of life and the slow pace that things move along at as the local train gently comes into the station surrounded by fields of rape oil plants or ripening crops on a lazy summers day. Of course I paint a picture here of those days which have long since passed into memory, but the essence of each of those images is that they will convey a different message to the viewer, neither image is right or wrong or one better than the other, they are simply different and both right in their own way. Unfortunately I meet photographers who are so totally wrapped up in am I doing this correctly, will the image be so much better if I take a single step to the left or right that they forget to relax and just let the image almost take itself. Looking through the viewfinder should be an instinctive act, second nature in fact, you should know almost immediately if the composition is right or wrong.

The issue of covered areas at a station can provide technical issues for both photographer and camera. I’ve found that generally speaking these are easier to deal with with the advent of digital cameras as technology has improved and there is more scope for trial and error without the need to waste valuable film and money on trying to get it right. The use of flash at railway stations, is like the tripod not generally a welcomed piece of equipment by the railway staff. The arguments over whether flash is distracting and dangerous will probably go on for many years, but its been a very rare occurrence when I’ve actually needed to use it. There are ways around using flash, for example increase the ISO setting, reduce the shutter speed and/or increase the aperture of the lens. There is of course a trade of when changing these parameters, they being:

Increased ISO rating leads to a rise in electronic noise of the image. However this is so well controlled on modern cameras that one can easily shoot at ISO 800 and above without visible detriment to the image for many uses. If however the noise is an issue many good noise reduction software packages are available to help reduce this problem. The aberration of the noisy image can be seen as areas of large clumps of pixilation or the breakdown of pixels within the image. If the image is viewed at 100% these areas are often easily recognisable, as the smoothness of the image breaks down and rough badly transitioned areas show as clumps of square pixels
The shutter speed can also be altered to allow for low light levels. The lower the shutter speed the longer the time available to let more light onto the surface of the sensor. Reduction in shutter speed will of course add potential camera shake to an image, especially where a moving subject is the main point of focus. Lenses these days can have IS inbuilt that is equivalent to four stops stability. As good as this is, remembering of course to set the IS mode correctly (1 or 2 on Canon lenses) there is still no substitute for correctly holding the camera and developing a good solid stable panning technique. This in my opinion is absolutely essential for getting good low light photographs as flash and tripod is not always available. But a good panning posture and technique can save the situation.

Reducing the f number (aperture) on the lens increases the amount of light reaching the sensor but in turn also reduces the depth of field of the image. Ideally I want to shoot at no less than f5.6 aimed at the drivers cab door. This usually gives enough depth of field from front to back of the image while looking like a natural transition from what is in focus at the front of the image to gradually going out of focus as we look toward the rear of the image. Anything above f5.6 is nice as well but can look a bit artificial if the f stop is moved up to near f16 or above. The problem of shooting at wide apertures like f2.8 is that although the light levels are usually ok in dim light and the necessity to crank up the ISO is averted, the area of the image in focus before the depth of field loss becomes overwhelming is tiny. Sometimes this cannot be avoided but shooting at wide apertures has to be done correctly and carefully. It is important to choose the obvious point of focus for an image with such a shallow depth of field. If the point of focus chosen is the first wagon in the rake and not the loco it’s quite probable that the loco itself will be out of focus. This wouldn’t be quite so apparent at around f6.3 or above but the issue is magnified at f2.8, and even when viewed at around 25% will look as though the loco is out of focus. If the obvious point of focus at such a wide aperture is not correctly chosen it becomes hard to convince the viewer this was an intentional effect the photographer was trying to achieve.

There is no silver bullet to all this i’m afraid. When shooting inside, in low light or under semi covered areas the photographer needs to balance the shutter speed, the aperture and ISO to obtain the desired result. Other factors which I will not go into at present but which the reader should be aware of that can also affect image resolution under low light conditions are the White Balance settings and metering mode selected. For greater detail on these I would refer you to your owner’s manual as the terminology used for various metering modes by different manufacturers varies and each manufacturer’s mode work slightly differently.

I will leave this section with a small tip on flash guns. Although as already stated flash is not an ideal tool for shooting at stations and you certainly won’t make friends by using it, there is a way to minimise its impact if you insist on using flash.

