Ethics and Rail Photography

I was reading this very thought provoking article by Levi Sim, Taking Street Photography Should Be Illegal, and it got me thinking about ethics with railway photography.

Levi’s article touches on some of the ethics of street photography, and taking photos of people without their permission. One key paragraph in his article talks about taking pictures versus making pictures.

Taking pictures implies that something is transferred from one person to another. One person gains and another loses. In this article by Jean Son, she talks about her experiences with street photographers in New York and how she feels violated by people voyeuristically taking her photograph without permission. The photographer has taken a photo, and also taken her sense of security.

Making pictures implies thought, consideration and planning. When making photographs with people in them, that speaks of permission and collaboration.

The Law

With the usual caveat that I am not a lawyer, in North America, generally you can photograph people when they have no expectation of privacy. If you’re standing on public property, generally you can photograph others who aren’t in a private place. So you can photograph pedestrians, people outside, even people out on their front lawns (probably… again, I am not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice), but you can’t stand on a sidewalk and photograph someone inside their house through a window.

Just because you can photograph someone or something, should you?

Legally, someone can go to a park and photograph kids that they’re not related to, but morally… they really shouldn’t, and they’re likely to get a lot of pushback and maybe get punched for it.

Everyone has to make their own choices.

Taking Photos of Train Crews

When we railfans take (make) photos of trains, often the crew are visible in the photo. Sometimes they are very visible – riding outside on the “front porch” of a locomotive, or on the ground throwing a switch – and sometimes they can be seen through the cab windows of an engine. Sometimes they are waving at us!

Is it OK to photograph them? Is it OK to share these photos online?

These are questions I’ve struggled with.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that many crew members clearly do not want to be photographed. I’ve seen conductors duck down below the cab windows or move to put the corner post between themselves and my camera. I’ve seen it more on CN than on CP but it’s pretty obvious that they don’t want their picture taken.

There’s that word again – take.

A few years ago, I decided that I won’t share identifiable photos of crew. I blur faces or I just don’t share them. Sometimes you can’t help but capture the faces of the crew – say when looking down on the locomotive from an overpass – so I blur the faces.

Photographing from behind works too.

Getting Crews in Trouble

Another thing you should be aware of is whether posting a photo of a train will get the crew in trouble. There are a lot of relatively minor “issues” that could get a crew in trouble.

In my times trackside, I’ve seen a few things like engines without headlights on (likely turned off for a meet and not turned back on again) and locomotives moving with the front door open for extra ventilation. These are against the rules, and posting these photos could get the crew in trouble.

You might say, “well, they should follow the rules,” and I guess you’d be correct, but is that really the right thing to do? I don’t think so.

I accidentally got someone in a little trouble by posting a photo. I’m not going to give any details except to say that I had no idea that there was anything being done incorrectly in the photo. As a railfan, I don’t know all of the rules that railway employees must follow. It’s so easy to share a photo that shows someone not following a safety rule exactly and not know it.

What To Do?

All I can say is to think twice before posting photos of train crews, and really think before posting anything that might get a train crew in trouble.

These women and men are just trying to do their jobs. We don’t need to make their jobs harder… or cause them to lose their jobs.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

16 thoughts on “Ethics and Rail Photography”

  1. I usually go out of my way to exclude crew in the frame for the two exact reasons you mention (recording possible infractions that I don’t know about and no permission of the crew). Better safe than risk someone’s livelihood.

    That said, there have been a few instances where the crew have asked for the pictures. They said that they’re not allowed to take pictures while on the job, but they wanted some pics of them on the job. For those cases I’ve just directly sent them the photos and not posted.


  2. You’ve probably heard this from the crews you talk with but CN’s management look for anything to give the running trades demerits. Depending on your surpervisor, you could be treated decently or poorly as a MOW worker. I’m glad you don’t post faces because there are some rail fans who don’t care.

    • Hi Josh, I have heard of this. In fact when I was talking with a running trades person about railfans wearing safety vests, they advised that railfans shouldn’t wear them so the crew wouldn’t think they were a trainmaster with a radar gun, trying to get them in trouble.

  3. Interesting post Steve. I flip it around. I normally work in an environment where I will not only be photographed, but I will often be recorded on video too. I’ve never signed a single consent form or been asked for my permission. It’s part of the job. Honestly, in today’s world, you are always on camera. Rail crews are being watched on inward facing cameras, by stationary rail cams.
    I try to be as respectful as I can, and I’m not going to post pictures where I know something is wrong (talk about a resourceful Trainmaster using railfan photos to hold crews accountable).
    I can see how catching the wrong crew on the wrong day could be irritating for them (CN toliet paper streamers). But that’s a story for another day.

