A rainy night in London, part 2

Royal Exchange

I got so excited with my wet night photography that I took loads of photos, so this is the second instalment.  (If you missed the first one, look here)  We moved on to the Royal Exchange, which was floodlit with the most astonishing reds and pinks, but I have to admit that these photos are very noisy indeed (please Santa, can I have a camera that goes up to ISO 12,800+ and manages noise beautifully?  instead of the one I have, which becomes unusable at ISO 1200?  not this year?  I’ve been very good this year, you know……..)

Royal Exchange pillars

Royal Exchange pillars 2


I love that foot that crept in at the bottom left corner; I didn’t know it was there till I got this up on screen.

At the bottom of these pillars there are mirrored boxes that reflect the surroundings.  It made for an intriguing image, but I have to say the resulting photos were so horrendously noisy I nearly threw them away.  Eventually I settled for making a separate layer and blurring it to get rid of some noise, and then erasing the part of it that had the reflected image so that it was left sharp (as always, I use this term loosely).  I don’t think it works very well, but it’s better than before – honest.


We moved on after this, shooting anything that looked interesting, and ending up at the Lloyd’s Building.  The shot below looks so timeless it could have been the London of Dickens; the only thing that gives it away is that it looks so clean.

Dickensian scene

Through the glass

Christmas trees

Lloyd's building at night

Rainy night 2

Lloyd's building lifts abstract

Just to contrast nicely with the Royal Exchange lighting, the Lloyd’s Building was floodlit in blues and greens.  The image above is of the glass lifts that go up the outside of the building.  Far more blurred than it was meant to be, but I like the resulting abstract.

I had such a lot of fun with this that I want to do more; I’m amazed how many of these came out despite my noisy, hand-held camera.  Bring on the rain……….  (I don’t totally mean that.)

A rainy night in London town

Puddle jumping

I was teaching in London again yesterday and afterwards met up with Corinna, who’s both my good friend and my employer.  She took a rare few hours off to share lunch, drinks and a long, long catch-up chat.  London pubs in the late afternoon in the run-up to Christmas tend to be very busy, noisy places; this one was no exception, especially when a large group of elderly men gathered next to us and produced a decibel level that was hard to believe possible.  When we found we were trying to lip-read each other because there was no other way to communicate, we thought we’d better get out of there and go somewhere more peaceful for a coffee.  But, hey…..when we got outside it was raining heavily and the coloured reflections and lights were to die for.  So instead of the coffee, we spent an excited hour or so in the rain with our cameras.

I’m astonished that I’ve got as many usable shots as I have. My camera doesn’t handle noise well, so I try not to put the ISO over 800.  I was forced to go up to 1600 this time, but even that wasn’t really enough to get a fast enough shutter speed and I had to use the widest possible aperture, so my depth of field wasn’t great either.  Add in the fact that I was handholding at shutter speeds of around 1/6 to 1/4 of a second and it’s hard to believe I didn’t have to chuck the whole lot of them out.  But I think these are the kind of shots where a little bit of noise or blur doesn’t matter too much and I think they capture the atmosphere pretty well.

Isn’t it amazing, we said as we headed for home, that when you take up photography rain suddenly becomes a thing of beauty instead of something to be avoided?

Rush hour in the rain

Wet pavement 4

Wet pavement 3


Wet pavement 2



Wet pavement

Window shopping

Highgate Cemetery

In loving memory

I’m over the worst of my cold now, but it brought back memories of last year’s ongoing illnesses – months and months of catching one virus after another and feeling exhausted and miserable, with only the occasional day here and there when I felt relatively ok.  It was a horrible time and part of me is feeling terrified that it’s going to happen again and that this is the start of it.  I keep telling myself it’s just a cold and it’s quite normal to catch colds at this time of year, but my mind spins off into catastrophe mode.  Anyway, today I feel a lot better and I’ve squashed those thoughts back into the deep recesses of my mind where I will do my best to pretend they don’t exist.

I went to Highgate Cemetery a few weeks back and have been processing my shots inbetween bouts of sneezing and paranoia.  There are two parts to the cemetery: one side can only be visited on a guided tour but has the most impressive tombs and monuments.  You can wander freely round the other side and, although it’s not so imposing, there’s still plenty of interest there.  By the time I’d met up with my friend Mike and we’d had lunch and a long chat, it was already mid-afternoon so we thought that this time we’d stick to the ‘wander freely’ side and save the other for another time.