Always use a tilt and swivel gun, this way you can direct the light away from directly shooting at the subject and can thus take advantage of bouncing the light off a hard surface onto the subject – indirect lighting. Always use a diffuser over the head of the flash gun. This again disperses the light so it gives a more evenly distributed light pattern and tends to soften and flatter the subject.

The use of direct flash lighting isn’t desired from a photographic perspective a lot of the time anyway, as it results in very harsh lighting that can brightly light up the subject like a Christmas tree, but because the flash isn’t uniform in its dispersion pattern or strong enough to light far beyond the subject itself the image can result in a brightly lit foreground and a completely black background. This is due to the light falloff from a flash gun that can be almost immediate. It’s much more desirable to spread the light over the entire image and light all parts of the scene. This may require being slightly closer to the subject than desired or using more flash power than initially thought necessary but the result of an image that shows balanced lighting using both bounced flash and diffused light is a much warmer complete image than a harsh blue flash light shone directly onto the subject.


BRIDGES

I suspect most railway photographers have grappled with the issues surrounding the use of a bridge as a vantage point for photographing railway activity.
Obviously there are many different locations one can photograph the railways from, foot crossings, embankments, public buildings etc. but beyond the railway station I would think that the next most popular & certainly accessible place is the humble bridge. The dear old bridge has always been a popular place for railway photographers to congregate at, but it is fast becoming more difficult to find suitable bridge locations from which to shoot along vast stretches of the network, or at least that’s definitely the case in the south of the UK. There are a several reasons for this in my opinion, and they include:

Excessive vegetation growth in summer months around the bridge area

Increased electrification of the network

Bridge replacement works

The spring and summer months give rise to prolific growths of weeds, trees and other fauna which line the railway system, but it can in extreme circumstances severely restrict the angles from which one can photograph from a bridge when compared to the winter months. Network Rail in general do a good job of keeping on top of lineside growth that may affect the smooth running of the network but they don’t always cut back far enough to give the photographer a nice angle from which to photograph, and let’s be honest why should they. But of course this doesn’t help the photographer who is now faced with an almost head-on only view until the autumn when dieback begins. I am of course over exaggerating somewhat but there are locations that in winter give some very nice 30 – 45 degree views which in summer can be reduced to near head on shots only, due to rampant branch and shrubbery growth. When combined with attendant blossom and leaf foliage it can make it nearly impossible to get anything even approaching a nicely composed shot at some locales.
Of course in the winter months when the die back of surrounding vegetation plays to the photographer’s advantage there are other issues that must be considered. Throughout the winter months the length of daylight is considerably shorter than in spring and summer and is quite often subject to the grey skies and drizzly rain that we’re all so familiar with. On days when photography is good in the autumn and winter months we may still find the need to increase the ISO in the camera, and reduce shutter speeds to retain an acceptable depth of field. In the darkest months where daylight can be as little eight hours there’s a very good chance that the more interesting workings will be running outside of acceptable shooting conditions. This is a good time to practice those low light skills and move to locations where trains aren’t barrelling along at 125mph on the main.

