More low-light adventures

Following on from a previous outing to do night photography (see As the light fades…), we went on another expedition this evening. We started by taking a bus to Waterloo Bridge.

Theatre Square
Theatre Square
An open space belonging to the National Theatre

The sky was still above the horizon but the shadows were length­en­ing. The golden light is good for photography because it is relativity soft.

The Thames from Waterloo Bridge
The Thames from Waterloo Bridge
Looking downriver towards Blackfriars Bridge

Waterloo Bridge provides a fine view of the Thames. Quite a lot of shipping moves around in the area, adding interest. The next bridge is Blackfriars. There are also several famous buildings in view: on the left bank, the dome of St Paul’s and the bullet-shaped Gherkin; on the right bank, shaped like a water carafe, the (expletive deleted) Shard.

Courtyard, Somerset House
Courtyard, Somerset House
Once a royal palace, now a centre for entertainment and the arts

We walked down to Somerset House and tarried a while in the courtyard. The first building here was a Tudor palace built in 1547 by Edward Seymour, Lord Protector (of the underage Edward VI) and Duke of Somerset. The palace was finished in 1573 but, alas for him, the Duke had already lost his head to the executioner in 1572.

The fountains
The fountains
In the quiet of the evening, the pigeons can come to drink

The present building, beautiful as it is, dates only from 1775. The original building had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the best course was to demolish it and start again. Thus was finally swept away a site with a complex history that had seen crowned heads and powerful statesmen as residents, and repeated phases of expensive rebuilding and decoration. An account of that history will be found here.

A lighted doorway
A lighted doorway
A splash of colour amid grey stone

After enjoying the peaceful surroundings of a courtyard once more restored to its natural state after being cluttered with temporary structures during a recent event, we walked through the arch into the Strand.

Gateway to the Strand
Gateway to the Strand
Lights show off the beauty of the moulded ceiling

In the Strand, we waited for a bus to carry us to the next place that we wanted to photograph. While waiting, I snapped the church of St Mary le Strand, the tip of whose spire was catching the last of the sunlight.

St Mary le Strand
St Mary le Strand
The spire is tipped by the last rays of
sunlight

The bus dropped us off in Whitehall and we walked around the corner to this famous arch.

Admiralty Arch
Admiralty Arch
A monument and also the gateway to the Mall

Admiralty Arch is one of those features of London that we feel has been here for ever but it in fact bears the date of its construction upon it, incorporated in the Latin dedication: In the tenth year of King Edward VII, to Queen Victoria, from most grateful citizens, 1910.

The Admiralty Nose
The Admiralty Nose
Whose nose it is, no one seems to know

The Arch contains a mystery. In the rightmost arch (as seen from Trafalgar Square), about 7 feet from the ground, is a stone nose. Many theories have been proposed but no one seems to know for sure whose nose it is meant to be. Some say that it is that of the Duke of Wellington (known for his large nose) and that mounted guardsmen rub it for good luck as they pass through. Others say it is Napoleon’s, put there to be insulted by passers-by. Still others claim it is a spare nose for Admiral Nelson atop his column but, in that case, why only a nose? Why not other spare body parts as well? The truth is no one knows to whom the nose belongs.

Gagarin
Gagarin
A monument to the first man in space

Just through the Arch is a statue to Yuri Gagarin, unveiled by his daughter Elena, on July 14th 2011, a gift of the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. Gagarin, as you of course know, was the first man to go into space when his space ship, Vostok, orbited the earth in 1961. The fact that he was a Russian was sufficiently disturbing to the US that it provoked the famous Space Race that led to the landing of American “astronauts” (the Russians, perhaps more ambitiously, preferred the word “cosmonauts”) on the moon.

The ICA
The ICA
A source of light in the darkness of the Mall

As you can see from the above photo, it was now becoming dark. Tigger was in her element taking night photos with her new camera. I am less keen because I have little experience of night photography and didn’t expect to get results I would like. But I had brought a tripod so it seemed worth a try, just see how it turned out.

Looking along the Mall
Looking along the Mall
Buckingham Palace is just visible in the distance

We put tripods on a central refuge and took pictures along the Mall. The one above was taken opposite the ICA looking south-west(ish) towards Buckingham Palace, which can just be glimpsed. Because it is a time exposure, the pedestrian near the car on the right looks like a ghost.

St James's Park
St James’s Park
The lake and illuminated fountain

We then moved into St James’s Park where I took a number of photos, including the above, which shows the lake and the fountain. Maybe if you attach adjectives like “mysterious”, “romantic”, etc., it’ll pass muster…

Tree with lamp
Tree with lamp
Where paths divide

This one is a bit odd. I don’t know why the light seems reddish as I don’t remember it as such though perhaps the brain adapts its vision to colour bias better than the camera does. The blue of the sky glimpsed through the foliage suggests the colour balance is about right. The war memorial is glimpsed to the left.

Parliament Square
Parliament Square
And the famous big clock!

We tarried a while in Parliament Square, where I took this photo of the clock we all know as Big Ben though, strictly speaking, that is the name of the bell that chimes the hours. By compensating for the surrounding darkness, the camera has over-exposed the clock face.

