Getting Beyond the Easy and Obvious Ones

One of the the most magnificent sensations that we railfans experience is to follow a train in motion. It’s an amazing thing to watch a large and long physical mass move through the landscape like a snake with ease and grace. Add to this experience, the sounds of the locomotives and the various squeaks of steel on steel. Then there is the adrenaline rush and excitement of beating the train to the next location to grab a shot.

Chasing trains through the landscape is the stuff of railroad lore. It’s been well documented and romanticized in the railroad press for not only the aspect of capturing the train in multiple locations, but also the comradery that often accompanies it.

I enjoy the chase as well, but find that I’m doing it less and less. It’s not that I stopped enjoying the experience, but that I’ve found that it usually doesn’t lead to great photography, at least for me. The problem with the chase is that it leads one to photograph the easy and obvious shots as we don’t have the luxury of time to seek a unique shot if we want to continue the chase. Because of that, the chase always comes off as a series of known “greatest hits” of a rail line.

There are about 228,000 miles of rail lines in the United States, and I feel like we all are shooting the same 5% of that mileage. I know that many of these miles are boring sameness, featureless and some are difficult to access, but why can’t we reach out further beyond the easy and obvious photographic opportunities?

To me, there are two advantages to moving beyond the chase; more creativity and diversity.

If we can switch the dynamic of chasing, to letting the train come to us, we can use time to our advantage. We now have the opportunity to look for new scenes and compositions beyond the obvious ones.

By letting the train come to me, I have opened up my mind to using time and thought to my advantage. With time now on my side, I can scope out interesting and new scenes, angles or vantages. With time, I can carefully and thoughtfully find my composition. With time, I can set up my camera on a tripod and make sure that I get the shot I want and not lose it in the excitement of eyeing the train in motion. With time, I can ensure that I get the technical aspects correct with proper depth of field, shutter and focus.

In addition to getting creative new images, we can also broaden our coverage of the railroad scene. Many of us have the intention of photographically documenting a railroad line and by taking the time to explore new photographic opportunities, we can broaden our scope and increase the depth and diversity of our pet projects. How often do we need to see the same familiar scene and angle with the substitution of a different engine?

For me, getting away from the chase has allowed me to be less rushed and more contemplative about my photography. I would rather come away from an outing with 1 or 2 really good original shots than a dozen mediocre and obvious ones. The chase still has a place in my railfanning, but more for the social aspect than for challenging my photographic creativity.


  1. Ben Martin

    I like the concept of your statement. I truly believe that the greatest percentage of photographers that are also rail enthusiasts start out with some basic “Cookie Cutter” skills. Its up to the individual as to whether or not it is imperative to surpass the scope of that 5% of territory.

    For me, it was hiring out on the railroad, probably within 60 to 90 days of being fully qualified on a run in New England I started to discover the concept of “Window Shopping”. This was a very valuable tool for me as it enabled me discover that there are other locations where a train can be witnessed, a hillside, shoulder of a non-chase road, a fire escape, etc. It awakened me to play “Surveyor” too which some of my railfan friends have identified me.

    Not everybody has the ability to window shop but if one wants to explore my concept, they certainly could support a tourist railroad and go ride the train all the while scouting landscape from a new perspective. On railroads that do not have the passenger ticket option available, I really do not know the answer, but never feared hopping in the car singing that “Cookie Cutter” song a couple times to get a comfort zone established for the hopes of learning a spot or 2 from my different learned observation…

    Just my 2 cents and Happy new Year!

    1. Eric Williams


      Happy New Year to you as well!

      I didn’t get in to how to find the other 95% of un-photographed mileage, but your suggestion is a one good option for rail lines that have some sort of public service. As well as tourist lines, there is Amtrak and the commuter roads to do some “window shopping” from. Another option is to use Bing Maps with the Birdseye view option. I have found many great locations by scouting there first and then going to the actual physical site. You will get a few duds, but the exploration is enjoyable and usually leads to a new discovery. In the end, it’s boots on the ground to get the shot!

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