Catherine Karnow was recently on assignment capturing Switzerland for Traveler magazine. Follow along as she shares glimpses into her work photographing the majestic Swiss landscape.
I’m not sure which is more challenging: shooting train exteriors or interiors. The exterior requires careful planning to be at exactly the right place—an ultrascenic spot, with perfect light—when the train comes racing by. Shooting the interior requires some preparation, but really, a whole lot of luck—at least the way I shoot inside trains.
On a recent assignment in Switzerland, I had to shoot the GoldenPass Classic train from Montreux to Zweisimmen, less than a two-hour ride each way. The Classic is decorated in a Belle Époque style to evoke the luxurious train journeys of the golden age in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It might seem that I could get a lot of good images riding on several trips. But two days later, after multiple train rides back and forth over the same track, I had just three good shots. My favorite of those shots happened in less than ten minutes.
When I shoot inside trains, my method is to walk up and down the train looking for good subjects. I ask permission and then hang out with my subjects, waiting for both a good moment in the car and good scenery to flash by outside the window. A good subject is an interesting person, couple, or group enjoying lunch, drinking a bottle of champagne, or doing something surprising.
When I am shooting, I always ask myself what I am trying to show in the photo, what my intention is, and what the purpose is. The Classic was all about the decor, which was the most sumptuous and photogenic in the first-class compartment: polished wood, elegant brass details, and classy green fabric on the seats.
My favorite shot happened on the last leg of my second day of shooting. It was a weekday and there was only a single woman in the first-class compartment. She declined to be photographed. Shooting the interior without people was depressing. The car looked plain when it was empty. We were almost to Zweisimmen, the end of the line.
The train stopped at a village station and I got out to see if there was anything to shoot. I had two minutes before the train would leave the station. In Switzerland, a train is considered late if it is running three minutes behind. The train whistle blew. Just then I noticed a dapper man and his spaniel board the train. To my delight, they were boarding the first-class car.
I rushed in after them and asked permission to photograph. The man, whose name was Roland, amiably agreed, especially when he found out I loved dogs. I had to restrain myself not to zoom in on the interaction of the man and his best friend; it was such a sweet moment. But remembering that this shot was a way to show the train’s decor, I stood at a distance and used a wide-angle lens to include the elegant seats and polished wood. Twinkle, the dog, was being very cooperative, lifting her nose for attention from Roland. I shot about 12 frames and as I approached Roland to get his name and email address, he got up and said, “Well, this is my station.” I only had a minute to ask him for his email address and about his short journey. He answered that every day, he and Twinkle take the train one stop up the mountain, then they get off and walk back home. My shooting moment was so short, but all I needed was Roland and Twinkle to get my favorite GoldenPass Classic photograph.
Photographed with a Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24–105mm lens, and a Canon EF 16–20mm lens.