How to Love Mondays!
So many negative connotations are associated with the opening scene of the working week, to the extent that for some a Sunday evening can bring dread and fear for what lies ahead. I have always been a fan of the James Reed recruitment strapline 'love Mondays again!' as I feel it's important to be able to look forward to what you do, but mostly because of the guy dressed as a knight shouting 'You hate Mondays!' at random people.
A Monday for me can be a variety of things, sometimes it brings the excitement of new opportunities through my engineering work or juxtaposed feelings of anxiety and dread of issues that need to be faced. This Monday however was totally different. A day like no other that I would be happy to repeat over and over again.
Before I tell you more about my day, let me tell you a bit about how it came about. A couple of weeks ago I was traveling back from Whitechapel where I had been to purchase my new lenses and decided to head home via the Docklands area to break them in. With no serious intentions of doing a full shoot I was looking for a place to pull over for half an hour or so around the Excel exhibition center, but those that know London will be aware, parking is a luxury and it's not that easy just stop somewhere for risk of being fined or towed.
So, it's at this point I decided to abandon the idea of trying out the new 16-35mm G master and headed home via the Blackwall Tunnel. It was then, as I passed over the flyover adjacent the excel center I observed an incredible view of the Millennium Dome (or 'the O2' to anyone born in this century) with the city beyond as the setting sun peaked through a gap in the clouds. I immediately stopped my homeward direction and started to seek a position to capture this incredible site, but without any real knowledge of the area, this Just wasn't going to be possible.
Of course, I didn't leave it there. Over the next couple of weeks, I researched the area and other possible locations to make the most of it and penciled in a day to go out and shoot. Naturally, I needed the weather on my side, and this is London, in the Uk. In January.
Two weeks can be an eternity when you're making plans with regards to the weather in Britain so I was a little torn as to which day to book off work for the shoot, but I settled on Monday 28th. This date was good for a couple of reasons, firstly the sunrise is at a reasonable time so unlike in the spring or summer I wouldn't have to get up at a totally ridiculous hour, and secondly the period between sunrise and sunset isn't too long so as to maintain focus for my prized shot come the end of the day.
I used the two week period to study the area using Google Maps to scout interesting locations and subjects that would be worthwhile. The prize was to capture the dome and city at sunset, so armed with the sunrise and sunset times* I worked from my final destination and filled the time in between.
My research on Google threw up an ideal location for the primary shot which happened to be a private business yard on the Bank of the river, so I sent a polite email requesting access and eagerly awaited a response. In the meantime, I kept a constant eye on the weather as it seemed to switch between Friday and Monday being the better day.
As Friday 25th approached, and my professional workload had not leveled out enough to take a day off, added with the changeable weather I decided it would be Monday. I still hadn't received a response from the business occupying the land so I opted to try my luck on the day.
And then the weekend landed.
That particular weekend I had a lot on, mostly involving being sociable and drinking alcohol, this meant that come Sunday evening when I should have been cleaning my lenses, formatting my memory cards etc, I was too inebriated to care. Yes, this is deeply unprofessional, and it meant I had to work extra hard for the first couple of hours so I learned my lesson. I ensure this is done before every gig I shoot, but as this was a personal project, and I had such low expectations of the weather that I didn't put myself under much pressure. But that wasn't my first mistake.
The best Monday I can remember begins.
The early rise was no problem, I was up and put on 7 layers (most I've ever sported in my life) and two pairs of gloves because I knew it was going to be a pretty long cold day out facing the elements, then hit the road in the direction of London City Airport, my first stop, and planned parking location. Something I had completely forgotten to take into account was the Blackwall Tunnel traffic, and the planed 40min journey took nearly double the time! Sitting there staring at the line of cars in front whilst watching the sky gently fade from a dark rich blue into the glow of morning sunrise. This was not good, and a complete rooky mistake.
So, now very much on the back foot. I literally wrenched my bag and tripod from the car and half ran around to the other side of the airport to capture the departing aircraft taking off in silhouette against the rising sun who's warm glow glistened on the basin water.
And oh yeah, the lack of prep thing. You know, cleaning lenses formatting memory cards, all the boring responsible stuff. And I was already on the back foot? Bit me in the arse, hard. Not only was I late but now I had to format my card and clean my lens before I could even compose a single shot!
This image didn't quite turn out how I expected despite my research, but I can't complain too much, my lack of preparation let me down a bit (that and the shocking road management here in London!). Despite checking the time of sunrise and cross-referencing flight departures to ensure the shot I wanted, my failure to account for the traffic meant I didn't have time to find the perfect spot and the sun had well and truly breached the horizon. Still, the results weren't too bad.
After the panic was over and the sunrise was over I could now relax and start my trot down to the Royal Victoria Dock where the Excel Centre is located. It was at this point that I started to appreciate just how lucky I was with the weather, the sky was virtually cloudless and the soft light being produced by the early morning winter sun was beautiful. The stress of the morning's journey was now gently washing away as I settled into the shoot, and continued with my planned itinerary.
