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17 Ways To Take Better Photos From Trains – Photography for Beginners

Go from bland to Bond with these easy-peasy tips for getting better photos from a train

This week sees me zooming across the rivers, mountains, tunnels and the twisting history of Germany and Italy on assignment. My travel freedom comes thanks to my Interrail pass and, perhaps not surprisingly, they want plenty of photos of trains.

Of trains, on trains, of anything to do with trains, basically.

And I don’t know whether it’s the skulking around stations with my camera beneath my trenchcoat, the leaping from one side of the train to the other, or simply the sound of a German accent but there’s a touch of James Bond about the whole caper. Well, in my head anyway.

To the eyes of my fellow passengers (aka reality) the result is a little different. But who cares what they think?! It’s the photos that count and, since we all travel with a camera these days even if it’s only our mobile phone, I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt.

How to take better photos from a moving train

Here are my 17 tips to take better photos from a moving train

Photography for Beginners

1)      Prepare to look like a fool

Yes, I know I lured you in with talk of James Bond but in reality you’re just going to look like a trainspotting weirdo. Deal with it and move on. While taking photos of a beautiful sunset or key travel destination makes you blend in with the crowd, taking photos from a train (unless it’s a touristy one) will attract stares. Don’t let them put you off. Throw shame out the window and click on.

2)      Don’t get in anyone’s way

Unless you’re the paparazzi (in which case you won’t care) this should apply for all photo situations really. Don’t be a wallflower, put yourself where you need to be for your shot but don’t become a nuisance.

Why? Well, beyond general human decency there’s some self-interest at stake here too. Rules concerning taking photos on trains are sometimes complicated (if in doubt, check them out) but trouble usually results from misinformed paranoia.

Avoid getting entangled in a conversation with a guard or member of the police by behaving with respect to everyone around you and not shoving a lens in their face (unless they smile and pose, in which case, game on!)

3)      Sit on both sides of the train

It’s difficult to tell where the great scenery is going to appear. In an ideal world you’d take the journey twice to get the perfect shot. Or find a source who can tell you in advance where the best bits are. Bet let’s face it, that’s unlikely for most of us most of the time.

Far better is to look around when you get on the train and search for a spot where you can run from left to right as fast and as often as needed. And yes, see point one again for what you will look like while doing this.

4)      Don’t use flash

Turn it off. Even “non fancy” cameras like iPhones and point and shoots usually let you silence this beast. Flash can only reach a metre or so and so there’s really no point*. You’re shooting for the scenery beyond right?

5)      Avoid the Glass

Glass windows reflect patterns from inside the train and the muck on their surface will ruin your shot. In the old days, this used to be easy: you could just pull down the window. Nowadays, I’ve noticed more and more trains have fixed windows for some spurious reasons like stopping people splattering their skulls against a tunnel while they were concentrating on taking a photo.

But if you can, find the option for shooting into thin air. It removes so many problems. Just make sure your camera is attached to your body and that you don’t splatter your skull against a tunnel because you’re too busy taking a photo…

Annoying reflections in glass

Annoying reflections in glass

6) Embrace the glass

But I thought you just said…

If you can’t get rid of it, you’re going to have to work with it. Get your lens flat against it. Don’t dilly-dally about getting close-ish to it. Get right up against it. I could explain why this helps. But then I’d have to kill you…

6)      Cover the furniture

The biggest culprits for reflections in glass are usually brightly coloured tables, arm rests and clothes (usually yours.) Travel with a couple of black jumpers (sweaters? US?) to cover up these pesky objects. And heretofore return to point one…

7)      Be Ready

This kinda applies to all photography but it’s especially important here. What does ready mean?

8)      Lens cap off

9)      Battery charged – spare available

10)   Fresh, clean memory card – with spare available. You don’t want to be scrabbling about for these things. You need them right there, ready to go. Passengers take a dim view of you pulling the emergency cord just because you want to go back and have another go at the right shot.

