Train photography tips: How to take great photos from a train

by Jun 4, 2024Photography

Brocken Railway Harz Mountains

Train photography can be a challenge since the train is always moving, adding a dynamic element to your photography. Here are 11 tips to help make your next train photos memorable.

Train travel is a unique form of transportation that passes through areas sometimes not accessible to other modes of transport, which makes taking photos of the scenery along the way even more special. But taking photos from a moving train can be challenging. I’ve been taking photographs from various forms of moving transportation for many years, including trains, boats, planes and cars. Here are a few of my best tips that will help you come home with memorable photos rather than images of window reflections and blurred scenery.

Shooting through glass. While I always prefer to be standing outside on a balcony or passenger platform between cars to get the best photos aboard a train, sometimes that just isn’t possible. If you must shoot through the window glass on a train, you’ll improve your photos by doing all you can to eliminate glare. Press your camera lens (this includes your smartphone lens) flat against the glass surface. This eliminates glare and reflections on the glass, your worst enemy when trying to capture a photo worth keeping. If you think you’ll be shooting through glass frequently with a mirrorless or DSLR camera, then consider purchasing a universal lens hood made of silicon for your lens.

Rocky Mountaineer Fraser Canyon

Photo of the Fraser Canyon in British Columbia, taken through the window of my railcar as the Rocky Mountaineer train passed over the Fraser River.

Keep your camera steady. Trains rock and sway as they move along the tracks. Which means you’ll need to find a way to stabilize yourself and your camera to prevent blurry shots. Unless blurry shots are what you are going for. Forget trying to use a tripod or a monopod. The risk of whacking a fellow passenger is too high and frankly, on a moving train, they are of little help when trying to ensure your photos are in focus and not blurry. A better alternative is to learn brace yourself against a chair or train wall when shooting.

Michael Hodgson Therese Iknoian Photographers Denali Star

The viewing platform in the Goldstar railcars is a perfect place to capture photographs.

Opt for faster shutter speeds. This is the time to choose manual mode on your camera so you can control all your camera settings. Typically, and depending on the length of my lens, I choose a shutter speed that ranges from 1/1000 to 1/2000 to ensure my photos are sharp and free from blurring. If I want a bit of blur in my shot (blurring a background to show the train is moving while focusing on a subject on the train itself) I will opt for a shutter speed of 1/500 or less depending on how fast the train is moving. Play around with shutter speeds to see what works best for you. There is no perfect answer as each camera and shooting situation dictates different shutter speeds and results. Remember too that as you change your shutter speed, that will also affect your aperture (depth of field) and your ISO. Faster shutter speeds let in less light, so you will need to consider what adjustments to make to aperture and/or ISO so the camera can gather sufficient light to achieve the correct exposure. One solution is to leave your ISO on auto, and then change only your shutter speed and aperture as needed.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Mountains

Just past the historic town of Cantwell traveling on the Alaska Railroad.

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Don’t just sit in your seat. Yes, I know you have a seat reservation on the left side of the train — the side everyone told you would have the best views. But if you just sit there, you are absolutely going to miss potentially great photos and scenery that are unplanned … like a grizzly bear ambling along the track, a beautiful field of wildflowers, or an unexpected waterfall, all on the side of the train you are not sitting on. Plus, sitting in your seat means you are shooting through glass, which is not ideal. Do everything in your power to move around (unless the conductor gets cross with you). By all means, try to spend most of your trip on scenic trains like the Alaska Railroad Denali Star or the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada on an outside balcony or passenger platform. That way, you can easily move from side to side as needed.

Anticipate the curve of the train. Another reason to move about is anticipating upcoming curves in the track to see which way the train will curve and then moving to the right or left to capture the photo. That way you also tell a better story that conveys what it is like to ride the rails on a train. Be sure you are on the correct side to be able to photograph the train curving inward, which looks so very cool. You can do this from the front of the train looking toward the back, or from the back of the train looking toward the engine.

Alaska Railroad Train Curve Mountains

Take photos of a moving train from the station. I love taking photos of trains when I am not on the train. Moving trains, when you are stationary and standing on the platform, or somewhere a safe distance from nearby tracks, present wonderful opportunities to get artistic. You can choose a slower shutter speed and brace yourself to hold the camera very steady to create a photo where the train is blurred, but the background and foreground are perfectly in focus. Or you can opt for a slightly faster shutter speed and pan with the train, at the same speed as the train, to blur the background and foreground, but keep the train perfectly in focus.

Augustusmarkt Light Trails Dresden

In Dresden, I waited and watched street cars and trams wiz by on the tracks and the Ferris wheel turning and then stopping. Once I figured out the approximate timing of trains traveling and Ferris wheel not moving, I set my shutter speed so that it was slow enough to allow the trains to blur. Since I was using a tripod, I was able to ensure everything else in the photo remained sharp.

Capture scenes from onboard the train. There is a human element to train travel that should not be ignored in your photos. That includes servers or moderators or even people taking photos. Just be very sure to ask permission before you take a photo that includes anyone’s face or identifying features.

Conductor Mariya Rodriguez Alaska Railroad Denali Star

Our conductor from Fairbanks to just before Talkeetna, Mariya Rodriguez.

Share the train and shooting spaces. Unless you are exceptionally lucky, you will not be the only one on the train wanting to shoot photos. Sometimes, the balcony and viewing platforms can get a bit crowded. Etiquette dictates that you get the shot you wanted, and then step aside to allow others to take a photo too. And if someone else is dominating the viewing platform space, don’t be afraid to ask, politely, for them to move, if only briefly, so you can capture the shot you want.

Gold Star Balcony Alaska Railroad Denali Star

Don’t just snap away, compose your shots. We’ve all been there. You get excited about taking photos from a moving train, but then you look at them and realize you have half a bear in a frame frame, a third of a passing train cut off at the bottom in another frame, a mountain with its summit cut off in the top of the frame, etc. Look through your viewfinder and think how you want your shot to look BEFORE you press the shutter. Be sure everything you want in the photo appears in the viewfinder. Then, think about the most interesting point of your shot, the place you want your viewer’s eyes to go to and place that using the rule of thirds. Read our basic photo tips if you are unsure of what the rule of thirds is.

Get creative and plan ahead. Photos of a train entering or leaving a tunnel or passing over a trestle bridge, or photos of train tracks disappearing into the horizon are the result of photographers thinking creatively and getting in the right position at the right time. Remember, you need to be moving around the train, not just sitting. Think about shots that you might like to capture ahead of time, and then plan where you need to be on the train to get that photo.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Inside Trestle Bridge

Fun view while crossing a trestle bridge, shooting over the top of the railcars behind our viewing platform.

Finally, put your camera down from time to time. Your eyes and your mind will thank you. Though you are likely seeing things through your camera lens others are not, you are also missing things that are passing by outside of your periphery while you are intently focused on getting the shots you want. Remember to take breaks and just look around. I call this my time to capture mental images that are just for me.

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