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Cityscape

Many city dwellers never pay attention to the buildings that surround them every day. Barney Britton takes a fresh look at a familiar landmark - London's St Paul's Cathedral

WHEN we see a fantastic new vista, many of us have the same response - to start snapping. However, the end results of this scattergun approach can often be disappointing. While the images may show what the place looks like, they fail to capture the atmosphere of the spot or the emotions the photographer experienced. It seems that some scenes are so breathtaking they almost overwhelm a photographer seeing them for the first time.

Capturing the essence of a place can seem a monumental task but, as AP's technical team explains, it is also an enjoyable challenge. Between us we have tackled a cityscape, a seascape and a landscape. The aim is to show how, by slowing down, spending time exploring a location to find new angles and visiting at the right time, you can produce shots to be proud of. Each of us has taken one ordinary 'snap' that tries to capture the scene, followed by two others that have a little more about them and capture the spirit of the place.

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

My final shot was taken at dusk, using a 50mm lens wide open at f/1.4 for minimal depth of field

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

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

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

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 (above) 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 A 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

I LOVE the sea, and with three miles of gently sloping, pristine beach, Saunton Sands in North Devon has to be one of the most beautiful locations I have come across. It also has the added benefit of enabling me to combine two of my favourite pastimes - surfing and photography. Just thinking about the place is enough to make me smile, and driving down the slope to the beach car park always sets my heart beating faster. So, in addition to catching some great waves during a long weekend break, my aim was to capture an image that I can print and hang on the wall in my landlocked home to remind me of this little piece of heaven.

Having golden sand, a sparkling sea, crystal-dear rock pools, dunes covered in marram grass and a row of colourful beach-huts makes Saunton Sands a veritable treasure trove for photographers. Yet some of the other photographic gems, such as holidaymakers, surfers, kite flyers and bathers, can make it tricky to capture the soul-restoring vista during the day On a bright sunny day it's better to concentrate on capturing some of the surfing action and save the picturesque seascapes for later in the evening when there are fewer people around, the sun is lower in the sky and the shadows are longer.

Day one

I arrived at Saunton at around 5.30 on a Friday afternoon to be greeted by fairly high winds and brief spells

of sunshine. It was a promising start because as the sun gets lower, it can often make an appearance In the chink of sky between the cloud and the sea Predictably, this time it stayed behind the dull, uninteresting clouds until sinking beneath the horizon. I didn't take any shots that evening, but instead walked along the beach to remind myself of the lie of the land.

Day two

I am not a morning person and have always struggled with early rises, but for the right shot I am prepared to get up before dawn. Fortunately for me, on this occasion it wasn't necessary as the sun rises from the wrong direction over Saunton Sands, coming up over the land rather than the sea. Even better, when I did wake up on that second morning there was an almost cloudless blue sky.

Unable to resist the temptation, I took a few impatient shots of the rocks beneath the headland that are exposed at low tide. I decided to return to this area later in the day, and although the rocks would have disappeared beneath the higher tide, the light would be better because the sun sets near the cliff. In the meantime, I occupied myself with surfing and kite flying while I waited for the better evening light.

Unfortunately, the unexpectedly good weather on the Saturday meant that the beach remained fairly busy until nightfall. As a result, I had to pick my shots carefully and postpone my plans to photograph the headland. To console myself I ventured further down the beach to an area that is usually only frequented by wind-blown kite-surfers and the more enthusiastic dog walkers. This is an ideal location for a shot of the sweeping curve of the beach. Though I have on rare occasions been here alone, my best shots include one or two people because of the sense of scale they inject into the scene. Suddenly, rather than an ambiguous strip of sand, the full (almost) three-mile extent of the beach becomes apparent. The shallow shelf of sand also stays wet and shining long after the waves have receded, giving images extra sparkle. On this occasion, however, the tide was against me as the sea was approaching its highest point on the beach and there was little wet sand to work with. Naturally, I wasn't about to waste good light and took a few shots of the incoming sea, shooting from a low angle with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G AF-S ED at the 24mm point on a Nikon D3x. I chose the D3x because its full-frame sensor affords the full benefit of wideangle lenses

With the sun still above the horizon and lots of light-coloured sand and reflective water around, there was no need to worry about balancing the exposure of the sky with the land. However, I kept an eye on the camera's histogram to ensure that the bright environment didn't fool the camera into underexposing my shots. On the whole, it fared very well, but occasionally I found I had to dial in as much as 0.7EV to shift the histogram trace a little to the right. My aim was to retain the highlights (unless the setting sun was in the shot) without darkening the shadows excessively.

