#130 – People in railway photographs

The overwhelming majority of railway photographs tend to be of the hardware, but I find it just as interesting to take photographs of the people on the railway as well. This is a subject that is rarely covered by railway photographers, but why is that? I think people who are involved with the railways are often (but not always) quite reserved people who don’t like having their picture taken, plus from the photographers perspective, taking pictures of people in public is not an easy or comfortable experience in this day and age where people often view anyone with a camera as either a potential terrorist or a paedophile. Plus if you’re interested in taking pictures of people, you’d be a wedding, portrait or street photographer, yes? Well, not necessarily. Having a few people photographs in the collection can make a welcome relief, especially if you’re in the habit of showing your photographs to non-railway photographers.

Unfortunately, I’m not terribly good at people photography myself. I try, but ultimately not often enough to have become proficient! If anything, it shouldn’t be too hard a task though as stations are full of people, so there’s no lack of potential. And of course, it is people who run the railways.

Taken using the long end of a 28-100 zoom. The driver was actually texting on his mobile phone, which I though would have made a great contrast to the steam engine, but by the time I’d taken it, he’d lowered it down the side of the cab wall. Taken on  HP5 film.

Taken using the long end of a 24-70, this fireman caught my glance as he was taking to someone on the platform. Taken in colour, but works better in monochrome as there is less distraction.

I wanted to include the young lad in the picture as he was dressed as a station master, but wasn’t sure how to. This seemed to be the best way of doing it.

If you’re not into asking directly, then the key is to be discreet about it, and use the engines and other railway infrastructure as the backdrop, rather than going for out-and-out people only photos. That way, you are giving the picture some context.

Candid photographs can work very well, as they capture people doing whatever they are doing, and not posing for a picture. These can be taken bold as brass by pointing the camera a them in full view, or by being a little more discretely with a longer lens. Alternatively, using a wider angle lens can include people in the frame without even pointing the camera at them. I prefer to mingle on the platform, camera at the ready but by my side, and wander round watching what’s going on.  If an engine is taking on water running round, or waiting, then there will always be activity from the drivers, guards and other staff, and if people are occupied doing something, then they are less likely to notice someone taking pictures, and therefore act more naturally.

Finally, people don’t have to be close up, or even recognisable. I’ve always thought that these pictures were improved by the people even though they are some distance away or are cast in shadow. 


Ribble Steam Railway. High-ISO, hand-held grab shot using a stabilised lens – it shouldn’t have come out, but it did somehow thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

9F at East Lancs Railway, November 2005. Shooting into the early morning sun made for a centre-jour effect and resulted in quite heavy shadows. I only converted it to monochrome several years after to get rid of some ruinous lens flare, and ended up liking the result.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Graham says:

    Very interesting post. For me, the candid shot of the fireman is the best – it really captures the atmosphere.


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