London at Night: Somerset House

I’m continuing to work through my backlog of images in the order that most appeals to me. Today we’re heading back to mid November and a trip to Somerset House with Catherine. Being November, the ice rink that set up there each winter was in full swing. Also, with it being November, it got dark quickly.

1/15sec, f/3.5, ISO 1000, 19mm
1/15sec, f/3.5, ISO 1000, 19mm

Much like a lot of other trips in the London at Night series, the building was bathed in strong, odd-coloured light. This is done to many of the buildings in London and, I’m sure, is mainly done to aggravate photographers using auto white balance. On this occasion, Somerset House was lit by an orangey-pinkey tint. Normally I’d consider dropping the colour temperature of the image to soften the warmth of the photo, but in this case I couldn’t do that either, because of the ice rink being so strongly lit with a brilliant blue light.

1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm
1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm

When I first arrived, Catherine was already there, pointing her camera at the big Christmas tree that greets most visitors.

Now I’m aware that it’s already February. But tough, because this little section is going to feature some images of a Christmas tree. Maybe it will make you yearn for Christmas past. Or maybe you’ll be glad we’re already well on our way to spring.

1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 3200, exposure bias -1.33, 18mm
1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 3200, exposure bias -1.33, 18mm

I love shooting Xmas trees like this. The reds are pretty strong, and I really like the tiny white points of light.

I decided to get a bit closer for some closeups of the lights.

1/50sec, f/5, ISO 3200, 44mm
1/50sec, f/5, ISO 3200, 44mm

With all the spots, it looks a bit like I have a concussion. Or like a bizarre, tree-shaped galaxy.

After struggling with exposure times, in which I once again pushed the shutter, and when, after what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, the shutter hadn’t closed again, gave up trying to hold the camera still, I decided to try something out with a shorter but still comparatively long shutter speed and the tree. You’ve already seen the second time I tried this technique, which I used a week later when I visited Covent Garden.

I started by tilting the camera down whilst the shutter was open.

1.6sec, f/22, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm
1.6sec, f/22, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm

This worked pretty well, but then I decided to trying zooming out with the shutter open. This worked a little better.

1.6sec, f/25, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0
1.6sec, f/25, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0

This made for an interesting image, but it wasn’t until I tried it again at Covent Garden that I got it right.

After we stepped onto the viewing area to shoot the rink itself, we were waylayed by a security guard. We apparently weren’t allowed to take photos on the viewing area, nor were we allowed to take identifiable pictures of people on the ice rink – which seemed fair enough. I showed him the blurry shots of the Christmas tree and the wide angles of the rink I had thus far taken, and he was content to leave us alone. The ice rink isn’t on public land, so we had to follow their rules.

We then turned to photographing the rink – keeping, of course, within the guidelines we had been given.

1/320sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm
1/320sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm

One of the things I liked about the rink was the totalitarian signage. There you are, trying to have an enjoying time on the ice, and at all times above your head in ten foot high letters is the imposing command, “SKATE”.

1/40sec, f/4.5, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 37mm
1/40sec, f/4.5, ISO 1000, exposure bias -1.0, 37mm
1/125sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -1.0, 18mm
1/125sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, 18mm

The sign seemed more imposing the more we ignored its commands.

1/160sec, f/5, ISO 4000, 50mm
1/160sec, f/5, ISO 4000, 50mm

What had originally brought Catherine and I to Somerset House was an exhibition of paintings in the basements of the building. Fortunately, the building itself is centuries old, making it quite good for photographing.

The staircase that took us to the Embankment level was impressive, but with a distinct air of being par for the course when it was built.

1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, 18mm
1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, 18mm

So of course, I couldn’t take just one picture.

1/8sec, f/11, ISO 5000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm
1/8sec, f/11, ISO 5000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm

We were soon down in the area where the exhibition was, in the doorways of the open-air trough that runs around the central courtyard where the ice rink was located. I’m sure it’s got a technical name but I have no idea what that might be.

There we met a couple of helpful people, who were happy for us to take photographs as long as we didn’t take pictures of the paintings themselves – which again is fair enough.

I was very glad to be able to take pictures when we got down there.

0.3sec, f/3.5, ISO 640, exposure bias -1.33, 20mm
0.3sec, f/3.5, ISO 640, exposure bias -1.33, 20mm

When I took this shot, I realised it was far too bright. It has the potential to be far, far more foreboding with just a little adjustment.

1/25sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
1/25sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm

It could very easily be argued that I went too far in the other direction, but I like the result.

All of the paintings were placed in small rooms along this channel. We weren’t allowed to photograph them, but I could photograph the doors that protected them.

1/13sec, f/5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 50mm
1/13sec, f/5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 50mm

Even down here, the coloured light was causing things to be a bit funny. At times, it created my oft-seen monochrome quandary. For instance, this image contains quite an interesting and complimentary array of colours:

1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 20mm
1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 20mm

However, by turning it black and white, the mood is changed completely and takes on a more ominous feel.

