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The Pursuit of Transience: Shooting Inside & Outside the Train

Train journeys are not as monotonous as you think. As a photographer, there are plenty of opportunities to capture the ever-changing landscapes outside the train as well as the scenes inside. The trick is to pay attention, plan well, and be extra quick in maneuvering your camera, because there is no time to lose.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/4, 1/1250sec, ISO100
A view of the railroad tracks from aboard a train heading from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Travelling on a railway locomotive conjures a series of imagery: when Harry and his friends travel to the magical Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or the Whitman brothers and their journey of spiritual self-discovery along the Indian countryside in The Darjeeling Limited. While the journey itself exude a sense of tranquility that gives one ample time for reflection and recollection, there is much more to your ride. The picture-perfect rural landscapes, the impeccably dressed porters, the inquisitive travellers… These invigorating sights, uncommon in our daily travels, are perfect subjects for your train photography collection.

Look Outside

As the train barrels down the tracks, one observes a number of things: trees that blow in the wind, paddy fields blanketed in ankle-deep water, majestic mountain ranges, peculiar huts and its dwellers… These scenes change swiftly and unpredictably, which means it comes down to a split second difference between getting a good or mediocre shot. But before we get to the camera, let’s talk about our shooting positions. To get the best of these views, secure a good spot from either side of the train. Switch side if the scene gets repetitive, but make sure you’re not bothering your fellow passengers. After you’ve gotten the spot, make sure the window is open. Glass panels reflect patterns from the inside of the train, and is sometimes stained with finger prints and muck that can wreck a good picture. If you must, press your lens flat against the glass to get a clean shot.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/4.5, 1/1000sec, ISO100
A view of scenic landscape from the train

The best part of the train experience is to look out from an open window, feel the wind, smell the air, and enjoy the moment. While you’re at it, look up the track for opening in the foliage or a certain interesting subject coming up, so as to allow yourself to anticipate the shot. Try to focus on the smaller details, such as sleepy cows grazing a field or a temple with spired roof, which will help you create a variety of shots instead of having similar ones.

Use a medium to long zoom lens to improve your versatility. It lets you quickly shoot from wide landscapes to more detailed shots. Changing the lenses will slow down your shooting process and even cause you to miss out on some great shots. Keep a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 of a second or faster to capture the scene effectively. Alternatively, use movement to your advantage by creating motion blur with a slower shutter speed. This will keep your subject in focus while producing a beautifully blurred background.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens, f/4.5, 1/500sec, ISO100
A view of rice fields from the train

Observe the Inside

Be mesmerised by the beautiful scenery outside the train, but don’t miss out the details on the inside. A train journey is not complete without capturing the people in it. Approach the conductor, porters, waiters, and even the passengers, and ask for their permission for a photo. Certain images work well with them properly posed, while others look better candid. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation because you will never know what images you will get out of these people. 

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.8, 1/1600sec, ISO100
A Buddhist monk reads the newspaper onboard the train

Make use of the train’s length by shooting from the last car so you can shoot forward and capture the most of the train in a frame. The curving of the train provides a sense of movement (it works from the outside too if you lean out of the window) in a still image.

Opt for a EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens when shooting portraits of people, which creates a great depth of field with sharp focused subject, or a EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens for wide angle shots. The wide angle lens works well in tight spaces and gives a full view of life in the suite, dining car, or viewing areas.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 1/5000sec, ISO400
A man reads the newspaper while he waits for his train at the station in Bangkok, Thailand

Get Off the Train

Whenever there is an opportunity to get off the train, do it. Take the chance to stretch your legs, and also shoot something else that will help broaden the variety of your photos. Change the perspective by shooting from the outside of the train, passengers getting up and down the massive vehicle, and even the little towns you stop by. Everywhere is a photo opportunity if you seize it. 

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 1/4000sec, ISO400
A Thai monk waits aboard a train headed to Chiang Mai


Everywhere is a photo opportunity if you seize it.


Quick Tips:

  • Make sure you have somebody to take care of your belongings while you’re about shooting
  • Turn on your Image Stabilisation to reduce camera shake due to the movement of the train
  • Use fast shutter speed to freeze images, and slow shutter speed to create a nice background blur
  • If possible, always shoot through an open window
  • Wide angle lenses work best for tight spaces especially the inside of the train


Watch the entire video here:


EOS-1D X Mark II (Body)

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EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM

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EF35mm f/1.4L II USM

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Justin Mott

Justin Mott

Justin is an award-winning documentary, editorial and commercial photographer born in Rhode Island USA and based for over eight years in Southeast Asia. His work has been featured in publications as diverse as The New York Times, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, Bon Appetit, Forbes and numerous other international publications.