Railway Photography

In my Blog post titled ‘Railways – The Multifaceted Hobby’, found at https://railwayjade.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/railways-the-multifaceted-hobby/, Photography was one of the many facets mentioned.

Invariably, Photography can encompass all the other subjects mentioned, especially travelling; writing; Social Media and; Friends and Good Times.

I mentioned in the blog post that I got my own basic skills from good and longtime friend, Jimmy. I have been fortunate to get to make many friends who take pictures and video footage.

I thought that it would be interesting to hear from the professionals about their adventures and some do’s and don’ts!

I am including links to their YouTube Accounts and also any other account where they may display their pictures/footage.

First up, my longtime friend – James Lee Attwell (Jimmy)!


The first rays of a sun on a cold winter’s morning catch Friends of the Rail’s class 24 (No. 3664) and 19D (No.2650) performing a double-headed runpast. Class 15F number 3117 simmers in the background. This is an example of the lighting and colour that early morning photography gives, in particular the golden glint. 23 May 2010, Capitol Park, Pretoria.

I was born and raised in a train crazy house. My father is an avid railway enthusiast, and that was that, I was born with railway blood! Part of my childhood was going on several holidays just to photograph trains with my father, and on several other occasions, with other enthusiasts with railways in the blood. It was here where the thrill to photograph trains was born, and soon after going on my first trip, I was gifted a disposable camera!


Reefsteamers’ class 15F number 3046 hauls the return train of a regular Magaliesburg day excursion trip. Running over an hour late (due to a failed train in the section), the sun has now entered the 45 degree angle where the wheels of the locomotive have now been lit; the locomotive and train has also been framed – seen here leaving a cutting, with the hills in the background ‘painting the picture’ of the terrain the train is in. 3rd October 2015, Magaliesburg Cutting.

With age, I took a far more serious approach to railway photography, or rather, becoming a ‘gricer!’ I was very fortunate to attend several photographic outings where several of the well-known and respected railway photographers attended, namely: Dennis Moore, Dr David Benn, Eugene Armour, Jean Dulez and many more, all of whom have several well-known books and video material published between them. It was through this that I began to take tips and learn how to take what all railway photographers want: ‘the perfect picture.’


Sunrise breaks on a cold winter’s morning catch two former South African Railways class NG 6s – better known as ‘Lawleys’ – performing a runpast at Sandstone Estate, Ficksburg. This is an example of silhouette photography, and as previously stated the best times to attempt this being at dawn or dusk. 29 June 2008, Sandstone Estates, Ficksburg.

These are some of the aspects I shall share with you the reader, however, I think it is important to state that there is no one correct way to do railway photography – each person has their own style of photography, and their own way of capturing and telling a story through their photography. With the technology available to us today, and wide variety of editing programs, taking the ‘perfect’ picture has become a bit easier. The following points are not aimed at changing your style of photography, rather pointers to help guide you to getting the most out of a photographic situation.


Reefsteamers’ class 12AR (No.1535) and class 15F (No.3046) are illuminated by the first rays of the sun on a cold winter’s morning. This is an example of silhouette photography, and as previously stated the best times to attempt this being at dawn or dusk. 19 July 2014, Reefsteamers, Germiston.

Ask the Expert:


  • Lighting (Golden Rule): Of course with the technology available today, editing the contrast and brightness of the photo is very easy; however, taking a picture requires great light. The best time for this, is at dawn and dusk. The lighting at this time of day not only provides a fantastic ‘glint’ effect, more importantly it lights up the wheels of a train; we talk about taking pictures while the sun is below a 45 degree angle to achieve this.


It is also important to try and let the sun light up as much of the train as possible, from both the front and side – that the details can be seen. A silhouetted photo at the ‘crack of dawn’ or sunset may work nicely as a backlit photo, but be careful to time it properly at the right light.


  • Setting the scene / Environment: Besides great lighting, a great photo requires the viewer to see the train in its environment. There’s nothing quite like seeing a train snaking its way around a mountain, or reflecting off a river. Don’t be afraid to include aspects that belong to the train or add to the setting or context of a photo. For example, taking a photo at a station can have people in the photo as it paints the picture of its location. But be careful to not capture other railway photographers or something!

The then newly restored class 16DA number 879, operated by Cape Town based ‘Atlantic Rail’, departs Cape Town station for Simon’s Town. This is an example of framing the locomotive (focal point) in a tricky photographic environment – despite the odd catenary pole coming out the tender, there are no other lighting poles or other objects growing out the chimney or locomotives boiler – the locomotive is framed between catenary poles. 29 June 2014, Cape Town.

  • Framing: You’ve now got the lighting, you’ve got the scenery and environment, now all you need is a well framed picture. This is probably the trickiest to get… Locomotives are all about power, and to show this in a photograph, you need to see the train. However, as previously stated, this is very tricky. One needs the correct balance in a picture. You don’t want to zoom too far out and lose the close detail but get the whole train, zoom in too much and you lose the environment.

