It’s the fourth Friday of June, mid-afternoon, and I’m standing on Platform 2 of Lichfield Trent Valley railway station with the first of what I know will be my many cups of coffee over the next 24 hours.
I am grateful to see that for once the train has included extra carriages with plenty of spare seats, allowing me to preserve my energy for what lies ahead.
This time of year – when the sun is at its highest position in the sky and the hours of sunrise and sunset are as far apart as they get – is not the highlight of most landscape photographers’ diaries. The weekend closest to the Summer Solstice is the pinnacle of this awkwardness, but ironically I have grown to relish it. Rather than heading up a hill or fell, I turn my attention to the bright city lights to make the most of this otherwise tricky time of the year.
I’m heading to the bright lights of London for a day-night-day shoot. That’s right! Shooting right through the night and I’ll be heading back home sometime tomorrow with sore feet and hopefully a memory card full of very varied images. I undertook the same exhausting and creative challenge last year and am hoping to get some great results to add to my collection.
The nearly 90-minute-long train journey to London’s Euston station gives me ample time to go through some final planning. I can check up on the most up-to-date weather forecasts, look out for any disruption or scheduled maintenance on the Underground, and see if any special events or marches are taking place.
I try to break the time ahead into manageable segments. Thinking of it as a whole would be almost impossible, so it’s two lots of daylight, golden and blue hours, and four hours of night-time/darkness. Effectively, it’s seven shoots in a day, which sounds much more doable and easier to plan. The daylight sections will generally be spent doing street photography, whereas the golden and blue hours will be spent shooting some of the city’s fabulous architecture. The night-time itself will most likely be a mixture of both genres.
Although I’m not a Londoner, I have shot in the city plenty over the past two years, which helps a great deal. It would be far too easy to find yourself going around in circles, walking unnecessary miles or spending too long underground. But it’s also important that your plan is adaptable. I have a mental list of locations that will work well in strong sunlight (ideal for deep shadows), locations that work great when it is wet (perfect for reflections), and also at different times of day, or even on different days.
The right gear
I am travelling light with only essential gear I think I’m going to need. I’m using a Lowepro Flipside rucksack, which must be taken o to open – a much safer option in a crowded city. I also have my Fujifilm X-Pro2 attached to my wrist at all times. For comfort and safety reasons, I have attached a Peak Design cuff-style wrist strap, which has automatic, drop protection (the cuff automatically cinches down on your wrist). The X-Pro2 is my street photography camera of choice, so I want it to be ready for action as I walk from location to location.
I have a selection of lenses to give me a variety of focal lengths. I tend to go wideangle when shooting architecture and try to leave plenty of space around my chosen composition to allow for the correction of converging verticals in processing. It’s an annoying sacrifice of pixels, but Fujifilm doesn’t have a tilt–shift lens option and I don’t have room here for a third-party lens and adapter.
The weather on the day of my shoot didn’t help but it could have been a lot worse. It stayed dry, but there was very little light on the Friday, and an unexpected sunset caught us by surprise when we were in the completely wrong place to make the most of it. Overnight, the heavy clouds dispersed leaving a clear sky at sunrise, devoid of any interest or colour.
Disappointment like this knocks you. It seems to sap your energy, enthusiasm and confidence in equal measure. You can normally brush it off, but it seems far worse when you are tired. This is one of the reasons I prefer to undertake these shoots with company, and fortunately a friend and photographer Jake happily accompanied me. Not only is it good to have someone to bounce ideas off, but it’s also much safer not to be on your own in a city at night. On this last point however, I can honestly say that I have never felt threatened at all while shooting in London. Obviously, an element of common sense needs to be applied when deciding which areas to shoot, and at what times.
Mentally and physically, the hours before sunrise are the hardest and I found myself queuing for coffee at 5am. With the lack of any clouds it didn’t take long before daylight returned to the city. Harsh light would normally signal the end of any landscape shoot I was undertaking, but I had another four hours before I could catch a train home.
It’s important to adapt your photography to the conditions you are given. Bright light and deep shadows will not work well with a wide-open scene but can work fine for more intimate street photography. With disappointment from the last few hours fresh in my mind, aching feet, and the end of the shoot in sight, I felt it was important to maximise the results from the next couple of hours. For that reason, I placed myself in a spot I knew would provide the most opportunities in the smallest area. I think most street photographers have their favourite parts of cities and they’re perfect for when you’re trying to be economical, with either time or, in this case, energy.