It’s an interesting place, not least because it’s inter-denominational and people of all religions and nationalities can be buried there.  Although it’s been restored to some degree, it still has a wild, overgrown feel about it and there are areas where the undergrowth has taken over and tombstones lie tilted and broken.  It makes the whole place very moody and atmospheric.  Even as a child I loved wandering round graveyards and imagining the lives of the people buried there; these places still fascinate me and now I enjoy the visual qualities of them too.  This one is amazing, with lots of fascinating stones and statues.

Probably the most famous person buried there is Karl Marx, and this bulbous stone head really lent itself to being photographed.

Karl Marx

I don’t know who Violet May Gardiner was, but she was obviously very fond of her dog.


This one I find a little troubling:

Head in hands

I’ve always loved stone angels and there are loads of these.


Angel 2

Angel 3

Angel 4

There are a lot of very unusual grave markers; here are a couple of bookish ones:

Jeremy Beadle

Jim Stanford Horn

And this puts a whole new spin on ‘I woz ‘ere’ graffiti:

Malcolm was here

This rather beautiful statue was placed here by a husband for his wife, and is a realistic representation of her.  He must have loved her very much.


There was a surprising abundance of flowers, even at this time of the year, and here and there were strands of creeper that had turned the most astonishing bright red.

White flowers

Red creeper

At one point we were talking about the euphemisms we tend to use for death – on almost every stone people ‘passed away’, or ‘went to sleep’ or ‘left to be with Jesus’ or were ‘taken from us’.  No-one, it seems, simply died.  It’s been said that death is the last taboo, and I do think it’s something that people find difficult to talk about.  And then we saw this one, and laughed – no euphemisms here:


But my favourite of the day was a very ordinary headstone, quite plain and simple, but I loved the words that were engraved on it.  How lovely to be remembered like this – ‘Incomparable friend, teacher and lover of life’.

Lover of life

Camera shake blues

St Dunstan's window, autumn

I’m so annoyed at myself right now. So many of my recent photos have some slight camera shake in them – it’s very slight, and you probably wouldn’t spot it at the size and resolution on here but I know it’s there and it spoils the image for me.  I used to pride myself on having a very steady hand but at the moment you’d think I’d been hitting the bottle on a regular basis.

It’s got me thinking about the whole issue of sharpness. It seems to me that if you’re setting out to take a photo that relies on sharpness, then it should be perfectly sharp.  But unless you have very bright light, that really means using a tripod, and I hate them.  I hate them for a number of reasons but the most important one to me is that it takes away the spontaneous nature of shooting.  I took up photography in part because I’d spent too much of my life being academic and precise and terribly, terribly careful.  I wanted to break away from that.  I wanted to work intuitively, move fluidly, and lose myself in the flow of it all.  For me, getting all finicky about perfect sharpness is too much like being back in academia where everything felt so restricted and lacking in life and joy – no matter how interesting it was on an intellectual basis.  To use a tripod on a regular basis would take away much of the joy that photography gives me, but I don’t want to take poor shots either………

I’ve always been very drawn to any kind of lo-fi photography. I like the way you never know quite what you’re going to get and how there’s always a chance of a serendipitous accident that turns out to be your best shot.  And I like the softness and mystery the lo-fi approach creates. One of my recently discovered favourite photographers is Susan Burnstine; she makes her own (very lo-fi) cameras out of bits and pieces she picks up at car boot sales.  The resulting images are dreamy, mysterious, and full of story.  Sometimes digital can seem too hard-edged, too bright, too contrasty, for me.  I know it doesn’t have to be, but it so often is.

I used to love my Lensbaby for its lo-fi qualities but I pretty much stopped using it, largely because I got such a rollicking when I used it for a whole assignment.  I can see now that my assignment photos did leave a lot to be desired, but I still don’t think that was the fault of the lens.  Lensbaby images can be a bit gimmicky, it’s true, but when they’re done properly they can also be very effective.  However, it does have a very distinctive and identifiable look and that’s not always what I want, either.

I’m aware I’m rambling on here, so let me finish up and get to the point. I feel there’s a decision I have to make – go for sharp pictures, bite the bullet and use a tripod, or go in a different direction towards a more lo-fi approach, where lack of sharpness isn’t an issue in the same way.  I like the second of these better, but I’m going to have to think hard about how I want to do that.

In the meantime, I took these once I got finished teaching in London at the weekend.  They were shot in one of my favourite places, St Dunstan’s-in-the-East.  The light was pretty dull so I concentrated on taking little abstract-y shots.  Some are sharp, some aren’t………….but you might not notice.

