Staying On Track
April 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Few things capture our imagination and connect us to the past the way the iron horses of yesteryear can. These 19th century machines trigger deep memories—either good or bad, depending on our relationship to them. For most, trains represent freedom, progress and the romantic wonder of the Old West. To others, they are grim reminders of wartime and Holocaust nightmares from Europe.

Growing up, I was fascinated by both real trains and models. I remember Little League baseball games temporarily halted as a whistling engine and rattling boxcars passed the field.

I still get goose bumps when I hear a train whistle.

Photographers are often drawn to trains and the railroad culture. One of my all-time favorite photographs, “Hotshot Eastbound,” was made by O. Winston Link in 1956 of a train passing a drive-in theater in West Virginia.

I have a student who began photographing trains before he was in high school. His love of trains—shared with his father—set him on the photographic path he now follows.

I must begin with a safety warning. These big, beautiful, romantic machines can be deadly. A train cannot maneuver or stop quickly.

I am sadly reminded of a former student and dear friend who watched in helpless horror as his brother, who he was photographing for a fashion shoot, was struck and killed on the tracks by a train.

Another warning: The tracks and trestles are property of the railroad. Walking or playing on them is trespassing.

I remember walking across a trestle in Virginia to get in better position to photograph an oncoming train when I was whisked into a car and detained by railroad officials. Thankfully, they didn’t arrest me. It is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous and dumb to navigate trestles, especially with a train coming.

Warnings aside, photographing trains can be challenging and rewarding. Consider these techniques:

  • Scout locations for the best perspective. Often, the landscape the train passes through is more interesting than a close-up of the train itself. Be prepared to wait. Freight trains are hit and miss. Passenger trains are easier because routes and times are posted. Sometimes getting above a train on an overpass is the best angle to see the shape and length of the train.
  • Using a slow shutter (1/15th or slower, maybe even a half a second) can help create a picture that captures the feeling of motion while dragging and smearing trails of color across the frame. Panning works best if you have clutter—trees, poles and wires—rather than a clean landscape of sky.
  • A fast shutter speed, say 1/500th and above, will freeze the motion if you want to see details: texture, words, graffiti or faces of people.
  • Use a telephoto lens 300mm or more straight-on to squeeze together the field of view so things near and far appear to be on the same plane, with background elements appearing closer and larger than they are. This can create a feeling of power and urgency. The greater the lens magnification, the more subjects will be compressed.
  • Consider using foregrounds to add depth and make pictures more than one-dimensional, creating a cause-and-effect narrative while also providing context and scale.

There is something nostalgic, even magical, about hearing the whistle of a train on a silent morning and watching a mighty metal steed appear, snorting smoke from its nostrils. It’s even better when you capture and forever preserve those images in camera.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit