Salisbury Cathedral – then and now

Salisbury Cathedral has been painted by several artists, including Turner and Constable. On finding a postcard of Constable’s painting “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” we thought it might be fun to try to find the same angle and photograph it – noting what may have changed in the intervening period since 1831 when he painted it one year after the death of his wife. The painting now hangs in the UK National Gallery in London.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows - John Constable

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable (Image credit: Wikipedia.com)

The water meadows are still around, but have moved a little further over. And the water is now mostly underground. In fact there is a small capstone in the cathedral beneath the tower where they lower a dipstick each day to measure the water level – which is only 27 inches beneath. So the water depicted in Constable’s painting is still there, as are the water meadows.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Today the farmer’s dray is replaced by a white van, and green lawn and autumn leaves mark the path of the water course.

The building is amazing today – but imagine how it must have appeared to visitors in the middle ages, living in wooden houses and cramped conditions. It is simply breathtaking – there are more posts to come on this one!


Photographing at the Pont du Gard

As Sharon has pointed out in her blog post – I didn’t mention where we were driving in France – well one of the places was indeed the Pont du Gard – a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising a rather impressive Roman aquaduct crossing the River Gardon. Why did the water cross the River? Because the Romans wanted to use it at Nimes to drive some large industrial flour mills and of course to supply water to the Roman town.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Drawing it – as Sharon has noted – presents quite the challenge. So, once she found her her location I scrambled around looking for some photographic opportunities. Photography is not a passive occupation and it often involves a lot of walking, sometimes climbing and in this case very close to wading…

At this point I have a confession to make – I did attempt to take a number of photos last time we were here – but made a classic and dreadful mistake which has made me very careful for the future – namely, I took some photos in the shadows first and set the camera on ISO 1600. I then came out into the sun completely forgetting I had changed the sensitivity and blazed away at the Pont du Gard itself. It was a dazzlingly bright day – I couldn’t see the settings in the screen, no matter how much I shaded it – the result? about 30 completely blown out images. I vowed then that if we returned I would be more careful… Fast forward to today…

As a subject it is actually quite difficult to photograph such an immense structure. If you use a standard lens you can get the whole thing in, but only by walking way off into the distance, and then the aqueduct is just a thin line near the horizon. So the first thing is to take along a wide angle lens. I used a 10-24mm Tamron lens and it is great for getting large things in without having to go too far away. These lenses do give quite a bit of distortion, so the perspective can look a little strange. The key thing is how you frame up the subject.

In this case I was looking to get the whole thing in with a sense of it heading off into the distance, while retaining a sense of its height (50m) and length (490m). I took a few shots to try to get a nice angle and to get the sense of scale.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Next I thought about framing and went in closer on one of the arches as I saw in the distance a beautiful medieval town on the next hill down the valley. I got down near the waters edge for this and lined up a tower-like structure. I pushed the aperture to about f/11 to get both the bridge and the distant town in focus, framed by the arch.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Finally I decided to try for a nice reflection shot – getting the aqueduct reflected in the river below. I must have walked about 200m on each side of the aqueduct to find a spot where most of the aqueduct was reflected in the water. On one side some rocks near the surface meant the water was too choppy, so I tried the other side and seriously considered wading in and setting up the tripod in the shallow part of the river. But then I spotted a rocky outcrop in about the right place so only one leg of the tripod went into the water. That’s the beauty of carbon fibre tripods – they don’t rust! Mine is a Chinese Beike – which is actually a great tripod – especially when mated to a good quality head, like the manfrotto.

There were still some wind ripples to deal with. There is one easy way to do this kind of shot is to use a neutral density filter to cut down the light, then use a longer exposure. You wind up with glassy smooth water as the image is an average of all the ripples and it adds up to a smooth surface. You will need an exposure of about 3 seconds. At that point I realised I had left my filter back at the apartment in Arles, so I did the next best thing. I lowered the ISO to around 100, squeezed down the aperture to f/32 and that gave me an exposure of about 1/3 of a second. Not great, but it is better than nothing if you’re trying to lengthen the exposure – it works great for fountains too!

