We have all heard the phrase “That was a lucky shot”, or “Was he ever lucky in getting that shot”. Sure, there are the occasional lucky shots, the random act of simply putting your eye to the view finder and pushing the shutter, with little or no regard to lighting, composition, focus, shutter speed, or aperture.
If true random luck was responsible, why then do some photographers seem to have all the luck? And others, no luck at all. Perhaps something other than luck is really going on. The Roman philosopher Seneca said in the mid 1st century AD, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. This simple quote can fit many instances in life, business, sports, education, and most certainly photography.
Preparation in photography would begin first and foremost by knowing your camera; how to adjust the settings, how to set the focus point, and if available, when and why to use each type of focus (manual focus, various auto focus types) , using aperture versus shutter versus manual modes (your not totally letting the camera make all the decisions, are you), iso setting, single shot mode or motor drive, the list of settings for modern dSLRs is nearly endless, and even point and shoot camera’s have a number of settings. The point being, increasing your chances for that “lucky” shot begins with knowing what your equipment can do, and how to set it. Tripods, strobes, scanners, gps, laptop software, all have a learning curve that can impact your ability to use the equipment you have.
Beyond the camera, know the line where you are shooting is invaluable. Which side of the tracks do you want to capture a particular scene, is morning versus afternoon better (and no, you do not need to be shooting from the sunny side to make a good image, but the light, and how it interacts with the scene, varies though out the day, and season to season), where do I exit to get to a spot, how long does it take to drive from one spot to another, when do the trains typically operate. This type of understanding will go a long way to assist in your photography, and yes, there is a certain “home” advantage to photographer’s shooting lines they know and frequent. Despite this advantage, many resources exist to study a distant line prior to a visit. Google Earth is invaluable in getting a feel for the area, online information and forums abound (don’t be afraid to post a question, almost certainly some railfans will step up and assist with information). And once arriving on location, take some time to scout out your locations prior to the headlight looming down the tracks.
Beyond the knowledge of your equipment, and the line your shooting, having an idea photographically of what you wish to capture will greatly enhance your ability to get that lucky shot? Shooting the 3/4, full sun shot is great, but many other photographic possibilities exist. Pan shots, glint shots, silhouette’s, broadsides, verticals, high angle, low angle… the ways to photographically compose railroad images is limited only by your imagination. But whatever your photographic style becomes, it helps to think about what type of shot your after, prior to raising the viewfinder to your eye.
As to opportunity, you need to place yourself in situations to take the images in the first place. Track side prior to sunrise, after sunset, in the early light, in the setting sun, in the snow, in the rain, in clear skies or fog, in the mid day light perhaps, but to improve your chances, the more often you are out shooting, the more often you find unique angles, or lighting, or perhaps find a rare movement. Yes, the opportunities will present themselves, and are endless, for those that seek them,
The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, said, ” the harder I work, the luckier I get”.