Portraits On Railroad Tracks? Bad Idea.

posted in: Photography | 38

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.

Portraits on railroad tracks? No way! Incorporate the railroad tracks into the portrait? That’s another story.

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.

I am willing to photograph portrait sessions near the railroad tracks, with them as a background element.

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.

Safety is always my number one priority. Art never trumps safety. That mentality could prove deadly.

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).

Family Portrait in front of railroad tracks and train station

Family Portrait at Dexter Train Station near Train Tracks

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

Train Accident Kills Crew Member of Gregg Allman Biopic

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.

Photographer Killed While Taking Pictures of an Oncoming Train

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]

Operation Lifesaver urges […] stay safe, stay away from train tracks

[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.

Senior Portrait On Location - Near Train Tracks

Senior Portrait On Location - Near Railroad Tracks

Wrapping Up

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.

If you want to learn more about Operation Lifesaver, you can visit their website: www.oli.org. You can also find them on various social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

38 Responses

  1. Leovi
    | Reply

    Beautiful photos, wonderful tones in B & W!

  2. Kim Cunningham
    | Reply

    Agreed. It’s actually illegal here.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Yeah, despite that “technicality” of being illegal, sadly a lot of photographers are unaware, or assume it’s ok because someone else is doing it. It always best to check with local laws and ordinances for things like this – beforehand.

  3. Carri @ Grace Unveiled
    | Reply

    I love the photos and how you used the train tracks. And I have to agree with you that it is very dangerous and there is no need to be on them. When I was younger I was sitting on a bridge watching fireworks and the tracks went over that same bridge. I was about 10 feet from the tracks but when a train went by it felt as if the wind alone from it would hurl us off the bridge. The power they put out is amazing. Great blog on how to use them safely! Thanks!

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Wow, I bet that was quite the experience! getting bustled about by the air displacement sure isn’t something on most peoples’ radar, I would guess. Thanks for sharing that story.

  4. Gemma Wiseman
    | Reply

    I had no idea that portraits by railroad tracks were so popular. The water tones in these photos give a depth to the earthy beauty round the tracks. But I do lean to the black and white images at the beginning of this post. They seem to have a special extra bit of romance.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Yeah, a lot of people really like the look of portraits on railroad tracks – not considering the safety aspects. Thank you for the lovely comments. color and tone always make or break an image, don’t they?

  5. Jill Foley
    | Reply

    I do like the look of portraits on railroad tracks, but had no idea of the safety aspects.

    I love the black and white images!

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Yeah, Jill, a lot of people don’t know about the safety issues of doing portraits on railroad tracks (and I admit I learned some things while writing this post). Thanks, I like that series of portraits as well!

  6. Hi Betsy, this is a great post. I cringed whenever I see a photo of a bride lying on her side on a track or walking on it as if it is an aisle, etc. I don’t know why a lot of people find it romantic to post on tracks. I find them dangerous. You made a lot of great safety points. I hope a lot of photogs out there and subjects will pay attention to them. I love the b and w photos here.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Marisol, those portraits on railroad tracks make me nervous too. A bride is especially prone to getting something on that large, gorgeous dress snagged or to having troubles getting up and out of the way quickly (more so than, say, someone in “street clothes”). Thanks for stopping back, and I just have to tell you again I loved your Mt. Everest Experience post :).

  7. That’s interesting because a photographer had recommended a park’s railroad tracks to us for one of our photo shoots. The train was closed in the winter so it wasn’t running (and it’s a small train for kids, not a full size passenger or freight train). I don’t know what it is about shots near the tracks that are so beautiful.

    I love your photos and really glad you shared it with my Small Victories Sunday linkup. You are so very talented! I’d be a photographer if I could!

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Tanya, that’s really interesting. I wonder if the photographer felt comfortable because of the difference in the scale of the train :). We have a half (or quarter?) scale train track for kids about an hour away, and from what I’ve seen the trains go a lot slower when running since they have open cars for child passengers. I’d guess the fact it was closed during winter also had something to do with it.

  8. Nita
    | Reply

    I very much like the way you presented this topic. So many people photographers included need to learn to keep safety first. Beautiful and creative photos.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts Nita. I agree – safety before art! 🙂

  9. Marianna Paulson
    | Reply

    This is a great public service message. I like the fact that you beautifully demonstrate how to include elements of the railroad into your photos.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks, Marianna. I hope that it helps at least a few people better understand how to be safe around railroads. Sometimes we underestimate the dangers of things simply because they are commonplace.

