Photographing Steam Engines & Steam Trains
Today I was asked by another photographer how to photograph steam engines. I started writing up a reply and part way through felt the topic is worth an article as others will want to know. Over the last 30 years since I was a teenager I’ve been photographing steam engines, railways, farm steam and stationary steam. I find steam fascinating. Steam equipment feels alive and if you’re not respectful it is murderous.
Finding a Steam Railway
I suspect the average punter would be surprised to know there is an active steam powered railway in practically every place in the world. They are preserved and maintained by small armies of volunteers and in some cases government appointed authorities. In some places they still run in revenue service. Here in Victoria Australia we are blessed with quite the selection. My favourites are:
- Puffing Billy Railway running from Belgrave to Gembrook;
- Bellarine Peninsula Railway running along the coast near Geelong from Drysdale to Queenscliff;
- Alexandra Timber Tramway; and
- Central Goldfields Railway between Castlemaine and Maldon.
To find one near you, Google of course!
Personal safety for you and the people around you is very important around an operating railway. A train can sneak right up on you at any time – they can appear out of nowhere silently. Don’t depend on the time table to keep you safe as special movements can occur at any time.
Generally speaking stay at least 3m from the centre of the track but if you must get closer (I often do) then look and listen before you do and always pre pick at least two escape routes.
Sleepers and track are often slippery even in dry weather. The ballast between them often moves. Trackside drains could be knee deep full of mud or effluent. Never walk through points (switches) or over signalling wires and rods as they may be controlled remotely by someone who cannot see you. Crush dangers like these abound on a railway.
Stay aware of your surroundings, don’t depend on the driver to spot you in time. They could need up to several kilometres to stop depending on the speed they’re running and their tonnage. How fare can you see? It is your responsibility to keep out of the way and safe.
Always face a moving rail vehicle to enable you to see and avoid anything that is outside the normal area the train will occupy such as dragging branches, broken rolling stock or moved loads. This means that you never ever stand between dual track running rails where trains might pass you simultaneously in both directions at once.
Most railways will require you to wear high visibility clothing and steel cap footwear if you’re going to be near the track or other facilities.
Most railways will happily allow non-commercial photography but will usually require you to declare your intentions, complete an induction and fill out a liability indemnity agreement to protect them before you can enter non-public areas of their property.
Once you have the agreement from management, making yourself known to local representatives is advisable. Not only will the local knowledge help you to not get killed they will probably have good ideas of places to shoot that will yield an interesting composition. Most people working on steam powered railways are rail fans “gunzels” and are often photographers.
Times of the Day, Year and Weather
I prefer to photograph in the morning and late in the afternoon. This helps avoid blown out skies in your images. Of course this isn’t always possible so devices such as graduated neutral density filters and polarisers can help.
It may seem weird to discuss the time of year and weather conditions, but when it comes to steam railways in particular cold damp weather yields awesome images as the steam and smoke hangs in the air where it is ejected which transforms the locomotive into a living breathing creature.
There is no right camera or lens combination for steam engines and railways. I always take a selection. A nice short prime to get up close and personal and a medium telephoto or zoom for longer shots. A tripod is essential. I often leave my camera and tripod where I myself won’t stay (e.g. between running rails) and use a radio trigger to fire it off.
Choosing Places, Angles and Exposures
Steam engines are at their most impressive when they’re working hard as they eject the smoke and cinders high into the air. Try to find places where the locomotive is climbing a hill or on something interesting like a wooden trestle bridge.
I look for angles that reveal a good view of the train and infrastructure but hide modern surroundings. Try to avoid the eye height shot – everyone does those. Get on your belly or up on a bank or even up a tree. If you get above the train on a bridge or other infrastructure remember that smoke and soot flying up.
Exposures can be tough. Many of my photographs are under trees in dim forests or worse in a dim area with bright spots. Locomotives are beasts of high contrast, overhanging foot boards and tanks can hide the interesting monkey motion that goes on underneath. Clouds of steam easily trick your camera into underexposing if left on auto.
I meter and expose for the location just before the train arrives and photograph on manual as bright shiny things can adversely affect your auto meter leading to gross under exposure.
My settings will depend highly on what I want to achieve. Do I want depth of field (small aperture) or hide my background in blur (big aperture)? Do I want to stop the motion (fast shutter) or have some blur (slow shutter)?
If you’re travelling on a special train and it is doing a photo run by there are some special considerations. First and foremost is to stay safe. Next is to keep out of everyone else’s shot. Normally the organisers will set up a photo line at an angle to the line so everyone can get a decent shot. If there is an official photographer, try to keep out of their shot. They are shooting to help the railway make money to continue operating. Suggest they wind on some hand brakes for the run by to make the engine work hard.
To achieve the best results of stationary steam engines I resort to bracketing the shot and later HDR processing to bring out the detail in the differently lit areas. Remember your digital camera (even a good one) is very poor on contrast ratio when compared to film. Even an HDR from a single RAW can be better than hours of masking and post processing.
Last Few Things
Railways and particularly steam railways are filthy. Your gear won’t enjoy filth. I came very close to killing a sensor when it was sprayed by steam from a source I had not anticipated while changing lenses. Steam is loaded with oil to lubricate the pistons – this oil is atomised in the steam and ejected into the air. Keep out of it. Note this happened to an experienced person like myself. Expect the unexpected! In this case it was a faulty pipe coupling that sprayed when the driver opened the throttle.
They are hot! For many years one locomotive I’ve worked on had my boot prints on the top of its smoke box. The fire had been lit less than 30 minutes. In that time the hot gases had heated the smoke box surface hot enough to melt my soles.
Most steam engines lubricate to waste which means most surfaces are oily, greasy or better yet hot, oily and greasy. It is easy to get a third degree burn from one of these machines. Coal ash is highly acidic and eats away susceptible metals like those in your camera.