6 Tips to Getting a Good Shot of a Train

Union Pacific 4014 “Big Boy” leaving Palestine, TX

Union Pacific graciously sent their 4014 “Big Boy” Steam Locomotive on a tour this year. I went out and shot this train several times and learned some lessons along the way.

1. Plan for Safety

When planning a photoshoot, you must always take into account the subject that you are shooting and the associated risks involved. Many people don’t seem to understand that being around trains can be very deadly and it doesn’t take much to get hurt. If one there is something on the track, such as a penny that gets squeezed and dislodges at a high velocity, it can cause serious injury. Of course, getting hit by a train is always a risk too, so it is important to make sure that you are not too close to the tracks.

Always find a safe way to get the shot you want.

2. Shutter Speed

When shooting a train that is moving, you will want to shoot with a shutter speed high enough to eliminate any blurring (unless that is what you are looking for). I have found that a good shutter speed for a train moving around 25 mph or less is about 1/800 if using a lens with a focal length less than 300mm.

3. Direction of the Train/Time of day

Unless you have a bunch of strobes, you will most likely be using natural lighting to shoot the train. If you can plan to have the sun at your back when shooting the train, this will help with getting a good shot. Of course, life isn’t always perfect and you may need to look at your histogram and shoot a little to the right if you are looking into the sun. Once the train heads your way, you don’t have enough time to make many adjustments and need to be able to focus on the shot.

4. What ISO should I plan to use?

This is a topic where I have heard a lot of photographers talk about using Auto ISO. If that works for you, then great. I do not use Auto ISO because I want to control the light in my shot. If you use Auto ISO and shoot into the sun, you are risking the meter in your camera using a higher speed ISO and the front of the train being too underexposed.

I say take control of all of the variables so that you can get consistent shots. If it doesn’t work out for you, figure out why and learn from it.

5. Plan your routes if you will be shooting more than one location

I would suggest driving the routes in advance if possible and time how long it took you. If you are location One and are en route to location Two, you need to have an idea of how long it will take you to get there. While planning for the shoot last week, I found that one of the roads was closed and I had to map an alternate course. Had it happened to me the day of the shoot, I likely would not have made it to the second location in time to shoot the train again.

6. Keep your plan flexible

Keep your plan flexible and check the schedule regularly (if possible). In the case of the Union Pacific 4014 “Big Boy”, Union Pacific hosted a live map of where the train was along the route and updated any scheduling changes on their social media. This information is invaluable when you are looking 100 yards down a stretch of railroad tracks waiting for your 8 seconds of time to shoot a passing train.

I hope you have found this helpful. Please leave a comment below if you find this helpful or have another topic that you would like me to address.



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