Candles at the Embassy

I suppose it’s the time of year, but I seem to have been spending rather a lot of my time taking pictures in the dark recently.  Although I work mainly in the centre of a major city, I find it surprising how stygian some parts of it can be.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
One of few pictures without flash: ISO3200 1/4s f4, hiding a spotlight behind the banner

The lighting along the west side of Grosvenor Square seems to rely mainly on the many windows along the rather formidable frontage of the US Embassy, and for some reason (surely not energy-saving from a country that seems rampantly denying climate change) most of those in the centre of the building were off.  It made me think that here was a building hiding its face in shame, as well it might over its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.  There was lighting away from the centre of the building, and a little on the head of the eagle lowering on its roof, though the wings and flag rather faded into the darkness. A little burning and dodging was needed to bring them out in the picture above.

Photographically the situation was made worse as penetrating the general gloom were a few powerful spotlights. They didn’t seem to give a great deal of light anywhere, but could and did produce some nasty flare that ruined some of my pictures, as well as completely fooling the exposure system in my Nikons.  I generally use the matrix metering, which I thought was supposed to be able to cope with such things as backlit scenes and small light sources in the image, but experience shows it to be pretty hopeless, though it does work well with more normal situations.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
The heads and hoods only became visible with flash

Of course we now have cameras that give excellent results at ISOs that just a few years ago were almost totally unusable, so I was quite happy using the D700 at ISO 3200.  But there just wasn’t enough light even so to get decent pictures at shutter speeds suitable for hand-holding or photographing people who were not posing for pictures.

Had people been holding candles at chest level, there might have been enough light on their faces to give some pictures, but the candles were on the ground, and a group with well-illuminated knees doesn’t usually appeal. So for most of the pictures  I took I had to use flash.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
Lots of candles, but I still needed flash

It was an obvious decision, if one that goes against all the precepts of the available light school, those many articles I read over the years telling me how photographers destroy the atmosphere if they use flash.  And certainly you can, and many people have done and continue to do so, but I hope to do better. Too often I still see pictures with people caught like rabbits in the car headlights (Bill Brandt did it rather nicely in 1945 for Picture Post) which are seldom successful.

I set a high ISO – perhaps 3200 – and work with the camera on S – shutter preference auto – setting a speed which will probably produce a reasonably sharp result depending on the focal length and the amount of subject movement etc. Often a little blurring from gestures or people moving will add the the image. Typically this might be around 1/20 or 1/30s.  The exposure compensation is set to underexpose this by anything from 2/3 to around 2 stops, chimping until it looks around right. The flash is on its full auto flash fill setting, (TTL BL FP) and also set to something like -2/3 to -2 stops, again with a bit of fiddling if I have time. Probably I’m doing it all wrong, but it seems to work, so long as I don’t forget it will overexpose at closer than a couple of feet from the subject and I need to stop things down more.

The Nikon SB-800 flash I use does seem to be a little temperamental. Or perhaps it is the camera, once the two electronic systems are wedded together it’s hard to know which to blame. Every so often I seem to get a frame or a few frames that are hopelessly over-exposed. And recently when I’ve got the flash attached and on the camera it’s taken to emitting the occasional random flash when I’m not taking pictures. I sense an expensive repair coming on.

Text about the event and more pictures – almost all using flash – in London Guantánamo Campaign Candlelit Vigil on My London Diary.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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