Double Your Passion by Shooting Railroad Photography




Photography: Steve Barry

The car might have beaten the train as America’s vehicle of choice but when it comes to photography, it’s hard to beat the allure of an old locomotive. Whether it’s the appeal of giant pistons and wheels, a fascination with engineering, the experience worn into the hands and faces of railroad workers or the vanishing point created by parallel tracks that have sent every photography student ever to their nearest level crossing, there’s something particularly photogenic about the engines that built America. There are no figures that show the popularity of railroad photography but Trains, the country’s most popular railroad magazine, is holding steady even as other print magazines struggle. RailPictures.net, a community site dedicated to pictures of trains and tracks, now contains more than 367,000 railroad images, and when twenty specially painted “heritage” locomotives were put on display in Spencer, North Carolina in July, around 4,000 photographers turned up to shoot them.

The Center for Railroad Photography & Art was founded 15 years ago to interpret the connection between railroad art and American history and culture. The center organizes traveling exhibitions, holds an annual conference and maintains a collection of railroad visual media. Its current project is an exhibition of World War II-era portraits of railroad workers from the Chicago area called “Faces of Chicago’s Railroad Community: Photographs by Jack Delano.” The exhibition will be held at the Chicago History Museum from late October to early January.

“Like all forms of photography, good railroad photography begins with understanding composition and lighting, and beyond that, it’s very subjective,” explains Scott Lothes, the Center’s Executive Director. “I personally like railroad photographs that include a lot of context and show how the railroad relates to the landscape. The Center’s president and one of its founders, John Gruber, has really focused on railroad workers and portraying the human side of the industry. O. Winston Link made dramatic night photographs of steam railroading in Appalachia by using elaborate arrays of flashbulbs to create theatrical lighting conditions…. Other great railroad photographs convey emotion, or tell a story, or draw your attention to a particular detail.”

Photography That’s As Easy As Pie

The classic railroad image is the “three-quarter wedgie” in which the train is captured traveling towards the photographer, the cars trailing into the distance to form the shape of a pie wedge. With the sun over the photographer’s shoulder the train is three-quarters lit. It’s a shot that’s not just dramatic but also conveys a great deal of information about the locomotive type, company and paint scheme.

For many railroad photographers, that documentation is more important than the artistry of the photograph. Creators of railroad imagery are often train buffs first and photographers second. They’d rather capture a dull shot of a piece of unusual equipment than a beautiful image of modern or common subject.

“Many railroad photographers are not much more than snapshot shooters looking to share information,” says Steve Barry, a railroad photographer and editor of Railfan & Railroad, a magazine with a 30,000-strong readership. “On the other hand, the younger generation of rail photographers are moving more towards the art side of photography, or at the very least are very well grounded in strong photojournalism.”

Competing with those new photographers to sell railroad images will require beating a number of challenges. Barry offers his own photographs on his website which is where he makes most of his sales. Prints make up a small percentage of the income but buyers can download stock images for editorial use for $400. Those buyers have tended to be trade magazines and graphic houses although the attention the site has received has led to publishers enquiring about book projects and editors of non-specialist magazines have commissioned articles.

Selling commercial stock is a little harder. Railroad logos and heralds that appear on equipment may be copyrighted and employees included in images need to sign model releases which they may be too  busy — or just unwilling — to do.

Steve Barry’s magazine, however, relies on freelance submissions for 90 percent of its content. The publication uses about 50 photographs a month. News photos are the easiest way to break in. The images pay about $30 each and should show new paint schemes on locomotives or new railroad operations, for example, rather than crashes or accidents. Final Frame, a vertical image that appears on the last page of the magazine, pays $75. Feature stories written and shot by the photographer pay the most: stories tend to be around 2,000 words, include about 15 photos and pay $50 per magazine page. A typical fee will be $300-$400 with an additional $100 if an image from the story is used on the cover.

Match Your Photography Skills to Your Train Knowledge

Those stories, though, require a good knowledge of trains and railroads to accompany an eye for photography. The best way to begin building a portfolio of railroad images, says Barry, is to publish on your own website as well as on Flickr. RailPictures.net is also important and is increasingly becoming the place where industry turns for stock railroad photos.

For more ambitious — or more artistic — railroad photographers, the Center for Railroad Photography & Art runs an awards program for its journal and welcomes submissions to its Railroad Heritage pictorial site. The Center is actively trying to encourage young photographers and offers discounted student rates to its annual conference. Its annual John E. Gruber Creative Photography Award draws a large numbers of entries from younger photographers who have made up many of the previous winners. The Center also plans to begin offering scholarships to promising railroad photographers.

The real key to success though will be to marry a love of photography with a passion for trains and tracks. For railroad buffs with a keen photography hobby that shouldn’t be too difficult. Photographers who are keener on cars (or ships, yachts, bikes or anything else) can do worse than check the image-buying markets for their own passion and use their picture-taking skills to give themselves a secondary income that lets them earn from two hobbies at the same time. That’s an opportunity that never gets old.


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