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Reflections: A Steam Train Rides Off into the Dramatic Sunset

Believe it or not, the water reflection in the main image is not in a lake or river, but a water-filled rice paddy field! Train landscape photographer Hirokazu Nagane shares how he achieved it, and the lessons that we learn can also be applied to any backlit reflection landscape. (Reported by: Hirokazu Nagane, Digital Camera Magazine)

Steam train with water reflection with evening sun

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM/ FL: 24mm/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/800 sec)/ ISO 800/ WB: Auto
Season: Spring/ Time of day: Evening
Location: JR Ban'etsu West Line, between Maoroshi and Saruwada stations, Niigata Prefecture


Key shooting decisions

- Time of the day: Evening because there is less wind, and also to catch the steam train
- Backlight: To showcase the beautiful clouds
- Symmetrical composition: To draw more attention to the reflection
- Low camera position: To get more of the reflection into the frame

(More details on each decision below. Scroll till the end for a bonus tip!)


Time of the day: Evening

If you want a mirror-like surface in a water reflection, the wind is your enemy. The best times to shoot water reflections are in the morning and evening as there is less wind compared to the afternoon when it is warmer. Of course, it also helps if there is no rain.

I planned this shoot for the evening to catch the steam train, the SL “Banetsu Monogatari”.


Lighting angle: Backlight

In certain shooting conditions, it can be hard to decide whether to shoot in backlight or front light as both will result in a stunning shot. Some scenes allow you to shoot backlit and front lit versions in the same sitting. Others don't. For train landscapes like this one, it determines (or depends on) which side of the tracks you want to be on.

For the topmost shot, I decided to shoot in backlight to include the impressive clouds, turning the train into a silhouette.

What happens if you shoot in front light?

Train with water reflection, shot in front light

Shooting in front light makes the train appear to glow. I will usually choose to shoot in this lighting if the clouds are not impressive.

Tip: For more detailed clouds in a backlit shot, underexpose a little when you are shooting and then recover the details during post-processing.


Composition: Symmetrical

I framed the main image to draw attention to the symmetry between the sky and its reflection in the mirror-like water. To me, simply capturing the train and the water-filled rice fields results in a shot that looks very ordinary. Thus, I usually try to incorporate the evening sun in some way or another.

Train silhouette in evening sun

This shot using the rule-of-thirds composition was taken on a different day. Our attention is drawn not as much to the reflection, but to the train silhouette and the evening sky.

Tip: Use a graduated ND filter to even out any stark differences between the top half of the shot and the reflection.


Camera position: Low

To fill more of the frame with a reflection, place your camera as low as possible. I wanted the reflection of the train to look even bigger than this, but this would require going down to the ridges between the nearby rice fields—something the rice farmers would not have liked. Hence, I shot from the road instead, holding the camera as close to the ground as I could.

Tip: Shoot in Live View with the Vari-angle LCD screen if you can. That way, you don’t have to lie on your stomach to get the shot like I did.

Remember: Be a considerate photographer!

It’s easy to get carried away trying to get the perfect shot. Always be aware of your surroundings and make sure you don’t end up trespassing or damaging someone else’s property.


Bonus tip: Know when to change tactics

Close up of steam train moving towards the sun

Wind is just one factor that can prevent a water reflection from looking smooth and mirror-like. For instance, if I had shot just a few weeks later, the seedlings in the rice fields would have grown taller and spoiled the effect.

Rather than forcing it and ending up with a reflection shot that does not look as good, it might be better to change strategy and try a different kind of shot instead. For the shot above, I decided to take a close-up of the steam locomotive, and focused my attention on making it glow under the evening sun.

For more tips on photographing reflections, check out:
Tips for Water Reflection Photography: Fun with Puddles!

Learn more about photographing trains and train landscapes in:
Nailing the Shot: A Train Amid a Grand Autumn Landscape
How to Capture an Impressive Shot of a Moving Train with Continuous Shooting



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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Hirokazu Nagane

Hirokazu Nagane

Born in Yokohama in 1974. After graduating from the Musashi Institute of Technology (Currently referred to as ‘Tokyo City University’), he studied under railway photographer Mitsuhide Mashima, who is the CEO of Mashima Railway Pictures. In recent years, he was involved in explaining railway photography techniques in photography magazines, and writing railway photography guides. He goes round Japan taking photos of trains while upholding the motto of “taking photos so true to life that you can hear the sound of the train just by looking at the photos”.