If we depart now from the not inconsiderable issue of vegetation growth, we have another growth culture that needs to be dealt with, and that’s the growth of electrification across the network. I am in no way going to address the pros and cons of electrification, suffice to say its happening and it needs to be dealt with by you as the photographer. Bridges and electrification don’t mix well when it comes to photography in my opinion. The simple unavoidable fact is that in many instances you are shooting down onto the train which is itself partially hidden under a plethora of wires, ties, resistors and metal work structures. One of the issues I’ve encountered when shooting from too high an angle down through electric wiring is that the autofocus on the camera can be fooled into focusing onto the wire instead of the approaching subject. This effect is further exacerbated by the AI Servo mode which will attempt to continually keep your subject in focus, however as you pan the subject through its direction of movement the wires inevitably come into the cameras view and can be latched onto by the AF just as you are about to press the shutter button. There are two methods to alleviate this problem, both are effective to some extent, but not fool proof. Firstly, one can pre focus the lens manually before the subject arrives onto a fixed point along the train’s direction of travel, and when it reaches that point you take the image. This is a tried and tested technique used by photographers before the widespread availability of autofocus functions in modern cameras. It is a technique that requires some practice and like the autofocus is not infallible. However it does offer an alternative if you’re AF mode is continuously hunting to lock onto the subject making the final image soft.
The second method is by making a simple change to the setup of your camera in the menu section. As a Canon user I can only confirm this works for Canon models. This alteration at first sight may appear to be a bit of a gimmick, but having used this method in practice my hit rate of in focus trains from a top down position has significantly improved, with a noticeable decrease in ‘soft’ images. So what menu change needs to be made? Well essentially it’s a setup function in the camera which sets the sensitivity of the camera to either ignore or lock onto objects that move into the selected focus point’s view. In practical terms that means that should a bird fly in front of the loco when you’ve already locked onto the loco then the camera should ignore the birds’ flight if the sensitivity level has been set to low. If however that same bird flew in front of the loco and the tracking sensitivity were set to high then there’s a very good chance the camera would lose the loco and latch onto the bird, even if momentarily. For Canon users, if the camera you are using is equipped with the ‘AI Servo tracking capability’ found within the custom function menu, under Autofocus setup, then I would recommend you set it to the lowest level or just one sector above the lowest level. Of course if you then switch to photographing several moving subjects at once, don’t forget to turn the sensitivity back up and set your lens IS mode to 2 if you have it available.
Images taken from this viewpoint definitely have their place in railway photography, but I think should be taken only after careful consideration as they can look confused and visually too busy if not composed correctly.
Vantage points offering only a top down view generally appear in my experience to exist in heavily urbanised areas where the railway runs through areas of dense population, areas of variable topography where a bridge may traverse a deep cutting or in rural areas where a footbridge maybe placed across a public footpath. The latter example nearly always gives terrific height advantage over the railway track and is generally only there to serve the walker as they traverse the extensive public footpath network in the UK. There are plenty of good examples I could give of this type of footbridge, but simply put they do afford the photographer a glimmer of hope when dealing with electrified railway lines.

There is very little one can do if confronted with a bridge that is elevated above the wiring in the former two examples as there is little room for manoeuvre as to where you can position yourself to take anything other than a top down shot just at different sidelong angles from along the bridges length.
However with footbridges in particular they lend themselves better to electrified line photography as they generally start there ascent from ground level rising to above the wiring line before descending again. I know I am stating the absolute obvious here as that’s the essence of what a bridges function is. But the footbridge often rises at a shallow gradient before reaching its apex and because it starts its ascent from ground level there are opportunities to shoot from various heights above and below the wiring line.
It is possible to position oneself a few feet above ground level so that you can shoot down the length of the track at a slightly oblique angle while remaining below the wiring level and without the need to stand on steps to be above the level of any attendant fencing. Indeed some of these footbridges are of a shallow enough step rise angle that by carefully placing yourself a few feet off the ground and by taking an approx. 30-45degree line of sight across the track you may be able to pick the train out in such a way that the loco is clear of any metal pylon interference both by shooting between the superstructures across the tracks width or even across the line at a more oblique angle if the view is shallow enough.
This is more easily represented by looking at working images, which I will endeavour to include in the near future.


Associated to the electrification works across the network are the alterations being made to existing road bridges that pass over the railway system. Certainly along great stretches of the East Mids and GWR railways where major electrification works are well underway a good many road bridges have been lifted to accommodate the forthcoming wire systems. Unfortunately, and this is certainly the case along stretches of the East Mids line, and I suspect what will also happen along the GWR these reengineered bridges are being built up to such an extent that a full scale nuclear explosion is unlikely to have much effect on them. Many of these bridges before the alterations were made had a parapet of sensible height where pedestrians could if they wished look down onto the railway. However the new constructions are a colossal height requiring step ladders to be able to peer over the side. In one instance I could mention a road bridge has been rebuilt and lifted, but because its been deemed not to be of sufficient enough height workmen have had to return to carry out remedial work where another course of capping stones to raise the parapet by at least another 5 inches has been added. The irony of all this is that the ends of the bridge are completely open spaces fenced by low lying crash arncos which one can easily photograph from and currently stand below knee height. The point i’m trying to make here though is that it’s worth checking out beforehand if a bridge has been the subject of alteration work or not. If the stretch of line you intend to visit is part of the electrification upgrades there’s a very a good chance you will need a step ladder to see over the side, but once the electrification has been completed there’s a very real chance that location will be lost to photography forever anyway.
Bridges are still from my experience still the most popular and accessible point from which to photograph railways. There are drawbacks associated with bridges however many good locations still exist for someone prepared to do a little research on the area they intend to visit. From a technical point of view the photography from a bridge differs little from any other vantage point selected. It is still necessary to know how the sun will move across the sky from morning until dusk, just as it is still relevant to take into account the shadows that maybe cast by the suns movement across the track from surrounding trees.


