How to Photograph the Long, Winding Railroads


Railroad tracks reach to infinity effortlessly. There are modern, state of the art rail systems. Tracks that have been used through long standing, historical routes, and even during war eras are still active today. Abandoned tracks that have been forgotten, continue fading into the woods and earth.

I hear the train coming:-)
I Hear the Train Coming – by Kasia

Tracks by their very nature lead to the horizon, creating vanishing points that take the viewer to a place in the distance. While we'll share many intriguing railroad images, we'll also include a few tips used by many photographers.

1. Stay Safe – One might not necessarily think of safety when going out to photograph railroad tracks. Check with local laws and owners of the tracks. In the US as an example, it is illegal to be on a train track. And for good reason, they can be extremely dangerous.

It's one thing to be in a remote area on a single, isolated track, where there is nothing but distance on the tracks as far as the eye can see. It's a total different ballgame when there's multiple train tracks, or it's in a busy area.

In either case, trains are big, they travel fast, they are not necessarily loud, they can't stop quickly and the distance can be very misleading. Trains also are much wider than the track. Always err to the conservative side of safety. Beautiful, captivating images can be captured at a safe distance! All of us at Light Stalking encourage ethical and safe practices in all genre's of photography.

Vanishing Points
Vanishing Points – by Yogendra Joshi

2. Guides and Rail is an online source that highlights map information, in-depth searches for railroads/trains by state and country. A portion of the site is dedicated to a growing library of beautiful railroad images. Users can sign up to actively participate in forums, image submissions and other group offerings.

3. Depth of Field & Aperture Settings – When shooting railroad tracks, understanding and using hyperfocal distance maximizes the depth of field and the feeling of everything in focus. Jason Row's Light Stalking article Hyperfocal Distance, the Landscape Photographer's Friend illustrates the impact and effective use of hyperfocal distance.

In classic railroad images, working with a small aperture such as f/16 to f/22 keeps the leading lines and their surroundings in focus throughout the image. The smaller the aperture, the less light. A tripod is suggested to prevent blurriness or softness resulting from camera movement at these aperture settings.

4. Wide angle lenses – The beauty of using wide angle lenses in railroad photography is that from the foreground to the background, the distance of space is emphasized. Lenses with a short focal length accentuate a much stronger depth of field than telephoto lenses. Examples of wide and extra wide angle focal lengths range from 35, 28, 24, 21, 20, 18 and 14mm for full frame cameras.

Using a wide angle lens combined with a small aperture maximizes the area that appears in focus.

5. Post-processing techniques – Whether modern or vintage, railroad tracks beckon for post processing creativity in addition to applying standard noise, sharpening, histogram, clarity, color and lens adjustments.

If using Lightroom, there are multiple preset collections already included. These can be viewed in the Navigator screen while scrolling through the Black & White, Color, Effect and General presets. Select an option and further adjust the settings to your preferences. The image below was processed using Lightroom's Sepia preset followed with color level adjustments.

Timeless Tracks from Yesterday
Timeless Tracks – Sheen's Nature Photography

Post-processing plug-ins such as Google's Nik Collection's Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro are productive, precise and customizable tools that bring an additional ‘pow' to images.

Modern and vintage trains and their tracks when captured effectively, can transport the viewer in to the distance. Balancing aperture, depth of field and post-processing techniques convey a sense of time, distance and space.

About Author

Sheen Watkins is a conservationist, wildlife photographer, instructor, author and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website.

As a photographer and former rail road employee I cannot stress the importance of obtaining permission prior to any photography on private rail road property. It is privately owned so trespass laws will be enforced. Some railroads provide scenic photographic area that are excellent vantage points and locations for great shots. Always ask permission!

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