In the latest of our series of safety guides, we’re looking at one of the perennial favorites of photographers: train tracks. Whether shooting a senior portrait, an edgy fashion look, or just an interesting landscape photograph, you have to be aware that there are a lot of dangers involved with this idea. Most government agencies and rail companies advise that you do not shoot on rail tracks at all, and of course it has to be said that it is much safer to shoot on unused and abandoned tracks than on live ones. There are still things to look out for, however, so keep these in mind when you want to shoot in this kind of location.
You might not be on public land
In most cases (depending on your country of residence), train tracks are actually private land. It is almost always illegal to trespass on them, even when they are public property, because of the dangers involved. This means that even if you are not putting yourself in direct danger, you might be breaking the law. Bringing your clients into this situation forces them to break the law as well, and they will also be held liable for their actions. This is true even if you are on unused tracks, which will still belong to someone. You might not realize that you are in view of an employee or a camera until the police arrive to remove you from the scene.
Breaking the law can carry serious consequences, such as an arrest which will go onto your record. In some parts of the US, you can be fined as much as $10,000 for trespassing on rail tracks. Think very carefully about whether the risk is worth it. By the way, you can still be reported and fined if the images are recognized by an official from the rail company after the shoot.
Trains cannot stop quickly
When travelling at speed, it can take a full mile for a train to come to a stop. This is a very long distance when your life is in danger. Do you think that anyone in the train will be able to see you before it is too late for them to stop in time? The chances are very low – particularly as not all trains are manned at the front. Some drivers will be sitting at the other end of the train. This means that you cannot rely on the train to stop – you have to be able to get out of the way quickly enough yourself. With visibility not always clear, and sound not always travelling the way that you expect it to, you might find that this is harder to achieve than you think.
The danger is not only on the tracks
What you may not realize is that just being on the tracks is not the only way that you can put yourself in danger. Let’s say that you spot a train coming in time to step off the tracks and to the side, putting yourself back against the fence to wait for it to pass by. Do you know how far away from the train you need to be in order to be safe? It all depends on the speed of the train, and you may not be able to get far enough.
The speed of a passing train can be enough to pull you underneath it just by sweeping past you. The wind which is create by its passage can be incredibly strong. You also have to take into account that the wheels go along the track, not the whole of the train – they actually normally overhang the track by some distance. Lastly, consider that while you may be lucky enough to avoid getting sucked under the train, your equipment or props might not. They can also be forced to fly up into the air or break into multiple parts, all of which could strike and injure you or your clients.
It can be a noisy environment
Looking out for and listening for a train is not always enough to keep you safe. Consider the case of a teacher from Sacramento who was struck and killed by a train: she was photographing a train on the adjacent track, and with the noise of the first one going past her, she did not hear the second one approaching. In an urban area with cars and other noises around you, you may not hear the train until it is too late.
If you are waiting at a crossing for a train to go by, never step out immediately after it has gone. You may find that it was shielding another train both by noise and by blocking your view.
Even Hollywood films can ignore the danger – to their cost
Just because you think you know better, does not mean you will avoid the dangers of a rail track. Film crews were focused on actor William Hurt as they shot a sequence for film Midnight Rider, only to find a train approaching at the very last minute. They managed to get all of the equipment, the actors and the film crew out of the way just in time – except for one. Camera assistant Sarah Jones was run over by the train as she tried to get away. A much larger casualty count could have been a consequence, and it was sheer luck that saw the others escape. The film’s director, Randall Miller, has since been sentenced to two years in prison for his part in the tragedy. Remember that you are liable for the organization and safety of the photoshoot.
Twisted, sprained, or broken ankles await
Even a more simple injury can be very common on train tracks. Whether your model wears heels and slips on the uneven footing, or catches their foot on the tracks and ends up with a sprained or broken ankle, it can be very easy to get hurt. They can also fall, injuring their hands, face, or body. Of course, it might be you that falls while you are focusing on getting the shot – and then it might be your camera that pays the cost. A DSLR can be a very big investment to have to replace at short notice, particularly if you already have clients booked in and you must keep working.
You’re setting a bad example
You should also consider the fact that others are likely to go by your example. It’s all well and good to say that you have the expertise and knowledge to remain safe on train tracks. But could you say that about everyone in your local area? If you do well on the shoot and every senior wants the same thing after they see it, can you guarantee that all of them will be kept safe by their respective photographers? Try and think about community in this instance. Even if you shoot on unused tracks, do you really want someone to be inspired by your work and go out and get hit by a train?
How to do it safely
So let’s say that you want to shoot with train tracks as your theme, but you know you want to remain safe as well. How can you do it? One way is to find a location where you can remain a good distance back from the tracks, but keep them clearly visible in the background. If your Photoshop skills are up to par, you can even move your models closer to the tracks than they really were. Or how about thinking outside the box a little? By now you will have no doubt seen hundreds of examples of shots done on train tracks. Why not do something more creative? Break out of the mold and find a location more unique. Your clients will love you for it.