Last autumn leaves

Bench with autumn leaves

Oak leaf


Leaves and pebbles

Autumn corner

Leaf stars


Feathers and leaf

Benches 2

Leaves on bench

Fountain and leaves




A walk in the woods, and Chinese lantern failure

Golden ferns

Sunday was the first time in quite a while that I’ve been for a walk in the woods. I took my camera, but I wasn’t feeling at all inspired – it was that flat, dull light that we’re probably going to see a great deal of now that summer’s truly left us, and it just doesn’t do it for me at all.  But it’s a funny thing – if you keep taking shots anyway, then eventually you usually do find something that gets you going.  I started warming up a bit when I saw the ferns above; something about the soft, golden colour and the sheer quantity of them spoke to me.

After that, I saw all sorts of things.  This one’s a bit of a cliche, but I still like it.


More ferns – not as strong a composition as the top one but there was something about the feathery golden-ness of it all that appealed to me.

Ferns 2

Someone had left his or her tricycle behind; it seemed a strange place to leave it and there were no families in sight or earshot.


And this one really intrigues me: who were they missing, and why?  I’d love to know the story behind this.  I like the way they’ve used the missing piece of wall as the ‘i’ in ‘miss’.

I miss you

We also saw a slow worm. I know, I know…….. if you live in a country that has lots of snakes this probably isn’t exciting at all, but here in the UK we only have three kinds: adders, grass snakes, and slow worms, which aren’t really snakes at all but a kind of lizard without legs.  They look like small snakes, though, and you don’t see them very often.  In my excitement to photograph it I failed dismally at holding the camera still, so all my photos have camera shake and I can’t show you.  Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

It would have been Geoff’s mum’s 88th birthday on Sunday, and we had a plan for later that day. He’d given me some Chinese paper prayer lanterns for my birthday – the kind that are like hot air balloons, and you light them and send them up into the sky.  We thought we’d wait till dark and light a few and send them up as a celebration of his mum’s birthday-that-would-have-been.

Unfortunately it didn’t go to plan at all. I had said, but he hadn’t heard me, that if he wanted me to be able to photograph them we would need to do it at dusk when there was still some light.  For whatever reason, wires got crossed and it was completely dark by the time we went out, and we went to a local park where there was no ambient light.  Then we couldn’t get the damn things lit.  You attach a small square of waxy material to the wire frame at the bottom, and then light it – well that’s the theory.  It was quite windy and the matches kept blowing out and when they did stay lit the wax just wouldn’t catch.  One of us – me – had to hold the top of the lantern and aim the torch, and the other had to light the matches and hold the bottom while everything was blowing furiously around in the wind.

Lantern lightingEventually we jammed a dead match through the middle of the waxy thing and got that to light. Then followed a dangerous few minutes when the paper bit hadn’t filled enough with hot air to let go of it, but the flames from the wax were threatening to set the whole thing – and Geoff – on fire.  The picture’s on the left and I don’t know why he looks as if he doesn’t have a head.  Anyway, we got one up and it looked very pretty as it set off over Canterbury, heading for the Cathedral.  (We hoped it would put itself out before it got there and we made headlines the next morning for setting one of England’s most important heritage buildings on fire.)  Of course, you’ll have guessed by now that all my photos had camera shake.  And we tried and tried until we’d used up a whole large box of matches, but we couldn’t do it a second time.


On the walk back to the house, I spotted this overgrown road sign for my ‘nature taking over’ series, which I’m hoping might work for course assignment number three.  Thing is, I’ll need to be quick because soon nature will be retreating underground and won’t be taking over anything till next year.

Road sign


Autumn’s fire burns slowly…….

Autumn tree

I have such mixed feelings at this time of year.  I love spring and summer so much, and I love the long, light days and the warmth such a lot, that I can’t help but feel a little grief that they’ve gone.  But I really love autumn too, with its rich burnt russets and vivid reds, oranges and yellows.  And did I mention the kind of light you get at this time of the year?  It’s just glorious – the season’s swansong before the gloom of winter sets in.

Because we’ve had an ongoing warm, sunny spell, the leaves are only just beginning to turn now.  I have a season ticket for some beautiful gardens nearby, and this year they had an open day for season ticket holders.   I jumped at the chance to go there, because they close to the public in September and I’ve never seen the place later in the year.  I was a bit cheeky and emailed to ask if Geoff could come too, even though he didn’t hold a ticket.  They were very nice and said yes, no problem.  We were blessed with the most beautiful day for it, and even though I wasn’t feeling particularly well, the two hours we spent there were bliss.  We bypassed the wine, tea, scones and cakes and just wandered around, taking pictures.

Flame tree


Autumn tree 3

Dancing tree


Autumn dream

Red leaves

The mizmaze

Autumn light

Fire and water 2

“Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods

and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.”