Travelling time to the location

As blindingly obvious and patronising as this is going to sound leave plenty of time to get to the selected location of your forthcoming shoot. There have been countless times I’ve been all alone with five minutes to go before a particularly interesting working is due to rock up, when from nowhere half a dozen or more photographers can be spied panting and straining across the field in one final push to reach their destination before the train arrives and continues on its way oblivious to the frustrations and expletives following its progress down the track. .
It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise normally organised men can end up looking so out of breath and dishevelled due to poor up front preparation. One could argue, well they got there didn’t they? And you’d be absolutely right they did, but in what condition I ask? In your working life you wouldn’t turn up to a meeting with a potential customer or your manager looking like you’d just run the London marathon. It would give a bad first impression to the potential customer, look highly unprofessional to your manager and give the perception to both you were at best a poor time keeper. Perhaps photography is only a hobby for you and isn’t going to pay the bills at the end of the day, but my point is, why travel any distance only to spend money on fuel, invest your time and resources into chasing down an interesting working if you aren’t prepared to plan the journey ahead of time and thus risk missing the whole point of making the trip in the first place. Of course these same photographers could turn up in excellent physical condition with five minutes to spare, but it would still mean that time is going to be limited for preparatory work for the intended shoot. Cameras need setting up, lens selection needs to be made, light levels taken and camera adjusted to suit the conditions, exact point from where to shoot, are others going to be in your way so that you need to now work around them. Are you someone who favours the use of a tripod? which brings a whole new set of issues of its own. These factors all add to the time you need to prepare for a shot to be successful. The more one familiarises oneself with the equipment you own the quicker this process will be, however I use my camera nearly every day on a variety of subjects and I would find five minutes a rush to get fully prepared in time. In my setup time I like to ensure I get the chance to shoot at least one working before the main event arrives so I have time to make final adjustments to the cameras setup.
The consideration of time to location is especially pertinent if you have never visited the location before. The viability of many photographic locations is down to good local knowledge of the area while others can be found through informational websites like Trainspots or by perusing the track in detail with Google earth’s street views. It’s also possible having selected your chosen location to get an approximation of the journey time and preferred driving route by using other map sites, for example Bing maps. As a small aside to this, although the street views on line can be very useful it’s important to remember that the views are not always particularly up to date. Google earth do a good job of regularly updating their street views but some of the lineside locations and more remote bridges are out of date. This can lead to more restricted views than originally anticipated or perhaps the complete destruction of a bridge as viewed on line which has since been replaced with a gargantuan of a construction designed to withstand a direct nuclear explosion or just simply the online view was taken before the vegetation took hold and has since shot up dramatically reducing the view to being virtually useless. Of course the information out is only as good as the information in and there is no information source to my knowledge that is completely reliable 100% of the time as to whether the location is still accessible and rewards the photographer with excellent commanding views of the track in all directions.
The message here I think is to ensure that on any trip you may make to a preferred primary location always ensure you have a backup location in mind just in case your primary location isn’t quite as you were led to believe it would be. This does drag us back to the point about leaving time to get to your location though. The prepared photographer will always factor in plenty of time to get to the backup location just in case. The above points are all perfectly relevant to why a location may not work for you, but even if the primary location is a regular haunt it may be that on this particular day there’s that special working which means you can’t park close to the spot from which you intend to shoot, or it may be a restricted location where you physically can’t get in to shoot. A good example of this is at Tackley in Oxfordshire. There’s a very nice spot where one can shoot down the line onto a sweeping curve, and on special working days is very popular with the photting fraternity. However it’s a very real case of get there early as the maximum squeeze is 5-6 persons at best. Remember, book early to avoid disappointment!
Other general considerations include time of day that you’re intending to travel. To me it makes perfect sense to avoid two events that happen twice daily across many of the UK’s roads. The commuter rush hour being the first, and secondly the maniacal school run. These events should be avoided as far as possible if one wishes to lead a calm relaxing life primarily taken up with the gentle art of lineside photography. I plan well ahead if I can to avoid these daily events. I will go out of my way to leave the house early and if i’m out shooting all day I will hang on that little longer to shoot one final working that’s really a bit too late to shoot if it means avoiding the ritual of queuing to get home in the evening. Of course other issues can arise to frustrate ones trip to the desired location, roadworks, road traffic accidents, unexpected and unexplained queues, issues with one’s own conveyance and if I can’t park do I need to consider using Park & Ride transport for urban shooting locations as well as a plethora of other things that can and sometimes do arise to make the whole experience just that little bit more interesting.

