Photographs by their very nature capture an instant in time. To give the impression of movement or speed it’s sometimes necessary to move outside the standard camera settings or techniques. One option is to pan the camera as the photo is taken so that the background is blurred but the object being photographed is sharp to give the impression of speed. This method is often used to great effect with action sports.
An alternative is to use a much slower shutter speed than normal so that the background stays sharp but the object being photographed is blurred which also gives the impression of movement.
Here are a few that I’ve taken using the second method together with some additional information that may be helpful. Note that all these photos were taken with the camera on a tripod and I used a remote shutter release cable.
Car lights blur
This is a classic “car lights at night” photo. I found that these shots work best when there are other sources of light as well as the cars so as to add some detail to the scene – just a picture of car lights up a dark road is not very interesting. An alternative is to shoot at twilight or dawn when there’s just enough light to see some surrounding detail but the car lights are still visible.
This is a junction of the M40 motorway, there’s a convenient footbridge just south of the junction which is where I took the photo. It’s a 25s exposure to make sure that I got plenty of lights on the motorway, including some dashed orange lights from car indicators and also some lights up and down the slip roads.
Railway at night
This is a slight variation on the “car lights” theme with a long exposure photo of trains passing through a station at night. The idea was to get a “ghost train” type effect by starting the exposure before the train entered the frame so that the platform opposite was partly exposed then stopping the exposure once enough of the train had passed through. The exposure time was dependent on how long it took the train to pass through the station and it took a few attempts to get it just right. The exposure times were 6s and 2s respectively for the two photos and the aperture / ISO set accordingly. I experimented with the exposure with an empty station beforehand to get it right with no train passing through.
In this photo the station train information displays were a bit of a problem because they were quite over exposed. I tried a few things to get round it but in the end I decided that they weren’t too bad and just left them as they were. The exception was one display just in the top left hand corner which was too bright and distracting so I edited the image to blank that display. The dashed orange lights were caused by the dot matrix information panels on the side of the train.
Railway during the day
Motion blur like this doesn’t always have to happen at night. These are two photos that I took during the day with the help of an 8 stop neutral density ( ND ) filter. The first one is of a locomotive hauled train and for some reason the loco is in a different livery from the rest of the train which makes for an interesting contrast. In the second one a public footpath ran right next to the line before going over it on the footbridge behind. At this range even a 1/8th of second exposure was sufficient to get quite a lot of motion blur.
1. Every Train Operating Company ( TOC ) in the UK will have a set of rules or guidelines about taking photographs on station platforms. Usually these can be found on the company website and most of them are along the lines of “Feel free to take photos but don’t be an idiot and don’t get in the way”. There may also be restrictions on commercial use of these photographs.
2. For locations other than stations then a map can be useful to find out where public footpaths run close to or across railway lines. There are a few options here:
- Bing maps has an OS map option and you can zoom in to a 1:25000 scale.
- Google or Bing map satellite views are great for getting more detailed information about a prospective site and Google Street Map is useful for identifying parking spots down remote country roads.
- New OS paper maps have a code that can be used to download an electronic version of the map to your tablet or phone or you can buy just the electronic versions.
- OpenStreetMap is a free alternative, I use the OsmAnd app on my phone which allows maps to be downloaded for offline use. ( There’s a free version with limited map download capability or a paid for version with unlimited downloads )
The location for the two daylight ones above was found from examining an OS map.
3. The best source of train time information for the UK that I’ve found is the Realtime Trains website. You can pick any station in the UK and the site will give you a list of all trains passing through that station, including ones that don’t stop and including goods trains. The data is updated in real time and there are now iPhone and Android apps as well but I haven’t used these.
4. My experience is that it’s virtually impossible to predict how a photo like this is going to turn out so experimentation and perseverance are essential. For the night time photos I found that the evening weekday peak periods during the winter months were the best times to get most trains per hour. I used to print out a listing from Realtime Trains and take it with me but an app would be much better, assuming that there’s a suitable mobile signal.
5. It gets very cold standing around a station for a couple of hours in the dark in the dead of winter. The first two night time train shots above took about 2 hours and several trains to get the timing right. I soon found out that a warm coat, thermal underwear and insulated gloves and boots were much more useful than a fancy camera. Conversely, in the Summer some footpaths may be overgrown and may need a bit of pruning to make access easier. A pair of secateurs would be a useful addition to the camera bag.