1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 20mm
1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -2.0, 20mm

This is one of those instances where I have kept both copies because I simply can’t choose between them.

Of course, monochrome is one thing, but to really increase the gloominess then you need to take the exposure down.

Dark Alley
1/25sec, f/3.5, ISO 640, 20mm

I think that may be pushing it a bit much.

Sometimes, I was quite happy for the colour to remain in the images, like this worm’s eye view of the building swathed in pink light.

1/25sec, f/4, ISO 1250, 25mm
1/25sec, f/4, ISO 1250, 25mm

Other times, however (and I suspect these times were in the majority) I decided that the architecture of the building looked better in monochrome, with its texture and features being highlighted without the distraction of bright lights.

1/25sec, f/4, ISO 1250, 25mm
1/25sec, f/4, ISO 1250, 25mm

Despite being black and white, I still had to go and play with the colour settings in this next image, selecting the pinkish hue of the light and decreasing its luminosity to avoid it blowing out the details in the roof at the head of the stairs.

1/5sec, f/4, ISO 1250, exposure bias -2.0, 26mm
1/5sec, f/4, ISO 1250, exposure bias -2.0, 26mm

Sometimes, seeing that the building is being lit without seeing the colours used adds something to the ambience. In this image, for example, the low angle combines with the lighting in the middle floor to create an imposing photo.

1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 3200, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm
1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 3200, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm

It wasn’t all old architecture down there. Although, I’ll be honest, when I say that, I mean that there was a modern walkway over the area we were in, and I took a single picture of it, making it the only really modern-looking image in this set.

1/5sec, f/5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 60mm
1/5sec, f/5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 60mm

As we continued exploring, I took another barely legal shot of where one of the paintings was contained, because I liked the door.

1/5sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm
1/5sec, f/3.5, ISO 5000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm

One thing I was keen on doing was capturing the darkness. It’s a bit difficult to do, because your camera is always trying to take in as much light as possible, and as you start taking darker images, more noise can start creeping in. I saw a valve down there, which I wanted to capture as being very much in the shadows. It took a few attempts to get it dark enough, and even then only by switching to manual mode and telling the camera exactly what I wanted it to do.

IMG_2856
1/13sec, f/5, ISO 4000, 42mm

It’s really pushing what most would consider too dark – depending on the quality of the screen you’re viewing it on – but I like it.

As we headed back up to the Strand Level, I had another pass at shooting the stairway.

1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm
1/40sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 18mm

Now back on the courtyard level, we continued our exploration around the outside of the ice rink. There were a few other views to be had.

1/50sec, f/5.6, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 75mm
1/50sec, f/5.6, ISO 4000, exposure bias -0.67, 75mm

I also managed to get a shot overlooking from the courtyard into the gully below which might help add context to some of the previous images and make up for my distinct lack of descriptive ability.

1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, 18mm
1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 4000, 18mm

As you can see, I again chose to monochrome the image because of the pinkish orange light. I didn’t for this next shot, because I liked the colour of the flags in the background – but the pinkish hue is still clearly visible.

1/30sec, f/4, ISO 4000, 26mm
1/30sec, f/4, ISO 4000, 26mm

On the walls of Somerset House itself are numerous statues. A lot of them have been worn heavily by the winds of time, especially the ones facing the Thames. The ones facing the courtyard have fared a little better, and when combined with dramatic lighting, monochrome treatment and a slight boost in contrast, they can look a bit imposing.

1/13sec, f/5.6, ISO 5000, 92mm
1/13sec, f/5.6, ISO 5000, 92mm

When we got back round to where we started, a decent moon had come out to watch the people skating. I can’t blame it, watching people skating can be quite fun (I honestly spent about quarter of a hour watching a school party of kids falling over last November, it was great fun guessing who was going to fall on their arse next). But I digress again. Where was I? Oh yes, the Moon. I took a picture of it.

0.4sec, f/22, ISO 4000, 18mm
0.4sec, f/22, ISO 4000, 18mm

It’s not the best Moon photo I’ve ever taken – those usually get their own post. But it’s nice to add context to an image of a building at night. After that, we headed to a work function for free food and warm drink.

It’s been nice to expand on the London at Night series with a few more specific trips – both this one and Covent Garden have produced some interesting results. We’re gradually getting to that point where sunset is impractically late for another night trip, but I’ve made initial overtures to get Catherine and Simon to come along before it’s too late. There’s lots of night potential in London, especially with the Shard now lit up like a Christmas tree.

As for the images Catherine took of the trip above, it appears she hasn’t managed to post them yet (she is suffering from a similar backlog issue to the one that has seen me post Christmas tree images in February). But keep your eyes peeled on her blog, or my Facebook page or Twitter, as one of them will be sure to let you know when they’re done.

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