Before any trip that involves me going further afield than approximately ten miles I follow the same general thought process.

-Where am I going to shoot the working from?
-How long does the online map and then my sat nav tell me it’s going to take to get there?
-Does the street map as far as possible show open viewing conditions, does it look like I can park nearby and is it readily accessible?
Then I generally modify the route as given by the satnav to suit my driving experience. This sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t
And finally, do I need to stop for fuel? That’s another five minutes approximately you can add to the journey time if you do need to fill up.

Once I’ve gone through this process I generally add a further hour onto the journey if it’s a mid-distance trip, of around 80 miles each way, just to make sure I have sufficient safety margin to get to the second location if the first proves untenable for whatever reason. On a shoot where the location is known to me and is nearby, excessive allowance of journey time is less of an issue, and if you’re lucky enough to be shooting during the working week between the hours of commuter madness its less likely you’ll be hemmed in by other togs at popular locations.
The process I’ve outlined works for me most of the time, and I haven’t missed anything I feel important to date. However everybody has their own approach to planning journeys and as long as your approach works for you then that’s excellent. But the underlying message i’m trying to convey to the reader is a simple one, however you intend to get to a shoot location make sure you plan ahead and leave wriggle room for those unexpected and unavoidable delays.


Time of day

This is a tricky subject do deal with as more often than not the photographer is at the mercy of both Network Rail and the train operator as to when the working will pass the selected photographic spot. As i’m sure many a photographer can testify the timetabled pass time isn’t always what happens in reality. The railways are a live, organic operation and things happen to disrupt the carefully laid plans to ensure the smooth running of the railway network. It’s as likely that that the working you’ve just driven 30miles to photograph will sail on by 40 minutes early as it will 40 minutes late. In most instances a working running late or early by a few minutes bares little impact on the anticipated light levels and weather one may have been expecting to encounter for a particular working of interest to the photographer. But it has happened to me many times that I’ve arrived at a location under bright conditions only for a rogue cloud to cover the sun just as the working arrives at my location. Unfortunately it always seems less often that the sun makes an appearance through the clouds just as the train goes on by. In some extreme examples, of which one is live as I sit here writing now, there are workings that run so late or are rescheduled to run later in the day that by the time they arrive within ones drivable limit the sun has long since passed into darkness and the moon now dominates the night sky, that’s Test trains for you i’m afraid! Of course in an ideal world where there are no clouds and the sun doesn’t reach epic light output proportions at midday and there is no lineside clutter then the ideal situation would be with the light source behind you falling evenly onto the full length of the train. But such are the vagaries of photography that even this can be unsatisfactory, because if as in the summer months the sun is high in the sky around noon it can generate some very deep harsh shadows across the rake of the train. The general rule of thumb in my experience is to try and find a location that gives an unfettered view, in other words no high hedges, electrification pylons (Although this is becoming ever more difficult), and buildings that can cast shadows over the railway. The practicality of what I suggest though is that there is nearly always something to potentially spoil the shot. However this can be minimised by using a common sense approach.

