Flemington — where's that again? The average person may not have heard of this unassuming New Jersey town, but for model train aficionados, it's something akin to mecca. Northlandz is 52,000 square feet of pure locomotive magic — a vast network of mountains, bridges, and sky scrapers, all with tiny trains snaking along on the miniscule landscape.
Northlandz, the brain-child and decades-long project of Bruce Zaccagnino, is truly enormous. When you're there, it's impossible to see more than a tiny piece at a time, because the sheer size of it is so baffling. So even if you make it out to Flemington, you never quite feel like you've seen the whole thing. That's where Sony comes in. They took to Northlandz with their QX100 Lens-Style Camera and the intention to conduct a series of photographic experiments that would allow people to experience Northlandz in a whole new way. I was excited and curious when I flew from San Francisco to New Jersey to see the experiment take place. What could we be doing with these unusual little cameras?
I had the chance to chat with Bruce to get the background on Northlandz — "We get people literally from all over the world. Almost every country has been here. It's a bit known out there. Customers by the thousands will come out, especially the world travelers, and they say, 'This is going to be one of the wonders of the world!' It is not one of the wonders of the world. I'm not kidding myself, but this is the emotion it creates the time that they're in here. People spend 2 to 3 hours here on average. They're looking at all the detail, all the comedy, and of course the trains, and they come out very emotional. I can't see it that way because I built it…but this is the reaction I get from visitors."
Early in the day, Matthew Albanese — a photographer known for his dramatic images of miniatures — set out to photograph a scene in one of Northlandz's more epic rooms. The place is full of miniscule depictions of dramatic, story-filled, and sometimes hilarious scenes. The scene here was a train derailing off tracks that bridged a gaping canyon. With Matt specializing in miniature photography, it was really fascinating to watch him at work with the QX100. He attached the camera lens to a stand that extended high over his head and angled down onto the train scene.
Matthew was tasked with photographing three scenes at Northlandz in a way they had never been photographed before. As he says in the documentary Sony made about the experiment, one of the most important factors when shooting miniatures is light. To shoot the train derailment, Albanese employed a Tesla coil to send bolts of bright pink light across the scene. It was loud and got my nerd engine revved up. Not to mention, Bruce himself was there watch his creation captured in a whole new way. It was awesome.
I knew the specs behind the QX100s since I'd already read quite a bit about it. But if you're wondering what these cameras are all about, they're lenses that are also self-contained cameras. You can mount them to your phone and use your phone as a camera body, or separate the two and control the lens camera with your phone. It's space-saving and also gives you creative freedom by being able to control the camera from afar.
From my own experience with DSLRs and even challenging the creative capacity of shooting with my phone, I know that the angle Matt was planning to shoot from is a tough one. I watched Matt controlling the zoom, the F-stop, and positioning all from the comfort of the ground. He didn't need to climb any ladders or fear ruining the angle by having to physically hit the shutter. He did it all from the ground, on his phone.
I was amazed at how the off-camera ability made shooting from angles I probably wouldn't have ever bothered to try to shoot from so much more attainable. Matt echoes my thoughts, saying, "there's a lot of these little nooks and crannies in this place that I can just plant the camera down into. It's also really great that it's operating through Wi-Fi, so I can just operate it through my smartphone."
With precise lighting and the help of that Tesla coil, Matt captured an amazing shot with the QX100. He added, "The good thing about this camera is how well it does function in low light, which is important, especially for what I do because I use really unusual lighting scenarios."
At the end of the day, I was inspired by the creative capacity behind the Sony QX camera lenses. Controlling my lens when it's not on my camera is an idea I wasn't used to as an everyday shooter. Once I saw it in action, I felt like I could loosen up my concept of the kinds of shots I believed I could and couldn't get.