Photographing Heritage Railroads

Photographing Heritage Railroads

Trains, trains, trains. Heritage Railroads offer a lot of fun and a great photographic subject for those who like to travel. In this article I share my methods of capturing these magnificent vintage iron horses.

As an adolescent, I became enthralled with model railroads. My father and I constructed an HO gauge railroad in our basement, complete with models of buildings, lichen trees, and gravel based railroad tracks. I spent hours creating small balsa wood structures from hobby kits. We created a miniature world of roads connecting industrial sites and railroad yards via train tracks. For a 13 year old boy, it was a fantasy world second to none.

Throughout the years I've maintained a healthy interest in railroads as a direct result of my childhood indulgences. These days; however, I don't construct models or play with toys in my basement. Instead, I take photographs. Not just of any old railroads mind you, but more specifically, heritage railroads. I like the old steam locomotives. Living in Colorado, I'm lucky, as we have a pretty darn good collection of heritage steam railroads still running and accessible by the general public within a day's drive of Denver. Most but not all states have a heritage railroad of some type and don't forget about railroad museums either. There is a lot of interesting equipment to be seen and photographed at railroad museums. The odds are you have a heritage railroad within a day's drive of where you live.

First, I should discuss safety:

  • Don't play on the railroad tracks. Trains and railroads can be hazardous. Always stay at least 25 feet from the tracks and moving equipment. Those steam locomotives can emit quite of bit of steam, water, ash, and other hot debris.
  • Never trespass onto railroad property. Railroads don't want you getting hurt and they don't want you scrounging around on or near their property. Most railroads will clearly mark where you should not go. Obey those warnings, else you run afoul of their security people.
  • Never take chances with your own or others personal safety. A moving train can kill or maim you.

When I plan a railroad photography trip, I generally follow a few well practiced routines. I always check the railroad's schedules first. Usually, that means a quick visit to their web site, sometimes it requires a telephone call to the railroad's ticket office. Lets face it, the steam locomotives are more fun to photograph, so it's important to me that I'm there at the right time when the steam locomotive is running.

Not all railroads have running steam locomotives though, but don't let that prevent you from visiting. Sometimes the railroads will have only one functional steam locomotive and those engines require maintenance and have to be taken out of service. Most heritage railroads post their “steam” schedules on their web sites, but it's possible that you simply can't figure it out from their posted schedules, so by all means be prepared to make some phone calls. You don't want to plan a trip without knowing what you're going to have to work with. I also plan to ride the train before I attempt serious photography. Lastly, my most concentrated photographic efforts involve “chasing” the train. I'll explain all of this in more detail.

Chasing the Train

If you are planning something more than a day trip, you'll most certainly want to find a hotel that is convenient to where you'll be taking photographs. I use Trip Advisor via the internet as a means of researching hotels, as it usually provides recent and relevant reviews of hotels in most areas where you'll find the Heritage Trains. One thing to take into consideration is where you'll want to be eating. For train photographs, you'll probably be up at the crack of dawn, so known in advance where how early or late you can grab a breakfast, lunch, or dinner is going to be important for plotting your photography schedule. Everything you do is going to revolve around the train's schedule.

Colorado & Southern Steam Locomotive at the Silver Plume Engine House - Georgetown Loop Narrow Gauge Railroad

Photographing the Trains

We've worked out the logistics of getting there, staying there, and living while there. Now we'll want to concentrate on getting photographs. If time and money allows, you should definitely consider buying a ticket to ride the train. That train ride, if the first time to visit the train, is going to be a valuable tool in figuring out where you can get photographs. I usually keep a portable GPS with me when I'm riding the train for the first time. I can track the trains route and mark spots along the route that look photogenic.

The view from the train is usually more of the surrounding scenery and not of the train itself. You'll be taking photos through windows from a moving object, and this isn't the best way to get good clear shots of anything. Still, documenting the trip with travel shots is worthwhile and you'll certainly have a great time riding the train. I recommend you ride in a car as far to the rear of the train as possible though. This will keep the soot on your gear to a minimum and it will give you a better photographic view of the locomotive as it moves around turns and across bridges.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Traveling Along the Animas River in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

The evening after that first ride, I review my GPS results and plot my attack using Google maps and the GPS to identify roads and such for photography locations. Once you have a good idea of where the train is going to be and when it's going to be there, you have the basic information you'll need to get your photographs. Until I'm familiar with a trains complete route and the roads that access that route, I recommend you make a dry run of the trains route by car. Sometimes, you'll find things you didn't see from the train. Mark those spots in your GPS or on a map for your navigation the day(s) you'll be doing photography.

The first day of my chase, I usually begin at the railroad yard where the train is departing from. I try to arrive at sunrise so I can get shots of the railroad workers making the train ready for that day's trip. Depending on which railroad you are photographing, it may be possible to get quite close to some of these steam locomotives and you can get some really interesting dawn shots of these behemoths. Don't leave this off your agenda, and remember you can also get some great shots at the end of the day when they are completing operations, as this is always a time when they are moving locomotives and cars around in the yards and this is normally without a bunch of tourists hanging out the windows of the passenger cars. Always good shots to be found before and after the day's run.

