I had to shoot a sunset picture for an assignment, so I tried to think of sunset pictures that have made an impression on me. My first thoughts went to things like a silhouette of a fisherman, or a boat, or mountains reflected in water. The problem, of course, is that we don’t have a lot of West-facing water here on England’s East coast. And where we do have rivers or bays, the land is fairly flat, and the chance of getting a nice pictoresque barge in the foreground are worse than a medium-rare steak’s chances around Pippa, our permanently hungry yorkie.
Then I remembered the tourist posters with their silhouettes of London landmarks. That sounded like an idea, so I had a quick look on Google Maps to see which landmarks might be made to stand out against a setting sun, the main criteria being that there could be an angle of view where I was to the East of the landmark, without too much clutter in the foreground. I soon settled on either Tower Bridge (there’s a nice view from Butler’s Wharf south of the river), the London Eye (from Waterloo Bridge) or Houses of Parliament (from Albert Embankment). As I’ve shot Tower Bridge and Parliament before, the London Eye held most attraction to me.
It’s hard to plan a shot just from looking at a map. Best laid plans can be wrecked by something as simple as someone to erecting a scaffold or growing a tree, even just or blocking off the pavement for a bit of roadworks. So I went on a quick reconnaisance to check things out. As I walked towards Waterloo Bridge, I passed this spot on the incline of the bridge where there was a great view of most of the Eye with St Stephens Tower (often referred to as Big Ben, although Ben is the name of the bell in the tower) perfectly framed inside the wheel of the Eye. I took a series of shots, varying the angle a little, and at some point luck smiled to me again as a train drove across the Hungerford Bridge and gave me a bit of foreground interest with light reflecting off it’s shiny roof.
Although I continued to walk around and look for other and better angles from the bridge proper, from the South Bank, from Hungerford Bridge, from Embankment, and pretty much anywhere where I could see the Eye, I didn’t find anything better. When the actual sunset came, it was a typical English affair. None of the dramatic colours Hollywood, Kodachrome and Walt Disney has tricked us into believing are natural. Just a gradual darkening of the skies, without any drama. It’s probably more real that way, but I wasn’t after real, I was after something that immediately said London Sunset.
So in the final shot, Photoshop has helped where Mother Nature came in short. There’s a levels layer to reduce the eye to a black silhouette, a colour fill layer to help with the orange light, a gradient to give more colour at the top of the picture where I had blown out the sky completely, and a hue/saturation layer to fine-tune colour and lightness. It took a little while to make up my mind about the train – I tried versions both with and without it, but in the end decided to keep it in to give some foreground interest and echo the colours of the pods on the wheel.
The Eye has become a symbol for London. We used to have an Empire, then we had a city that kept going during The Blitz, and now we have a ferris wheel… I sense a downward trend here, and suspect we’ll next be famous for the Mayor’s rent-a-bike scheme. Being 135 meters tall and the 4th tallest structure in the city, it is bigger than (Big) Ben, but the title also refers to a 2008 film about a couple of crooks finding their way around London.