Silk purse

The official launch of the Shard – tallest building in London by some distance – was trailed as being something spectacular.

Lasers, searchlights, pyrotechnics… Sauron’s eyeless tower conducting a thorough inspection (or benediction) of its new neighbours: much to see and much to capture.

So it seemed like an obvious idea to return to the scene of one of my favourite shots…

…to capture what promised to be a very memorable display from a highly privileged vantage point.

My friend Peter Kerwood is marketing maestro at Altitude 360 and something of a genius when it comes to innovative events. Altitude is up on the 29th floor of the Millbank Tower, pretty close to the Houses of Parliament. It was in a chance moment while covering an event there last year that I grabbed that unusually-lit shot of the Shard.

And, as is often the case with Peter, when I mentioned that I quite fancied a crack at the lasers from the same position, he got it straightaway and kindly let me in.

Capturing something like this, from distance, at night, from behind glass, presents a fair few technical challenges. The biggest one – that of internal reflections – was mercifully removed when all the lights were dimmed. But that left the usual challenges of low-light, a distant subject, and being behind some pretty thick glass.

There’s no such thing as an isolated variable factor in photography. Change one thing, and you generally end up changing something else. To deal with the low light levels, you need a slower shutter speed (to let more light in). That means you need the camera to be entirely still for the duration of the shot, anything up to a few seconds. So I’d brought my tripod.

Once you’re working with a tripod, you don’t need to use some of the other techniques you might otherwise use in low light – like making the sensor in the camera more sensitive (by choosing a higher ISO number). You can keep it low, and this also helps with the clarity and sharpness of the image.

Neither do you have to throw the aperture as wide as it can go to seek out more light. You can keep it tight, also leading to more objects in the frame being in focus.

But a slow, tight shot does funny things with light sources – especially against a dark background. Typically, they appear as little “stars” as the lens glass and diaphragm elements conspire to diffract the light. That can be a nice effect, but the window glass also creates it, and the idea was not to have a very chaotic wash of stars, nor the vertical “streaking” of lights that the window could generate. Shut your eyes almost completely as you look at a bright light: that’s the sort of vertical streaking I’m talking about.

One thing that seems to reduce this latter effect is getting the lens very close to the window – but the tripod size and positioning of the seating in the room meant it was tripod, or lens-to-window, but not both. So, first compromise: dump the tripod. I grabbed a plastic straw–holder from the bar, flipped it over, and it was perfect: a window ledge shim allowing me to wedge the lens right up against the glass. Along with my hand pressing the lens down that made it stable in two directions of travel: plenty enough for steady, breath-held exposures of a few seconds in duration.

All good. Here we go!

At least that’s what I thought until the “amazing lightshow” began.

Two pencil-thin fingers of green light flickered weakly over London. And then another couple. A few more. And then the first ones again.

And that was it. The fireworks barely seemed to graze the tenth floor of this mighty 72-storey behemoth. Insignificant, at the distance I was. The searchlights might have looked great to a crowd huddled beneath the damn thing, but to me? Merely a bit of variety in terms of coloured outlines.

This wasn’t going well.

The designer’s dream (and the PR spinner’s fantasy) of a flickering monster casting its baleful green beam upon London’s landmarks in turn proved to be just that. A fantasy. No sign of the sweeping searchlights, either.

What we had was some thin green lines. And distant, coloured floodlighting.

But I had time, and I was not leaving without some striking content. That’s the point: the event is there – you’re shooting it – you have to make it look great. That’s the job, whatever sow’s ear you find yourself with. So I had to dig deep.

Here are a few samples of what I came up with.

Firstly, exploiting what is a really unusual feature of that shooting position: the Shard appears to be the only tall building in London. The City is just to the left of the frame, Docklands just to the right. A recreation of my morning shot, with lasers.

The long exposure wasn’t so much to catch the lasers (which maintained their position for many seconds at a time) but to pick up lots of the subtler London night-lighting. You can just about see one of the lasers casting a green light onto Tower Bridge at the bottom right. The big feature of the edit was using the sliders in Adobe Camera Raw to really deepen the “blacks”: the tonal areas, brighter than “shadows”, that really define the light between them. The green is also selectively saturated to emphasise the lasers.
Exif*: 155mm; ISO 200; f/5.6; 4

 

Having heard that the light would be aimed at all these landmarks, and being right next to the Palace of Westminster, I did set up a wide angle shot that would hopefully show the searing beam making its big green mark on Parliament. Fat chance. So I had to abandon that one. Lesson: even if you think the shot’ll be great in theory, if it’s shit don’t feel you have to put it in the final set anyway. Nobody’s interested in the idea if the image is crap.

But this stretch – from Shard to St Paul’s – did just about work. I traded aperture against shutter speed, but underexposing in comparison to the previous frame – mainly because the dome of St Paul’s was so brightly floodlit that it was in danger of burning out. It’s still a little over the top, but acts to emphasise the landmark, I hope. Anyway, the green dot is clearly visible on the dark area of the dome.
Exif: 70mm; ISO 250; f/2.8; 1

 

I needed something with some punch now: never mind showing the Shard in context – it was time for some telephoto action to see the mighty pyramid close-up. Now you can really see the green dot on Tower Bridge.

Nothing too fancy here: just a close crop, set to a square format, with a lot of boost to the “vibrance” slider to really make the greens and purples pop. I pushed the ISO up to 400 here as I didn’t want a stupidly long exposure – normally no noise impact with this sensor, but with large dark areas like this the frame did need running through the noise reduction plug-in, followed by some additional Photoshop sharpening. I could have shaved off some exposure time by widening the aperture, but I was after the sharpest image the lens could produce, and that falls away towards the very widest aperture setting of f/2.8.
Exif: 200mm; ISO 400; f/5.6; 3.2

 

And finally, for this post, one of the images I took with my other camera: a Canon 40D. This has a rougher sensor than the 5DMkII, but there’s a hidden benefit to this. Because I ran this image through the excellent Nik Color Efex Pro 4 plug-in. There’s a slider in there called “Dark Detail Extractor” which does exactly that – ferrets into the cracks and disruptions in an image, emphasising highly localised contrast differences. I find that a slightly grainy image can really spring into life as the filter plays on and exaggerates the tiny tonal differences. It gives quite a different feel to the previous images: suddenly every small light in London has been switched on.

A different feel: rougher, brasher, but effective in a different way. The processing here brings out the searchlights against the sky in a way that was missed in the previous frames. This really did need the noise reduction treatment (using Noiseware from Imagenomic as a Photoshop plug-in).
Exif: 70mm; ISO 640; f/3.2; 1.6

 

(Clicking on these pictures should open them up in a lightbox – you can then use arrow keys to jump between them.)

*What the Exif notes mean: this is detailed data about how the photo was taken – first, the focal length of the lens, then ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor: low number for bright conditions, high for dark or indoors), then f number (the size of the hole that lets the light into the camera: low = big, high = small), finally the exposure time (how long the shutter is open) in seconds.

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