The tea they produce in Sri Lanka is branded as Ceylon tea. The naming confusion aside, a travel photographer or just any casual visitor must visit the tea plantations in the central area of this beautiful island. Although you can get there by car or bus, probably the most stylish way is to take the train to Ella. The long way starts in Colombo, but if you are not up to seven hours journey, jump on in Nuwara Elia. That's probably the best part, the train going through breathtaking countryside and offering magnificent views on tea plantations, rice fields, small villages and the forrest at the foothills of the Horton plains national park.
The tickets. The train. The surprise
Basically, you have two options: the local way or the pukka sahib way. The first offers more excitement and less comfort - traveling in the standard carrier with locals (and plenty of backpackers). It's obviously cheaper, no advance reservation is needed, no seat is guaranteed and rather forget to use the toilets on board. On the contrary, the air-conditioned first class offers European comfort and seat reservation. The ticket price is higher and advanced reservation is a must. We traveled that way, not because we wanted, but it was arranged for us. The surprise, as we boarded at a station close to Nuwara Elia, were the LCD screens broadcasting the Expendables 3 movie. And a photographer's nightmare: the locked and dirty windows…
Photography on the train
Both sides offer interesting views throughout the journey, but to my experience, there is more to see on the left side. Although the windows in the first class carrier were locked to keep the air-con air working , this is Sri Lanka. So the doors on both ends of the carrier were open, allowing you to stand there or sit on the floor to take the pictures. Quite similar to the standard carriers - only there were obviouslymore people queuing for the view. And of course the windows were open there too, if you were lucky enough to grab the seat at the window…
Good for taking photos from the train to Ella is the low speed. The train just crawls. But it also shakes, bounces, squeaks and wobbles on the rails built probably by the late British when the Queen was not even born. Some bridges and switches can give hard punches - you better make sure your posture is rock solid and not at the very edge.
The camera setup
For this type of photography, the wide lens is your best friend. I used my Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 just because I didn't have anything wider. I had considered to get Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 for this trip to Sri Lanka - which I didn't at the end and this was the time to regret it.
To make sure your photos are sharp, you have to set the camera accordingly. I put mine on shutter-priority mode, setting the time around 1/300 and ISO to auto. That way the aperture was calculated by the camera, not providing the depth of field I would normally like for landscapes, but effectively managing the motion blur instead. Also the AF settings need to be adjusted, as you shoot from a moving train, to continuous mode.
Once you fight your position in the open doors, take a solid pose to withstand the train's attempts to throw you out. A lot of obstacles will cover your view, the train passing through the countryside along trees, poles, rocks, etc. The strategy I used was like this: I grabbed a handle next to the door to carefully lean out and spot a view worth a picture ahead and where would be a large gap between trees and poles. Then quickly back to lift the camera and take a series of photos to choose from later.
Nice pictures you can also take when the train passes through a bend. That way you can capture the train itself. The trick is to set your camera beforehand - including the focus point! - then lean out to make sure no pole will hit you and stretch out your hand to take series of shots, just blindly holding the camera out. It's usually a good idea to have it also strapped around your neck or hand while doing so ;-)