How to take better photos from a train

Want to capture the thrill of the rails? Our train travel expert reveals 7 tips to make your photographs great

3 mins

1. Carry the right gear

Take a camera you are comfortable with. Read the manual, and learn about the settings before leaving home. Trains can offer both great portrait opportunities on board as well as magnificent landscapes outside your carriage window. 

You need a camera that can lend itself to several styles of photography. I prefer to use a semi compact (2/3rds sensor) camera on a short wrist lanyard. It’s less obtrusive and allows me to capture my subjects in a reportage style. A mini gorilla pod and a dreaded selfie stick allow me to stage some shots, especially when I’m travelling alone. 

Other than this I keep my kit as light as possible, with just one lens (28-112mm at 35mm equivalent) and a few spares.

Scottish steam train (Shutterstock)
Scottish steam train (Shutterstock)

2. The challenge of the window

Train windows can pose real problems. Not only do they reflect light and noise back from the carriage, but also they are often dirty. Really dirty. 

Try to shoot on the side of the train with sun behind you during the day and see if you can get an angle through the glass that minimises the reflections and the grime. If you are staying on the same train for more than a day, it might be worth bringing a sponge or some wet wipes to clean both the inside and the outside of the window (when the train is stationary!)

Train guard on the Trans Siberian (Matthew Woodward)
Train guard on the Trans Siberian (Matthew Woodward)

3. Finding great subjects

The great thing about the train is that you are sharing your journey with a regularly changing group of interesting local travellers. This can present endless possibilities. Do the decent thing of course: always ask before taking a photo, and take the opportunity get to know people first to get more relaxed results.

Taking pictures of the train itself on the move can be tricky. If the windows are open you might be able to get a shot of the length of the train as it goes round a bend. Your chances are, of course, much better in a station, when you can set up a shot from the front of the train. Make sure you know how long your stop will be for, and always carry your documents with you when getting off the train.

Modern camera sensors allow you to take shots in almost any light condition – don't be afraid to try something different. You might be rewarded with a really interesting result.

4. Stay in charge

You should never take the presence of an electrical socket on a train as a guarantee that you will be able to recharge your camera battery. They often don't work, work on a much lower voltage – or, when they do work, are in demand to charge every mobile phone in the carriage. 

Instead, carry one or more spare batteries and be ready to grab a charge whenever the opportunity presents itself. Avoid cheap cables and unbranded batteries. They might seem good value at the time, but you won’t think this when they stop working in the middle of nowhere with no possibility of replacement.

5. Be security conscious

Trains are often fairly safe places, but railways stations are not. Always put your camera in your bag when it is not being used, and don't leave it anywhere in open view. 

Also, be aware that in some countries railway stations are viewed as having military significance, and taking photos might be considered inappropriate. You should also be aware that your photographs might be examined at border checks in some countries. Use caution and common sense.

Chef on Trans Siberian 9Matthew Woodward)
Chef on Trans Siberian (Matthew Woodward)

6. Watch the temperature

In the summer, open train windows can mean a lot of dust, so you should clean your lens on a regular basis. Keep in mind that in winter in somewhere like Siberia, you might be carrying your camera from a train heated to 30 degrees onto a below-freezing platform. 

For these conditions, a zip-lock type bag might help keep the condensation to a minimum. Batteries tend not to do well at very low temperatures. You can make them last longer by keeping your camera or a spare battery in an inside pocket and changing it before it runs out.

Swiss train (Shutterstock)
Swiss train (Shutterstock)

7. Back up, back up, back up

Don't risk losing your irreplaceable shots. Back up everything as a routine, at least on a daily basis. Use several smaller memory cards rather than one big one in case it fails, and consider investing in an external hard drive for back ups. 

These days, hard drives are very compact and can even be wireless. I use my iPad for storage, and I also edit images and post my blogs from it as I go along. You can get a camera card connector to do this easily.


Matthew Woodward is a rail adventurer. He will shortly set off on a trip from his home in Edinburgh by rail to Tibet and onward to Hong Kong, travelling on the longest and highest railways in the world. For more advice and tips, visit his his blog, Toad's Travel Adventures.

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