Testing the 4x5 on the Harlem Line

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Metro North Harlem Line Train at night photographed on large format film
Scan of a Print: Metro North and its reflection captured on 4x5 film

Testing the 4x5 on the Harlem Line

May 30, 2015

Many great night photographs are taken on black & white film and while I enjoy digital cameras for color work, I've never really been happy with using them to emulate the look of black and white film. At night, digital often picks up too much. Film never picks up enough - black and white film was built for night work. The Call of Trains (Shaughnessy, 2008) and Life Along the Line (Link, 2012) both make a note of the respective photographer using 4x5 cameras at the tail end of their ubiquity. Railroad photographers tend to gravitate towards the big, old, and heavy so it felt right to bring a big, heavy 4x5 camera into the field to photograph trains.

I set about designing my own camera. It would need to be fast and easy to operate in the field with few controls to snag as I haul it into difficult locations. I designed a camera to fit in some standard 6x6 inch aluminum box stock. It would be its own carrying case! Generous overhangs fore and aft would protect the lens and the ground glass from impacts and dew. To keep things simple, the camera is built around single focal length set at 150mm. Its longer than Link used but a little wider than is common in contemporary railroad photography.

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home built 4x5 camera
Large format camera designed for photographing railroads at night

After a few tests of focusing the camera, synchronizing the strobes, and metering for film, I hauled the gear south to Metro North's Harlem Line to shoot moving subjects that pass every half hour. I packed three film holders of Kodak TMax400 but only ended up taking two shots. Everything seemed to be functioning perfectly in the field but I wouldn't know the truth until I developed the negatives in the basement the following night.

It was a little frustrating to not be able to review my work in the field - but night photographers have always had to use their imagination. Over the summer I plan on experimenting with pushing the film a bit during development to see if I can stretch my lights to illuminate bigger scenes. I'm looking forward to caring this camera out to the some remote locations for daylight shots and later in the year it will be exciting to capture images of steam on film. Those two go together perfectly.