A Train to Nowhere

A few years ago I spent some time in Prague without much to do for most of the day. The core of the city is beautiful and modern, but as you get to the outskirts, things are a bit grittier. And that’s where my somewhat down-scale hotel was: miles from downtown, next to a big rail yard. A rumbling train came by every 40 minutes, all night long, past my open window. One day I walked down the road from the hotel, past a lot of rails and great big mechanical stuff, and happened onto a colorful sight.

On the edge of the rail yard, obsolete engines and cars sat on dead-end sidings, waiting to be recycled. No fence or security – and graffiti artists, vandals, transients and corrosion had transformed scrap metal into a post-apocalyptic circus train.

I’ve had those 3 passenger car photos on my wall for years. They give me that nice relaxing feeling that hey, it’s over, it doesn’t matter anymore, time reclaims it all. No more schedules, inspections, repairs. No more crowds. So just step in, sit down by a sunny window and forget about… everything. You’re going nowhere.

But leave before dark, because things might get a bit crazy. Inside one car it looked like maybe a friendly little campfire got out of hand during a “party” and reduced the interior to ash. I hope no one was sleeping there at the time.

A Mall Parking Ramp

Not just any mall – the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, one of the world’s largest. And not just any parking ramp – this thing stretches for blocks, on the East side of the MOA, and there’s another just as big on the West side. The total capacity is over 12,000 cars.

I live nearby, and one night I was struck by the the weirdly dystopian sci-fi look of the ramp in the dark, its awesome size, and just the absolute craziness of it: I had to do a photo. It took me a couple of return trips to scout out the best vantage point and capture it as a panoramic.

The Mall of America is basically a colossal temple dedicated to two gods: Retail, and The Automobile. They’re symbiotic, it’s almost hard to imagine one existing without the other. Pilgrims perform a simple ritual; they drive here, park, and buy stuff. Approach this massive edifice on foot, and you’re an unwelcome outsider at the ramparts of a great fortress. See that tiny door to the right of the center of the photo – can I really go in there, is it ok? It looks scary.

At night, from across the street, it’s a Death Star in the blackness. There’s no traffic on a week night with COVID-19 everywhere. No one is walking around here. I stood alone in the wind and took a series of 7 shots to cover it from end to end.

I stitched the images using the excellent PTGui application, which offers many choices for the projection, and several degrees of freedom to adjust point of view and perspective. It’s all a matter of taste. I chose a projection that I thought conveyed the massive size and the feeling of standing at street level.

I’m totally ready to accept that no one else finds this photo interesting, but it says something to me – about the enormous resources we devote to consumer goods, and the vast urban spaces dedicated to the automobile. I had to do it.

The “Shift” of a Tilt-Shift Adapter

I like doing photos of city scenes and tall buildings. There’s always the question of how “vertical” those buildings should look. Point the camera up and the vertical lines converge in the distance, making the building seem really tall. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want.

IDS Center, Minneapolis

But sometimes it’s not, and this is where a tilt/shift adapter comes into play – or at least the ‘shift’ part of it. We know it’s used for architectural shots where you want the buildings to look straight. But what does this old-school gizmo really do? Google finds many explanations. It “… alters the orientation of the plane of focus relative to the image plane.” It “… allows different portions of the image circle to be cast onto the image plane.” Or my favorite, from Hasselblad: “Simply put, the adapter expands the diameter of the projected image circle at the film plane.”

You may be left thinking “hmmm ok… but what can it actually do for me in a photo?” So here’s a real-world example where it made a difference.

This a shot of an old dock near my house, with the camera perfectly level. It’s nice, but the horizon right in the middle of the frame is boring, and that’s a lot of extremely dull sky on top. The interesting part, to me, is the late-day shadows on the old wood deck; I’d like more of that in the frame.

Squatting down for a low angle shot, while keeping the camera level, sort of works; there’s more wood, but the horizon is lost and there’s still a lot of empty sky doing nothing for the picture. And the viewer feels about 3 feet tall. I really want the camera back up where it was.

So I stand up, point the camera down, and get basically what I want in the frame. Not too bad but… the posts aren’t vertical anymore, they tilt out. It all feels a bit “off”, like you’re leaning forward and looking down. Which, in fact, I was.

Now, the magic. I stand where I want, get the camera level, and move the shift adapter down. Amazingly, it’s like I’m pointing the lens down but still somehow keeping it level. The posts are vertical, the dock feels solid and real. You’re standing up straight, looking at the horizon, but taking in a different field of view. This is the photo I wanted. And I couldn’t have gotten it without shifting.