Keeping an eye on the train's schedule, I break off from my morning rail-yard photography and move to the first predetermined spot along the train's route that I've marked for photographs. This could be a spot along a road, or at a crossing, or where you can see the train from a distance with a scenic background. I try to get to my photo points at least 10-15 minutes before the train gets there. If you paid attention to the trains departure schedule and travel time from one location to another as you rode the train, you'll have a fairly easy time calculating roughly when you can expect the train to pass any particular spot along the route. Train engineers try very hard to keep their trains on a fixed schedule. The only time they'll vary from that schedule is when they have a mechanical issue with the train or an obstruction along the route. You'll almost never see a train running ahead of schedule and it's rare to find them running more than 15 minutes behind schedule.

I usually try to have two cameras ready for when the train approaches my predetermined photo locations. One will have a wide-angle setup and another will have a telephoto setup. I usually put the wide-angle setup on a tripod and compose the scene in advance of the train's arrival. The telephoto setup will be hanging over my shoulder so I can get on-the-fly shots of the trains approach and exit of the scene.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad steam train approaching La Veta Pass, Colorado

Understanding the Chase on the Longer Train Routes

Just a reminder though, always obey the traffic laws. It's easy to feel rushed and drive too fast. Your safety switch must be on at all times. The main goal is to position yourself ahead of the train at a predetermined location, wait for the train to arrive, get your shots, and then move ahead to your next predetermined location. Making sure to be there and set up before the train arrives.

You play leap-frog with the train along the route until you get all the shots you planned. Gratuitously, I'll tell you now that it's easy to get all caught up in this “chase” so please don't forget to drive safely and obey the traffic laws while you're chasing the train. It's quite possible you'll be sharing the experience with other people doing the same thing you are doing and safety is far more important the getting a photograph of the train. Don't take risks and don't put other people at risk. Don't play chicken with moving trains and keep yourself well away from the tracks as the train approaches.

Trains are moving subjects. It's important that you have high shutter speeds in most situations where the train is moving. What I mean by high shutter speeds is using shutter speeds that are a minimum of four to five times the reciprocal of your focal length, depending on the distance to subject. So, if you are using a 100 mm focal length, you want to shoot at a minimum of 1/500 sec and even faster if the light allows. I commonly use 1/1000th sec as a base shutter speed. The closer the train is to you when it's moving, the faster the shutter speed you'll need. If you aren't paying attention to the train's motion and shutter speed, you'll waste a lot of shots due to motion blur. Your other consideration is going to be depth of field. When that locomotive is close to you, it's going to be important to keep the front and rear sections of that locomotive in clear focus, so stopped down apertures are going to be required. I almost never shoot with a wider aperture than f/8. You don't want to have the middle of the locomotive in focus, only to find the front of the engine is blurry. A good starting point is to keep your aperture around f/14-f/16 on moving trains that you are shooting from an angle on approaches or sitting still.

I also plan on the sun position at the arrival time of any location. Avoid photographing the dark side of the train as it passes. Find the compositions that will result in a sunlit train. Look for compositions that give a good view of the locomotive or nice angle on the entire train moving through the environment. It's not always just about the locomotive.

The Union Pacific #4014 Big Boy on Display at the Laramie, Wyoming Historic Railroad Depot During the May 4th, 2019 Inaugural Run of the Recently Rebuilt Steam Engine.

The Shots I Plan For

1. Big Train, little scenery: Close up and personal looks at the locomotive and associated rail equipment. You can take these just about any time you can get close to the train, but they are easiest when the train isn't moving and you can move around. Makes for very interesting images of mechanical things with lots of gritty details.

2. Little Train, big scenery: These are what I call environmental shots of the train as it moves along the route or sits in its environment. Think of them as landscape shots with a train in it. I usually plan these in advance by framing up a nice landscape and knowing where the train is going to be in the photo. I wait for the train to appear and get my shots.

3. Action shots: These usually involve the locomotive or other rail equipment doing what they do as a primary subject. Filling the water tank, taking on coal, doing a blow-out, puffing smoke, or some type of shot that involves a full frame of the locomotive and train and a primary subject.

4. Static photos of the train stopped at a watering station or in the depot or at other interesting locations along the route.

So, keep an open mind when you make your train photography trip. There are so many different ways to photograph a train, you'll probably end up feeling you simply didn't have enough time to get everything you wanted. That's why I keep going back for more. I never tire of getting photographs of trains. I think once you get the bug, you'll find it to be a most exciting photographic endeavor.

Click here to see a Wikipedia listing of Heritage Railroads in the United States.

To me, photographing vintage railroads is a summer must, but don't limit your activity to just one season. Many of these heritage railroads have specials for photographers, autumn color, and winter actives as well. It can be done year round.


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Very informative thank you

Good timing. I am going to see 4014 Big Boy as it steams through my area Tuesday. Something to see for sure.

Ah this is awesome! My father worked for CN for over 30 years lol. There's a few abandoned train yards around I like to shoot, I'll keep your tips in mind even if the trains haven't moved in 40 years.