Tips for Getting Better Pictures From a Train
We were on a train five months ago. Was it really just five months ago? Wow, it feels like it’s been a year at least! It was an incredible 2+ days of train travel from Emeryville, California to Chicago, Illinois, aboard Amtrak’s legendary California Zephyr.
I did some research about how to take pictures from trains and they’ve proven to be very helpful, so I’m going to share them with you. These are the tips that have worked for me.
Be aware of the guidelines on photography and video recording.
That’s the first rule! Amtrak has a detailed guideline that I found very helpful. Every country or city may have their own laws regarding photography, so read about them to be on the safe side.
Don’t use flash.
Whether you are using the latest digital SLR or your smartphone, please, turn the flash off. STAT. You’re shooting for the scenery, right? Besides, flash can only reach a metre or so, so what’s the point?
Try to get a good spot to shoot from on the correct side of the train.
Research ahead of your trip to find out which side of the train the great scenery is going to appear. Aboard California Zephyr, they make an announcement to tell you if there’s a good view or important scenery coming up. They also tell you which side of the train window to look out of so you don’t miss a thing!
Look to shoot from an open window, whenever possible.
None of the California Zephyr’s windows have the capability to open so this wasn’t an option for me. However, if you are in India, for example, you can shoot from an open window and get very good pictures. Just make sure that you and your camera are safe at all times.
Move as close to the glass as possible.
Train windows pose real problems. Not only do they reflect light back from the carriage, but also they are often dirty and smudgy. But since you can’t get rid of the glass, you’re going to have to work with it. How? Get your lens as close to the glass as possible. Right up against it. Here’s what happens if you don’t …
See the annoying reflection on the glass? Now, look at these pictures taken with the lens right up against the glass …
But do remember that the train is vibrating, so take that into consideration when pressing your lens onto the glass so the picture doesn’t get blurry.
Also, try to shoot on the side of the train with sun behind you during the day. This helps minimize the reflection on the glass.
I also used some wet wipes to clean the inside of the window. My bedroom was on the upper level of the train, making it was impossible to reach the window from outside otherwise I would definitely had cleaned the outside of the window as well!
Go behind the curtain.
While researching online, I found one person recommending a piece of black fabric about a 12×12 inches with a hole cut in the middle for the lens to pop through and suction cups to attach to the glass – to minimize reflection on the glass. Another suggested a “lens skirt”.
All you need to do is pull the window curtain (assuming there’s one, of course) behind you so that it blocks the reflection on the window. I did this a lot to get good pictures.
I noticed, while checking pictures directly from the camera from behind the curtain, that some of the pictures had a mysterious blue light in them. I had the curtain behind me plus all the lights in the room were switched off, so where was this coming from?
It turned out to be the light from the phone charger, which was plugged right next to the curtains.
Shutter speed: The faster the better.
Set your camera to shutter priority mode and don’t be shy with the wheel. Play with different shutter speeds and see which setting gives the best results.
If you are taking a picture of something that is passing you by at 50 km/h, anything slower than 1/500 seconds will most probably produce a blurry picture.
Most photographers say a good rule of thumb is a shutter speed of 1/2000 for crisp scenery shots.
The brighter the better.
High shutter speeds need good light conditions. The more light you have outside, the better your pictures are likely to be. Take as much as photos as possible during the day. With the window’s glass in the way, I started getting lots of noise in the pictures an hour or more before dusk. I suppose the Golden Hour is different when you’re in the train.
If your camera can shoot several pictures per second, be sure to use this function. Remember, your targets are passing by at high speed and you could miss a great shot by a split second. I also used AF (Auto Focus) Mode.
These happened when I was capturing one frame at a time …
Exhibit A: While trying to frame and capture a beautiful scenery, a tree trunk appeared.
Exhibit B: The moment I pressed the button to capture a picture of a beautiful lake, the train went into a tunnel.
Best format for post-processing. With RAW format, you’ll be able to recover slightly blown out highlights and/or bring back detail in the shadows.
Leave the ISO on automatic.
That’s what I did. I shot at shutter-priority mode and left the ISO settings on auto.
Plus Point: A telephoto lens (70-300mm).
I didn’t have one but if you do, you’ll get better pictures of objects that are far away. Thing is, when you’re in a train, almost everything outside is far away. For example, we passed by a huge farm with lots of beautiful horses but they were so far I couldn’t get a decent shot. This was the best I could do with what I had …
The most I can do is crop the picture …
Post-processing: Don’t go overboard!
I use PhotoScape, a free and easy to use photo editing software. I mostly play with the contrast, brightness, sharpness, and saturation. And the crop feature, too.
You can browse the internet and find a ton of technical information and tips as well, but if you’re like me, you’re likely to forget all that. There are talks about using a polarizer, adjusting the exposure compensation, putting your lens at a certain angle against the glass while taking pictures, using wide angle lenses, and whatnot.
It doesn’t matter how fancy and latest your camera is if you do not know how to use it beyond “auto” settings; you’re better off taking pictures with your smartphone. Study the manual of your camera, use it before embarking on that trip, and familiarize yourself with its various settings and modes.
Remember to be courteous at all times and don’t get in anyone’s way.
Keep an eye on your valuables!
Most importantly, don’t forget to put that camera down once in a while to enjoy the scenery! Have a safe trip!