The late afternoon sun lights up the colourful Cape Town bound Shoshaloza Meyl, along the Fochville to Potchefstroom mainline, in the North West province. In this photo, the picture has been taken just after the second unit has passed the closest catenary post (second from right), allowing us to get the full two locomotives in the photo without being obstructed by the mast. As well as this, the whole train can be seen with the environment and terrain it is in in the photo. 26 September 2016, Fochville, Northwest.

To do this, one can frame a photo. For example, a train in the mountain can often be ‘cut short’ by placing a cutting out object/s such as trees on the side of the photo that cut the train short, or rather hide the back of the train.


  • Creativity: This is an important and unique aspect to each photographer. Several photographers will take a photo at the same location, of the same train, at the same time… so don’t be afraid to try something ‘out-of-the-box’.


  • Patience: One of the traits many photographers require. Train photographing isn’t always the adrenaline packed chase. Many times, a photographer will require waiting for a couple of minutes, up to an hour to get a train. Be patient, and vigilant – trains often sneak up unexpectedly.


DON’T (or Avoid):

  • Backlit photographs: Unless the photographer is going for a silhouette photograph, avoid backlit photographs as it will severely compromise the photo’s lighting.
  • Unnecessary objects: This relates to setting the scene or the environment. In particular, objects not related to the train that may ‘grow’ out of the train or distract from the focal point. For example, poles or tree/s growing ‘growing’ out of the locomotive. Try to frame or change the angle to avoid these unnecessary and distracting objects. If it is distraction that does not relate to the train or context, crop it out.
  • Unlevelled photos: Keep photos level, even if the train is on a bank or sharp curve.
  • Safety: Quite often photographers walk around with expensive equipment on them in unsafe environments, be aware of your surroundings. Rather safe than sorry. This also applies to taking photos in proximity of the railway line. As a general rule of thumb, always stand five meters away from a line, especially on a double-main line.
  • Trespassing: Always wear a Hi-visibility jacket when in and around stations, yards, or depots and always get permission to enter the premises.

These have been just a few and simple ‘do’s and don’ts’, but are principles that can make a world of difference to your photograph. I hope they are of some use to you.

You can check out some of Jimmy’s work on Facebook and Railpictures.net

Facebook photo page: https://www.facebook.com/JamesAttwellPhotography/

Railpictures.net account: http://www.railpictures.net/showphotos.php?userid=41689

Next in line, we have Francois Mattheüs a good friend of mine from the Western Cape.

I am ‘n keen train spotter based in Brackenfell, a northern suburb in Cape Town, South Africa.

I have been taking photos of trains for about 7 years now and have learned a lot about the industry, different classes of locomotives and rolling stock. I have also made a lot of friends through this hobby and it is something I thoroughly enjoy! I use all available spare time I have to hop on out and get a few pictures and sometimes even a video clip of trains.


My favourite type of locomotives are the Class 6E1 type in the electric series as well as the Class 14E1 type, which were for many years used by the South African Railways and which is now used by TFR (Transnet Freight Rail) and PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) service. In the diesel-electric series, I am a GE fan and love the Class 35s.


Some of my favourite spots along the route which I frequently visit are:

  • Brackenfell station, close to my home.
  • Sandringham, just outside of Kraaifontein, another northern suburb of Cape Town.
  • Wellington, a town in the Boland region of the Western Cape.
  • Malan station, a few kilometers outside of Wellington.
  • Soetendal station, a few kilometers from Malan station.
  • Sometimes, I drive out to Worcester, which is the first big town outside of Cape Town in the Boland region where train crews have the first change over.


Ask the Expert:

Photographing trains can have a lot of different dimensions and each train’s consist has its own unique characteristics. Herewith a few of my tips for getting that super high quality picture while being safe:

  • Plan ahead: Make sure you have a few selected spots which is safe and secure but also has the characteristics to make for a beautiful picture/ video.
  • Be visible: Always wear high visibility vests and the correct safety boots. It is important to adhere to safety regulations and make sure that the train crews know you are there for a reason.
  • Be vigilant: Trains are dangerous. Always be on the lookout, even on a deserted, or not frequently used line. Regard any track as being “live”. Also remember, a red signal does not imply that an oncoming train will stop or drive slowly. The crew could have received permission to cross the red signal, which can escalate to a dangerous situation. With this in mind, also, where possible, keep at least 1, 5 meters clear from the track.
  • Know your camera: You don’t have to be a professional photographer to take beautiful photos. Learn to use the equipment you have to the best of your ability and adapt to the situation.
  • Apply a few basics: Remember that the best sun position contributes to a great photo. Use the “golden hour” for top quality shots and rather stay away during mid-day when the sun is at its highest point, except of course if that once in a lifetime special consist comes past. Then you take what you can and get the picture!
  • Lastly, use different angles and play around with different types of shots, e.g. close up cab shots, or pantograph shots or the bogeys. Also, don’t be afraid to try a few night shots!


You can check out some of Francois’ work on Facebook and Railpictures.net and YouTube

  • net, there you can search under his name: Francois Mattheüs
  • Facebook, where he has a dedicated album where he frequently posts: Francois Mattheüs
  • YouTube: Cape Town Trainspotter

I was suppose to include my other good friend, also from the Western Cape, but he has surprised me with an extra in-depth write up and so I have decided to put his in the next blog post!

Thanks for reading and keep well!



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