Simple Railroad Photography Tips for Shooting Snow Scenes

A fresh snowfall creates many new photographic possibilities for the railfan photographer. Scenes and locations that you may have shot before will look totally different with a fresh coating of snow on the ground – if there is a lake or river in the scene, the potential for it to be ice-covered also presents a new visual.

The snow also presents new challenges to the railfan photographer, as the brilliant-white snow can confuse your camera, leading to under-exposed shots. This article will present a few tips to help you create better snow photos.

Preparation Tips

A few things to remember before heading out to shoot your snow photos is to dress warmly, possibly including wearing waterproof clothing. Your body can lose a lot of warmth standing trackside, and you run the possibility of getting wet if it is still snowing out. Wear waterproof boots as well…there is nothing worse than wet feet in your boots while outside.

Also be aware that the great photo you may have taken in the Summer may not be accessible in snowy conditions. If you had to climb up on a rock cut to get that great photo or hike in on a trail, it may be too slippery or even dangerous to get to that location in snow, particularly if it is very deep.

Using Correct Exposures

Ever walk back inside after a bright sunny day with snow on the ground? It takes your eyes a few minutes to acclimate to the darker light. This is the same problem your camera has trying to figure out a correct exposure. Brilliant white snow on a sunny day can under-expose your photos, making the snow look gray in the final image.

The answer is to adjust your exposure compensation in the camera. Each camera does this differently, so you will need to check your camera’s manual to find out how it’s done. You will need to increase the exposure by about one stop, or a stop and a half, and take a test photo to see how it comes out. Without doing this, your photos may come out more grayish looking rather than white.

Also, using a lens hood is vital while shooting in the snow. It keeps lens flare to a minimum, and helps to avoid your photo from looking hazy. If you’re shooting while it is snowing, the hood also prevents falling snow from landing on your lens.

The first Acela southbound carves a path through 2 feet of snow at Seabrook, MD the day after the big 2010 blizzard that threw the mid Atlantic into chaos. Amtrak however kept running, though with fewer trains.  Photo by Bob Pickering (c) 2010

The first Acela southbound carves a path through 2 feet of snow at Seabrook, MD the day after the big 2010 blizzard that threw the mid Atlantic into chaos. Amtrak however kept running, though with fewer trains. Photo by Bob Pickering (c) 2010

White Balance

Another important thing to consider is the white balance. If you’re shooting your DSLR in RAW format, white balance really doesn’t matter at all, as any imperfections can be corrected post-production on the computer. However, if you are shooting in JPEG format, white balance has to be considered, otherwise you will end up with some really “blue” looking photographs. If it’s a cloudy day, you can adjust the camera’s white balance to cloudy, or you can take a custom white balance.

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

If you’re shooting during a snow storm, adjusting the shutter speed can control how the snow will appear in your photo. You can use a tripod and a slower shutter speed to cause a “streaking” effect in the image. If, however, the snow is blowing around and it’s very windy, you will probably want to opt for a faster shutter speed. If there’s no wind at all, slow the shutter speed to about 1/15th of a second to catch the flakes falling.

A slower shutter speed can allow you to capture the flakes falling in your photo. Just be careful not to blur the train in the process! Photo by Bob Pickering (c) 2010

A slower shutter speed can allow you to capture the flakes falling in your photo. Just be careful not to blur the train in the process! Photo by Bob Pickering (c) 2010

Bring Enough Power!

Your digital camera’s batteries get a workout on a regular day, but even more power can get drained from them on cold winter days. Be sure to fully charge your battery before a day of winter shooting, and if you have a spare – even better.  It’s a good idea to keep the spare in your jacket pocket to keep it warm. If using a tripod, while waiting for the train to arrive, you may want to keep the camera inside your camera bag for extra warmth. However, if you’re on a line such as Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor waiting for the Acela to arrive, that may not be a good option!

Your Camera Feels the Cold as Well!

One other tip (and this goes for cold weather even if there is no snow on the ground) is to allow your camera to get used to the cold weather, and vice versa. Quickly taking your camera out of a nice warm car and setting up in freezing cold temperatures can allow condensation to get inside the camera and make for some pretty horrible pictures. Conversely, don’t bring your camera right back inside a warm house after being in the freezing cold weather. When you get home, try to keep your camera in the coolest part of the house to warm up gradually. Another good idea to absorb moisture is to keep a couple of silica gel packs inside your camera bag.

So now it’s time to get out there and shoot some snow photos. Don’t be afraid to adjust the settings to see what you can come up with, particularly when setting up trackside for that train that never seems to be coming!

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