11)   Shoot Fast

If you can, set your camera to take as many photos as possible with the shutter button held down. Why? Well, things change fast. And you want to see this don’t you:

Taking photos from a train river view

Not this:

Pole in front of train shot

The difference is less than a second…

12)   Shoot faster

Switch your camera to action mode if you have it (usually the athlete caught mid stride) or better yet get out of auto altogether and use manual settings.

It obviously varies but a good rule of thumb is a shutter speed (Tv is shutter priority on most cameras) of 1/2000 for crisp scenery shots and 1/750 for blur but not too much blur. Start with those and play around.

Train tracks sharp

Fast shutter speed

Train tracks blurred

Slow shutter speed

 

13)   Get the weather right

Tricky to control, even for Bond. But moody and overcast is better than sunshine or rain. Too much sun will drive you crazy with shadows and reflections. And rain? Well rain will quickly smudge itself across either the windows or your lens. Most of the time if you’re on the road, you won’t have the chance to avoid this. But if you do have the choice? Aim for the clouds.

14)   Don’t forget the rule of thirds

This standard photography chestnut works just as well when shooting from a train. Can’t quite remember what it is? Divide the frame you’re shooting into thirds horizontally and vertically and aim to get the most “interesting” point of your shot where the lines intersect.

If you’re able to lean out (or stand on the station) then the point where the parallel tracks reach a point works well. If you’re confined by glass then make sure not to put your horizon in the middle. Aim for a third.

Yellow train in Berlin

15)   Build a tripod

Moving trains, well, move. And bumps and jitters aren’t good for photographs. Steady your camera as much as you can by resting your elbows on the windowsill and table and bracing your back against the seat or the wall. If forced to stand, do the same thing but keep your knees bent to absorb the shocks that way. Yes, I know. Return to point one.

16)   Take a break

It’s easy to go a little goggle-eyed and become travel sick with all those focus on moving objects. Take lots of little short breaks to look around or just close your eyes long before you hit this stage. Your temples will thank you.

17)   Stand at the back of the train

I have to thank Ralph Velasco for this one. From the back of the train you have a chance of catching the rest of the train curving in front of you if you’re able to lean out the window. Which, let’s face it, looks cool.

And kind of like something you’d see in a James Bond film…Maybe.

 

Train curving into the smoke

Train curving into the smoke

How about you? Do you have any tips for taking photos on a train?

 

Disclosure. I like taking photos. And I like trains. Sometimes I get paid for putting the two together.

Like Twitter? Follow me on #GermanLab and #ItalyLab to see what I’m up to on the trains…

*Never say never. There are some exceptions. But for most people, most of the time: never.

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22 Responses to 17 Ways To Take Better Photos From Trains – Photography for Beginners

  1. Amelie August 31, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    I would have never thought of doing such an article but I found it very interesting especially the part about embracing the glass and standing at the back of the train

    • Abi King September 3, 2013 at 8:28 am #

      The idea came from my own scouring of the web looking for tips! I couldn’t find many articles so I thought I would write my own! Glad you found it useful.

  2. fotoeins August 31, 2013 at 7:45 am #

    Regarding #5, #6A, and #6B: if you’re on Deutsche Bahn’s ICE trains, I’ve seen from experience that standing by the doors at the ends of the cars seems to minimize the number of internal reflections. Even so, as you’ve pointed out, reflections seem unavoidable. What gets me are the spots/blotches on the glass windows …

    Thanks for your post, Abi!

    • Abi King September 3, 2013 at 8:29 am #

      Ah, just about to head onto a DB train right now. I’ll test out the tip – cheers!

  3. restlessjo August 31, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    This made a great read. I seem to be oblivious to looking like an idiot so that’s a good start, right? Travelling alongside the Douro in Portugal I managed a few good shots from the train, but it was much more luck than management.

    • Abi King September 3, 2013 at 8:30 am #

      Oblivious to looking like an idiot? That’s useful for just about everything! Happy snapping!

