Monday, December 8, 2014

Pay it Forward: Train Photography

I seriously love how varied and creative each of the projects for this Pay it Forward theme are. I never expected to get a photography related Pay it Forward, but here we have one! Eilonwy sent us in this project:

Plans to sew a ragdoll for a Christmas "give a disadvantaged child gifts" program fell apart in a "never got off the ground way"... then, while I was out being self-centered, I visited a community history group and ended up volunteering for them! This led to an urgent need to figure out how to take photos of trains.

I was basically trying to do the HERE COMES THE TRAIN RIGHT AT ME urban shot, which is like this:

The best of my batch turned out like the [first one below], so not a disaster, but there's still PLENTY of room for me to improve. Also, I managed to do this in a way that did not risk getting hit by a train. (It occurred to me a week later that, since our light rail is identical at both ends, the answer is to step out onto grade level track BEHIND a train that's pulling away.)

She then gave us the link to the full blog post that chronicled her Pay it Forward train adventure. Here is what she had to say:

Sometimes, you want the light ahead of you to be an oncoming train.

O hai.

I am trying to do the monthly Pinstrosity challenges, partly because I like how the site owners put the focus on trying to fix/avoid disasters (after an archive dive here, you will never, ever forget to chill your cookie dough) and partly because it pushes me to do things that might otherwise go in the eh, maybe later pile.

The November challenge was "pay it forward": associate your Pin craft with a philanthropic activity. I started the month with Great Plans that involved sewing a doll for an underprivileged child... and fell apart on (a) a solid week of migraines; and (b) not being realistically able to meet the sponsoring charity's stringent and extensive guidelines. So in a funk of mixed guilt and relief, I went off to return library books, stopped in at a local museum, and somehow ended up offering to put together a plan for their social media.

One consequence of this new project is that it'd be helpful if I worked on my train-photographing skills, so off I went to Pin. (I've been vowing to improve my photography skills since 2007. No sign of improvement has yet been sighted, even if you squint.)

Train and trolley photos fall into three sorts:

My first thought was to try getting a shot of the moving light rail train from the comfort of the 0-Central bus, which runs parallel to the tracks for part of the route.

This went exactly nowhere and somehow developed into an obsession with moody photos of the 8-Seventh Avenue as it waited at the Ed Pastor Transit Center.

Malcontent bus lurks. 
The pink-sepia-ish tone is not a filter. That's what Arizona actually looks like. After a few years here, you subconsciously accept that dirt is a sort of washed-out coppery pink, and brown dirt looks odd.

The loneliness of the Seventh Avenue bus speaks to Sundays in Phoenix (we roll up the sidewalks and tuck them away neatly), but it wasn't really what I was after.

On Monday night, I thought I'd get a shot of the Scottsdale Downtown Trolley as it winds through the Arts District. Turns out the Downtown Trolley is a sneaky little sucker. In the narrow window between getting off work and sunset, I never got a clear shot, and the little bugger came up behind me without dinging its bell twice.

On Tuesday morning, I got up before dawn and rode the light rail down to the Roosevelt stop, where the tracks diverge to accommodate one-way streets through downtown. There's a coffeehouse that opens early, in the ground floor of the Dauntless Headquarters (I don't know if the apartment complex has a name, but it's relentlessly postmodern and spiky), so I equipped myself with a cup of coffee and went out to photograph trains.

It turns out that the paving of the tram stop is designed to look like crossing track patterns.
If you start trying to match this up with the tracks, you will go nuts. 

The platform is sort of triangular, so it's possible to go out to the narrow tip and be sort of head-on to the tracks as they come over the bridge that spans Deck Park.

When you're standing in a 45-degree brisk wind at sunrise, trains are a long way apart. But here's one now!

Click-click-click... and even though I'm behind a concrete barrier, I'm starting to get nervous, but here is the oncoming train in semi-close-up.

Well, hellooooo, 126-A!

It's not the greatest train photo, but it captures (a) full frontal view of tram and (b) pretty accurate view of urban Phoenix. What's behind the train is Midtown.

I got on that train and rode it down to the Tempe Transit Center, which has weirdly symmetrical palo verde trees.

We are trees. We are weirdly symmetrical. 
Attempts to get a good shot of a tram sneaking through the foliage into the station from the east went kind of meh.

It'll be coming round the palo verde when it comes. 

Lessons learned:
  • Be prepared to devote large swaths of time to capturing the passage of multiple trains or trolleys.
  • Aim once, click fast and relentlessly. No, faster than that!
  • It is possible to cheat at the angle to get a head-on shot of a train without being dangerously near the tracks.
  • It is very difficult to find a Phoenix-area background that isn't visually cluttered. Nobody thought about camera angles when they designed this place.
  • Try for sunset next time -- it seems to give better shadows. Dawn seems to wash things out.

On the whole, I wouldn't call the first stint of train photography a monster success, but it counts as progress and got me to try an angle I wouldn't have tried on my own. Thank you, Pinstrosity!


  1. Love it! So fun to read too! :-D

  2. I work in downtown Phoenix, so it was really neat for me to see these pictures. The light rail goes right past my office. (Jefferson St).

    1. If you actually ride it, it's possible we've been on the same morning commuter train. :-)

      My next try is going to involve one of the turning bits downtown (train going around corner), but I need an afternoon when I'm off work early.


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