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18 Tips for Shooting from a Train

Getting successful images from a moving train can be quite tricky, and a real test of one’s patience and persistence. Recently, I had a chance to take what is considered one of the great train rides of the world, the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, better known as El Chepe, which winds through Barrancas del Cobre (the Copper Canyon), one of Mexico’s many natural wonders.

1 Chepe Train Car with Conductor - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

The canyon gets its name from the copper color of some of its 3,000 plus foot walls, which can be seen in all their glory from many vantage points along the route, not because of copper mining in the region, as some people claim. It’s been compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States, but my assessment is that it’s a cross between the sheer cliff walls and alpine vegetation of Yosemite National Park and the deep and layered gorges of the Grand Canyon, but with a convenient train ride between them.

Each day its complete route in the northwest of Mexico travels from the capital city of Chihuahua, in Chihuahua state, to Los Mochis, in the neighboring state of Sinaloa (a second train does the reverse route). I was on assignment to shoot the cultural and travel images for a cookbook on the regional cuisine of Mexico, and so the portion that I experienced went from Divisadero, Chihuahua, to El Fuerte, Sinaloa, which is often referred to as the most scenic part of the journey.

Some facts about this remarkable railway journey include:

  • 86 tunnels
  • 37 bridges
  • Length: approximately 400 miles (660 km)
  • Maximum altitude: 7,900 feet (2,400 meters) at Divisadero
  • Construction started circa 1900
  • Completed: 1961

What You Need to Know
There are many considerations to be aware of in order to get even acceptable images when shooting from a train, but of course the idea is to go beyond acceptable and to really capture the essence of what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity for most people.

The following are some tips that should help you to successfully capture impressive images from any moving train, but specifically El Chepe:

1. Watch Your Gear – First of all, and this should go without saying, but be sure that someone is watching your gear and other valuables back at your seat so that you can concentrate on getting great photos.

2. Don’t be afraid of traveling to Mexico in the rainy season (I’ve heard different estimates of this season, but it runs from approximately June to October). There are a number of advantages at this time of year, namely the trains, hotels and other places you’ll want to visit will be less crowded, but more importantly, you’re certain to have wonderful clouds and interesting weather that will add great dimension and interest to your photos (remember, rainbows only come out after it rains). Additionally, because of the rains, this otherwise hot, dry and brown part of the country turns an almost neon green with the abundant rains that pass through.

2 Rainbow and Canyon Landscape - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

3 Neon Green Foliage and Lake - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

3. Try to get a good spot to shoot from on the correct side of the train. On El Chepe, this was the left side in the direction of travel from Divisadero to El Fuerte, although, because the train was not crowded at all, I found myself going back and forth between both sides trying to capture the many potential shots that abounded. If there are other people vying for position where you are, better to stake a claim and not move, or you’ll certainly lose your spot.

4 Train Going Through Tunnel - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

4. Look to shoot from an open window, not through the glass from your seat (on El Chepe, this required moving to the compartments at the ends of the train cars, where there were open windows and unobstructed views. The windows at our seats didn’t have that capability).

5 Chepe Train Curving to Right - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

5. Try to be in the last car of the train so that you can shoot forward and show the whole train in the frame, including the engine, rounding a curve to that side (i.e. left side/left curve, right side/right curve). Because I was traveling off-season, our train was very short, consisting of just the locomotive, a cafeteria car and two passenger cars. To give the illusion of additional length I shot our train about halfway across this bridge (see below). Being in the last car may also give you the ability to shoot straight out the back of the train, which can offer another unique perspective.

6 Train On Bridge with Big Curve - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

6. Keeping Tips 3 and 4 in mind, look up the track for openings in the foliage that will allow you to anticipate when you’ll have a clear shot. On a number of occasions I’d be ready to shoot only to find that a large grouping of trees, telephone poles and wires, bushes or buildings blocked the view when I eventually pulled the trigger.

7 Landscape with Telephone Pole - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

8 Landscape with Red Girder in Front - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

9 Landscape All Clear - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

7. Caution Part 1: Be acutely aware when sticking your head out of open windows to shoot (or for any reason), especially when looking up track, in the direction of travel. Carefully look ahead for overgrown tree branches and other objects that can inflict severe injury, especially to the face and eyes.

10 Train with Tree Up Track - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

8. Caution Part 2: If possible, wear clear safety glasses, or even swimming goggles, to avoid not only trees, but bugs, dust and other debris that can fly into your eyes at high speed, which actually happened to me. I caught a bug in my eye and lost about 10 minutes of prime shooting time trying to clear it, although that was the least of my problems as it could have been much worse. Eyewear can also help against the high winds created by a fast moving train. Bonus: Sunglasses can be an option, but not if the sunglasses themselves are polarized and you’re using a polarizing filter, which I suggest in Tip 10. If this is the case then you’ll get all kinds of strange effects in the viewfinder and it can be difficult to really evaluate what the scene looks like. Again, I recommend clear goggles or safety glasses.

