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[Railway] “Freezing” a Fast-moving Train in the Dark

With the EOS 6D, which boasts excellent high ISO speed performance, you can capture clear shots in a dimly-lit scenes without causing camera shake or resulting in an out-of-focus image. In this article, I will introduce some tips for taking railway photos at night. (Reported by: Yuya Yamasaki)

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Bullet Train Emerging from a Tunnel

To capture a fast-moving train in the dark, you need to raise the ISO speed and select as fast a shutter speed as possible to prevent the train from turning out blurry. However, if you are photographing a train approaching from the front using a telephoto lens, it is possible to "freeze" the movement of the train with a relatively slow shutter speed (e.g., 1/30 or 1/60 second) since the relative amount of distance travelled within the composition is small. This is a recommended technique when you are using a "dark" lens with a large f number or when you are unable to raise the ISO speed.

ISO 6400

EOS 6D/ EF300mm f/4L IS USM+EXTENDER EF1.4xIII/ FL: 420mm/ Manual exposure (1/30 sec., f/5.6)/ ISO 6400/ WB: White fluorescent light

It is usually pitch dark inside a tunnel with no lighting except for the headlight of the train. When I was taking this shot, I was lucky to have encountered another train passing by in the opposite direction, allowing me to capture a slight glimpse of the subject's front tip.

ISO 200

There is basically no light in a railway tunnel, so it would not be possible to capture the lights of the train clearly unless you raise the ISO speed.

Technique – Aim for the Best Balance between the Sky and the Lights

Too Dark


The brightness of the sky plays an important role when you are capturing photos of a train at night. Lights from the train would appear too glaring if the surroundings are too dark, causing diffuse reflection to occur inside the lens, as illustrated in the example. The point is to aim for the time immediately after sunset before the sky became completely dark so that the brightness of the sky strikes a good balance with that of the train lights.

Stop down the Aperture to Include the Surrounding Scenery

When you are photographing a nightscape, such as a station, you are recommended to stop down the aperture by raising the ISO speed instead of using a shallow depth of field. Stopping down the aperture slows down the shutter speed, causing the train to turn out blurry. However, the light trails formed by the train would in fact help to accentuate the train station.

ISO 3200

EOS 6D/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 20mm/ Manual exposure (1/4 sec., f/8)/ ISO 3200/ WB: White fluorescent light

The presence of the Tokyo Station is further boosted by the buildings around it. To capture this scenery, you are recommended to stop down the aperture to sharpen the image. By selecting a high ISO speed, you can produce a sharp photo with a deep focus even without the use of a tripod.

"Freezing" the Moving Train that Shows up between the Buildings

A high ISO speed allows you to select a fast shutter speed. Generally, a moving train would turn out blurry if you do not use a shutter speed of 1/1,000 second or faster, so it is almost an impossible task to "freeze" the movement of a train at night. However, by choosing the right time and place, you can capture a clear view of the train by raising the ISO speed to select a fast shutter speed.

ISO 5000

EOS 6D/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 16mm/ Manual exposure (1/320 sec., f/4)/ ISO 5000/ WB: Daylight
The place of the shoot was near the station, which made it easier to "freeze" the movement of the trains since they were moving at a relatively slow speed. However, at ISO 200, the shutter speed of 1/13 second was too slow, and there was no way to prevent the train from turning out blurry. Here, I raised the ISO speed to ISO 5000 to "freeze' the moving train at 1/320 second.

ISO 200

ISO 5000

Yuya Yamasaki

Born in 1970 in Hiroshima, Yamasaki is the representative of "Railman Photo Office," a photo library that specialises in railway photos. He has been producing photographic works on railways from unconventional angles with his unique sensitivity.


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