Having shot what I hoped was a successful series of images around the markets area, I made my way back to Euston station. I was too tired to review the images on the back of the camera; they could wait until after I slept. At this point I think I have about a dozen ‘keeper’ images, mostly from after sunrise. It’s not until about a week later that I realise that it was a really successful trip.
OK, in the end I confess I only managed 21 hours, not 24, but it was still good going and about the same as last year. With a bit of better luck with the weather and a different route, who knows how long I will be able to last for next year’s midsummer weekend.
Best time to shoot
Embrace the twilight hour and make the most of the blue tint
My favourite time for shooting urban landscapes is the blue hour. That time after the sun has set and the sky starts to go dark. It’s also the time when the city lights come to life, adding a whole new dimension to the scene in front of us (reverse the above for the pre-sunrise blue hour). Any clouds that are in the sky add texture and provide options for varying shutter speeds. Increase the ISO and deal with the noise later to freeze an image or increase the shutter speed and get creative.
The Emirates Airline pavilion at Victoria Dock was the perfect location for the latter. An exposure time of 20 seconds was just enough to smooth out any disturbances on the surface of the shallow water (helping with the terminal reflections) and create the perfect-length light trails, made by the strip lights onboard the gondolas. It’s a long enough speed to magically remove fast-moving pedestrians from the scene, yet not so long that it would cause the sky to lose its definition.
Fresh from an early breakfast and some strong coffee, I headed towards London Bridge and Borough Market to make the most of the bright light and deep shadows. At 7am on a Saturday the city centre is remarkably still and quiet, but I knew that the traders would be setting up by now ready to open at 8am. The streets around the market are colourful and interesting, with many old buildings, vibrant store fronts and fabulous street art. You could easily spend all day shooting this location alone.
Always tailor your images to suit the conditions you have, rather than stick with some preconceived idea you decided upon days ago. In this instance my goal was to produce a set of images in a cinematic style, exposing for the highlights and not particularly worrying about the detail in the shadows. This would produce contrasty images with the eye being drawn towards the brightest part of the shot, where I would aim to place my point of interest.
This shot is so much more interesting because of the creative use of the shadows, which both frame and complement the wall art and passer-by perfectly. You have to have patience and wait for the perfect moment.
Fortunately, my street photography set-up is minimal in size and weight, but the gear I use for my architecture or urban landscape work resembles what I would generally take out into the countryside. It is therefore far too bulky and heavy for this trip, and as I am planning to shoot both genres, sacrifices will need to be made. Filters are the first thing to go. I won’t be able to consider any daylight long exposures on this trip, and if the dynamic range gets too great for the camera, I will bracket my shots.
Next to go is my trusty tripod, replaced by a much smaller, lighter carbon-fibre travel version and ball head. While frustratingly flimsy and short it just about copes with most situations, and is essential at night.
For a shoot like this I will have two camera bodies with me. Strapped to my wrist will be my Fujifilm X-Pro2 with Fujinon 35mm f/2, ready for those unexpected street moments. Stowed away in the bag will be my Fujifilm X-T2 with 16-55mm f/2.8 as a backup and for urban landscapes. I will also pack 23mm f/2 and 90mm f/2 prime lenses to give me a little flexibility. Note, all the lenses are fast, which will help when it starts to go dark.
In addition, I find room for my microfleece top (it gets cold once the sun goes down), lens cloths and blower, spare batteries, and a power pack to charge my mobile phone.
The change from night to day
I often refer to people as ‘traffic’ when shooting street images. It’s not meant in a derogatory way, but someone who is wearing the right style or colour of clothing, is the right age or simply the right sex to complement a setting is referred to as ‘perfect traffic’.
With all my photography I prefer simple compositions. Soho on a Friday evening in June is generally far too chaotic and busy for what I am looking for. I prefer to stick around until folk head home, leaving one or two behind to clear up the mess.
A muted sunrise and a sky lacking in colour or interest. A disappointing reward for a sleepless night and a couple of blisters, but it was only just after 4am, and there was still plenty of time and opportunity ahead to work with. The subtle pastel colours are enticing.
By 6am the sun was already high and bright, making it almost impossible to shoot out in the open. Using the tree canopy to block the brightest elements helps here, and the backlit foliage frames the impressive London skyline perfectly across the river.
Different building materials react to the strong light in varying ways. High-gloss surfaces reflect it and textured ones stand out much better as the shadows contrast with the highlights. A location with a mix of surfaces can be great when shooting street images.
It was the light on the cobbles and symmetrical gates that first drew me to this scene. An ‘easy shot’ I thought, until I tried to shoot a moving taxi perfectly in the middle of the frame created by the archway. The streets are quiet at 9.30am, but the traffic is still fast.