Terminally addicted

Thoughts on my photographic addiction to train stations

This is the facade of Union Station in Denver, which is beautiful.  But the rest of these shots are from Europe.

In case you haven’t been here before, or just haven’t noticed, I have a thing for train stations, especially those found in Europe.  It’s a serious thing.  It borders on obsession.  But I’m ok with that, because it’s a healthy obsession.  I think.

Whenever I go to a new town, prior to my trip I look up the main train station terminal in the town and see where it is, check out Google Images so I can determine whether it’s worthy of a visit, and in some cases I arrange my hotel to be near it, for the sake of convenience.  Is that obsessive?  :-)

Glasgow Central Station - Scotland.  I had this all to myself, and I loved it!

While that can also be helpful from a work standpoint (as I often have to get on a train to somewhere), I admit that’s not why I stay close.  I just love to shoot them, and I want easy access, especially early in the morning before they are crowded (and sometimes later at night).  Who wants to get up super early, only to have to walk for 20 minutes in the dark?  I want to just pop across the street and get it done.  Call me lazy if you want - I call it strategic.

Plus, they are often located in the center of a city, so that puts you in easy striking distance of many other major sights that are probably already on your photography list.  We all want to shoot the major landmarks anyways, right?  I mean, obviously they’ve all been shot, but we aren’t satisfied until we shoot them ourselves.  You’re with me on this, right?  A city’s Central Station is usually in the heart of it all.  It makes everything convenient.

I have been giving this a lot of thought, trying to figure out why I am so afflicted.  It didn’t come from my youth, that’s for sure.  While I played with toy cars and that sort of stuff like any young boy, trains were never “my thing”.  I wasn’t into them, specifically.  I mean, I had a train set (at least I think, it’s been so long that some things are a bit foggy), and like any kid I enjoyed playing with things like that, but I was not a train-crazy kid.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof - what a crazy but awesome place!

NOTE: As a point of clarification – I am talking about shooting the train station itself in this article, and preferably in HDR.  That’s my preference, and my point-of-view on this subject.  Plus, they look freaking awesome in HDR!  But, if you don’t like HDR or are into street photography/street portraits, I am sure you can still get a TON of great stuff in a train station.  But, that’s not me.  I want to shoot the place in HDR, and avoid the people in it.

So, here we go…

3 Causes of My Addiction

I think it really comes down to 3 major themes here: the allure of travel, lead in lines, and grit.  That’s why I love them.  That’s the whole enchilada.  Simple, right?

1)   The allure of travel

I’ve been some sort of traveler my whole life.  It’s in my blood I guess.  My Mom calls it having “itchy feet”.  I just like to go places.  My Dad was in the Army when I was young, and as such we moved just about every year.  When he took his final assignment (ending up in San Antonio, TX) and we stopped moving, it seemed weird.  After a year or two there, my sister and I thought we were supposed to pack it up again and go somewhere new.  It seemed odd to just stay put.

Canary Wharf Station in London - I love the train system (and the stations!) in the UK!

That’s what train stations represent to me – the ability to go, to move, to step into new lands.  They represent the notion of “packing it up and hitting the road”.  Especially in Europe, a train can get you just about anywhere, and in a short amount of time. It’s very appealing to someone who likes to travel anyways.

Also consider the fact that I live in Texas, which is a pretty big state, in case you hadn’t heard that somewhere before.  I live in Austin, which is fairly central, and as such if I want to drive to the next closest state, it’s something like 4 hours in the car (and that gets you to Oklahoma, which is hardly a vacation in my book).  You can drive East to West across Texas and it will take you – no kidding here – something like 13-14 hours.  It’s a damn long way.  Like I said, Texas is a big state.  So if you are in a train station somewhere in Europe, and you consider the proximity of so much awesomeness which is all just a short train ride away…well, that’s pretty tantalizing to me.  Several countries within striking distance?  Sign me up baby!

2)   Lead in lines

Lead in lines are the inherent lines and shapes in a photo that naturally lead your eye through the frame to a distant point of interest.  They direct the visual traffic, so to speak – and they are wonderful.  Many times you have multiple lines in a scene all converging in the distance.  I love finding scenes with great natural lines, and train stations have them in spades.  The tracks, the ceiling – these all offer great lines and lead you visually through the frame.

In other words, it’s all about the architecture!

St. Pancras International Station in London - this is where you board a train to Paris, via the Chunnel!

I find that strong lines accentuate a photo, making it more visually appealing to the human eye.  Maybe it’s something that our minds like at a deep level, as if it satisfies our sense of order, proportion and direction.  Whatever it is, I find myself drawn to photos with strong lines.  They’re beautiful.

Couple those lines with the often incredible architecture in a train station (I find even the mundane, unadorned ones quite interesting) and there is a lot to point the camera at, so to speak.  Clearly, I am also just a huge fan of architecture (and considered studying it in college, but never did) and get pretty fired up in places like this!

