Portraits on railroad tracks are very popular. I’ve seen many high school seniors mention this as a location of preference. And while I am always up for a creative challenge, when it comes to compromising the safety of myself or my clients, I just have to say no.
Why No Portraits on Railroad Tracks?
So, there you have it. Now you know my limits. I won’t photograph portraits on railroad tracks, no matter how much a client begs. Why? Well, first of all, it is dangerous. The tracks are in use by trains, and there have been unfortunate incidents in the news of people getting stuck on the tracks when a train is coming. I don’t want to play any part in my clients getting injured, maimed, or even killed by a passing train. And, similarly, I don’t want to get hurt myself.
Secondly, the railroad tracks are privately owned. You can get fined for being on them — something that I have seen enforced. Walking along the railroad tracks, or doing portraits on railroad tracks, it doesn’t matter. What’s more, if you do find a photographer willing to take portraits on railroad tracks, you have a permanent photo record of the fact you were trespassing on private property. So it’s not like you can claim you weren’t there…you were.
Are Safe Portraits on Railroad Tracks Possible?
Nope, no such thing according to the railroad officials. But, despite my policy of never doing portraits on railroad tracks, I do have my ways of including railroad tracks as an element in the portrait.
There are parks, public land, and other areas that the tracks pass through. I’m comfortable setting up a portrait *near* the tracks, but at a safe distance so that *if* a train were to pass by, no one would be in the way. These types of portraits “on” railroad tracks work best for high school seniors, or families with older kids — old enough to know not to run out onto the tracks. Again, I don’t want to have that responsibility of knowing my clients received an avoidable injury.
The family portraits below were taken near the tracks, close enough that the railroad tracks are a prominent element — but far enough away that no one would be in danger were a train to come by (more on that concept of “far enough away” later).
I don’t like to be one for pessimism, but I do want to share several news stories with you that illustrate the seriousness of not doing portraits on railroad tracks. It’s not as simple as “I’ll be able to get off the tracks in time.” There are many factors you can’t account for, variables that could prove deadly. After all, a train is much bigger than a person.
News Reports of Railroad Track Photography Incidents
A second camera assistant was killed Thursday afternoon when a freight train struck and killed her on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider,” sources confirm to Variety. Four other people were injured in the accident, one seriously. […] the movie crew was filming a dream sequence on a railroad trestle when a train unexpectedly crossed the bridge.
Tragedy struck Sacramento, California this past weekend after a photographer and high school art teacher was killed while taking pictures of trains.” [There was a second set of tracks, the photographer was hit by a second train]
[in 2012] more than 800 people were injured or killed while trespassing on railroad property in the U.S., according to preliminary Federal Railroad Administration statistics.
Really, that’s just a sampling of headlines. There are more news stories like this out there. But enough of that. Let’s move onto the safety aspects.
Safety Tips You Might Not Know About Trains
Operation Lifesaver is a non-profit seeking to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights of way. The organization has some safety tips about trains that you might not know:
- Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.
- An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you – and its speed.
- The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet.
- Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and rights-of-way are private property.
- No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.
While at a Thomas the Train event last year, we actually walked by an Operation Lifesaver booth; my son enjoyed learning a little about the trains from the volunteer, and he liked the coloring book and keychain he received. If you have little ones, make sure to check out Operation Lifesaver for Kids. There are coloring pages, activity sheets, word searches, and the like. I’m always a fan of making learning fun :).
Portraits Near Railroad Tracks
I have to admit that while doing my research for this blog post, I learned some things myself about the technicalities and legalities of taking portraits near railroad tracks.
While I knew that trains overhang the tracks, I didn’t realize that the average train extends three feet or more past the rails.
In these final examples of portraits I’ve done near railroad tracks, I did my best to accommodate my client’s desire to be photographed at a certain railroad bridge within a public park (but not on the trestle). No portraits on railroad tracks, no portraits on the trestle – but portraits with the tracks as an element of the image. That is the kind of portrait I am happy to create for clients. A creative — yet safe — portrait.
So there you have it. It’s not just a matter of “I’ll be able to get off the tracks in time.” Many people have gotten stuck on the tracks – able-bodied individuals who thought they could get off the tracks.
Safety comes first, and doing portraits on railroad tracks is just plain not safe. Besides, it’s illegal… tresspassing on private property.