The obvious starting point is to find out what time of day is the working running. If it’s before dawn, then forget it. Obvious you may say but I know someone who ventured out for an early morning overnight sleeper, chose his spot carefully and then realised as the train went sailing past him that there wasn’t yet enough light to shoot as the sun hadn’t actually cut the horizon yet and it was still far to gloomy. Conversely this applies to shooting after sunset as well. Before the reader starts castigating me for not including low light shooting at stations, yes I agree that can be successful both before dawn and after sunset. However as a general rule unless the working is of particular interest most photographers are sat at their desks at these times post processing the images that were taken under good light.
So if we accept that the majority of railway photography is done in the normal hours of daylight, subject to the season of the year of course, we are faced with a few potential issues that need to be considered before a successful shot is taken.
In the spring and autumn it’s not unreasonable to expect around ten hours of unobscured sunlight on the general subject area. The sun in the early morning and late evening can produce some wonderfully warm tones, but also long shadows. Thus it is important that when the sun is low in the sky the photographer is positioned on the sunny side of the working. This I have found to be a sensible rule to follow at any time of day, but it especially poignant when shadows are long across the ground. Long shadows falling across the line are of particular annoyance at any time of day but when the sun is low this problem is accentuated. If possible during these hours it is good practice to try and locate a location that is clear of anything that could cast a long shadow over the line. This may include buildings, cuttings, and lineside vegetation and electrification catenary. Shots taken at this time of day can be stunning if done well, as the warm tones reflected off of the trains surface and the surrounding vegetation or even buildings can accentuate a feeling of warmth, softness and familiarity to the viewer, whereas cool winter blue tones can be harsh and unwelcoming in a photograph.
As we move away from the beginning and end of the day, we have mid-morning and late afternoon shots to consider. Try to avoid shooting in harsh sunlight where shadows can be particularly deep and dark. Mid-morning and afternoon tend to give good lighting conditions in my experience. Shadows are not harsh as found around noon but are not yet long enough to cover the line as at either end of the day. However it is still important to take care when selecting locations for mid am/pm shots as large trees and buildings will still cast shadows at this time of day. Conifers are a good case in point, they grow very quickly and can in just one year of growth greatly affect the window of shooting opportunity during the mid-morning and afternoon hours.
Lastly we have the midday shot typically from 11.00am to 13.00. Here the sun is at its absolute worst. The sun is at its highest point in the sky causing shadows to be shorter than at the beginning and end of the day, but they are usually harsh and dark. If you look at shadows taken in softer light the shadow although long is usually soft and blurry around the edges and approximates to some lighter shade of grey rather than near black. Shadows around noon however, although shorter, tend to be clearly defined with harsh sharp edges and deep black tones as fill in .

Another point to consider when considering time of day is to avoid shooting directly into the sun. Apart from the serious medical issues that can arise from looking directly into the sun, photographically speaking the sky will most likely be blown and the main object of the image massively under exposed. This issue can be lessened by experimenting with the different metering modes within the cameras options, and by employing ND grad filters to reduce the exposure level of the sky to approximate nearer to that of the darker areas within the image area. However without going into great detail of how these options can work both for and against the photographer when shooting towards the sun, it is much simpler to avoid shooting in this manner if at all possible.
Use of a UV / Skylight filter and the supplied lens hood is also good practice. The former removes unwanted UV and stray light streams from getting into the lens body at unwanted angles and the second acts as a solid block against stray lighting entering the lens and thus hopefully reducing flaring artefacts from appearing on the sensor. The added advantage of fitting a filter to the front lens is to protect it from physical damage as well, the cost of replacing a broken filter is significantly less that replacing a lens. This is especially true if working with professional grade glass. It always amazes me how many photographers shoot with the sun at less than an ideal angle and the lens hood is reversed fitted onto the end of the lens still. I’m not going to preach to anyone why it should be attached properly when shooting, but ask yourself this, do you think Canon, Nikon or whomever supplied you with that hood did it out of the goodness of their hearts, or is it perhaps because it serves some useful function that you have paid for when buying that lens?
Again due to time of day there maybe lighting conditions that suit one lens better than another. For example I tend to always have the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS and Canon 24-105mm f4 IS on me regardless of whether i’m shooting railways, motorsport or editorial events. You’ll notice that there is here an overlap of focal length between these two lenses. In certain conditions, strong side lighting being particularly problematic, this overlap of focal length can be very useful. The 24-105mm has a very shallow lens hood and I’ve found it can be prone to flaring under certain conditions, but if i’m intending to shoot at a focal length that the 70-200mm can also cover it can be worth fitting the larger bulkier lens instead to the camera body. This swap of lenses is simply because I have found that the much deeper lens hood on the 70-200mm lens appears to be more effective at reducing flare and side lighting artefacts than the much shallower lens hood of the 24-105mm lens. What the lens manufacturer’s stance on this is I have no idea, but I must stress that this is simply anecdotal information based on what I have encountered and experienced while working in the field and is in no way backed up by any scientific data or study.

