There has been very much written about how difficult it is to work on the streets of London as a photographer. 'I'm a photographer not a terrorist' highlighted to great effect plight of photographers being harassed by busy bodies or worse still the police while doing no more than taking pictures in London. The phone rang with with the offer of something of a dream job the other day to photograph around 30 buildings around London. The photos were close up detail images to be used up to 7 meters across with a very close viewing distance, this meant that I had to capture the images at the highest resolution possible. With this in mind I needed a very specific kit list, I used the Phase One IQ280 with a 240mm Schneider lens, hired from Teamwork and the simply amazing Sony A7R, hired from Hireacamera.com with the remarkable Zeiss Otus 85(dubbed the best short telephoto lens in the world for a good reason) and Zeiss Otus 55mm lenses, and a Canon 'L' series 500mm F4 MkII attached with the metabones adapter. The brilliant image quality from the A7R is only half the story, such flexibility in a tiny lightweight package is something that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated, but more of this in my next post...
To get sharp high resolution files you need an excellent tripod and my tripod of choice was the flexible, relatively compact and rock steady Gitzo GT5562LTS with a Gitzo GH5381SQD, pretty much the ultimate for big lenses and heavy gear I would say. All of this gear was swallowed by the Manfrotto PRO-V-610PL, it took all the gear just fine but all up, stuffed with all my gear it weighed a lot, I'm not sure exactly how much but I had difficulty getting in on to my back! With this little lot I was going to be pretty conspicuous to say the least and with all the horror stories about photographers arrests etc, I braced myself for a rough old ride on my 5 day photographic oddessy around London.
Here is my 'diary' of the assignment.
Day 1 0800 Shooting in a busy Oxford street with the 500mm on the Sony A7R the challenge was not street wardens, Police or security guards but the small but significant fact that the building I was photographing was afflicted by a good smattering of scaffolding, which meant I had to get super creative on angles, thanking my lucky stars that I had shot in one of the busiest streets of London without being bothered by anything more than inquisitive passers by who were interested in photography.
0900 Heavy rain stops play and I sit out the worst of the weather in a cafe
1100 Rain abates and I head to my next location, Leadenhall market in the City, I brace myself for a rough old ride here. My fears it turned out were unfounded and I was left unhindered to shoot details of this beautiful building, the only challenge I faced was to shoot areas of the market which did not have Christmas decorations.
1200 Heavy, heavy rain drives me into a prolonged cafe sit in, with 30 locations to shoot in a week this was the last thing I needed
1330 Its still raining hard and I decide to head out to shoot my next building in the city. As the rain eases off I line up my next building. A security guard who has been eyeing me comes out, and I expect to be moved on but he asks me if I would like to stand in a sheltered area so I can stay dryish, needless to say I take him up on his kind offer.
1430 A brisk walk to Brick lane where I anticipate no problems and there are aren't any
1530 Flagging under the weight of my bag I deviate from my keep fit regime and get a cab to City hall, which is located close to Tower Bridge. This for certain being a political office would mean challenges I was sure. Wrong again. I was indeed clocked by the security but they saw I was just taking a photos and they left me alone.
Day One over and I'm surprised by two things, one how tired I am from carrying so much equipment and that I have been able to work unhindered, beginners luck, right?
Day 2 0600 At Piccadilly circus, really happy with the pics I get here and I'm bothered by nothing more than some Polish and Latvian workmen(Yes, even at this time of day!) who ask about the Sony A7R and 'Would I recommend one? They like the tripod a lot too and ask which one I would recommend?
0730 Unhealthy but satisfying breakfast.
0800 Head to the Royal Academy where I am asked to leave their property by a chain smoking security guard, while lots off other people shoot images with small cameras and iPhones. My set up looked a bit too pro for him. Just goes to show less is more when it comes to being inconspicuous as a photographer, but sadly I have no choice.
0930 Head to the Mall, this is a very tricky shot and it takes me some time to find the right angle. As I set up my Sony A7R with 500mm lens I notice a discreetly parked rapid response Police car. I have to make a rapid call, it would be easy for the team of armed Police to think I was photographing them, which could lead to a 'situation' So I decide to do the thing which gets me out of more trouble than it gets me into, I walk over to them and explain what I'm doing and that I'm not interested in them at all but the row of buildings, they thank me for letting them know and we all go about our days work. Being friendly gets you further than digging into some confrontation that you cannot win.
