Railway Photography


My colleague, David Hendley, photography tutor at CSM has been busy finding me fabulous old pictures of railway engines.

Here’s a streamliner from France (Paris-Lyon-Marseille).

It’s not easy to get a good photo of a train – moving or standing still. The engine is big, but can usually only be viewed from a three-quarter angle and to the side of the track.

Here, the photographer has done several clever things –

One, the loco is polished so that its streamlined shape has some interesting highlights and reflections. That definitely adds interest and increases the three-dimensional quality of the image.

Two, the  S-shaped line on the front of the engine adds a lovely sinuous quality to the machine.

Three, the steam escaping from the piston valves adds drama.

Fourth, the engine driver adds a note of human interest and scale. Also, the figure makes the scale and size of the machine comprehensible.

Fifth and finally, the low-POV super-sizes the front of the engine and makes the vanishing point of the perspective more dramatic.

So, that’s a really well thought-through photo where the static engine has been made interesting, dramatic and dynamic to compensate for a lack of actual movement.


If you use a wide-angle lens the vanishing-point perspective of the train will be exaggerated to dramatic effect, (that’s the diagonal of the train disappearing down the track). The depth-of-field associated with wide-angle pictures is much deeper than that with a standard lens. So, if you light the picture well, everything is pin-sharp, even though it seems further away.

If you use a lens with a longer focal-point, the depth-of-field will be compressed and more of the picture will be out-of-focus. That adds a different kind of drama.

The technical parameters of the photograph are set by movement and light. Balancing exposure, light and focal depth-of-field is tricky; especially when the train is travelling quickly towards you.

But, the railway provides a pretty consistent picture opportunity. You know that the train will pass at a certain time and you can practice the shot! Nevertheless, a good railway picture is difficult to achieve.

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