Low light / dark shooting

Low light photography is a specialised discipline in its own right and offers the photographer unique challenges that aren’t usually encountered during the daylight hours, the most obvious being a distinct lack of even light across the image area. Unless you are privy to the exact whereabouts of suitably lit areas along a workings route you are going to be restricted to photographing from station platforms in the main.
Here we find that lighting conditions are bad to adequate at best. The light temperature is poor, by that I mean it is usually cold, and the throw of the station lighting is directional towards the platform area and not onto the train. Thus the photography of a moving train from a platform at night is in my opinion never satisfactory. I suppose I should at this point define ‘satisfactory’. My benchmark as a working photographer is if it is viewed at 100% is the noise within acceptable levels or is it particularly grainy and blocky, is the colour rendition accurate, is the subject in focus and is the general composition evenly lit to what would be expected for the time of day. Most lowlight shots of anything moving needs a huge cranking up of the ISO value, thus increasing noise across the image. This factor alone generally fails an image. However if we now consider colour rendition we find that there are usually colour casts across the image that need correcting from artificial light sources. This can be done quite successfully in post processing software, however it always ends up looking on the cool side once post worked. This can even be seen on occasion if the image was shot under Na based light sources, which are typically warmer to the eye. Focus issues are more apparent under low light conditions as the camera has difficulty locking onto and tracking moving objects and the moment an image is sharpened to give detail across the image area the more the noise levels becomes apparent. Essentially, what i’m putting forward here is that until technology moves forward the likelihood of successfully shooting a moving train at night even from a lit platform is unlikely to meet the stringent commercial requirements of many stock, web or magazine editors. I’m not saying it’s an impossible task, but it’s certainly an area that requires much practice and patience to achieve even partially acceptable results.

Static shots however are a different kettle of fish. As long as one is familiar with the special requirements of low light photography then some excellent images can be obtained from platforms. I will here assume that the reader has at least a basic knowledge and understanding of low light photography, but just to point out a few things that are easily overlooked. If your lens has built in IS, switch it off when placed onto a tripod. Use a remote shutter release to reduce vibration, and if time allows take the shot in timer mode, again to allow the camera to settle and reduce vibration. Finally on some dslr models it is possible in the custom function modes to set the shutter to Mirror Lockup. This essentially makes the process of taking the image a two stage process. The first shutter release depression lifts the mirror, thus reducing one source of vibration at the cost of making the viewfinder inoperable to the photographer and the second depression of the shutter button takes the image. The idea here is by making it a two stage process, the first shutter button depression lifts the mirror allowing the photographer time to let the camera settle down before taking the image with a second push of the shutter button. This method also acts in conjunction with a remote shutter release cable thereby removing the need for the photographer to touch the camera at all during the image taking process.
Although not always the first piece of equipment to go in the kit bag, I have found that a handheld light meter is on occasion very useful. I certainly wouldn’t recommend using one for every image you intend to take but they appear to come into their own under low light conditions in my experience.
Finally, there are those fortunate photographers that do have access to overnight engineering work sites and who produce marvellous images of bridge replacements, track laying and wiring trains, but for the most part the general railway photographer doesn’t have access to these sights and must content himself with the station, which I’ve tried to deal with above.



The general rules I try to stick to if at all possible when considering time of day are:

Don’t shoot into the sun unless it is obscured by dense cloud cover which acts as a giant soft box. Even then the cameras metering mode may need to be altered, and in many cases an ND / NDG filter maybe required.

Always get into a position which puts the sun behind you and which directly lights the subject, preferably in such a way as to avoid shadow clutter.

Give careful consideration to location if the working is around midday. Avoid areas that can cast ugly shadows. This point is true to any time of day but shooting under harsh light is much less forgiving if you get it wrong than at any other time of day.

Obvious, but make sure the working you intend to photograph doesn’t arrive at the location you wish to shoot from before sunrise or after sunset.

If shooting at either end of the day when the light is soft and warm allow for long shadows spreading across the line. Take particular care on electrified lines and pre focus in your mind on a point where the maximum amount of the business end of the working is free from shadows.

