How to Photograph Steam Trains
Steam trains on the mainline seem to be very popular today all over the UK. Many people love to have a ride behind the steam loco while others are happy to go out and photograph it.
Steam train photographs are my most popular type of railway photography.
To photograph a steam tour the first thing you need to know is when and where it is running. You can get all this information from ‘Railway Herald’ or ‘UK Steam’. They both tell you the date, location and the times for the day.
Once you know the route the tour will be running on then you can decide where to go and photograph it. If you are staying in your local area then hopefully you will already know some good locations to take the photograph.
If you decide to go a bit further away then the best place to look for a good location is here on the internet. For example, try searching ‘trains at Dawlish’ on Google Images or Flickr, you should then find many photographs taken at the popular spots.
If possible try to go to a location where you know that the steam loco will be working hard. If the loco is throwing out more steam, this will always make it a better photograph.
Places like Dawlish for an example are very popular for railway photographers. The chances are you will not be the only person there. You would probably need to be at your chosen spot a good hour or so before the tour is due. You will then get the chance of standing where you want to.
Think about the background in the photograph, it would be nice to have some landscape or sea for the train to pass rather than plenty of modern buildings etc. If you could find an old viaduct that the tour would be going over then that might be even better.
Remember, wherever you go, do NOT trespass onto the railway.
LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 Black 5’s No: 44871 and No: 45407 are seen crossing over Blatchford Viaduct near Ivybridge working the 1Z85 09.40 ‘The Great Britain VI’ tour from Newquay to Cardiff on the 21st April 2013.
- Front and to the side
This is the most popular composition for any type of train photography. You will capture the train coming towards you, with a nice amount of context provided by the countryside.
- Side on
A side on photograph is a different way to get a good photo of the train and all or some of the carriages behind it.
If the weather is not that great then do not be put off by it. Still go out with your camera, you may get a nice photograph of white steam against a dark background or the weather might improve, you never know.
If possible try and stand in a spot with the sun (if it’s out) either behind you or to your side. This will provide the best light for your photograph so you do not have it in shadow.
Never go and stand in front of another photographer if they were there before you. If you were that person and someone came and stood in front of you, just imagine how annoyed you would be.
The following settings are what I tend to use when photographing a steam train on the mainline using my Canon 5D MKIII.
- Shutter Speed
Depending on the speed of the train will make you think about what shutter speed is needed. If the train is climbing a bank then it will not be moving that fast so I would use a shutter speed around 1/500 to 1/800. If the train is on a level section and going faster I would use between 1/1000 and 1/1500.
- F Number
I use F8 or F10 if possible. Using one of these will give good sharp focus on most of the photograph. If you use say F2.8 then only the front of the steam loco will be the sharpest point in the whole photograph.
The ISO number to use depends on what the weather is like. If it’s a nice sunny day I would set mine to around 400 but if there is no sun and it’s dull and cloudy I would set it to whatever number that would give me the right shutter speed I want to use. If you do use a high ISO you will probably start to get the noise showing up in the photograph.
- AI Servo
AI Servo will track focus on any moving subjects. As the train gets closer to you the camera will constantly update the focus and will try and keep it as sharp as it can. You do need to put your centre focus point on the front of the train.
- Drive mode
It is best to set your drive mode to ‘high speed continuous shooting’. The more shots you take there will be a better chance of getting a perfect photograph.
- Focus point
I tend to use either the Single focus point or the AF Expansion focus point to put on the front of the steam loco. If you use a different focus point it might focus on something else rather than the train.
Type of Lens
The lens I use the most for railway photography is the Canon 24-105mm. Using any zoom lens will give you more flexibility for your photograph.
Using a tripod is entirely up to you. I never use mine for railway photography as I find it easier to move around without it.
All the above information is how I take photographs of steam trains on the mainline here in the UK. I am happy with the camera settings that I use although some will probably think that they are not right. I would suggest that practice is very important if you are new to photographing steam trains. If you want to get your best steam train photograph then practice shooting diesel trains a good few weeks before the steam tour is due.