Train windows and London’s best view

Back in the old days of British Rail (and at times after privatisation) I often used to enjoy taking pictures out of train windows. Then many carriages on suburban routes had doors between every pair of seats, and the doors had windows that you could slide down to around waist level and so take pictures unobstructed, though it might make it rather draughty for your fellow passengers. There were stern warnings about not leaning out of windows, and unless you braced yourself against the door frame it might have been possible to fall out, but you could photograph in any direction.

Some of the older rolling stock you needed to open the window to actually open the door at stations, as the doors only had handles on the outside, a useful safety precuation which made the carriages childproof and avoided any accidental opening, but sometimes meant infrequent travellers were trapped inside, unable to work out how to open them. Older readers too may remember the thick leather straps with holes to fit around a pin to hold the windows open at various levels.

Slightly more recent carriages came with a stiff handle you had to move sideways, protected by a raised surround, which only trapped mainly elderly ladies whose hands were no longer strong enough to move them and relied on other passengers to allow them to alight.

Now we have automatic opening doors and fixed windows with air conditioning on almost all services (though some still have narrow windows that don’t open enough to be useful) and can be sweat boxes when the air conditioning fails in summer or chill you if it can’t be switched off in winter. But more importantly for photographers, they have windows that are often scratched inside by bored travellers and almost always filthy outside. I have at times travelled with a cloth so when joining a train at the start of its journey I could select my seat and then step off the train to clean the window I was going to sit at so as to get a clearer view.

But either the train I joined at Charing Cross was new (and it did have that toxic smell of plasticiser) or had been recently cleaned, and for once I had a clear view. I hadn’t got onto the train to take pictures, just to get me to Blackheath, but it seemed to be too good a chance to miss, so I made a number of exposures.

The problem with photographing through glass is of course reflections. You can cut these down by removing any lens hood that would interfere and holding the front of the lens (or lens filter) directly against the glass. However this can cause vibration, so a small gap is a good idea, particularly while the train is in motion. Modern train windows are double glazed and while this close approach can avoid reflections from the pane you are in contact with, you still get them from the outer pane.

It also only works when the edge of the lens is in contact with the window all around, meaning you are restricted to views directly opposite the window and cannot aim the camera to left or right.

There is a solution to these problems, and it is in the form of a giant floppy lens hood with a hole at the centre which stretches to fit on the body of any lens. It’s called ‘The Ultimate Lens Hood‘ and is around 25cm across, and I have one sitting on my desk. The main problem with it (apart from looking rather eccentric) is that although it is a silicone rubbery thing that can squeeze down considerably, it is still too large to easily fit in my normal camera bag, at least without leaving out something essential like my sandwiches. So it was sitting there on my desk while I made these pictures 25 miles away. Slightly smaller versions are available and I think I might get one. Even a normal cheap rubber hood as I’ve used in the past can help a lot.

I was on my way to Blackheath to photograph an event that ended at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and my final pictures in this set were taken without benefit of any windows of the incredible view from the terrace in Greenwich Park north across the River Thames. It’s a view I first saw and photographed many years ago, and though rather changed since the building of Canary Wharf remains London’s most splendid.

I did try to take more pictures from the train on my return from Maze Hill to Waterloo, but the windows were not so clean, and only a few were usable – and then required considerable retouching.

More pictures at Charing Cross to Greenwich


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.


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