Although I used a tripod for some of my shots, I find it a bit of a liability when shooting very close to, or in, the sea. The pushing waves can splash up the legs or erode the sand from under them, increasing the risk of the camera taking an expensive plunge into the salty water. Instead, I prefer to handhold the camera for these shots. I might have to push the sensitivity up a little as the sun sinks, but at least the camera stays dry - even when, as on - . this occasion, I end up with soakecF "

trousers. The faster shutter speeds that are required to allow handholding of the camera also guarantee that the waves look like waves and not blurred foam. I'm sure one day I will return to Saunton Sands looking to achieve this effect, but at the moment it doesn't reflect how the place looks to me.

Day three

My third and final evening in Saunton brought very different weather conditions. Although there had been glorious sunshine for most of the day, the clouds that had been promised for much of the weekend gathered over the sea a couple of hours before sunset. Only a small stripe of pinky-orange was visible on the horizon near the dark headland, but the brooding swirl of cloud above the sea was a fantastic sight I was also pleased to find that the more threatening weather and the fact that it was a Sunday evening resulted in there being far fewer people around and I headed down to my chosen location looking towards the headland.

As usual, I shot raw and JPEG flies simultaneously to give me flexibility yet maximum control over my images, but I checked that the camera was set to the daylight white balance mode as this would intensify the colours -especially the blue of the clouds.

As I took my first shots of the now silhouetted headland, I experimented with using different elements for the foreground interest While an area of loose scattered stones looked promising, there were too many of them and they interrupted the attractive sheen on the wet sand. However, a little further along the beach there was a patch of smoother sand, and the ripples in it, plus the reflected light from the setting sun, gave me what I was looking for. I

shot from a fairly low angle using the 24-70mm lens at the 24mm point until the sun disappeared completely and darkness fell.

Landscape

Richard Sibley finds the best time of day to shoot and looks at what to do if the weather isn't on your side

WHEN it comes to landscape photography, you really are at the mercy of the gods. It's just you, your camera, and Zeus, Thor, Raiden, Jupiter, Helios or whichever custodian of the skies is in charge that day. As photographers all we can do is choose our time and location wisely, and try to capture a few seconds where the gods are smiling on us.

As I found out, being reliant on external forces isn't always much fun - you can't just turn on a softbox to add a fill, or use coloured gel when the sunlight has dipped behind a cloud. Instead, careful timing and planning

First shot

Given the poor weather, I'm pretty happy with this atmospheric misty-morning shot

Almost there, but there's no sun on the hills to lift the scene are required, as is a lot of patience.

Living in South London, the rolling hills of Kent are only a few miles away. As the traffic recedes and buildings give way to fields and trees, a host of different photographic opportunities unfold. If you're driving, it is sometimes tempting to pull over and take a quick picture of the landscape in front of you. Yet very often this image doesn't really grasp the sense of place and feeling of the scene before you.

I decided to photograph a location I regularly drive past, but where I've never stopped. To create an image that was more than a snapshot would mean making a few sacrifices - mainly the amount of sleep I was going to get.

Planning

Relying on natural light requires a lot of patience, as it is a case of waiting for the right light to fall across a scene. I decided I would spend a day scouting for suitable locations. This basically consisted of driving along country roads and walking along footpaths searching for views of locations that were familiar to me, but looking at them from a different angle

I wanted to find a scene that didn't have an oast house, castle or quaint cottage, as I felt the focus of the image should be the land itself. By the end of the day I had found around ten locations that I thought had potential. To mark the location I took a few reference photos and saved the location using my car's sat nav. I would advise anyone wanting to take landscape photos to record the exact location using a GPS device, such as the Jobo PhotoGPS unit (see AP 11 April), which uses software to add GPS data to an image file. Alternatively, simply save the location using a car or mobile phone sat nav, or mark the spot on a good old fashioned Ordnance Survey map.