    • Hi Karl, I don’t know what line of work you are in but I agree that we are all recorded at one point or another. I think the difference between being recorded by a security camera and by a photographer is that the security camera is more or less impartial, while a photographer by the choice of lens, angle, and moment can greatly affect what is depicted.

      We’ve all seen the telephoto shots that compress a view and make track look super bumpy. Imagine a telephoto shot that makes a crew person appear to be standing too close to something when in fact they were well away, for example… or a railfan who chooses the one second when a crew person takes both hands off a railing.

  4. I was A conductor for 40 yrs on the CPR (mostly riding the tail end, and mostly all crews liked getting there picture taken and waving. in fact the head end would radio us in the van that there was a former by the tracks.

    • I think the atmosphere has changed in the past decade or so. I wonder if it has to do with a different generation or a difference in how new hires are trained.

  5. When I use to railfan more Ottawa is a bit lacking now but OCRR was great and I would get as many prints of the day and bring to the crew a few days later , or in the US mail them always got big thank yous from the crews . But all my pics are for me and the crews as I don’t share them . It was always fun to see them a few days later and see their smiles when they get 200 pics of that day , it made me happy to ! I’m in construction and don’t mind my pic taken as long as I can have one too ! All the best and more GWWD pics please

    • Hi Mike, I wish I had a chance to railfan the OCRR. It sounds like it was a lot like its sister railroad the NBEC for friendly crews.

      More GWWD… I’ll have to get on that. I tend to take them for granted and I really shouldn’t.

  6. Good thoughts Steve. I try not to include the crews in my photos as I don’t think Id’ like some one snapping photos of me while I was at work. I’ve also seen some things that weren’t done by the book.

    • Hi Eric, thanks for commenting – agreed! Sometimes we see things that seem not quite right and it’s not our place to report on it, unless there’s an imminent safety risk.

  7. Very thought provoking post Steve. I know several of the local crew members, so that makes things a bit easier. I try to make sure their faces aren’t visible, but they are a part of the railroad, and sometimes they are just part of what is going on in the photo. If I ever have anyone request that they not be included in photos, I will be sure to honor their requests.

    • Hi Harrison, thanks for your comment and sorry for being late in responding. Knowing some of the crews helps, because you will know whether or not they mind being photographed.

  8. “Take” and “Make” is so profound. I love language and that turns me on. Wow! I don’t like to be photographed, ever, and agree with that sense of permission not respected when I appear. A few years ago I was contemplating a photo series based on taking photos of people taking street photos–each frame, square on the photographer. It felt punitive when it should have felt fair so I just never did it.

    When I was young and starting out as a railfan my education in this hobby was its popular media. Not once in any of the books or magazines did they say about permissions but always some photo of some train crew member at work. It makes you feel like they were expecting to be, wanting to be, photographed. In a way that sort of removes their permission from them, wouldn’t it? In that same era, we also just walked boldly into any railroad property because, well, we just did. But now we’re older. We understand that “no trespassing” means certain legal things but it’s also a respect thing. That railway yard is their property just like my back yard is mine. You’re probably welcome but you should ask first, if for no other reason than to respect the place.

    I have my self-imposed rules for photography trackside:

    I don’t photograph people at all. I don’t photograph identifying things or later link that photo up with metadata that could help someone identify who it is in that photo. They’re people too. They’re just trying to do their jobs and do them safely. If I’m close enough to photograph you it’s possible I’m in your way too.

    I don’t work for the railway and no matter how much I think I know about real trains I don’t work for the railway. I’d hate to think I photographed something and got someone in trouble.

    I think I’m a guest when I’m trackside. I’d like to be invited back, even if only ever on the other side of the fence, so try to work in a way that’s respectful of that invitation. I’d like to think that by acting like a good guest it’s easier to connect the joy I derive from this hobby with the people and places that make it possible to indulge in this.

    I’m rambling. It’s a fascinating discussion and I really enjoyed your post and the links you shared for consideration. That elevates the subject into conversation and that’s always a wonderful thing. Thank you


    • Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. That’s a good set of rules, much like mine.

      I look at railfan photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, and even 1990s, and I am amazed by the access that they had – or took – to wander through rail yards and climb rolling stock and signals and basically go wherever they wanted. Can you imagine driving into Symington Yard now and parking down by the hump to sit and watch trains? I’d have a stopwatch to see how quickly someone showed up to ask you what the heck you were doing.

      “I think I’m a guest when I’m trackside.” What a powerful concept. I like that a lot. As guests we have to behave, so that we might get invited back.


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