The Art of Train Window Digital Photography

Trains go where they go for their own reasons. In the USA, these are usually economic reasons, and frequently those reasons may be historic and obsolete. The train does not care about your interest in taking photographs. If you want to take pictures of a particular landscape, doing it from a moving train verges on improbable. Yet, a train is a river that flows past vast landscapes and the extremes of all the measures by which we know beauty.

To get the most out of your train window photography, start by picking a good place to sit.  There are two strategies for selecting your seat.

  1. Sit on the starboard (or “passenger”) side of the train to minimize obstruction of views by passing trains.
  2. Taking account for the time of day and position of the sun, you may want to choose a seat on the side of the train that will minimize glare and maximize the direct lighting of your subjects. Avoid having direct sun on your train window. It will gleam and be prone to reflecting the glare of the windows on the other side of the car.

With luck, your seat will meet both criteria.  If not, plan to spend time in the lounge car.

Lighting is everything.
Range is everything.
Being ready is everything.
Luck is everything.

The eye forgives flaws through a mind trick, perception. Reflections and smudges on the window are easy work for the mind’s filters to erase. The camera lacks this ability.  One can compensate through the use of image processing software, but it is better if this can be avoided.  Be sure that the inside surface of your window is as clean as possible.  Be aware of glare and place your camera at a distance and angle from the glass that minimizes distracting artifacts.

Know your delay. All photographers must compensate for the movement of the train.  You need to learn the intervals that pass between the moment of your decision to shoot, the moment of touching the shutter switch, and the moment when the photograph is recorded by your camera.  Some photographers will lose time making a decision to shoot.  Some photographers will lose time due to the innate slowness of their cameras, exacerbated by the programmable settings they choose for their instruments.  Photographers who can anticipate the decision and who have manually set their cameras to appropriate exposure and shutter speed settings will have the best “luck” at capturing the scenes past which trains fleet.

In the digital age, the cost of each shot is negligible, so shoot and shoot.  If you normally get one great shot out of 20, then expect the challenges of train window photography to knock you down to one out of 50 or so.  If the lighting is on your side, and the train doesn’t lurch at just the wrong moment.  And if you are lucky.

Some of my lucky ones are shown here:

I shoot about 1,000 exposures on a typical train trip, and even the lucky ones have reflections, fuzzy foregrounds, and dirty window spots, but the “Delete” key got me through the worst of them.

Taking a train ride is one of the most civilized ways to travel, so relax and shoot your way home.

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