Monday, April 10, 2017

Thinking Out of the Box With Railway Photography

Myself, and a few friends had a conversation recently about the way we compose our shots. Mainly we spoke about lighting, framing, and editing.

That conversation got me thinking about writing this post, and how I compose my own shots. In the next few paragraphs I will try my best to explain how I think about, and execute my photos.


Lighting plays a huge role in the way your photos will turn out. When it comes to shooting trains, this one element can be difficult to get just right due to a number of factors, such as which direction a train is running, partly cloudy days where the sun is constantly in and out from behind the clouds, and back-lighting, among many other things.

Before picking a spot to shoot I will always try to think about where the sun would be if it were to come out. For example, if I'm planning to be out during the morning hours I try to find a spot that is good for eastbound trains, and shoot from the same side of the tracks as the sun. This way the sun lights up the entirety of any trains that may come along. Standing on the same side as the sun also means that if a westbound train does come rolling through, I have eliminated (for the most part) the threat of back-lighting.

The below shot is an example of a day where the clouds were constantly blocking the sun, but got out of the way just as a train approached. Had I not been thinking about where the sun was when choosing a spot, this shot may not have turned out as well as it did.

Sometimes you can't avoid back-lighting, and that's okay. Properly exposing, and doing some editing later can save those shots.

Take a look at the below picture. It is of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train rolling north on the Leduc Subdivision. As you can see the sun is directly behind the train, but I've managed to save the image. I achieved this by shooting in manual, taking a number of practice shots until I found an exposure in which the foreground was properly lit. and then later editing the image in Lightroom.

You might ask "well what editing did you do?" and I would explain that aside from the average stuff, all I really did was deeply reduce the highlights and bring up the shadows and saturation.

Steve Boyko has a decent write up on what he does, and for the most part it is the same for me. Read his steps here.


When it comes to shooting trains, you may find yourself constantly shooting from the same angles over and over and over. I found myself doing this, and started to get bored. Instead of giving up the hobby, I tried to reinvent the way I shoot/frame my pictures. In doing so, I find myself enjoying the challenge of trying to find something different. I try to avoid the over shot areas, but if I can't I'm looking for a way to shoot it in a different way.

For example, in October I found myself in Florida at the Plant City viewing platform. If you look up photos from the location the majority are all from the same angles.

Upon arrival I explored around a bit, and found myself hoping for train to come along from the east to get a shot through the window on the lower level. The below train did not come from that direction, but had the locomotive pushing on the end, as they were reversing to service some businesses in the area.

Simply shooting through the window, and framing the train properly gave the photo that difference that I always hope to find.


When it comes to editing, it always comes down to what I personally think looks best. Everyone has their own style of editing. For myself, it is always about getting the colours to look proper by adjusting exposure, contrast, saturation, highlights, shadows, and a few others. Sounds easy enough, but sometimes it takes playing around with a number of different things to get that look.

I also try to put the train info, location, and date on the photo itself. I do this so that anyone viewing my pictures doesn't have to do a lot of searching to find out those things. A personal pet peeve is when there is little to no info given on a post. Put a little effort into your post, and give a description so that others know what they are looking at.

Having said all of this, I hope that others will take the time to develop their own styles. Think outside the box, and have fun. That is what it is all about.

Thanks for reading,

David Gray - Going Trackside


  1. Great post, David! I really like your comments about the light. When I first started railfanning I didn't pay much attention to it, but my pictures improved tremendously once I realized how important it was to the final outcome. Thanks for the link to my post!

    My weakness is in your middle point, framing. I am guilty of taking the same photo over and over - maybe less than some other railfans - and I need to try new things. I like your framed CSX photo.

    I agree with you on providing information. I don't like putting the information on photos, but I do try to caption everything in blog posts or on social media. Railfans want to know the context.

    1. Thanks, Steve.

      Lighting can make all the difference. It has for me aswell.

      Even including the smallest of things in a photo can bring that extra look in framing. Experimenting can be fun, although you might not always like what you get.

      I also put the info on the picture itself for my own resource. I keep an original unedited photo, and the edited one so I have the info if needed quickly. But that also takes up extra space.

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