William Allingham

Check under your car for chickens

Barn with azaleas

I am just so behind with processing photos.  These were actually taken way back in the spring and editing them was making me feel a little sad and nostalgic for the abundance of flowers and colours that are fast disappearing.

They were taken at Beech Court Gardens in Challock, which is down the road a ways from where I live.  It’s a place that’s made me realise how important garden design is.  It looks wonderfully colourful in late spring/early summer but after that there isn’t a great deal in flower.  And even when it’s at its best, it’s a real hotch-potch of colours that are seemingly just thrown together instead of being planned in any way.  The colours themselves are superb, but it’s very hard to get a decent photograph and it’s brought home to me how a good garden designer has already done much of the work for us when it comes to getting good shots.  I always get really excited when I go there because it looks so spectacular, and then I’m mildly disappointed when I get home and see my shots.

One thing I do like, though, is this sign:



Bench 4

Bench 3






Orange azaleas

Pink blossom


Margate Kite Festival

Kite mosaic

We took a trip down to Margate yesterday, to the kite festival.  Last year we got there at about 3.00pm only to find an empty beach and not a kite in sight.  The weather was awful, strong winds  – which, ok, could have been an advantage – but there was also a lot of rain, and it was freezingly cold.  It seemed they’d all gone home early and I can’t say we blamed them.

But yesterday was wonderful.  A balmy breeze, strong enough to be good for kites but not so strong it was annoying, blue skies with enough cloud to be interesting, and warm sun.  The star of the show was a huge octopus kite.  We walked along the beach to get to the arena, so we saw it first from the back and it looked as if some war-of-the-worlds-style alien creature was about to take over Margate.

Alien attack

From the front, and a little deflated, it looked a lot less threatening:

Deflated octopus

Kites over Margate 2

Octopus 2

We had just missed a giant gecko, but there was a parrot:


I think my favourite was this little red horse.  Although it does look cute in the photo, you need to see it in motion to get the full effect as the movement of the wind made it look as if it was realistically galloping along.  Sometimes I really wish my camera did video.

Red horse

But if monkeys are more your thing, you could have had this one – and a banana.  (And they were trying to inflate a giant lobster as we left.)


Some of the fancier ones never made it off the ground.  This one looked fantastic, but floundered around getting nowhere.


Sometimes, though, simpler can be better and there was something very fresh and appealing about this plain white kite against the blue of the sky.

White kite

The next one wasn’t flown while we were there, but it looks amazing just sitting on the ground.  It was huge and the colours were utterly gorgeous.

Red kite

Red kite abstract

Sunday in Ballymena

Moravian graveyard 7

It’s been a very intense sort of week this last week.  A visit to Northern Ireland, a family funeral, then home and a therapy treatment that made me detox so much it felt like the worst hangover I’ve ever had, multiplied by five, and lasting three days.  It hasn’t made for regular blog entries, that’s for sure.

While we were in Northern Ireland we visited a village called Gracehill, near Ballymena (it’s one of the very few things to do in Ballymena, on a Sunday).  It was founded by a religious community of Moravians and there’s an old graveyard there that dates back to the mid-1700s.  If you imagine what might once have been a small field, long and thin, with a thick hedge around it and a tree-lined path down the centre, then you’ll have an idea what it was like.  The Moravians had a very strict social structure which they extended even to their dead, and all the men are buried on one side and the women on the other, and all the stones are the same size and shape to reflect their belief in everyone being of equal importance.

The graves are arranged in chronological order, with the oldest ones being near the entrance and the latest ones at the far end.  Further down, they spread over the whole area, but the older stones are all together and line each side of the path.  The story is that the gardener got fed up trying to mow between all the stones and so he placed them all together to make it easier for himself – true? I’m not sure.  Most of them are covered in moss and indecipherable, but the occasional one is clear – presumably someone must have cleared the moss off for some reason.

Moravian graveyard 1

Moravian graveyard 3

Moravian graveyard 2

Moravian graveyard 6

Moravian graveyard 5

Faux roses

The weather was poor when we were there, with flat, dull light and intermittent drizzle, but I think that maybe it suits the subject matter.  It was a very peaceful, calm place, with a tinge of melancholy to it as well.  I’ve always liked cemeteries – I like to ponder about who these people were, and wonder about why this one died at the age of 23, and what sort of character that one turned into, having lived to 87.  I like looking at the names, to see how names have changed in popularity over the years.  And there are always small and interesting things to puzzle over, like who left this bunch of faded artificial roses for a loved one and why they never replaced them with a fresher bunch .