  4. Brad September 1, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Just got back from doing the exact same thing. Spent 10 whole weeks travelling Europe and took a lot of trains through Italy, Spain, southern France, Germany, Swiss alps, 13 countries in total. Took the opportunity to take many photographs from a variety of trains from slow to very fast speed. I used an APSC interchangeable mirrorless of Korean Brand which has served me well and has allowed me to develop as a photographer. I now know what type of photography I like and wish to pursue and what type of camera I will need to be successful. I will be updating to Fuji x when the new models are released 2014. Some things I learnt when shooting from trains; Take a back carriage, there may be opportunity to capture the train as it turns around bends and crosses bridges. I got some great shots like this through the Swiss alps. Pick a good seat facing direction of travel so you can see what is approaching, Yes as you said , if you don’t want reflections from the glass then park your lens against it. I aimed for reflections in some shots as it added some artistic flare especially when passengers were visible. It is a great form of street photography.I also found I was more successful shooting in Aperture mode of around F8 with ISO set to 400 or 500 in sunny conditions. This ensured I had a fast shutter speed to avoid blur. I enjoyed this type of shooting because it tested my skill and knowledge and gave me a really good run at manual controls. I do not have the luxury of a viewfinder on the camera I used for my trip however this would have been of no use when shooting from a moving train. Live view only way to go so you can have good peripheral vision and line up your shot. One las thing, I disagree with any form of leaning out the window when the train is moving, you can lose your arm in an instant or worse your head- don’t do it.

    • Abi King September 3, 2013 at 8:33 am #

      Thanks for the tips. I had to avoid having people in shot for this assignment but you’re right – using the reflections to highlight them would definitely have been interesting. I’ve still got a few journeys left so maybe I’ll play around with that. It certainly does test your skills and make you get to grips with your manual controls, I agree with you there!

  5. Pointsandtravel September 2, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    I am bookmarking this page for my future train travels! Thanks so much! I just rode the FLAM railway in Norway and wish I had read this before, so many irritating things with the glass, and having my seat on the wrong side of the scenery and of course, I should have gotten up and gone to the back train!! Thanks again, enjoyed the read.

    • Abi King September 3, 2013 at 8:34 am #

      You’re very welcome! Better luck next time, eh?!

  6. Sarah September 4, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    This post is awesome! Thanks for the great tips! I’m ready to make a fool out myself and hop on a train! Anything for the love of photography! :D

  7. Ben September 13, 2013 at 3:11 am #

    My advice would be watch your shutter speed and build yourself a stable tripod. Nice tip on number 1 too, to do it right will require looking a tad foolish!

  8. Joanne Morton Joseph September 17, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Oh how I wish I had these tips earlier. Taking pictures from a moving vehicle or train has been anything but a success story for me. Looking forward to putting these in practice at the next opportunity.

  9. Melissa @ Suitcase and Heels September 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    I always struggle with the “people will think I’m weird” thing when I’m taking photographs that aren’t typical tourist things. The tip about staying at the back of the train is great. I wouldn’t have thought of that normally.

  10. Jonathan September 30, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    Great tips! I always find myself trying to take pics with the lens cap still on :)

  11. Maz October 5, 2013 at 6:14 am #

    Some really great tips here! Thankyou. I think I will have some much improved shots from now on.

  12. JakeC October 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Great tips, I will thank you for that. I’m always searching (on the internet) for great photography tips.

  13. Bo January 7, 2014 at 3:20 am #

    Interesting post, thanks! What camera do you use?

  14. Nadia January 30, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Great site I have just booked Transiberian train trip st petersberg to Beijing looking for best camera or new lens any suggestions

    • Abi King January 31, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

      Oh – that sounds wonderful! It’s a journey I’d love to do some day. I’m very happy with my Canon 7D but it’s a bit on the heavy side if you’ve only a passing interest in photography.

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