  10. Tara Howes
    | Reply

    This is a great post. A lot of things I really hadn’t thought of. Thank you.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks Tara. Glad I was able to share some new information 🙂

  11. Nina
    | Reply

    We also have a lot of people who request railroad tracks. So one of our photographers contacted a local train station and inquired about old tracks the had been replaced and they just so happened to have a set sitting in a field in the back and allowed them to purchase that small piece of track to put at the studio. We are lucky to have it.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Nina, that’s a neat idea! I have a friend who has a unusable track set up on their property; they probably acquired it in a similar fashion.

  12. Melanie
    | Reply

    A wonderful article. I’m a locomotive engineer and a photographer, so I can speak to both sides. I cannot stress to you how foolish it is to shoot on the tracks. You really have no idea how fast trains move, sometimes from an unexpected direction. And we haven’t even mentioned third rail, which some railroads utilize. I’m even uneasy saying that it’s ok to shoot ‘near’ the tracks. I wouldn’t be comfortable having anyone closer than 20′ from the running rail.

    That being said, I would encourage those who wish to shoot near tracks to google ‘Rails to Trails’ and where there are decommissioned rr tacks in their area, that are turned into parkland.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks for chiming in, Melanie. The force of a train flying by is definitely a power that many people don’t stop to consider — and without additional background knowledge like yours, many of us “laypeople” don’t know that there are even more factors to consider.

      I think though, that decommissioned tracks would still have the issue of being private property (and therefore trespassing concerns).

  13. Coco
    | Reply

    Also, even if you feel your are a safe distance from the tracks, the train creates a vacuum that will pull you in depending on the train, speed, etc. Here is a tragic story of such a case: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/3129279/posts

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Very good point, Coco. Melanie made mention of a 20′ distance being more “safe” — I’d bet this is one of the reasons behind that particular distance.

  14. Claudya
    | Reply

    The pictures you shared are gorgeous and I think that your philosophy about railroad tracks should be adopted by all.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks Claudya. Appreciate you stopping by!

  15. Ira Rothenberg
    | Reply

    appreciate that you could write clearly and short enough AND, the fact you use different fonts, font sizes, etc. Keep it short, simple and sweet. There are so much articles out on the Internet that it’d take me forever to keep up. Yours is a quick read-through which I like. Thanks.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Thanks Ira. Hope the safety information was beneficial for you too!

  16. Patty
    | Reply

    I consider myself lucky because here in my town the train is no longer available and does not cross our town, the good thing is that we still have some of the tracks all over town. I can go and use them any time with no problem. And for the people out there try to find an old town where the train used to run but tracks still around. I’m just saying.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      Patty, I’d be hesitant to recommend what you’re suggesting as an option, given my understanding that the tracks are private property — whether “dead” (aka decommissioned) or in use by trains. Safety issues aside, there would still be the legal issues and correlating fines, I believe.

      • Patty
        | Reply

        They are only pieces of the track here in this city. The city took all the tracks that cross any street, it’s a really old site. We are a small community here in Southern Utah and we all know everybody I guess it make that easy for me to go and take pictures without getting into legal problems. Good thing we are friendly people 🙂 I hope other people it’s lucky as me. But I do agree that in a place where you can get hurt or risking your life or the life of your clients just don’t do it, not only with train tracks but in any risky situation.

        • Betsy Finn
          | Reply

          Ah, I see Patty. Thanks for clarifying! 🙂

  17. Betsy Finn
    | Reply

    Thanks John, hope you’ll return again soon!

  18. Jessica @ Play Trains!
    | Reply

    Great article — one I’ll be sharing with my followers, because we need to keep our train-loving kiddos safe!

    The one place we’ve found to safely photograph our son on railroad tracks has been our local train museum. There are some tracks there that are only used to display old, non-working engines and cars. These tracks are just part of the museum grounds now, where everyone is allowed to walk over them. You have to get creative with the angles, especially on a busy day (we go for Day Out With Thomas), but I’ve gotten a few really great shots.

    • Betsy Finn
      | Reply

      That is a great idea, Jessica. Sounds like a bunch of fun. Particularly so, on Day out With Thomas — we’ve been to one of those!

  19. […] Portraits On Railroad Tracks? Bad Idea. – Betsy’s Photography – 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. […]

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