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The London Eye

This is a post ported over from my old VisiblePixels blog from December 2008. It’s an old post, but the London Eye is one of my favourite subjects and there’s an interesting story in the shoot.

The London Eye is now an icon in London and known worldwide.

The October 2008 monthly challenge over Dynax Digital was night photography and attracted some great entries. It gave me the excuse to take the picture of the London Eye that I’d always wanted to but for some reason just never got around to doing.

What I wanted to do was not to ‘stop’ the Eye in motion but to use a long enough exposure to create a smoothed effect of the motion of the Eye.

The set up was pretty simple really. I positioned myself directly opposite the London Eye on the other side of the River Thames so the shot would be a head-on image.

The first shot

To get an idea of what exposure time I would need to use the first shot was relatively simple. I used aperture priority (set the aperture, let the camera take care of shutter speed) stopping the lens down to f16 giving me a shutter speed of 30 seconds.

30s exposure for testing

It didn’t quite create the smoothing or the strength of reflection in the River Thames that I’d wanted to achieve, but certainly gave a good impression of the movement of the London Eye. It almost looks as if it is spinning round incredibly quickly.

Resetting the exposure

Since using aperture priority gave me a 30 second exposure (the maximum for the Sony Alpha 700) it then came down to using the ‘Bulb’ setting to get a longer exposure. To go for the longer exposure I would need to reduce the amount of light entering the lens more than I could simply by reducing the aperture, so I used a Neutral Density filter – a grey filter which reduces light transmission without affecting the colour of the shot.

I used an Cokin P ND8 filter (which gave me three extra stops), set the aperture to f8 (the sharpest aperture for the Sony Carl Zeiss 16-80 lens I found) and calculated that I should keep the shutter open for three minutes.

Exposure was about perfect (my brain is still working then), but when I looked at the image in the screen on the back of the camera I noticed something odd. Despite the long exposure, instead of the nice smooth circle that I had expected to see, what I saw this instead looked as if the spokes and pods had been ‘frozen’ in place as the image was captured. Full image and crop below.

3min exposure but some of the pods are 'frozen'

Close up of the 'frozen' pods

I couldn’t work out how it had happened and then was struck with a flash of inspiration while flying back from a business trip in Germany. The London Eye is very close to the railway bridge over the River Thames into Charing Cross station. The trains in that area use an electric 3rd rail to power the electric motors.

Occasionally you get a spark between the pick-up on the train and the 3rd rail (similar to that from an arc welder). In the daylight these sparks are invisible but in the dark you can see that they are very bright. I can only think that the pods were ‘frozen’ by a spark from the 3rd rail.

But eventually I got the shot that I wanted to enter the challenge. There were some great shots entered into the competition and I was very humbled to have my entry voted as the winner :-)

The shot I wanted - at last

An alternate view

After taking the shots from Embankment I walked up onto the east Hungerford footbridge to get a shot of the City of London at night. When I turned around from the city I saw this interesting composition of the London Eye, the railway bridge and one of the supports for the west side footbridge. No cropping at all, just tweaks in Adobe Camera Raw.

I’d already removed the adapter for the filter and was getting cold (I know, I’m a lightweight) so decided just to shoot without the filter, knowing I wouldn’t get the complete smoothing of the rotation of The London Eye. I still like this, particularly the impression of movement of the Eye. It was almost the shot submitted for the challenge – a very close decision. The dots you can see in the sky are an aeroplane flying across the frame during the exposure.

I’ve also included the shot of the City of London looking East, away from the London Eye.

London Eye from the Eastern Hungerford Bridge

Looking East towards The City and South Bank

I hope you’ve enjoyed the background story to the shoot.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 at 06:25 and is filed under Blog, Images. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.