Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Sung by Mary Hopkin, 1968
Way back when in the days of, oh, around a year ago, no one outside of Wuhan in China had heard of Covid-19. We were free and could venture where we liked. It was at the end of 2019 when I joined Amateur Photographer magazine on a street walk in London. Ostensibly, the event was run in conjunction with Zeiss as a promotion for its Batis 40 mm lenses. Except Zeiss never showed up, although Ed Norton who is one of the company’s ambassadors was there as scheduled.
This lack of participation left the Amateur Photographer representatives in a quandary. They had a gathering of photographers all with the expectation of using a Zeiss lens but no lenses. Somehow, they managed to find enough for everyone in a variety of focal lengths from across the Batis range. By the time it was my turn to choose, the only choices were at either end of the Zeiss offerings, 18 mm or 135 mm.
I opted for the former, partly on the basis that its wide-angle would be more testing. Partly on the basis that it would present more opportunities to vary compositions. With a telephoto lens I would be mainly constrained to getting in close, with the distinct possibility that would not always be possible. On a crowded street, there would often be the chance of someone obstructing my view.
Normally, I try to avoid talking about camera gear on the basis it is the resulting images which are more important. Much of that is due to there not really being such a thing as inadequate equipment these days. Sure, some of it is better than others with price generally being a good indicator of quality, but worthwhile results can be obtained with practically anything. Has there ever been a better time to be a photographer? The Zeiss lens I had on my camera is expensive and it showed. It is a cracking performer, both for the amount of detail it can record and the way it renders. And using it on the street is indeed a challenge.
Adding to those difficulties was the weather. Britain was in the midst of its wettest winter for years and there had already been extensive flooding across the country. The rain that was in the forecast for the afternoon duly arrived shortly after we set and was as heavy as predicted. Would I normally go out to take photographs in such conditions? You bet I wouldn’t. I was struggling. The cold and damp conditions, combined with an extreme focal length, were not conducive to photography.
Amateur Photographer produced a short video of the event which gives an idea of the weather conditions. I think I make a brief appearance at the 38 second mark.
What never ceases to surprise is the way circumstances can change in an instant. With exposures usually being a fraction of a second, photography is about the moment. At the foot of the steps leading up to Waterloo Bridge from London’s South Bank, I looked up and saw a figure at the top. Had I got there an instant later, they would have been gone. As it was, the figure was in the perfect position, their umbrella just above the railing against the sky. I was speaking to another participant at the time and barely paused as I took the shot. The shot was an immediate reaction and instinctive. I suspect that he did not register what I had done.
There is nothing new in photography. However innovative the idea might seem, invariably someone has done it before, probably decades ago. So I cannot claim that the shot of someone at the top of some stairs is startling in its originality, though I might request some additional credit for the subject holding an umbrella.
What I can say is that the factors which were working against me turned in my favour during that brief moment. The image is a crop, but not especially so and the extra space in the image allowed me to correct the converging verticals. The shot might not have been possible with even a modestly longer focal length. It definitely would not have happened if I had elected the safety of the telephoto lens at the outset. And would the shot have worked so well without the subject holding an umbrella? It was not the easiest photo to process and I had several false starts before I had a result I was happy with.
The rest of the afternoon was not so productive. An hour or so later, Nigel Atherton who the editor of Amateur Photographer, turned up with a Batis 40 mm lens. By dint of liaising with suppliers and couriers, he had managed to procure a few more since we had set out. I made the swap as that was what I had wanted to try all along. By then, it was dark and still raining heavily. I struggled in the conditions. The best I managed was another photographic meme, a street musician in Covent Garden. The walk ended at Park Cameras just off Oxford Street, by when I glad that it was all over. A mince pie accompanied by a steaming hot cup of coffee were a welcome reward.
Some weeks later, Amateur Photographer ran a feature about the event and selected my steps shot for inclusion in the article. Which lens got the credit for the photo? The Batis 40 of course. Smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors. But, it is the image which matters – not the gear used.