BT Tower
BT Tower
Looking from Hampstead Road

I would call the last 6 photos “interesting” rather than anything else. They demonstrate the difficulty of night photography in the city where the extreme contrast of bright lights in an almost dark environment makes a complete rendering of the scene virtually impossible: you can meter for the lights and black out the rest, or meter for the back­ground and get overspill from the lights. Either way, you need a tripod because no one can hold a camera still enough for the length of exposure required.

This high contrast is perceived as a problem in photography because the eye and the camera look at a scene differently. In the photo, you see the scene as a whole with whatever exposure the camera has adopted for it. When you look with the eye, you view the scene piecemeal. As you look at each little bit, the eye adapts to its level of brightness and the brain makes a composite whole so that you think you see the whole scene, not a collection of correctly "exposed" bits. Until cameras can be designed that see as the eye sees, we will continue to face this problem.

As photographic technology continues to evolve and cameras become virtual miniature computers, perhaps this problem will eventually be solved. One way of coping with the problem at present is called High Dynamic Range (HDR for short). In this technique, you take preferably 3 or more photos of the scene at different exposures (for example, using the exposure bracketing function of your camera if it has this) and then combine them in software. It is possible also the apply HDR techniques to a single frame if you shoot in "RAW" mode but don’t ask me how that works because I haven’t studied it yet (and don’t shoot in RAW, anyway).

Does this work? Yes, it does: just search on "high dynamic range" in your browser and you will find many examples of HDR photos as well as tutorials on the technique. If you have the money (for the software) and also the time and patience to play with your photos, you will get a result in which the correctly exposed parts from the different frames are combined into one picture. However, it is a result that I personally do not find pleasing. To me, HDR pictures look unnatural, rather as if they were scenes of an alien world executed in acrylic paint. There is a dream or nightmare atmosphere about them.

Although I do also edit my photos, I do so relatively lightly and my goal is always to make the photographed scene resemble as closely as possible what I saw with my own eyes, rather than to achieve a technically excellent photo. I may never win any awards in pho­to­graph­ic competitions but that’s how I like my photos – warts and all!

The Mall
The Mall
Looking along the pavement outside the ICA

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
This entry was posted in Out and About and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to More low-light adventures

  1. WOL says:

    Night photography presents its own challenges. One hopes Tigger is coming along with her technique. You as photographer are the ultimate judge of the success of your pictures. Judicious cropping is frequently necessary for my photographs. I need to hunt down a photo program that can do the basics — crop, brightness, gamma, etc. The one I had, which I liked, was a casualty of the computer crash.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Check out FastStone Viewer which as well as viewing pictures provides a comprehensive set of basic photo editing functions, is easy to use and is absolutely free.

      Also check out Photoscape which provides a full set of editing functions, is very easy to use and is absolutely free. Photoscape works on two levels. On the expert level it provides graphs and sliders and on the simpler level you can set contrast, brightness, etc. Just by clicking ‘Low’, ‘Medium’ and ‘High’.

      Only the most demanding professional photographer would need anything other than these two applications.

  2. Ted Marcus says:

    Your statement that “[i]t is possible also the apply HDR techniques to a single frame if you shoot in ‘RAW’ mode” is only partially correct.

    Raw does give you more dynamic range than JPEG. In particular, a raw converter can extract and recover highlight detail that is likely to get clipped and discarded when the camera creates JPEGs. It is also possible to extend the dynamic range of an image by doing two different conversions of a single raw file, one optimized for shadows and the other optimized for highlights. When you combine the two versions with the appropriate layer masking, the result is “HDR-like” in including highlight and shadow detail that would ordinarily not be possible in a single image. I have an example of this technique applied to a Southern California sunset scene: http://www.tedsimages.com/text/ptvsuns.htm

    The point here is that even with this technique, the dynamic range of a single raw file is considerably less than that of true HDR. Even with raw files, a digital camera sensor acts rather like slide film. It has limited exposure latitude and a tendency toward blown-out highlights. True HDR, even when made from JPEG files, is similar to color negative film, which has more dynamic range than any print can capture. As you note, HDR has a stereotypical unnatural look that many people don’t like, but others do like. But often that unnatural look is the result of bad technique. When done right, HDR can make scenes look more “natural” in terms of the way the eye and brain would perceive the actual scene, by properly mapping the highlights and shadows into the compressed rendition of a print to add detail while retaining natural contrast.

    I know that many people consider raw files daunting in their complexity. But that’s not entirely true. I use only raw files, and with the Adobe RGB and sometimes Pro Photo color space (which I convert to sRGB for the Web). Admittedly, I use “professional” software (Photoshop CS5), which has an integrated raw converter that makes using raw files and other color spaces nearly as straightforward as JPEG. But even without this integration, using a raw converter (which you probably already have) is easier than you might think. Raw is particularly well suited to the sort of pictures you feature in this post, taken at night and/or in mixed lighting. Raw provides better control over exposure and color balance, along with extra exposure latitude and noise reduction. Some people adopt the sensible approach of shooting JPEG but changing to raw for specific “difficult” images.

    Regardless, many of your pictures are artistically and technically excellent. Ultimately that matters a lot more than how you edit them.

Genuine comments are welcome. Spam and comments with commercial URLs will be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s