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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lights, Locomotive, Action!

Getting the sun, the earth and a train to align for a perfect shot

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The New Hope & Ivyland train, New Hope, Pennsylvania
One of my favorite things to do in between trips is to find photographic projects that are close to home. If I don’t have to lug my stuff through airports, on and off airplanes and in and out of taxis, I have that much more energy to make pictures.

Currently, my pet project is working on a long-term multimedia slideshow about an historic steam railroad that runs scenic trips out of my town. Whenever I’m home, I try to gather some sound and shoot some new aspect of the railroad, all with the hopes of putting together a really nice multimedia piece for my website and for the railroad itself. Best of all, the station is two blocks from my house!

For this project, I wanted to do a night shot with multiple flash units lighting the engine and the station, a kind of homage to those classic 1950s black-and-white night shots of steam engines in various American settings that O. Winston Link made famous.

By “night” shot, I actually mean “twilight,” that half hour to 40 minutes after sunset (or before sunrise) when the sky is royal or deep blue and not quite black. Shooting at this time instead of full night gives you much more separation of buildings and edges from the sky, and with black locomotives and dark station roofs, I was going to need all the separation I could muster.

Of course, this meant finding a time when the New Hope & Ivyland train would be sitting in the station, all fired up and about to leave for a trip, that coincided with twilight. Most of the year, the last train run of the day occurs around 4 p.m., and most of the year, that’s just too early for twilight.

I inquired about the possibility of having them stay late one night for me to do the shot. The management was amenable if I picked up the overtime for the engineer, crew, station personnel, etc. When I found out just what that would cost, it sent me whimpering back to the drawing board!

Fortunately, in winter, the shortest days of the year featured twilight at about 4:45 p.m. in my latitude. And those shortest days—just before, during and after the December 21st winter solstice—also coincided with the holiday season, when the train made additional runs of its Polar Express train (Santa is onboard!). The last train departure on the weekends at this time of year was 5 p.m., so the train would be in position, ready to go with steam vents open, right at twilight. My first big logistical problem, having the train in the right place at the right time, was solved—or so I thought. More on that later.


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