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




Under-whelmed in the City

Sunlit spire

I was in London at the end of last week, doing some private tuition for a youngish couple. It was her birthday, and he had bought the lesson as a gift for her.  We were still in the throes of a very unseasonal heatwave, so I took them to a nearby garden and we sat there in the sunshine and went through the basic theory.

It started out just fine. They were very interested in how the camera worked and how you got it to do various things and when you’d use which settings, and so on, and so forth.  Then we went walkabout so they could apply it all in practice.  They only had one camera between them, so the tuition being her birthday present and all, she was in possession of it.  I took them on my usual route, which covers all sorts of interesting, impressive and quirky parts of the city.  There’s a modern, neo-Gothic building with three larger than life-size horse statues outside, a pavement with the whole history of London set into it in gold letters, a fabulous view of Tower Bridge and the Thames, weather vanes in the shape of fat, juicy fish, the Faberge jewel that’s the Swiss Re building, a shell of a mediaeval church that’s now a beautiful garden, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror sculpture, the Lloyds Building reflected a hundred times in a facing structure……I could go on, but what I’m trying to say is that there were a million fabulous things all around them.

It all left them cold. Under-whelmed seemed to be the word of the day and she wasn’t very interested in photographing anything, it seemed – no, not even to practice.  The only time they got at all animated was when they started photographing each other. (I went with that for a bit, but there was only so much mileage to be had there.)  They lived and worked outside of London, so it wasn’t a case of familiarity breeding contempt, simply that nothing seemed to float their boat.

That was when I realised that what makes teaching enjoyable for me is when I see students getting enthusiastic and excited.  I love it when they take picture after picture, and badger me with questions about how to get something to turn out right.  They begin to see the city in a new way, and to see the possibilities for amazing images.  The best of them don’t care about getting a little dusty and will happily lie on the ground if it will get them the shot.  Their photographic eyes open up and they’re thrilled by everything they see.  Some of them don’t say much at all, but there’s a gleam in their eye that wasn’t there when we started.  That’s what makes it worthwhile.

So I sat on the train on the way home, feeling a little flat, missing the buzz that I usually get after teaching, and wondering why they didn’t see what I saw and why they needed to know how their camera worked when they were able to see little or nothing worth shooting.  I think we all lost out there.


Sky mirror

The Lloyd’s Building reflected in Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror

St Dunstan’s – sanctuary in the City

St Dunstan-in-the-East, detail

I’ve just finished working on the second assignment for my landscape course.  The brief was that we had to choose an area of approximately one acre of ‘countryside’ and take a large variety of photos that gave a sense of the place.  ‘Countryside’ can be interpreted fairly liberally, so I chose a small garden within a ruined church, right in the centre of The City of London.

I’ve never been a religious person; I find plenty of meaning in life, but it comes to me in other ways.  When I was a child my mother used to drag me along to church and I’d sit there longing with all my heart to be outside in the sunshine.  It seemed to me even at the age of eight, that if there was indeed a god, he would be better served by getting out and appreciating this fantastic world that he’d made.  I imagined him looking down, banging his forehead against a brick wall (or perhaps an unusually solid cloud) and saying (and UK readers can imagine a kind of Richard Wilson voice here):  “I don’t believe it!  I make this amazing place for you to use any way you want to, and I really hoped you were going to have a good time there, and what do you do?  You sit in a dim, man-made environment, singing mournfully and shutting yourselves away from the sun – which I also created and which took a lot of damned hard work, let me tell you – and you moan on about your sins and how you’re not deserving of what I’ve given you.  Well, let me be the judge of that – your job is to rejoice in it, for god’s sake! ”  You get the picture.

So when I came across this little gem of a place in London, it symbolised something for me.  It’s a mediaeval church with a Tower designed by Christopher Wren (who also designed St Paul’s Cathedral).  It was bombed heavily during the Blitz of WWII and all that remained of it was the tower, which was still intact, and the walls of the church.  It was decided not to rebuild the main church, but to turn the ruins into a garden.  It’s now a beautiful, peaceful place with trees and a fountain, and benches where office workers come to eat lunch and sit quietly.  To me it represents that feeling I had as a child: the lush green of the plants growing inside the building and the roof open to the light and the sky brings the natural world inside a sacred space, and that just feels right somehow.

Despite the fact that large numbers of people are using it on any weekday lunchtime, the atmosphere is unusually quiet and serene.  Most people read or eat packed lunches; there aren’t usually many people talking and although the occasional person is engaged in conversation on their mobile, the sound doesn’t carry  – I guess the trees and shrubs soak it up.  It has all the good qualities of a church – the peace, the meditative feeling, the beautiful stonework – while essentially being a place of nature.

The following are a selection of photos I took there, some to be used in the assignment, some not.  And you’ll find another one here.

St Dunstan-in-the-East, lunchtime

St Dunstan-in-the-East, reflection

St Dunstan-in-the-East, window detail

St Dunstan-in-the-East, benches

St Dunstan-in-the-East, dog

St Dunstan-in-the-East, legs

St Dunstan-in-the-East, lunchtime

St Dunstan-in-the-East, ray of light

London abstract


While in London last weekend, I took this shot of a reflection in the Gherkin – or Swiss Re building as it should be called.  I tried it in black and white as well; I don’t like it quite so much, but then I’ll nearly always go for colour first.