Street-Shooting Subways Tutorial 5

I absolutely adore metrorail systems. Perhaps it’s because I’m a born-and-raised Los Angelino and never rode a light rail until I was an adult and had moved to a different city. The last time I visited LA I did notice that they did have a couple rail lines running. I hear they are as ‘good’ as the RTD buses.

Quotes intentional.

Taipei has a wonderful MRT system. The cars are clean, never run late, and lines rarely ever break down (Yeah, yeah there’s the new Songshan/Neihu line with the ghost in the machine but even it’s record is better then 90% of large-scale, large-city rail systems in the world.). In addition to the practical excellence exhibited in Taipei’s metro rail system, it also makes a wonderful place to photograph candids. This is primarily true for the same reason that crosswalks make a good location for street photography: a lot of people moving and self-organizing within a confined space.

Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your pictures.

Rail cars are never more then about 10 feet wide, making teles pointless. To drive that point home, rails also have a tendency to jolt and vibrate, movements which are exaggerated my the magnification of telephoto lenses. As with most street photography, I prefer the slightly-wide-but-still-normal 35mm (full frame eq.).

Lighting can be tricky, especially if you are underground. Flashes aren’t the best option as modern metro cars tend to have very large windows. Put the blackness of a dark tunnel behind a sheet of plexiglass and you get a pretty good mirror. This isn’t the best surface to shoot a flash around unless you like singular blobs of bright white light in your images.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again just to be obnoxious: you can have all the best telezoom glass, but you should still spend a few bucks on a normal prime lens. They aren’t expensive, hardly take up any space in your bag (in fact, they might cost less then your bag), and do come in handy.

Okay, now on to how to use the environment best to create good images. We’ll start with the most cliché…

Metrorails are Fast, People are Slow
Everyone reading this either already has taken or has already seen a photo exploiting this. Here’s mine:

Being cliché doesn’t make a image bad, especially if it’s executed well. It just means that you see something that is visually attractive to a lot of people. In this case I had my shutter speed at 1/15s and my aperture was f/4. I waited for the red LED light display to enter the platform area in order to add another bit of color, then I mashed the shutter release and shot a few in a series. This was the best of them.

Frames Within Frames
As stated earlier, rail cars have big windows. They also have big, wide doorways. Both can be easily exploited as ‘frames’ within your composition.

They can also be used to segregate different areas of the image.

On That Point
On crowded subway cars you can always use people to frame other people. It can be just as effective.

Once in the car, passengers have a tendency to put themselves into very self-absorbed bubbles. Their eyes immediately go to to their mobiles or iPods. Or they close them and pretend to be asleep (I call this the “I don’t care how old, handicapped, or pregnant you are. I’m not moving.” bubble.).

Keep an eye out for small children. Being stuck in a metal tube for any amount of time is hard for those with the attention span of gnats and they must be constantly entertained by a parent…

…or escape into their own world and become oblivious to the mundane real one.

and Lest We Forget
The light rail is surrounded by a station, which is just as active and interesting.

I truly hope that something here has helped you or at least given you a reason to go out and take some MRT photos. If you have tips of your own or a favorite metrorail photo, feel free to post it below.

Until next time.

About Brian

Brian Q. Webb is a photography enthusiast from Los Angeles, California who spends most of his time in Taipei, Taiwan. He is especially interested in street photography as well as large format portraiture and pinhole photography. He also likes to shoot lifestyle portraiture and occasionally acts as an agent for foreign newspapers wanting event coverage in Taipei. He was also on the staff of deviantArt and is co-founder of PhotoMalaysia, the largest photography community in that country.

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  • Brent

    Good article Brian. Totally agree with your point about telephotos, IMHO they have no place on the street.

  • Brent Franke (@brent_photos)

    RT @photojazz: Street-Shooting Subways Tutorial | Brian Q. Webb #streetphotography #tutorial

  • duke

    May i know what camera do you used in taking these photos? I used dslr and got hesitate to used it on the subway :(

  • Anonymous

    Some were taken with a Bessa R2A rangefinder, some with an Olympus E-P2 m4/3 camera. Both are smaller then a dSLR but have interchangeable lenses and are easy to change exposure on.