The Photographers Guide to Taking Pictures on Train Tracks
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Train tracks are awesome for photos, aren’t they!? The mystery of the track and where it leads, the wide-open space that goes forever, and all those leading lines… Who can resist the allure of a set of railroad tracks when shooting portraits?
The real facts and why you need to resist!
FACT #1 – It is illegal
Yep. It’s true. Railroad tracks are private property. Private companies own tracks, and those companies own the land under the tracks. In some cases, the land is owned by a private party, but the railroad companies have exclusive rights to use it due to easement laws. Either way – all railroad tracks are on private property. Trespassing on that property is illegal.
The fines for trespassing are steep, no matter what state you are in. The Legal Beagle states, “Trespassing on railroad property is usually a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from $100 to $1,000, and some jail time, depending on the state. If your trespass results in the injury or death of someone else, you could face felony charges.” You can read the entire article from the Legal Beagle HERE.
FACT #2 – You Can't Hear the Train Coming in Time
Even though it is illegal to trespass on railroad tracks, thousands of people still think it’s okay as long as they do not damage anything or leave a mess. If you still want to use those tracks for your next photoshoot, consider this: It is much, much harder than you think to hear a train coming.
Please take a minute to watch this video from NBC’s The Today Show and see how easy it is for a train to sneak up on you when you’re not expecting it.
On top of how hard it is to hear a train, consider that it can take an average freight train over a mile to stop with emergency brakes. If you don’t see or hear the train until it’s within yards of you, then it stands to reason that the train will not be able to stop in the time it takes for you and your family to clear off the tracks.
FACT #3 – People Die Every Year
I could tell you multiple stories of kids, adults, photographers, even movie-makers who have been killed in the last decade trying to take photos on the tracks. But I will spare you the gory details. If you don’t believe me, run a quick Google search, and you will find an unending list of stories and articles. It is quite horrifying.
The simple fact is, trespasser fatalities are getting worse, not better, in the past ten years. Phil McCausland, of the Federal Railroad Administration, says, “The majority of train fatalities continue to occur because of trespassing, and education efforts have not stopped trespassing deaths from reaching a 10-year high.” This chart from NBC News shows how the number of railroad track fatalities have increased over the past 10 years.
But My Railway is Abandoned…
You may be wondering about Abandoned Railways. Why you ask, can’t I find an abandoned rail and use that for my photo? It makes sense, right? But this excellent question leads me to our next fact.
FACT #4 – Train Track Photos Are Not Cool
If none of the facts above stops you from doing the unthinkable, then know this: If you insist on taking photos on tracks, then know you cannot post them on social media anywhere without suffering an attack of massive proportions. In our current culture, people have no boundaries around bullying behavior online. A fast way to get bullied is to show a photo taken of the railroad tracks. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.
I was recently surfing my Facebook feed when I came across a post by a new photographer looking for constructive feedback on a few family shots. She had taken them on some railroad tracks per her client’s request. She posted SOOC images and their edited counterparts, asking for feedback on the edits.
If you’re wondering what SOOC means, you must check out Ten Need-to-Know Photography Terms for the Beginner
What happened next was amazingly sad, yet certainly not the first time I’ve seen this behavior online. Instantly the comments started rolling in… Almost none of them answered the questions she asked about her edits. Instead, comment after comment came in slamming the poster for her choice of a location. Some went so far as to call her “stupid” and “a horrible person” for shooting near the tracks. Random commenters insulted her character and her intelligence for simply choosing this location. Not only did they put their comments online for all to see, but they also began PMing her. So many messages came in so quickly that she removed her original post to stop the madness.
I have seen this repeated over and over on social media. It is ridiculous and sad when someone asks for help and gets bullied to the point of no return. As photographers and fellow humans, I hope that we could be a wee bit more kind to one another. Of course, I always advocate for kindness. It’s just how I roll, even when I have a slip-up. That happens to all of us in life. I’ve shared a couple of stories of kindness in A Meijer Story and a Butterfly Photo and Kind Beats Crabby… Part 2 of Being Nice Pays.
FACT #5 – Train Track Photos Are Sooooo Outdated
If, after everything we’ve talked about, you’re still not convinced, consider the last time you saw a really cool family portrait taken on the tracks. I’ll bet it isn’t a recent photo. Honestly, this was a crazy popular fad in the 1980s before the dangers of railroad photos became mainstream information.
We know better now. And as Oprah says, “when we know better, we do better.” Challenge yourself to find a cooler, better example of leading lines for your next family photo. Here are a few examples, but part of the fun of photography is finding your own cool scenes and making them beautiful and unique!
Wrapping it All Up
After watching the social media scenario unfold, I sat right down, researched, and wrote this post. I want to do my part in educating as many people as possible about the dangers of railroad tracks. Why? Because it’s just not cool to photograph on them, and the more that know, the more can avoid a scene such as the one above. And hey, we can also save lives.
When all is said and done, it is dangerous and out-of-date to use railroad tracks in our photos. If you are a hobbyist, then you can do your part by avoiding them. If you are a professional, then it is your responsibility to refuse that location. Some pros even put this in their contract to avoid unnecessary arguments with clients. Remember, you are the professional, and you decide how you want to run your business. If the client doesn’t understand and still wants to use the tracks, point them to this post or any of these online resources that will clearly explain the importance of your decision:
ABC News Report on the Dangers of Taking Photos on Train Tracks
Finally, you always have the choice to take a client or let them find a different photographer who is willing to risk everything to fulfill their wish. As for me, no matter how tempting they are, I am staying off the tracks. I won’t risk my business or the lives of my clients.