Steam train photography is one of our favourite subjects to shoot this time of year, offering dramatic pictures of trains charging through the landscape, environmental portraits of station volunteers and wonderful still life photography opportunities within the station itself.
In this tutorial we’ll run through the basics of how to set up your camera to shoot stunning steam train photography and how to ensure you get the best shot possible.
For our shots of steam trains in action, we took a trip to the West Somerset Railway. It’s a fully operational railway running up to seven trains a day in both directions in peak season, and it’s not just the trains that make great subjects – the station staff and volunteers in period costume, vintage railway equipment and picturesque country stations are all well worth photographing.
This world of soot and smoke does create exposure problems, though. You’re probably used to applying exposure compensation for unusually light subjects like snow or wedding dresses, but here you face the opposite problem: if you’re not careful, all those rich, dark tones will come out pale and washed out.
Most of our shots were taken with -1EV exposure compensation to avoid this. You can easily increase the exposure later in your photo-editing software if you need to, but you can’t always rescue a picture that’s been overexposed.
You should make sure you’ve got a timetable. This will tell you when trains will be arriving or leaving. Talk to the station staff, too, because they may be able to tell you which way round the locomotives will be, any special sights you should look out for and even the best places to go to get your pictures. You’ll be surrounded by enthusiasts, and most will be more than happy to share their expertise.
When you go into the countryside to take pictures of trains on the move you’ll need a map of the track, but this won’t tell you everything. The local experts will be able to tell you where the gradients and curves are, where you’ll find the best backdrops and the best bridges to stand on.
Planning is the key. We can suggest the best camera settings but you need to be in the right place at the right time. Trains don’t wait!
Railway lines are fenced off for a reason. Do not be tempted to climb over to get closer to the track for a better picture. You need to speak to the railway company in advance to find out what kind of access is allowed and what requirements have to be met. The West Somerset Railway will issue a Lineside Photographic Pass on completion of a half-day Personal Track Safety course; click here to find out more.
We were accompanied by a representative from the West Somerset Railway to get our main shot. We had to wear orange high-visibility jackets, stand at least two metres from the line and clearly acknowledge a whistle from the driver as the train approached.
How to set up and shoot train photography
01 Shots in the dark
Your camera’s meter has to assume all subjects average out to a mid-grey tone, but a steam locomotive’s coal is completely black, and its sooty, black-painted cab is naturally dark inside, so to prevent overexposure you’ll need to apply some negative EV compensation. Try setting a value of -1EV to start with.
02 Auto ISO
If you want to get some action shots of coal being shovelled into the fire, you need a reasonably high shutter speed so that there’s not too much movement blur. The Auto ISO setting helps here – choose the maximum ISO (3200) you’ll accept, the minimum shutter speed (1/125 sec) and leave the camera to work out the rest.
03 Telephoto tips
A kit lens or super-wide-angle is handy for interior shots, but when you’re back on the platform you may find a telephoto zoom like this Nikon 55-300mm more useful. It’s perfect for taking character portraits like this one, and a longer focal length is useful for filling the frame as trains pull into or out of the station.
04 Find your spot
When you want to photograph trains in the countryside, a little local knowledge goes a long way! Don’t be afraid to ask staff at the station for tips – most are steam enthusiasts happy to share information. Bridges on the line make great vantage points for shots from above and effective frames for trackside pictures.
05 Exposure and focus
For shooting moving trains, certain camera settings work better than others. If you get your Nikon set up in advance you’ve got time to switch to M mode and set the exposure manually. Dynamic area AF mode will be best for photographing a moving subject, and consider switching to continuous AF and continuous shooting too.
06 Uphill work
The harder the engine is working, the more smoke you’ll get spilling from the chimney, so you need to know where the gradients are. See the difference between the first shot and the second here? In the first, the engine is puffing hard as it pulls up the hill; in the second, a few moments later, it’s shut off at the top and all that picturesque smoke has gone.
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