As a photography educator, I am often asked to review and comment on the portfolios of aspiring photographers. I have noticed a concerning trend emerging in recent years – train track photography. Hundreds of people are killed each year in train track related incidents, and it has become all too common for photographers both pro and amateur to offer train track sessions in their repertoire of services, especially around senior portrait and grad portrait times. What is the big deal with train track portraits and why are they a bad idea?

It is illegal

Most photographers don’t realize this fact when they offer this type of session. In most countries, train tracks are located on private property and a permit is required to shoot there. If you choose to shoot without a permit, you and your clients can face trespassing charges and jail time.

You are responsible

As the person in charge of the shoot or the owner of the business, the photographer is responsible for accidents that happen when shooting for or with a client, meaning if someone trips and falls you are the one who must deal with the mess. If you are insured (and if you are offering these services and are not insured you should have your head examined), I can guarantee your insurer will not be happy to find out that you are purposely putting your clients in danger by offering this sort of photo session. Imagine how great it will be for your yelp reviews when you and your client are arrested and charged for trespassing. Your clients will get off easily with a “I didn’t know it was illegal” plea, and you will be stuck holding the bag. I encourage you to watch the eye-opening video from ABC News linked below which tells the story of tragedy for one mother as her child was killed during a class photo shoot. There is precedent for photographers being sentenced to manslaughter for clients that died from being hit by a train during a shoot they were in charge of.

Dangers abound!

Train tracks and the surrounding areas are not generally people safe. The terrain can be rocky and unstable, leading to ample opportunity for injury to the shooter and the model. Trains in the U.S. can travel up to 70 miles per hour and take more than a minute to stop once the conductor pulls the emergency brake. They can also be incredibly hard to hear coming if they are not sounding their horn, often by the time you hear the train they are upon you and it is too late. Consider the design of train tracks also as a danger, they have a protruding top lip which can easily catch your foot when trying to make a quick escape.

Some will say that they only shoot on abandoned tracks – it doesn’t matter, you never know when a train or inspection and maintenance vehicle will be coming down that track. Abandoned train tracks are still private property and you are still trespassing if you are shooting there.

People are watching you   

Ever since the 9/11 tragedy, there has been an increased level of surveillance around transportation and other state and local infrastructures. Landowners with properties adjacent to train tracks have become very wary of people playing around near the train tracks and will often call the police or other security when trespassers are noticed. For increased security, most tracks have installed closed circuit television cameras around them, so people are often watching you even when you don’t realize it.

Many of the corporations who operate trains have social media campaigns centered around train track safety. These companies will scour social media searching for images shot on train tracks and call them out or send cease and desist letters to the people posting the images. Again, imagine how your clients would react if they were contacted about being put in a dangerous situation by their photographer.   

It’s not unique

Like selective color or overdone HDR, shooting images on train tracks has become cliché. There are many other ways to offer your clients a unique looking image, use them. Those of us who are photo educators also need to step up and talk about the importance of not putting your clients into a potentially dangerous situation. When you see this sort of image online, call it out and calmly explain how dangerous this type of photography can be. This goes for train track images as well as those photos taken in the middle of the street. I recently saw a photo posted online with an aspiring model posing in the middle of the street, the comment from the photographer boasted about dodging cars for an hour to get the right shot. Oh boy.

This kind of photography sets a bad example for future photographers, can we all take a moment and agree to find other locations that will not jeopardize anyone? Please help spread the word about safety and photography.

Operation Lifesaver is dedicated to education about rail safety, their statistics updated this year for death and injury around train tracks were surprising to me:

RANK STATE TOTAL CASUALTIES DEATHS INJURIES
1. California 209 123 86
2. Texas 82 36 46
3. Florida 62 37 25
4. New York 52 38 14
5. Illinois 44 26 18
6. Pennsylvania 41 18 23
7. Ohio 36 21 15
8. Georgia 35 17 18
9. North Carolina 30 19 11
10. New Jersey 28 17 11
11. Washington 27 19 8
12. Tennessee 26 14 12
13. Kentucky 26 10 16
14. Louisiana 22 7 15
15. Colorado 22 7 15

The only way to safely shoot on train tracks

Don’t do it.

Article Resources:

Operation Lifesaver: Rail Safety Education

https://oli.org/

ABC NEWS Article about the dangers of photographing on train tracks.

https://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/dangers-taking-photos-train-tracks-34539421

Hey! I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to contact me via my social media sites I would love to hear your thoughts on this or any of my other articles! Until then, get out and get shooting! 

My Photography site: http://www.tahquechi.com/

My Bodyscapes project: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/

My travel site: http://www.blindtravels.com/

Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee