The Fifty One Things.
The night train photographers I know say there are fifty things that can go wrong when taking these pictures - and I’ve experienced most of them.
I’ve fallen several times, destroying a lens, damaging flash gear and missing shots. I’ve spent 40 minutes setting up to have the train come along just as I was unpacking the final piece of my light-puzzle. On several frustrating occasions I’ve set up for a nice shot and pushed the shutter button only to record headlights in darkness while the flashes remained silent due to my own stupidity. Or for it to start raining, or batteries to run low, or have cords not quite plugged in, or be rewarded with a nicely lit but out-of-focus shot, or have expensive flashes blow over in the wind. Once I set up and waited hours for a train that had already passed…
Midland Line night photographers have a unique 51st challenge.
I’d hoped to take some night pictures around Arthurs Pass last year in the snow. Being a masochist, I decided to start with the “there’s no way that will ever work” shot of 5 locos (the first three are 'bankers' - helpers for the 3% tunnel grade) coming across the Bealey River bridge at the eastern end of the Otira tunnel. I positioned my laden-down 1970 Mini close to where the bulk of the flashes would be set up, killed the motor (which usually dies of its own accord) and turned on my LED miner’s headlamp. Almost immediately there was a thump on the roof, and then another. A green feathery blob slid down the windscreen to look me in the eye. Keas (NZ native alpine parrots).
My two new noisy feathered friends largely minded their own business as I unpacked, assembled the first light and walked it down to the river. As I was readying the second flash, the first went off unexpectedly. I thought this was odd, but it’s possible I had remotely triggered it while getting the second light sorted.
During the set-up of a third light back at the car, there was a clang and a flash of light by the river. It seems that keas are intrigued by the silver duct tape and bubble wrap I use to protect my battery packs and had managed to tug one of the lights off its makeshift rock tripod.
After more rocks were strategically placed to hold things in place, I crossed back toward the main road to cross over a small stream and along a bank with a fourth flash and camera without incident. A test shot was fired and a subsequent adjustment made to the flash close to me as the near end of the bridge looked a little hot for my liking.
Test shot #2 was quickly fired as the train can’t be far away now. This time the near end of the bridge is perfect, yet the far end seems darker than before. A third test shot… and now the far end is completely dark. Seconds later, over by the river I hear another clang and a skrawk and one of the flashes pops again, now pointing straight up into the sky! Arrrgh!
As the approaching train announces itself with a rumbling from deep inside the tunnel, I scurry back over the creek in the dark to re-aim and secure the flashes and shoo the birds once again.
Racing back, just in time, I pop the picture shown here. Somehow things turned out just fine. But beware of the 51st thing that can go wrong while taking night photos in NZ's Southern Alps: inquisitive green alpine parrots... Driver was Mike Kilsby - taken with permission.