Train tracks have fascinated us for as long as there have been trains. There's something about that long, straight, retreat to the horizon that appeals to us. Trains represent travel and escape. We love them because we can imagine ourselves boarding one, off on an adventure to a far away place. So what's the best way to capture railroad tracks in a photo?
There is something else that's very compelling about a set of railroad tracks. First of all, a railroad track is a classic vanishing point. Unlike pretty much everything in nature, a railroad track is a perfectly parallel set of lines. So any railroad track anywhere in the world is guaranteed to give you a classic vanishing point.
What is vanishing point? When two parallel lines extend away from the place where we are standing, they appear to converge. If they're moving towards the horizon, they will actually appear to meet, forming a sort of arrow that directs our eyes from foreground background. The reason why this is such a great thing for photographers is because that vanishing point helps turn what is an otherwise two-dimensional image into something that appears to exist in three dimensions. Because human brains have lots of experience with vanishing points, we understand that in order for those two lines to converge they must travel a very long distance. That can help fool the brain into thinking that the image is actually three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional.
That's not, course, the only reason to photograph railroad tracks. Railroad tracks say a lot about people, and about our recent history. Not only are they a means of transporting humans from one place to another, they are also (and probably more commonly) a means to transfer goods from one place to another. The terrain that train tracks cross can be anything from forests to hills to tunnels through solid rock. Train tracks can bisect cities or cut through hillsides and mountains. Wherever they go, they give us a little slice of life, a glimpse of how the world changes from place to place.
2008 Abandoned Railroad Tracks B&W, Greenville, SC by Flickr user scmikeburton
Now here’s the thing about railroad tracks that you may not have known. You’ve probably seen photos of families, graduating seniors and other people posing on railroad tracks—it’s kind of a thing, and a lot of professional photographers offer it as a service. But what you probably never realized (and I’ll bet most of those photographers don’t realize it, either), is that it’s actually illegal in the United States to stand on a set of railroad tracks.
It makes very good sense, when you think about it. Trains travel at between 80 and 125 miles per hour—you wouldn’t walk on a freeway, and the speed limit on the average American interstate is a lot slower than that. Add to that the fact that trains can’t stop to avoid hitting you (it takes over a mile for a big train to come to a stop) and you’ve got a very dangerous photo shoot. And if the train’s operator doesn’t see you, he isn’t going to sound the horn, either. If you get caught unaware because you’re busy with your camera’s settings or you’re waiting for just the right pose, the end result is going to be pretty tragic. And just in case you still don’t know if you should take me seriously, photographers have and will continue to meet unfortunate, train-related deaths as long as this trend continues (in Santa Barbara, California a photographer was struck and killed by a train in 2013. Less than a year later another photographer was killed in Missouri by an Amtrack train).
Never by Flickr user davidseibold
Walking on a railroad track is trespassing—the tracks are owned by the rail companies, so even abandoned and unused tracks are legally off-limits. So in the US, posing subjects on railroad tracks or standing on them to take pictures is not something you should be doing. And I’ll go even further than that and say that you shouldn’t do it in other countries, either. It’s just plain dangerous.
Now that my lecture is over, you may be wondering how you can photograph railroad tracks if you’re not allowed to get close to one. The good news is that you’ve still got a lot of options. A longer zoom lens can get you optically closer to those railroad tracks, or you can shoot from an area that you can verify is open to the public (buildings and train stations are pretty safe bets). The shoulder of a public road is a perfectly legal place to photograph train tracks, just so long as you don’t step onto the tracks, or linger close enough to them that you might get injured if a train happens to come along.
How to shoot train tracks
The good news is that all those shots taken from the vantage point of the tracks themselves are a little bit overdone anyway. If you’re not sure what I mean, try searching Google Images for “railroad tracks.” You’re probably going to find a lot of images that look pretty much the same. Beautiful railroad tracks crossing beautiful landscapes, disappearing over beautiful horizons. Sure, those images are all wonderful to look at. But they're samey, so we really only just look at them. We don't really have a reason to think about them.
The first step towards taking a stunning railroad track photograph is to just think for a few minutes about how you might be able to create an image that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. One good way to do this is to look for patterns. Railroad tracks and ties make great patterns all by themselves, but how can you choose an interesting perspective to make those patterns appear unusual and different? Zoom in on the tracks and ties and seek out the patterns. Then fill your frame with them, and try to shoot them without context. This will create an interesting abstract image, which may be missing the vanishing point but is still going to be very compelling.
Subway Yard - 7 Train - Willets Point stop by Flickr user Steven Pisano
Another way that you can shoot railroad tracks that don’t look the same as all the other images you’ve seen is by finding tracks that run through a particularly unusual or interesting locations. Try seeking out tracks that pass through cities and juxtapose them with other interesting elements in the environment, such as people and buildings.
Many touristy places have railroad companies that specialize in public train rides—these are generally short one or two hour trips through scenic areas, and the trains and engines are often antique or built to look that way. These tourism companies are great places to photograph railroad tracks. The stations themselves are often located in historic areas and you may be able to shoot the tracks while waiting to board the train. If you get a seat on the rear car, you can photograph the tracks as the train travels down them. Even if you don’t board one of the trains, you’ll find some great photo opportunities in the area. Look for train tunnels on the sides of mountains or railroad trestles that cross highways and rivers.
Curves and bends
A vanishing point doesn't always have to be straight. Another way to capture an unusual photograph of the railroad track is to find a bend in the track. When the tracks curve one way and another, that can make for a very interesting and dynamic image. Because the human eye naturally follows those curves towards the vanishing point, you are giving your viewer an opportunity to explore the entire scene rather than just the beginning and end of the vanishing point.
I know it may be tempting to step onto those tracks just to snap a photo or two (it’s hard for any photographer to resist a good vanishing point), but it’s not just your legal obligations I’m worried about, it’s also your safety. Having said that, do photograph railroad tracks, just do it from a safe distance. This may mean you have to be a little creative and think outside the box, but in photography that’s never a bad thing. After all, the world (and Flickr) already have all the generic, vanishing point railroad track photos that they need—why don’t you add a few uniquely imagined shots to the mix instead?
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