9. Caution Part 3: Don’t wear your camera around your neck, but use a loose hand strap or similar. The reason I suggest this is that again, those trees can be a real problem, and if your camera strap were to get caught around a tree branch as the train’s moving quickly down the line, well, I hate to think what could happen.

10. On sunny and partly cloudy days, use a polarizing filter to darken blue skies and make clouds really stand out. Be aware, however, that a polarizer will definitely give you slower shutter speeds, so when shooting in the shadows, when your camera will want to use a slower shutter speed, you’ll have to be keenly aware of maintaining a minimum shutter speed that will still allow you to handhold the shot (see Tip 13, and be sure to take off those sunglasses).

11 Canyon Clouds Polarized - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

11. Use a medium to long zoom lens allowing you to quickly shoot from wide landscapes to more detail shots, and everything in between. You’re not going to want to be changing lenses in these conditions or fussing with several camera bodies. If you only have wide (i.e. 18 – 55 mm) and long (i.e. 55 – 200 mm) lenses to choose from, err on the wide side, you’ll likely be shooting more big landscapes than close-ups.

12 Train Tracks on Bridge Wide - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

13 Train Tracks on Bridge Medium Zoom - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

12. Take advantage of the stabilization features built in to many cameras or lenses. This allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds and can reduce the effect of the constant shake you’ll surely experience on a moving train.

13. Keeping Tip 11 in mind, be aware of maintaining a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 of a second or faster (Auto ISO comes in real handy here). Without getting into too much detail, this is especially important if zoomed in on your subject, so know the Reciprocal Rule (not to be confused with the Rule of Reciprocity) which states that in order to successfully handhold a shot you need to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens or faster (assuming a full framed sensor. Multiply by your lens’ crop factor if using a cropped sensor). Example: If you’re zoomed in at 200 mm, technically you should have a shutter speed of 1/200 second or faster (1/300 second on a camera with a 1.5 crop factor), but using the stabilization features on your gear will help, as will adhering to the next tip.

14. Take care to minimize the movement of the train by keeping your arms loose so they cushion any bouncing or shake and act as a shock absorber for your camera. Conversely, brace yourself by maintaining a wide stature with your feet.

15. Exposure Tip 1: Because of the massive cliff walls and deep canyons, you’re likely to encounter very high contrast lighting conditions with deep shadows and bright sunlight. To address this, shoot with the matrix metering (a.k.a. evaluative or multi-zone) exposure setting so that your camera evaluates the whole scene when determining exposure and not a small portion of the scene. This should average out your exposure and offer great results.

14 Canyon with High Contrast Shadows and Light - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

16. Exposure Tip 2: Know how to instinctively use your histogram (I can’t stress this enough for better photography in general). Be keenly aware of proper exposure because you’ll likely be shooting images that include everything from dark shadows (where you’ll want to maintain detail and reduce noise) to extreme highlights (be aware of overexposure, especially of clouds and light colored canyon walls and other bright subjects).

17. Shoot RAW. RAW is a lossless format and so the image file includes all the information from the scene you’re shooting, that’s why the files are typically 2 to 3 times the size of JPEGs. Should the scene have extreme contrast, the advantage of this is that you’ll be able to recover slightly blown out highlights and/or bring back detail in the shadows (see image here with extreme shadows in blue and blown out highlights in red. The second shot shows the image after adjustment). There are a lot of other advantages, and just a few disadvantages, to shooting RAW, so I highly recommend that if your camera has this capability that you do so most, if not all, of the time.

15 Man Looking Out Window with Shadows and Highlights - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

16 Man Looking Out Window Adjusted - Copper Canyon, Mexico - Copyright 2011 Ralph Velasco.jpg

18. Don’t forget to put the camera down. Take a minute every now and then to enjoy the scenery, and not by looking through the viewfinder of your camera, but by actually seeing with your eyes. I’m confident you’ll discover a whole new appreciation for whatever scene it is that you’re experiencing.

Shooting from a train – or car, boat, or other moving form of transportation – can be an extremely rewarding experience, but it can take considerable practice. Before you embark on your next railway journey, be sure to get out and practice in your hometown, where the stakes are likely not as high. If at all possible, I’d recommend taking a local train ride that presents similar conditions to what you’d expect on location, so that you’re not learning in the heat of the moment, when there may not be a second chance to get it right.

Oh, and bring plenty of memory cards, you’ll need them…

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Ralph Velasco
Ralph Velasco

is a travel photography instructor and international guide who has led trips to Morocco, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Spain, Central Europe, Mexico and Egypt, plus ten fully-licensed People-to-People programs to Cuba. His latest eBook is called Essence of a Place: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination. Ralph is the creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch®.

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