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

So all up I was quite happy with the shoot and deepened my appreciation for how the Romans built such a structure without mortar or cement – just well fitted stone up stone that has stood the test of time – including major floods in the 1600s and in 2003. The aqueduct has been painted by Turner and may other artists over the years – and sketched by Sharon.

There is a delightful legend about its construction. Once upon a time the townsfolk decided to build a bridge over the Gardon. But each time a master mason tried to build one, a flood came and washed the bridge away. In despair he said It’s time to sell my soul to the devil to get this built. The devil appeared and and said he would build the bridge for him, and the river will never destroy it. The price? not much, just the first person to cross the bridge. The mason agreed and the devil built it in one night. The mason went home and told his wife. His wife had an idea… The following morning the devil lay in wait. Earlier, a dog had caught a live hare and they had kept it. The devil smiled when he saw the mason approach carrying a bag. As he was about to step on the bridge he threw the bag with the hare in front of him and the hare raced across the bridge into the hands of the devil who was enraged by being tricked into taking an animal soul and turned the hare into stone where he can be seen to this day on the side of the bridge. And thus it is said that women have cheated the devil 🙂

There is a great visitor’s centre and museum, including a coffee shop and bistro and of course souvenirs. It is well worth a visit.


Golden hour and Blue hour in Paris

The hour before sunset and the hour after provide wonderful light wherever you are, and in Paris it is a great time to take photos.

Paris dusk

Paris dusk

We took a walk down to the Seine and past the Notre Dame cathedral – I’m always looking for a different angle – which is not easy with such a well-known and much photographed building.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

So it comes down to the light and how best to capture it, and perhaps go beyond the standard ‘full frontal’ of the cathedral doors and towers.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

The shot above is actually a combination of three exposures – dark, centre, and light to increase the dynamic range – because the camera is not as sensitive as the human eye. This is known as ‘high dynamic range’ or ‘HDR’. You can over-do it, but I prefer to keep it subtle, and just bring out the details at each light level. The photos were combined in a small program called ‘Photomatix‘.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Golden and blue hours can also be a good time to capture the beauty of the bridges over the river – Here I rested the camera on the bridge parapet and took a couple of long exposures of the next bridge over. It is not always convenient to carry a tripod around, but there is usually something – a lamp post, or a railing – against which to brace the camera for this kind of shot. Here I brought the ISO down to 100 and the aperture down to around f/9.0 to give me an exposure of around 3 seconds.

Bridge over the Seine

Bridge over the Seine

The exposure length also smoothes out the ripples on the water, giving better definition to the lights and their reflections.

Bridge over the Seine

Bridge over the Seine

You can see that the traffic on the left which would otherwise provide distracting points of light has been smoothed into the subtle red streak of the tail lights.

So if the light is a good colour – with the darkening blue in the sky contrasting with the warm yellow of the street lights, a long exposure can really bring out the details, and the mood of Paris by dusk.


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The Louvre – a challenging photographic subject

The challenge
Sharon has dealt elsewhere with the challenge of drawing in a visually cluttered space – and a similar challenge awaits the unwary photographer.

Musee de Louvre

Louvre Museum

It’s all about the looking
For me, it’s all about the looking. As with drawing, if you take photos then you start to notice the little things, how light is playing on the object, how a shadow falls or reflection provides an odd juxtaposition. How does the object sit in its context? And what about the workmanship!

Difficult conditions
In the Museé de Louvre there are a number of things working against the photographer.

  • Firstly, and rightly, it is important to conserve the objects and ensure they are not damaged by light – so many are housed in a dark environment. That’s great for your eyes because you adapt and can see an extraordinarily dynamic light range – unlike your camera. And flash is definitely forbidden. Besides, you don’t want to be a vandal and degrade the colours for future generations do you?
  • Secondly, so as not to impede the traffic flow you are not allowed to use a tripod. So those long exposure shots to counter the dark are not happening.
  • Thirdly there is a mix of artificial and natural light that changes from room to room, object to object and plays merry hell with your white balance.
  • The objects are in groups and form a visual feast from which it can be hard to determine in a photo where one object finishes and the next begins.
  • Then there are objects behind glass – all those reflections and you can barely see the object behind, let alone photograph it. A challenge? ‘Don’t get me started….’ I hear you say.