3)   Grit

Let’s face it – grit can be good.  I love gritty, rough scenes, especially in HDR, and train stations are absolutely perfect for this.   While the main terminal section of a train station (where the shops are) is usually somewhat clean, once you move out to where the trains are sitting, it gets noticeably rougher.  It’s vastly different.  Gone are the shiny floor tiles (which give off excellent reflections, I might add), and they are replaced with cement that is scuffed, scarred, and possibly broken in spots.  There may be stains in it too – or even puddles of water and oil - which makes it even better.  You see grease on the ground, and you can smell grit in the air.   It’s all very rough and industrial-feeling.  It kicks ass.

Glasgow Central Station - with a shiny new Virgin Railways train sitting there.

Then of course there are the trains themselves, sitting there.  These beasts are awesome-looking.  The sleek new ones look like thoroughbreds ready to start a race – you can almost feel their power even when they are idle.   But don’t forget the old classy ones just sitting there looking all smug in their historic awesomeness!  What’s not to like about that?  These things have personality, and personality goes a long way.  (blatant Pulp Fiction quote rip-off).

So that’s why I like them!  Now, how about some tips for getting the shot?

4 tips for shooting in train stations

While this article about why I love train stations is fun to write, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few tips as well.  And in all my time spent shooting in train stations, I have learned a few things, some the hard way.  So, here are a few tips for getting the most out of it.

1)   Go early (or arrive late if you have to)

My best luck in any train station has come early on a weekend morning, especially a Sunday.  You are likely to experience much less human traffic, which in my opinion you want to avoid anyways.  Who wants a bunch of tourists getting in your photo?  I sure don’t.  On weekends, all the “worker-bees” are not going there, and if you are early enough that means those who do have to be there on a weekend are likely still asleep.  I have literally been in train stations by myself at times.  It’s awesome.

And while you can possibly get the same benefit if you arrive really late in the evening, I find that there are more likely to be folks there at night than early in the morning.  Plus, I am not a night owl, so I can’t possibly stay up late enough to wait for a place to clear out.  I would rather get up early and be the first one there.  But, that’s personal preference.  I once shot in the Leipzig, Germany train station at night, and it worked out great.  Well, until the security guard tossed me out.  :-)

As this one was firing, the security guard approached me - but I got my shots fired, yay! - Leipzig, Germany

Keep in mind however that it is better to shoot in the middle of the day when it is crowded than never at all.  So if you are only there when it is crowded, shoot away.  It’s always better to have taken the shot than to skip it.  In fact, one of my favorite shots was actually mid-day in Kings Cross Station in London.  It’s when I happened to be there, so I took the shot.  It actually worked out well I think, so this suggestion is really for those purists out there who want NOT A SINGLE LIVING THING in their photo.  Or, you can use Photoshop.  :-)

Kings Cross Station in London - this is the train station that Harry Potter uses to get to Hogwarts.  :-)

2)   Plan ahead and move quick

It’s much better to maximize your time there if you have already been to the train station prior to arriving with your gear.  I like to scout the place, see what might work, and get a mental plan in place.  I feel like you have to be strategic, as there are times when you may encounter a security guard who is not ok with you walking around and photographing the place.  So plan ahead and try not to look suspicious.  :-)  Then, show up and work your plan.  Move fast.  Set up and shoot.  Move on.  Set up and shoot again. 

Central Station in Malmo, Sweden - just loved all the lines here!

And if you haven’t scouted the location prior to your arrival, then take a few minutes and get a feel for the place.  Look around.  Keep the tripod and camera in the bag for now.  See where the lines direct your eye.  See if security is present and/or hassling anyone.  Sometimes it’s better to start at the edges, which could put you further away from both tourists and security.  Then as you shoot, begin to move in.   Converge on the center.

3)   Don’t forget the exterior!

All this talking so far has been about how to shoot inside a train station, and that’s where most of the gritty goodness resides.  But by all means, get some shots of the façade as well.  Some of these exteriors are just incredible!  They are often grand and ornate, or at the very least they may have some great signage out front.

The grand facade of Amsterdam Central Station - so awesome.  Sadly I never made it there early enough!  :-)

And there’s another exterior shot to take – where the tracks leave the covered interior and take off into the world.  If you can get out there (which is often just walking down the walkway, past where all the trains park to load/unload), you may be rewarded with a pretty cool (and unique) view of things.  It’s well worth the walk in my opinion!

Glasgow Central Station in Scotland - I wandered to the end of the station so I could look back at it (and shoot it).

4)   Use a tripod

I am a fan of using my tripod anyways, but because a train station is often not extremely well illuminated (remember: you are there early or late, so the outdoor light filtering in could be greatly reduced, and the interior lighting may be insufficient for some exposures), it’s best to have it ready to go.  You obviously want a crisp, clean shot because part of the fun of this is all the detail you can accentuate in the photos you create.


So that’s it really - travel, architecture, and grit…the holy trinity of train stations.   Then be sure to arrive early, plan ahead, don’t forget the exterior, and bring your tripod.  Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!  That’s mostly what it’s all about!

So climb aboard – there are photos to be made out there!  Have fun shooting!