Stopping London Traffic Pollution

Every Saturday evening in my youth the BBC Home Service broadcast the radio programme ‘In Town Tonight’, introduced by the music of the Knightsbridge March by Eric Coates and traffic noise, halted by a loud shout ‘Stop!’ and the radio announcer’s voice “Once more we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic …” It carried on, even becoming a TV show for a few years, an early chat show with celebrities and the odd and occasionally interesting rather random outside broadcast segment, most famously on a night spent in the waxworks Chamber of Horrors by Brian Johnston.

Memories of this and the comfortable fug as our family sat around the radio and a coal fire in our cramped living room came back to me as ‘Stop Killing Londoners‘ again stopped that mighty roar, if a little less dramatically, first at Oxford Circus, by stepping out with banners when the traffic was halted at the lights, in the sixth of their brief protests to highlight the thousands of premature deaths each year caused by air pollution in the city, largely by oxides of nitrogen and minute particulates from traffic. Official figures put the number of such deaths at very close to 10,000 deaths a year, and of course many more suffer greatly from illnesses caused or exacerbated by the polluted air, well above the legal limits for most pollutants.

Actions such as this are intended to force action from London’s Mayor and from TfL, who the protesters see as moving far too slowly and failing to confront those with vested interests, including London’s black cab drivers who are responsible for a surprisingly large amount both of the pollution and also the opposition to measures that tackle it, including the cycle superhighways. And until there is much greater public awareness of the problem, it is hard for the politicians to take more decisive action.

I’d met with the group on Oxford St around 6 pm, and as a photographer it was frustrating to see the light fading rapidly as we approached sunset and we were still waiting for more to arrive and the action to begin. It really was quite dark, and I wasn’t too well prepared for it. I’m always very surprised by the low light levels in parts of busy streets even in the very centre of London.

Flash generally isn’t a good option in wide open spaces for overall lighting, as it falls off with the square of the distance, but it does enable you to pick out people and banners closest to the camera, as in the picture above. But I didn’t want it to remove the shadows from the main lighting which was coming from the headlights of the vehicles stopped well behind those holding the banner.  In some of the other pictures this is a little more obvious.

The effect of the light fall-off with distance from the flash becomes more of a problem when the main  subject is at an angle so that some parts of it are much closer to the camera and flash than others. I often try to lessen the problem by twisting the flash head to the side. The flash doesn’t  really cover the very wide angle of the 18mm used for the above picture, and by angling it away from the centre, in this case towards the left of the picture, puts the closer figure into the area where the light is falling off.  But still considerable burning of the closer part of the image and dodging of the further areas is called for in Lightroom.

It isn’t easy to remember to shift the flash head in the heat of the moment – and with these short protests I’m always very much aware that I do only have a very short time, and often – as on this occasion, rush around taking pictures and getting things wrong.  It’s easy to turn the flash head to the left for one picture and then forget to put it back when it really should be head on.

But my main problem in the heat of the moment was, as usual, my straying fingers.  Quite how I managed to turn the control dial and change the shutter speed from the 1/250th selected to stop motion as the protesters moved into position through 1/500th, 1/1000th, 1/2000th and even to 1/4000th before I finally noticed I had a problem is hard to fathom.  Though the problem was far less noticeable on the camera back then when I was later looking at them larger on the computer.  The above image was made on the D750 at 1/2500s, f/3.5, ISO 6,400 and is at least 4 stops under-exposed, probably rather more.

The grainy image and odd, low saturation colour actually result in a certain gritty attraction, though not one that I was aiming for – and certainly one that required rather more processing in Lightroom than I like or usually allow. At extreme underexposure the darker areas of images acquire an odd purplish colour which needs careful tinting to eliminate. Quite a few images were impossible to salvage from the gloom, and I only had time to take a few pictures as by the time I realised my error the protest was drawing to an end.

The difference in image quality is pretty dramatic, even viewed in these small web images, and I tried to retake a few of the earlier pictures, but time was very short. I did have plenty of time to reflect on my mistakes as I walked down Regent Street with the protesters to Piccadilly Circus, and here I managed to keep my errant fingers a little better under control, at least for the first part of the protest.

Although it was later, it helped too that Piccadilly Circus is generally rather better lit – here the bright lights of London are generally something of a reality. But, as you will see if you look at the images, by the end of the protest there, my fingers had wandered yet again, making me wonder if amputation is the only answer…

Stop Killing Londoners with traffic fumes


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