The next stop of the day was to capture the old cranes surrounding the Dock edge, but as I passed over the bridge I saw an opportunity with an old derelict mill and flights departing from the airport. I thought I'd try to create contrast by keeping these two subjects tight in the frame from the bridge, but the planes were too far away as to hold interest as a subject, so I abandoned that idea. It was as I was heading off across the bridge I managed to grab this shot of a lingering morning commuter soaking up the morning sun on the pedestrian bridge.
Fortunately, the local shop on the South side of the basin had a coffee machine, so I seized this opportunity before shooting the cranes. I didn't think this would be the trickiest part of the shoot, but it did prove challenging. The cranes are very high, and despite my recently acquired 14mm lens it wasn't possible to compose the whole crane in the shot and isolate them from the busy residential area in the background. Well, when I say not possible I mean I didn't try hard enough I later learned.
But for the moment I settled on a few detail shots and moved on to the next subject. Adjusting course for the Thames Barrier I started to work my way through the residential area, keeping an eye out for opportunities along the way. It wasn't long before I came up against the old mill which featured when shooting from the bridge. I noticed how close the aircraft appeared to the mill as they climbed from the airport behind and sought to capture this.
Because the airplanes were approaching from behind the huge building, out of shot, it was difficult to judge when they would be passing. I could only rely on the sound of the takeoff echoing off the surrounding buildings and had fractions of a second to spot the plane and compose. I missed several perfect opportunities because I was too busy fussing about composition and perspective; knowing how good a shot this could be I pretty much remained on the spot for nearly two hours.
Even after nailing the composition, the shot didn't come easy. The aircraft didn't always take the exact same trajectory so I waited and waited. And waited. And...
Yeah, ok, you get it.
Patience definitely paid off this time, I'm pretty pleased with the result.
Continuing onwards I arrived at the Thames Barrier, which at first I thought might be a waste of time as there was low tide and works being done on the barrier towers. I persisted and took advantage of the contrast between the rough exposed river bed and the smoother surface water, and attempted to manipulate the lines in the silt to lead the eye to the barrier. The back and white processing were adopted here to bring out more of the textures in the shot as the sky was virtually featureless. Turns out clear skies aren't always a blessing.
Now it was time to focus on my prize
The city skyline that this entire day was built around and I had my heart set on. Without exaggeration, I had literally thought about standing on this particular spot and imagined taking this photograph since learning of the location. It was time to put my plan into action.
I headed west along the river, skipping in and out of the huge mass of waterside residential developments that are going up around this area. This part of the day didn't present much opportunity to shoot as the area is pretty lifeless, but it did mean that I could venture all the way to my final destination without any delay. Before I knew it, I was on the road leading to the businesses that are perched on the Thames overlooking the city. I started by doing a recon of the public spine roads that led to the river to see if there was a view without having the need to venture onto private property, but alas there was no such location. Fearing potential rejection and failure to capture my shot, I plucked up the courage to approach the yard I had previously tried to contact to ask their permission to use their property to take my photographs.
After a long nerve-racking walk into the yard, I was stopped by an older lady sat in a car with a very angry dog. I'm not at all scared of dogs, but as I was a little on edge knowing what was at stake, the dogs angry lurching took me a little aback. The women initially sized me up with suspicion, but I introduced myself and politely explained my reason for being there and asked for permission to enter the property. As it turns out, she happened to be the very same person I had emailed, only she hadn't picked up on my earlier message. My polite approach paid off, and she was perfectly happy for me to use the land, provided I exercised caution around the heavy machinery being operated.
Success! I was now stood in the exact spot I had been thinking about for two weeks and was over the moon! I couldn't quite shake my anxiety just yet though; it was only around 2 pm, the sun wasn't to set for another 2.5 hours! After having a good look around, and taking a couple of safety shots in case I couldn't get back here, I approached the lady again and asked what time I could access the yard until; she explained that they usually lock up around 3 pm. With the sunset due at 16:40 this was not good news. She did inform me that they shared the yard with another business and they are sometimes here later and I should speak with them. Great, another uncomfortable conversation.
I approached the other business and spoke to one of the employees about my intentions, and was promptly informed that they have guys returning to the yard around 3 and they usually lock up then, but I should speak to the governor who was currently out. The tension was back and building, a sense of excitement to capture the shot, but the fear of missing it in equal stomach turning measure.
With such a beautiful day it would be a real shame to miss the shot, not to mention the lengths I had gone to make it happen. Ok, we're not talking about traveling around the world to capture a single fleeting moment, but I don't get much time for shots like this, so it was a pretty big deal for me at the time. I'm sure you can forgive me the drama!
With some time to kill, I left the yard with a view to return an hour later and seek further permission to stay longer and capture the shot.