Finally, unless there is an absolute must see working after dark or you just have masochistic tendencies try to avoid shooting in the hours of darkness. With a little imagination and knowledge results from shooting at night can be atmospheric, artistic and full of long exposure dynamic lighting trails which make judges swoon in competitions and camera clubs delight at your imagination, but for the purposes of photographing the railways to commercial (or at least record keeping) levels this is not what we are trying to achieve. Low light railway photography is a difficult discipline to master offering limited scope both on location and subject matter to the general railway photographer.


For specific workings has it been cancelled?

With the advent of mobile internet devices there is now less of an excuse to be caught out by workings with a short term cancellation notification period. There are at least two good websites that give reliable information on the heritage mainline working scene, Railtour info and UKSteam info. I’ve found these websites to be reliable and usually give plenty of advance warning if a charter has been cancelled, and quite often why. For those after daily mainline workings there is always Real Time Trains (RTT), a now indispensable way of discovering what’s running, or not, and when. Another option is Open train times which I don’t use that often but has proved useful in determining where a working is along its proposed route.

In addition to the above options there are some very useful internet groups which are free to join and cover the UK rail network either in its entirety or for more specific info there are groups which cover individual regions of the UK. Users post upcoming workings, those which have passed specific timing points on their journey including the time it passed and the motive power up front. Even short term planned workings that usually comes with a big heads up subject line designed to impart what could be info that’s not generally in the public domain are added on a regular basis. I have found the groups to be very useful and friendly with posters only to eager to help if they can.

General shooting off spec, what traffic is likely to pass?

This is a bit of a daft question in a way because each line has its regular workings that traverse the same metals daily, those that are frequent but not every day and those which are one offs. It’s fair to say that passenger services, subject to the odd strike by industrial action or bad weather, are as regular as clockwork. Once you know what traction types run the express trains and which runs the commuter suburban services you can hazard a pretty good guess as to what will be passing you throughout the day. On the WCML it’s a reasonably safe bet that the majority of mainline express workings will be Pendolino 390 units & 221 Super Voyager diesels with some fast services run by 350 emu’s. The relief line passenger services are predominantly 350 emu’s with the occasional rush hour service making use of the 321 or 319 units in the LMS fleet. This will take no time at all for the photographer to pick up on and so after a few shots from the same location will very quickly put the camera down when these rather repetitive workings pass by.

The real fun comes when there are freight services and test trains scheduled. The freight train is in my opinion more photogenic than passenger services these days, as they are at least loco hauled unlike the majority of passenger services, and the test train could very well have some classic traction up front in the form of a class 37 diesel. To find out what motive power is running on the network I would refer the reader to the many good publications available from the usual high street bookstores but would particularly direct the reader to Colin Marsdens ‘Rail Guide’ which I myself have found indispensable when trying to find out what traction is in service on the network.

If one sticks to the main lines on the network (WCML, ECML, MML and GWR to name but a few) there’s a good chance you’ll see most of the anticipated working types throughout the day. The test train however is a rare and special beast which is usually better hunted out specifically as they run erratically, over some very out of the way routings and can be subject to cancellation or early working times at the drop of a hat. Here I refer the reader back to email groups and RTT for accuracy on a test trains probability of running.

If however you wander onto the back lines, branch lines, freight lines or in my case a supposed disused line there is very little chance of seeing much general traffic throughout the day. So for these locations the use of email groups and RTT is an absolute must to avoid wasting ones time. The workings that do venture along these back routes often give stunning photography locations as they are rarely spoilt by the surrounding area. However it is useful to be mindful that the working itself may run at a time of day that doesn’t afford good photographic conditions from one or both directions of travel. For example, there is a spoil waste and bin liner train running to Calvert most mornings through Aylesbury. Each pass through the disused Waddeston station around 11.30am and 12.30pm respectively. However although both are intrinsically photogenic workings the light is never in a favourable position to shoot them if it is a bright sunny day. This is a tight railway line to shoot from at the best of times and when faced with the sun almost straight ahead most of the year at this time of day it is in this instance advisable to shoot these workings under more subdued light for example cloudy conditions. This I have found reduces flaring, silhouetting or burnt out skies and gives a more even contrast and tone across the image. Of course a heavy ND grad filter could alleviate some of the burning issues but I’ve not to date found this to work satisfactorily.