Behind the photo: Der Brockenbahn (With video)

In the Behind the photo series, I want to go into more detail on why and how I took a particular photo. For this week, I selected an image that has been on my mind for quite some time: A beautiful steam locomotive with traditional wagons in an almost colorless landscape.

As I heard the train approaching, I felt the adrenaline start to rush. I waited until I was satisfied with the composition and pressed the shutter. 61 mm | F/7.1 | 1/160 | ISO 640

The Brocken Railway

The Brocken Railway is a legendary, 19 km long railroad found in the Harz in Germany. It starts at Drei Annen Honhe and the end station is at the Brockenmountain. At 1141 meters, the Brocken is the highest peak of Northern Germany. Needless to say, this railroad is really popular with tourists, especially during summer. Not only is the scenery incredibly beautiful, the train itself is a work of art too! Imagine, a 700 horsepower colossal machine plowing its way up the mountain, spewing large clouds of steam and smoke. Combine this with lots of snow and a nice forest, and you have the right ingredients for a spectacular photo.

The Weather

To get the shot I wanted, I needed the right conditions. The most obvious thing being snow, both on the ground and the trees. Luckily this area has high snowfall in winter. To be sure of snow on the trees, I needed fresh snow, below zero temperatures and not too much wind. Which is why I kept looking at different weather reports and webcams. Furthermore, to create a balance between the sky and the foreground, I wanted an overcast sky without color and texture.  In my opinion, a blue sky wouldn’t work because it would add too much color and would compete with the subtle color of the train. Therefore, a boring sky works best. The snow on the trees is quite important because these form the background. The snow hides the green of the trees, and adds light and contrast to make the black train pop out of the image.

I wanted a lot of snow! Well, this was no problem to say the least. At the Brocken lay 143 cm of snow. But also the lower areas were covered in a thick layer! 24 mm | F/9 | 10 sec | ISO 100


The composition is pretty straightforward – I wanted all attention on the train. The track works as leading lines and a simple foreground. The train is positioned at 1/3 of the image with trees on both sides. The shot was taken in portrait mode to create enough room for the smoke and a bit of sky.

In order to get both the locomotive and the wagons in my photo, I needed a bend in the track. Before I left home, I used Google Maps to check different options. Based on this, I picked Schierke. Here I found a beautiful path going uphill, next to the track. I quickly found a spot with enough room to set up my tripod. I checked whether I was leaving enough space for the train to pass. This, of course is really important. I didn’t want myself, or my gear, to get hit. I double checked this using the marks the train had previously left behind. I knew the train moves slow when climbing. Which allowed me to be close to the railway as well. If you want to make a photo like this, never do this with a fast moving train. Also, pay attention to trains coming from the other direction.

The next day I returned to photograph the train with my 14 mm lens. 14 mm | F/9 | 1/125 | ISO 1000

Because I want the train to be sharp, I used continuous autofocus with the focus point set to where I wanted the train to be. With this ready, it was time to wait. The train schedule is really helpful but I forgot mine and my phone was broken, so I roughly knew when the train would come.

The Shot

To prepare for the final ascent towards the summit, the train gets a refill of coal and water at Schierke. This takes about 10 minutes. Once I heard the train nearing the station (they use a steam whistle), I knew that it would leave in 10 minutes and take around 5 minutes to get to where I was situated. I could feel the surge of adrenaline as the train neared. When I got a visual I felt really stoked! I pressed the shutter, saw the result and let out a cheer!

After this, I packed up my gear, went on with the hike towards the summit and ordered a nice cold beer at the bar. And to get down…the train of course!

That was it folks! Thanks a lot for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and that it inspires your own to photography. I would highly recommend going to the Harz. The landscape is really beautiful in all seasons! And when visiting the Brocken, the path through the forest is amazing, but also a bit tough in winter (I plowed through knee-deep snow). It is worth it because when you get to the summit, you can enjoy the beautiful view, drink a beer and have some food in the bar, then rest your legs as you take the famous train back down.

If you liked this article feel free to share! If you like my photography, please follow me on Instagram @harmenpiekemaphotography

I would again like to thank Cody Fjeldsted for proofreading my article! Your help is awesome, thanks so much.



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