Ultimate Guide: How to photograph Steam Trains
Steam trains on the mainline and heritage railways 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.
How to photograph Steam Trains is well worth learning. Hopefully you will then get better photographs.
Steam Tour Details
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 ‘Rail Tour Info’. They both tell you the date, location and the times (via a link on their page) 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.
Hopefully it will then be throwing out more steam and smoke, this will always make it a better photograph.
Places like Dawlish for an example are very popular for railway photographers so you will not be the only person there. You would need to be at your chosen spot a good hour or so before the tour is due to give you 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.
Ex-LMS 7P 4-6-0 No: 46100 ‘Royal Scot’ and LMS Black 5 No: 45231 ‘The Sherwood Forester’ with 47614 on the rear are seen climbing Rattery Bank working the 1Z70 06.00 Solihull to Plymouth ‘The Devon Express’ tour on the 9th June 2021
To find out about your local heritage railway have a look at there website. This will let you know the days, times and what loco is running.
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.
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.
GWR 0-6-0 No: 3205 has just passed Hood Bridge working the 10.35 Totnes Littlehempston to Buckfastleigh service on the 18th February 2017 during the South Devon Railway ‘Winter Gala’
The following settings are what I tend to use when photographing a steam train on the mainline and heritage railway.
The camera I use is the Canon 5D MKIII.
Camera Settings for Moving Steam Trains
RAW or JPEG?
RAW will capture all the image data. When you take a photography in RAW you will get higher quality images and also far more control in post processing.
A JPEG file is the finished photograph that your camera fully develops the moment you take the photo.
If you are not sure which you need then have a read about Railway Photos in RAW or JPEG?
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.
On the heritage railway all the steam trains run a lot slower. Because of this I tend to use between 1/300 to 1/500.
Have a read with more information about Shutter Speed for Moving Train Photos.
I use F8 or F10 if possible for all my steam train photos. 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. When there is no sun and it’s dull or cloudy I would set it to whatever number that would give me the right shutter speed I want to use. However, using a high ISO you will probably start to get the noise showing up in the photograph.
If it is sunny while you are on the heritage railway, then use either 200 or 400 ISO. If the weather is cloudy or dark then go a bit higher.
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.
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.
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.
Camera Settings for Non Moving Steam Trains
If the weather is good I would use around100 to 200. If the weather is dull I tend to use 400.
F2.8 or F4 is ideal to photograph just the front of the train. This should make the front of the train nice and sharp.
If like me, I prefer to use F8 to F10 to get the whole train sharp. Using F8 or F10 will help to sharpen what is behind the loco, carriages, wagons, station etc
For a non moving steam train you do not need a fast shutter. I usually use between 200 to 400.
AV is the mode dial you need to use for non moving trains.
Set the Focus Mode to ‘one shot’. This is the one needed for a non moving 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. I find it easier to move around without it at the location I have chosen.
All the above information is how I take photographs of steam trains on the mainline and heritage railways 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 photos then practice shooting diesel trains. Try it a good few weeks before the steam tour is due.
I hope that after reading ‘How to photograph Steam Trains’ you have learnt a few new things.