The Glenfinnan Viaduct is the ultimate pit stop for photographers on a Scottish road trip. In part, the popularity of this railway viaduct in the West Highlands can be credited to a certain wizarding film. But anyone who has visited what is now known as “the Harry Potter bridge” can’t deny that it holds its own when it comes to magical photo opportunities.
Here, Scottish photographer Connor Mollison shares everything that you need to know about the Glenfinnan Viaduct: where it is, why it’s worth visiting, and what photographers should do to get the perfect shot.
A Bit of Background
Just half an hour west of Fort William, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is the largest railway bridge in all of Scotland. It was built in 1898 and stands at an impressive 100 feet (30 meters) above a stream that connects to Loch Shiel.
Although the viaduct itself attracts thousands of tourists each year, many also come to catch a glimpse of the famous Jacobite Steam Train. Covering 84 miles (135 kilometers) of magnificent Scottish scenery, the steam train has been described as the greatest railway journey in the world.
Beginning near Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the British Isles), the Jacobite winds through breathtaking landmarks such as Loch Morar and Loch Nevis, but the most anticipated part of the ride is when the train slows to a crawl and crosses the iconic viaduct. There, passengers are given time to snap away and soak in the views of the Glenfinnan Monument, nestled just in front of Loch Shiel.
How to Get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Having seen pictures, you’d be forgiven for thinking that visiting the viaduct is a park-the-car-and-hike-for-miles kind of job. But as far as Highland landmarks go, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is actually one of the most accessible, being just a 10-minute walk from the car park at most.
The easiest way to get to the site is by car. If you’re coming from Edinburgh or Glasgow, you’ll likely pass through Fort William, the final mid-sized town before the viaduct. From there, it’s about a 30-minute drive along the A830. Conversely, travelers from the Isle of Skye can expect a drive of about an hour and a half without any stops.
The previously mentioned car park is located next to the site’s visitor center, and it costs roughly £3 ($4 USD) to leave your car there. If you’re hoping to get a shot of the steam train as it passes, be sure to get there at least 30 to 40 minutes early. Otherwise, you’ll find it difficult to get a spot!
What to Pack
Though it isn’t an overly complicated photography location, it’s always useful to be prepared and know what you need. I’d suggest packing the following items:
- Footwear that you can get muddy
- Various layers (for the unpredictable Scottish weather)
- A wide-angle lens for shooting the bridge
- A 70-200mm lens for capturing the train
- A tripod, if desired (note: there’s ample room to set one up)
Advice for Photographing the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Although the viaduct and its backdrop of rolling hills are stunning on their own, the bucket-list shot for any ambitious photographer should include the famous Jacobite Steam Train. If you’re able to catch it at the right moment, you’ll capture a stunning view of the train passing over the bridge with its iconic steam trailing behind.
When attempting this shot, first make sure that the train is in service during the time that you plan to visit. The picturesque engine doesn’t run year-round, so don’t forget to check the timetable on the official website!
Getting the Shot
For the postcard-perfect shot, aim to capture the passing of the train in the morning. It crosses over the bridge around 10:45 a.m., but as I previously said, you should try to set up at least 30 minutes beforehand.
The best vantage point is on the hill to the west of the viaduct, but note that it can get incredibly busy during peak tourist months. Getting there early will ensure that you have enough time to pick your spot and set up your equipment.
The train typically moves slowly across the bridge, giving passengers a chance to film and photograph the view. This means that you’ll have plenty of time to get your shot of the train, too — and you shouldn’t need to worry about having an overly fast shutter speed.
I’ve shot the train successfully at 1/1250 sec with a wide-open aperture. If you’d like to get a deeper depth of field, shoot with a smaller aperture and slightly slower shutter speed to compensate for less light. And believe me when I say the train crawls over the bridge. It looks like it slows down to a walking pace, so a slower shutter speed will be no problem.
Since this is a popular photo spot, it’ll be near-impossible to get a view without someone making their way into your shot. Although you can remove photobombers in Photoshop, try to avoid them by framing the viaduct and train with surrounding ferns and leaves. To achieve this, climb a few feet higher than everyone else. Though you’ll have to stand (and, if you so desire, set up your tripod) on uneven ground, you should be able to avoid the crowds by doing so.
If all goes according to plan, you’ll also arrive early enough to play around with your camera settings. That said, be sure to have your settings figured out well before the train crosses — it only passes in this direction once daily. Ideally, you’ll be treated to a cloudy or at least somewhat overcast day. If the weather features bright-blue skies, it can make shooting difficult, as the light tends to reflect harshly on the bridge and train. If this is the case, it’s worth using a polarizer to minimize the effect.
Both landscape and portrait shots work well for capturing the viaduct and train. For this reason, I recommend shooting handheld, which means that you’ll be able to easily capture both formats as the train passes. If you’d prefer to shoot with a tripod, you’ll have to decide in advance which setup you’d prefer.
Drone Photography at the Viaduct
At the time of publication, you are allowed to use drones at the viaduct. The one catch is that you will need to call the telephone number displayed on the site’s signposts to get permission. The landowner regulates the use of drones and will ask for a £10 donation to the visitor center and monument.
If you don’t have a photographer buddy with you, you won’t have time to get shots of the train with your drone and DSLR, so you’ll have to decide which style of shot you’d rather capture.
Personally, I would recommend taking two trips to the viaduct: one where you focus on capturing the steam train with your standard camera, and a completely separate sunrise mission for the ultimate drone shot. The lighting at this time can be incredible as it creeps over the hills, and the shadows cast by the arches of the viaduct create a unique aerial shot. The added bonus of taking the drone at sunrise is that you’ll avoid the crowds and won’t risk bothering anyone.
A Bonus Photo Opportunity
After you’re done shooting the viaduct, head back to the visitor center. Behind it, you’ll find a small path that leads up to another amazing viewpoint, and it only takes a couple of minutes to walk there.
Though you won’t get as good of a shot of the viaduct and train from there, you’ll be met by a view of Loch Shiel, a.k.a. the Black Lake in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Having two beautiful photo opportunities in one place makes this a dream location for any landscape photographer — plus, it offers Muggles a rare glimpse of what it would be like to attend the world’s most famous wizarding school!
When you’ve finished shooting the Glenfinnan Viaduct, don’t forget to explore other areas of gorgeous Scotland. And, if you’d like more photo inspiration, be sure to check out our Photography Basics Series!