Technique Explained – Composing images with a difference

St Paul

I have lived in London for almost three years, since I
joined AP. Before that I was a born and bred country boy, raised in rural North
Yorkshire, schooled in County Durham and settled – albeit briefly – in
Tyneside. I didn’t visit London all that much as a child and most of my life
has been spent in the countryside, so moving to the capital was quite a shock
to my system.

I am still amazed at the size of the place, but at the same time
I am constantly struck by the concentration of both people and buildings.
London is home to some of this country’s most iconic architecture, and if I
walk for a mile in any direction from AP’s office I can get to the Palace of
Westminster, the Imperial War Museum, Tower Bridge and the Houses of
Parliament, to name but a few unique and wonderful buildings.

However, my favourite London landmark has to be St Paul’s
Cathedral. This fabulous building was the defining masterwork of one of our
country’s best architects, Sir Christopher Wren, who died in 1723, 13 years
after the cathedral was completed. St Paul’s was built on the site of an older
building, destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and took more than 30 years to
complete. An inscription in Latin marks Wren’s tomb in the crypt: ‘Lector, si
monumentum requiris, circumspice’. This translates, appropriately, as, ‘Reader,
if you seek his memorial, look about you’.

I have taken a great many photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral
over the years, from a great many angles. I’m not aiming to take the definitive
picture of St Paul’s – for my money Bill Brandt can claim that honour, when he
braved bombs and unstable masonry to capture the damaged building under
moonlight during the Blitz. All I want to do is to create an image that sums up
this very special place in a way that makes sense to me.

West elevation

West elevation

Image: This is the west elevation of St Paul’s Cathedral. The shot shows the building’s impressive size, but lacks atmosphere.

The west elevation of St Paul’s is very grand. Two rows of
Roman pillars stretch up to the sky, and a cascade of steps lead visitors into
the cathedral.

My first photograph is an attempt to capture the imposing
size of St Paul’s Cathedral, and I have tilted the camera to suggest the
vertigo-inducing look upwards, from street level. Although the lighting is
decent enough, this photograph lacks the impact that I had intended to convey.
There is almost no colour, and rather than looking dramatic, the composition
looks lopsided.

Coming back later in the evening might have helped, but to be
honest this isn’t a winning shot. When I first approached St Paul’s from the
west, I had to ask a colleague which building this was. The reason I was
confused is obvious from this photo – from this direction you don’t see the
cathedral’s iconic dome.

View from the Millennium Bridge

Millenium Bridge

Image: I knew this scene had potential, but the crowded bridge and poor lighting make for a dull image

When I lived in East London, I used to cross the Millennium
Bridge to Southwark every morning. When I cross the bridge in the opposite
direction, St Paul’s is framed by the metal pylons of the bridge. It is this
view, of the cathedral from the South Bank of the Thames over the Millennium
Bridge, that I have been trying to capture since 2006.

The problem is that it has become a cliché. Since the bridge
was opened, then closed, fixed and then opened again, tourists from all nations
have taken this shot.

It is a busy thoroughfare, too, and the bridge is almost
always crowded with people, even after the sun has gone down. And that’s the
main problem with this photograph (above left): the composition has potential,
clearly, but I am too far to the south end of the bridge and it’s the wrong
time of day. The lighting is dull, and the bridge is crowded with people. I
need more space around the edges of the scene to concentrate attention more
squarely on the cathedral’s distinctive dome.

Getting the shot right

St Paul

Image: My final shot was taken at dusk, using a 50mm lens wide open at f1.4 for minimal depth of field

Every schoolchild knows that the sun sets in the west, so I
thought I could get a better shot of this scene later in the day. Fortunately,
working so close to this view I have the luxury of being able to dash out at
short notice when the light is good.

This shot was taken during what
landscape photographers know as the ‘magic time’ just after the sun has set,
but while there is still some light in the sky. Low cloud to the north is
reflecting the beautiful golden light of a proper Waterloo Sunset (the sun
really does set over Waterloo) and the final rays of sun still have just enough
power to throw a little light on the dome. As a couple walked past me, arm in
arm, I knew I had my shot.

Working at f/1.4 on a 50mm lens, I sacrificed
uniform sharpness for minimal depth of field, throwing them just out of focus.
This also has the effect of drawing attention to the cathedral, which is sharp,
and creates the rather appealing vignetting. I shot this scene in raw mode, but
the colours in this photograph are more or less as I saw them at the time.
Magic indeed. That’s a nice memorial you got there, Sir Christopher.