Heart and Soul In Railroad Photography

Two of my favorite photographers of the railroad scene are Richard Steinheimer and Jim Shaughnessy. They both sought a holistic view of the railroad scene and found interesting angles and scenes that deviated from the norm of focusing on equipment. They recognized that the equipment was just one small part of a vast economic transportation system that includes locomotives and trains, but also the right of way, infrastructure, place and most importantly people.

People operate the railroad, but are also the community that the railroad serves and operates within, whether as shippers, receivers, residents along the rails, or as travelers. These photographers saw that connection and by including it, broadened their possibilities for creative images and put heart into railroad photography.

Western Pacific's California Zephyr at Fremont, California, March 1970 by Richard Steinheimer

Western Pacific’s California Zephyr at Fremont, California, March 1970 by Richard Steinheimer captures the awe as well as what’s lost with the last run.

Bringing the heart into railroad photography is one way they adding emotion and made creative connections. Another is by capturing the soul of the place.

Soul to me represents the spirit of the region or place…the sense of place. It’s what defines east from the west, urban from country, a bustling city from an isolated small town, a gritty blue-collar working community from a tidy bedroom community of commuters, etc. It’s what gives significant to a place.

Central New York Alco RS3 #101 and freight train near East Winfield, New York, 1988 by Jim Shaughnessy

 New York Central Alco RS3 #101 and freight train near East Winfield, New York, 1988 by Jim Shaughnessy captures the soul of this line and region.

It would seem like an easy task, but to establish the mood and significance of a place within a single image requires a tremendous amount of vision (and sometimes luck) as it is more than just getting the physical characteristics down. It’s capturing the attitude and “air” of a place that makes it unique and special.

As photographers, we need a balance of image types for our projects or portfolios, so don’t just aim your camera at the equipment….find the heart and soul of your railroad line as well. By doing so, our images will have more of an emotional connection to the viewer.


Excellent books about both photographers

A Passion for Trains: The Railroad Photography of Richard Steinheimer and  The Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy, were written by Jeff Brouws and are still available. If you haven’t seen them, they are both a must have for anyone interested in railroad photography and a constant source of inspiration to me.


  1. Larry Sallee

    Another rail photographer of note that I’ve been fortunate to have been good friends with for 50 years now always preached that I should be less concerned with the train and more with the environment it was moving through (my early photos contain way more telephoto images of trains with virtually no background than I care to admit). Your concept of the “heart and soul” echoes his advice, and similarly equates with what I identify as “character”. I’ve found that I’m more aware of these concepts nowadays when I go out shooting (better late than never, I guess), and while I sometimes find myself falling back into old patterns, the fact that I now consciously look for ways to express this in an image gives me hope that I’m making at least some progress.

    I’m both enjoying and learning from your blog, Eric. I look forward to each new posting.

    1. Eric Williams

      Larry, thanks for taking a look at my blog.

      Better late than never for us all to be learning and growing as photographers! While I’ve taken pictures most of my life, I just got serious about it in the past three years or so. Making a personal effort and commitment to learn more has paid off in better images, both technically and artistically for me.

      So, you can teach an old dog new tricks after all!

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