The solution
Well, I love a challenge – and all of these issues can be at least partially overcome with a little planning and forethought. When heading to a museum I consider what I’m going to be looking at – so a bit of research first. Napoleon’s rooms seem a good place to start – as we hadn’t really tackled these on previous visits. So there will be tight room shots requiring a wide angle lens – into the bag goes the 10-24mm wide angle lens. Next there will be some low light shots – so you want a fast lens – better put in the 17-50 f/2.8 – it has a useful zoom range for close views, is pretty good in low light and with the addition of a 1.4x teleconverter I can extend the range into a 24-70mm focal length – good to get across a room and still have reasonable light. The 17-50 also has an image stabiliser – good for longer hand-held exposures. You can leave the heavy super zoom at the hotel, because you are shooting interiors after all.

And for the reflections? the one filter I use on such occasions – never leave home without it – is a circular polarising filter.

How polarising works: When light travels to an object the light waves are random in all directions. But when they bounce off an object (reflection) the ones coming back at you are all lined up in in one direction – this is called polarising. The circular polarising filter allows you to rotate the filter until it cancels out the reflected light, leaving all the others from the object intact and clear to photograph.

So forget the UV filters (they can protect your lens, but so will a lens hood) – just make sure you have a circular polariser in your kit bag. I’m actually amazed at how many people take big DSLR cameras into a museum and don’t have a circular polariser.

Now Sharon reckons that with everything working against the photographer I’m just going to get a bunch of blurred dark  orange photos. Either that or she knows I’m up for a challenge and she should get at least an hour’s drawing in before I give up in disgust… 🙂

And the photos
So here goes. First challenge is Napoleon’s dining room. It is dark, has strong natural light coming from the side, is visually cluttered and has yellow artificial light in the centre.

Napoleon's dining room, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Napoleon’s dining room, Museé du Louvre, Paris

First thing I notice is that there is a rope across so you can’t enter the room. But the rope is attached to a stand that is not a museum collection object, it is stable and about waist height – more on that in a moment. The light is mostly natural, so I bias the white balance to ‘shade’. It is quite dark and I know I have to risk movement. To minimise movement I want a fast shutter speed, so I push the ISO (sensitivity) to about 1600 – the canon 60D copes with it quite well, and means I can get the shot at around 1/20th of a second. Remember that rope stand? I stabilise the camera on it and take the shot – actually I take 2-3 on the basis that I probably moved on at least one. There will be some noise at ISO1600, but you can filter that out later – whereas a motion blurred image will still be blurred. I also shoot in RAW format as that retains more data than you see, meaning I can retrieve information from the shadows later. I shoot with the meter at least one stop dark to get the fastest shot (shortest exposure) I can. And the above photo is the result.

Napoleon’s bedroom was fairly straightforward

Napoleon's bedroom, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Napoleon’s bedroom, Museé du Louvre, Paris

Here the main challenge was that I was facing a window, so I metered for the bed, over exposing the window, which I later cropped out.

mask, Musee de Louvr

mask, Museé du Louvre

This mask was behind glass – so on went the circular polariser and away went the annoying reflections.

The vase was stunningly beautiful and I really liked the concept of the two children exploring – while functioning as handles. Brilliant design, great colours and yes it was hidden in a dark corner, with a window reflection.

Vase, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Vase, Museé du Louvre, Paris

The polariser limited some reflections, but the curved surface meant that there were multiple reflections with different polarity – so all I could do was cut down the worst.

There were no rests so it was a case of push up the ISO, meter the light on the low side, take a couple of breaths and hold the camera still while I breathed out and took the shot. It worked. Three others didn’t. That happens. But with digital you are not wasting film so shoot away 🙂

Same goes for this cabinet – great craftsmanship and wonderful design, but in a dark room with a dark background. The blue-green of the wall provided a great complimentary colour to bring out the warmth of the wood.

Cabinet, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Cabinet, Musee de Louvre, Paris


There were of course many more photos, but this is probably enough to say for one post! Have I missed any tips? Please let me know in the comments 🙂