Once I had a few possible locations in mind, I had to work out the best time of day to take the photographs.

Timing and patience

One scene in particular stood out - a hillside field of oilseed rape in Biggin Hill Valley. The bright yellow field of flowers was surrounded by typically English rolling green hills and trees.

We are used to seeing how the sun lights a landscape during the day, but it is the other times that fascinate us - which is why we are amazed by a beautiful sunset. While we may know the scene and the location, when it is seen in a different light - literally - it makes us stop in our tracks.

I opted to photograph the scene at sunrise, which meant an early start. The night before, I checked the weather forecast and sunrise time on the BBC weather website (news.bbc. co.uk/weather). At 5.09am the sun

was due to nse and the weather was due to be cloudy with sunny spells. I was hoping that at precisely 5.09 there would be a sunny spell

Of course, this wasn't the case. Instead, there was thick, hazy, dull cloud and a light mist. Thankfully, along with my Nikon D300 and Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S VR DX lens, I had an SRB-Griturn 1.2 ND grad filter. Using this filter dramatically darkened an otherwise dull sky, but still left the scene looking lifeless compared to the golden sunrise I had hoped for.

Instead of the sweeping hillside shot I had planned to take, I had to change tack. Breaking landscape conventions, I set my lens to 200mm and switched to portrait orientation. Although the sky was dark it wasn't very photogenic, so I concentrated on the yellow rapeseed and the tractor tracks made when the seed was sown

The low sun injects life into this stormy scene. A 1.2 ND grad helped hold in the sky, while an aperture of f/22 ensured good front-to-back sharpness

In the background of my scene, the misty trees gradually blend in to the soft hillside and eventually the sky to create a series of layers.

I set my tripod as high as possible, causing the camera to look down on the field and therefore making it more dominant. This gave a greater depth to the image than simply taking it at the height of the flowers. In fact, I recommend that you use as tall a tripod as possible when taking such landscapes, and take a small set of steps or a ladder The extra few feet in height can offer a perspective that is rarely seen, and help remove foreground objects that may get in the way of your shot, such as bushes or hedges

At this time in the morning there was little light, so I shot on a tripod and at ISO 400. Usually I shoot at a lower sensitivity, but even at this time the occasional car would pass by. With my tripod fully extended, the slight vibrations and air movement caused by the traffic were enough for the camera to move slightly, which had an effect on the sharpness of the images I was taking. If the shot you wish to take means being near a road, try to wait until there is no passing traffic.

With the unfavourable weather, it was important to shoot in raw format. This allowed me some flexibility when it came to adjusting the image on my computer. Again breaking with conwntion, I chose to crop the overcast foggy morning shot so it was square.

If at first you don't succeed...

Undeterred by the lack of a glorious sunrise the previous morning, I woke up for the second morning in a row at 4.30am, and again the weather wasn't great. However, I headed back, hoping the light would look slightly different. Two hours later I was back in bed with almost identical images to the ones I had taken the day before.

As luck would have it, the doud eventually broke later that day and I rushed back to the spot after work, fearing that the cloud and rain would soon return. Although the sky was overcast at sunset, there was a window of an hour just before the sun set when I managed to get the shots I wanted.

The sun broke from behind the cloud, causing parts of the scene to be illuminated, and then gradually fell into shadow as another cloud passed over. I still used the 1.2 ND graduate filter to darken the sky. This was particularly important, as one of my alternative shots requires me to shoot almost directly into the sun, which had just crept behind a cloud.

My final image was taken looking in the same direction as the first one I took on the misty morning. This time, though, I used a shorter focal length to capture more of the hills in the background. The brighter light made this far more picturesque than it had been amid the desaturated colours that the mist had caused.

It can take a lot of patience and good fortune for the light to be exactly where you want it. This is why planning is important. Knowing your location, and where and when the sun rises and sets, is vital in landscape photography Checking the weather forecast beforehand is also vital, but if you have no other time to take photographs, be prepared to look for alternative viewpoints. You may not get the image you intended, but there are many opportunities within a single vista and you can exploit these when the weather doesn't go your way.

For those with nine-to-five jobs, one of the great things about the summer is that as the days are longer there is time to take photographs before and after work. AP

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