As I was leaving the yard I turned back and noticed a worker in silhouette against the sunlit river beyond, framed between the boom of a crane and the hull of a black boat. Not wanting to be imposing, as I had already been so lucky getting as far as I did, I quickly cracked off a couple of shots. I didn't even pause between lifting my camera to my eye and taking the shots, and as soon as I had taken them I turned on my heels and headed back up the access road. Looking at them now, I wish I had compensated the shutter speed for the extended focal length to have produced a sharper image, but I am beginning to appreciate that a less than perfect shot is better than missing the moment altogether.
I killed some time capturing some of the key features of the area, these being mainly the DLR which passes up above the dock access roads with the skyline in the background, and the cable car that spans the Thames. These shots weren't essential for the trip, but I thought they were a great addition to the set and added to the story of the day. Up until then, I had not been so close to the cable car which I'd always seen as a little pointless, but having now been so close to it, I began to see the installation in a different and agreeable way especially with the gradual warming glow of the now fading sun on it.
As I was lingering at the head of the service road to my prized location, a figure headed towards me yelling out. I had no idea if this was someone challenging me taking photos so I initially 'failed' to take notice of the calls. As the figure got closer, and it was no longer to play ignorant I noticed it was the worker of the second business that I had spoken with earlier. He rushed up to tell me that the gaffer was working later tonight, knew I was going to be there so I had the access I wanted. I could not believe my luck! I couldn't thank the guy enough for taking the time to make the request on my behalf, despite it being time for him to clock off. What a top bloke! And to think, I was ignoring him when he put himself out for me. I am such a muppet at times!
You may note that I have not named the location or the businesses; though I don't expect there to be hoards of photographers reading my blog who are suddenly going to descend on this location, I feel that I should protect their privacy as I was treated so fairly.
I should note that the lady advised me that the yard has been issued a compulsory purchase order by Transport for London to create another crossing for the river so this access wouldn't be around for long. There would be no chance of getting the shot once TFL had the site, so my expedience in mobilising turned out to be critical. And in even better news, the traffic I had endured that morning will one day be eased by the new crossing. That's a double win in my book!
With the news of the later opening of the yard, I instantly jumped on the opportunity and took to my spot to set up for my final shot of the day. I still had a good hour and a half until sundown, so I was in for a long wait and the banks of London's main artery, and it was cold. Very cold. Time to put my passion to the test as I waited for the right moment as the mercury started falling.
This was a great opportunity to try out a new app I had discovered; PhotoPills** is a photographers toolbox on your phone offering hyperfocal distant tables, depth of field calculator and various other features. My main reason for downloading it is the AI sun and moon projection tracker. Once calibrated, you can visually track the path of the sun and indicates what kind of colour temperature to expect throughout the day. I already knew this information roughly, but it's handy to have this in my pocket should I be in a foreign environment and I highly recommend it.
I was shooting for around an hour, trying very slightly different angles and focal lengths, and looking back now I do wish I had tried a few more. Once I had found a composition in camera looked ok I stuck to it for a long time capturing very slight changes to the fading sunlight. I should have tried more extreme changes to the composition as this was likely to be my only opportunity, but alas I didn't.
Except, a nagging feeling wouldn't leave me, and that was that I was missing something else whilst I was there. I kept looking over my shoulder at the dramatic silhouette of a residential building site across the water, with the river cable car adjacent. I broke out of my spell of the city skyline to capture this with a slow shutter to see how it would look, and now I am pretty pleased that I did. I would now be laying there at night not thinking about the shot I want to take, but the one I should have taken.
You may call it being a perfectionist, but I would hardly call it that. A perfectionist is someone who does everything they can to get the result the first time. I do not know what it was that caused me to turn back to point my lens back in the direction of the skyline I had just spent an hour shooting, but I felt that I hadn't quite got the shot and to walk away now, even with a card full of images, I may have just missed the shot I really wanted. Despite the other nagging voice in my mind telling me I should get a move on because it was getting dark and I might get locked in, I turned and set my camera up one last time at the dome and skyline.
The very last shot I took that day was this one.
So with my shoot done, it was time head back to the car and on to home. It was then as I walked in from the opposite end of Royal Victoria Dock that I noticed I had been shooting from the wrong end and should have walked all the way to the end to get a clear shot of the cranes. Never mind, I can come back for that, they're not going anywhere any time soon.
So this was a Monday, a Monday like no other. Sure, I wasn't trekking around Asia or some other foreign land, it was only my 'back yard'. Despite this, everything fell into place and was perfect. I really felt lucky, and I'm the kind of guy that don't experience good luck all that often. In fact, I have probably used all my luck up for the year now, and we're only a month in!
Feeling a warm glow having completed my mission, despite being frozen to the bone I felt like I was walking on air as I headed back to London City Airport. Despite the odds, I got what I set out to achieve and had the weather on my side to boot. This is how you love Mondays, take one for yourself, plan it carefully and use it wisely.