Jul 192012

As I hinted at in the first post of this series, the success of the Guthrie project depended as much on networking with folks as it did on making good photos. This shot is another example of that connectivity in action.


This one came to me pretty easily. My first instincts were to include a calendar or show someone working near a clock somehow but as with most of my initial ideas, those really sucked. Once I started thinking about folks that work by a schedule, I immediately thought of bus drivers and commuter train operators. Here in St. Louis, that meant dealing with the folks at Metro, our regional mass transit authority. And as it happens, I knew just where to go to gain access: I had to go to Court.


Not that I was pleading my case in front of a judge, mind you. Court is short for Courtney, as in Courtney Sloger, my friend and the social media guru for Metro. Court is an active advocate for mass transit and was a fan of this project early on, so I didn’t have to beg her too much for some help. I told her what I had in mind and she set up a day for me to shoot at Metro’s downtown St. Louis rail yard.

Incidentally, we didn’t pick the best day for the shoot, for reasons beyond our control. When we arrived at the yard the dispatcher didn’t know about the shoot, and after Court and I politely explained what was going on he explained that he might not be able to spare any train operators for the photo. It’s not that he was being a jerk or anything, either. In the early hours of the day a Metro train had collided with a car that crossed its path, causing massive delays throughout the system and throwing a bit of a wrench into the scheduling.

But after a few minutes, word came back from the dispatcher that a couple of operators that had just come off duty were volunteering to pose for the photo. Rodger Wright & Earven Conrod, Jr had already had a long day, but I cannot thank them enough for stepping in at the last minute and putting up with my shenanigans. “Some guy is here and wants to take our picture in front of a train? Uh, sure, OK.”


While I was waiting for my subjects, I took a quick tour of the train garage and found exactly what I was looking for: the front of a Metro commuter train with plenty of space in front of it to pose Rodger and Earven. As an added bonus, you could even see the Gateway Arch in the background (look at the left side of the photo). Sweet.

I knew exactly what framing I wanted in the shot, and I had a vague notion of how I would light it. What I didn’t know was just how much light I was going to need. I routinely shoot with Nikon Speedlights, the little flashes that attach to the top of my camera (although I rarely use them in that fashion). While they are incredibly portable and pretty powerful for their size, I knew that they weren’t gonna cut it so I had brought my “big” lights, a pair of Alien Bees B800 strobes. But after firing a couple test shots with one of the Bees, I realized that even they were going to struggle with overpowering the springtime sun at noon. Hmmm…what to do?

Double up. Yup, I put both Bees right next to each other, installed a focusing grid on each, and set them both to full power. That did the trick–I could now underexpose the background sky and train yard and while using the strobes to illuminate my subjects. Plus I got to hear a satisfying POP every time I fired the flashes. I love that sound.

But another problem had arisen: the train interior was now pitch black. Not good.

See? Looks like the Train Of Doom with no flashes in it.

So I dug out those three little Speedlights I mentioned before, and cranked them all up to full blast. It took a few tries but I eventually found three spots in the train cab where they would “see” the main strobes out front and fire in sync with them (via built-in optical slave sensors–cool stuff). And just like that, I had a lighted train interior (and a more interesting background). A couple frames later and I had my shot.


First off, avoid shooting at noon whenever possible. I knew this going in, and Court and I tried to book a time later in the day but as the Rulin states, Metro works by a pretty rigid schedule so we had to move the time up.

Secondly, big lights are good. Little lights are good. Bringing both to every shoot is good.

Third, be nice to people. Had I not been nice to Court way back when, she probably wouldn’t be my friend and this photo wouldn’t have happened. And if I hadn’t been nice to Rodger and Earven while they stood in the midday sun after a long shift, patiently waiting as I kept moving and adjusting my lights they wouldn’t have smiled for the photo. They were both very patient and easy to work with, and I can’t thank them enough for their participation.  A lot of folks work hard to get us where we need to be, including this guy.

I'm guessing he rarely wears white to work.


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