Rainy days are great for photography – honest!

Las Iguanas

I’m always telling the people who come on my workshops that rain offers wonderful opportunities for great photos, but what I do when it rains?  I stay in, of course.  Well, you know – it’s wet out there.

But sometimes you get caught in it without meaning to, and last week was one of those times.  My friend Eileen and I had gone to see the Tracy Emin exhibition at the South Bank Centre in London.  I still don’t know what I think about Ms Emin so maybe I’ll come back to that bit of it later.  Anyway, the South Bank Centre is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain at the moment, and there are artworks of various kinds all around the area.  Before we went in, when it was still dry – just – we explored a few of these.

One of them is the Urban Fox, a giant structure made out of straw applied to a wooden framework.  He’s rather good, isn’t he?

Urban Fox

And this is a photo of a photo of him being transported there.  You can see just how big he is – look at the size of his head compared to the size of the truck transporting him.

Urban Fox transporter

There was also this themed, outdoor, cafe sort of place; not sure what it was meant to be about, but the colours were wonderful.

Indian cafeFlowers and stripes



I also loved the bright pink of this Banksy-style mural, especially in among the rather nasty grey concrete that dominates this area.


As we came out, we headed for an amazing rooftop garden (of which more in another post).  We started exploring, but the clouds had darkened and the rain began to come down in huge, fat drops, so we headed for cover.  Beneath us as we came down the steps there was a fountain installation by Jeppe Hein called Appearing Rooms.  Jets of water create ‘rooms’ inside the fountain, and these rooms keep changing.  A group of teenagers had stripped off and were having huge fun trying to predict where the next ‘room’ would appear.

Appearing Rooms

They left shortly after we reached shelter but this little boy wandered up, looked at the fountain for a moment, and then jumped right into it fully clothed.  A few minutes later his mother appeared, looking absolutely horrified.  There are times when I wish I wasn’t so old and sensible; part of me was wanting to run right into it myself and dance in the centre.

Fountain dancer

I also took this shot, looking up through the fountain towards the steps we had just come down.  The couple with the umbrella appeared at the top of the steps and I suddenly saw what a great shot it would make, taken through the water jets.  I zoomed right in and grabbed the shot – they only stayed there for a moment – not knowing if it would work, but it did!


The rain was torrential, with some thunder and lightning.  I liked this guy’s solution to staying dry.

Orange cape

Chairs in the rain

Central Bar

Green reflection

And I’m going to include this shot (because I like it), even though I got it badly wrong and the shoes are very out of focus – I’m so annoyed with myself.


Finally, some tips that might be helpful if you fancy trying some photography in the rain.

  • Sounds obvious, but unless your camera has weather-sealing, keep it as dry as possible. Light rain probably won’t harm it for a short while, but it should definitely be protected against heavy rain. Hold an umbrella over it; pop it inside a ziplock plastic bag (with hole cut out for lens); buy a pack of Rainsleeves (very cheap); or splash out on a well-designed rain cover. At the very least, tuck it inside your jacket while you’re not using it.
  • Two more cheap ways of keeping your camera dry: use one of those clear plastic shower caps you get in hotel rooms – place the elasticated end over the lens. Or use an old waterproof jacket or trousers (try charity shops) and cut off an arm or a leg. These are often elasticated, which helps fit the end round your lens.
  • Don’t ignore the obvious: find a doorway or tree to shelter under while you shoot.
  • Wipe your camera – lens, LCD screen, camera body – down frequently with a microfibre cloth.
  • To keep your lens as dry as possible, keep the lens cap on until you’re ready to shoot. Have some soft lint-free cloths available to wipe your lens with.
  • Using a lens hood will also help keep the raindrops off.
  • Here’s another idea: put your camera on a monopod and use a superclamp to fix an umbrella to it. It’s portable and because the camera isn’t inside anything it makes it easier to operate.
  • Keep your camera pointed down when you’re not using it to keep most of the raindrops off the lens.
  • Keep yourself dry too. Good waterproofs will have you singing in the rain.
  • If you’ve been out in the cold and are coming back into the warm, avoid condensation forming on your camera by placing it inside a sealable plastic bag (while you’re still outside) and squashing out most of the air. Then let it come back to room temperature. Humidity generally isn’t good for your camera if it persists for a long time. Make sure that it spends most of its time in a warm, light, dry place to discourage moulds and other nasties.
  • If the worst does happen and your camera gets a dowsing, there’s a great article on Shutterbug telling you what you need to do.  Print out a copy of it and keep it inside your camera bag. Use waterproof ink, of course 🙂