Whitney Design was hired by TranTech Engineering to do some architectural photography of a new bridge they had designed in Everett. It had been completed some months before, but had never been photographed at night when the bridge’s unique lighting design is apparent.
The weather was going to be clear for the next several days, so we set off immediately. We arrived in Everett in the afternoon to scout various positions, then had dinner and waited for night to fall. Then we waited for the lights to come on. Then we waited for the sky to get dark enough to bring the color out to its full intensity. By the time we started to get the desired results, we had about a half hour to shoot before the sky became black.
We were pretty happy with what we captured, but had run out of time on a couple of possible positions. In addition, our first setup was taken when the sky was still just a little too bright. And before we even started, we knew that it would have been better if we had had a way to raise the camera position several feet higher than our biggest tripod would allow.
So we returned two nights later for a second shoot, after procuring a sturdy, six-foot stepladder. We had experimented during the day and figured out a way to attach our tripod fairly securely to the top of the ladder, giving us a height of about 10 feet, rather than 6. It was a duct-tape and baling wire kind of setup, but sturdy enough for some longer exposures, if we were careful.
The bridge crosses over two sets of train tracks, and the shot we needed the ladder for was down on the level of the tracks. We had been warned by clients, “If you’re shooting down the tracks, make sure you keep at least 10 feet away from them. We recommend more like 20 feet.” But as we positioned the camera, we wanted to accentuate the curve, so positioned the ladder and camera about seven feet from the tracks. After all, we’d hung around on the tracks for several hours two days earlier and never even seen a train.
So there I was, standing on the ladder with my camera and tripod towering above me, waiting, waiting for the sky to darken sufficiently. When it was finally time, I fired off several shots, then double-checked my focus, to make sure it was tack sharp. But when I bounced back to my viewfinder, something was odd. I thought, “I don’t remember the lights under the bridge being so bright.”
You guessed it. That wasn’t the bridge lighting. That was the extremely bright headlight of an oncoming train. I took a few more shots, then considered my distance from the tracks and the advice of my clients. (“…at least ten feet away… more like 20.”) I scrambled down off the ladder, picked the whole, wobbly, ten-foot-tall contraption up and carefully moved it about five feet farther away from the tracks. (Twelve whole feet away.) Then I climbed back up the ladder, checked focus again, and just as I bounced back to my viewfinder, the engine’s horn let out a deafening blast, and a double-decker transit train went hurtling by me so close I felt like I could have reached out and touched it. I just kept shooting, trying to keep breathing, and watching the people on the train peering out at me with a look of, “What in hell is that idiot doing!?”