1130 Head to the British Library where a keen security guard really wants to ask me to stop what I'm doing but I'm mindful of the boundary of 'his' property and stay on the public highway and he can see I am so he bites his tongue.
1230 St Pancras hotel. I thought I would be OK here, I see loads of people shooting images here as the wander over the parking area of this wonderful hotel. As I'm starting to shoot pictures close to the public highway a security guard quite forcefully tells me I have to stop taking pictures, I try to engage him in conversation but he is having none of it. 'You have to leave' so I step back to what I think is the public highway and he repeats himself. I say I'm happy to leave and go to public highway and asked him where it started? He was not sure he said but I had to go. I stood clearly on the public highway and he wasn't happy that I was still shooting images but there was little he could do. It was quite funny that while this was going on two other people set up tripods to take pictures and he left them alone....all down to the size of the lens I reckon.
14.30 an afternoon in Chelsea where I was left completely alone.
End of Day 2 and I'm surprised at where I was challenged and pleasantly surprised where I was left alone. My whole body aches from the super heavy bag and I wonder how on earth I will manage the rest of the week.
Day 3 I lose most of the day to bad weather, but I'm starting to get into the 'heavy bag groove' if one ever can. Go home with little achieved but tell myself its a sprint and not a marathon.
Day 4 0630 At the Natural History museum to shoot a super high resolution stitch of the frontage of the building, this image is going to be 7 meters across so I have to get this right. The image ended up at being a little over 2Gb. The Sony A7R does not disappoint.
1030 Discover one of the BIG problems in London is the anti pigeon netting which made many detail shots on London's iconic buildings all but impossible.
1100 Whitehall. I expected trouble here and I got it. Very quickly. Think giant white Canon 500mm lens and big rucksack near the nerve centre of the government. I was stopped by two Police officers who were polite, business like and efficient, asking what I was up to and for ID etc. I showed them the email trail for the photographic commission and the shots I had taken before they turned up, which I might add were of a privately owned building. Did I need to? No but it made things run a lot smoother when they could see I was genuine, they ran background checks on me and let me carry on once they did. If you think you are going to face scrutiny it is always good to have a plan as to how you are going to deal with the situation ahead of time. No matter what the your rights are or their perceived wrongs are, be cool and polite, trouble will pass much quicker this way.
1200 Shoot long lens images of clock at St James's palace and even though its a Royal Palace I'm left alone.
1330 Arrive at Buckingham palace to shoot images of details of gilt work on the gates. I'm one of a couple of thousand people taking shots in the beautiful late Autumn light. A group of Police at the right hand gate notice me and ignore me as they can see what I'm doing is pretty innocuous. I wander to the left hand gate, where the gilt is in slightly better light, I have been shooting for about 30 secs when I hear a woman shouting, terse shouting which stops everyone around me in their tracks. No it was not the Queen but a rather vocal WPC on duty at the palace gates. 'Stop that' she said. I asked her what the problem was and she said the tripod was not allowed without a permit from the Royal Parks(This I have subsequently found out is true) Is it OK if I shoot without a tripod I asked? She replied it was. It would appear that selfie sticks are ok though from the looks of things judging by the number of tourists. She may have been right but I would have appreciated a little more flexibility and a softly spoken approach, like the Police in Whitehall for instance.
End of Day 4 I hit trouble for sure, in area where I was expecting it and an area where I wasn't, but it was a result and I was getting the shots, and I had become accustomed to the weighty rucksack.
Day 5 A solid day of shooting, being untroubled by anyone at all, with fine weather giving me some great shots
Conclusion - This is far from scientific data but I believe it might just possibly point to a change in attitudes to photographers working on the street of London. Let's make no bones about this, with my long lenses and laden with equipment I really could not have been a more prominent 'target' for busy bodies, security guards and the Police and I all but managed a week of trouble free photography and I got off more or less scot free. I suspect this is in no small part to the work of 'I'm a photographer not a terrorist' and Jeff Moore of the British Press photographers association who has had a long dialogue with the Metropolitan Police highlighting the issue. I know plenty of shooters who have had problems taking photos legitimately in public areas and while I know the problem has not gone away this week of shooting does give me hope that, just possibly, the tide may have turned.