Best of 2011

2011 – my baker’s dozen

Random oddity

Following my hijacking of Phil Coomes’ BBC “News in Pictures” blog last week, I thought I’d put my slightly revised selection from 2011 on here to continue the series that I began last year.

I’m obviously tempting fate as I have one shift left for 2011 on the 31st, so calling these my favourites of the year runs with the proviso that the Second Coming doesn’t happen on Saturday, with Jesus choosing to return for an impromptu monster truck session on Oxford Street while I’m on duty.

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First up is a scene from the Southbank of the Thames, during the build-up to the royal wedding.  With tourists filling the city and everything either draped in union flags or police tape, most photographers in London were regularly being sent out to find feature pictures on the upcoming marriage.  Aside from the poses looking like it could have been staged, the punchline to it all was that “The Queen” was in fact an Eastern European bloke.  I hope Phil the Greek knows.  The full blog can be found here.

The London riots saw some incredible images on the news wire from all agencies, newspapers and freelance sources. While I captured a good share of the flames and violence,  one of my personal favourite pictures came on the first night as I was leaving Tottenham to edit my photographs. Just as I was about to go, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a woman carrying two young children through the rubble and broken glass. The blue lights from the police vans lit her face as she walked towards the line of armoured vehicles and riot police. A few hundred metres behind her, the police were still clashing with rioters and missiles were being thrown in all directions. Being in that situation was scary enough, but as a father I can only imagine how scared this woman must have been for the safety of the children.  More images from the story can be found here.

The MCM Comic Con convention in east London turned out to be one of my favourite jobs of the year to shoot thanks to the ridiculous amount of pictures that were there to be taken, as nearly everyone attending was dressed in some type of costume. One of my favourites was Lindsay Vincent from Cumbria who dressed as US singer Lady Gaga and was happy to take time out to pose for me in front of the passing crowds.  The set of images I came away with have ended up being my favourite picture story of the year, thanks to the devotion of the fans of Cosplay and all that it involves.  Bravo, eccentric types!  More frames can be found here.

The show below is an idea that’s been done before but I loved how well matched the girls were.  While covering the “Vintage at the Southbank Centre” event, I’d spotted two girls playing around with the record covers as they searched through the stacks of vinyl on a stall.  As I approached them, they’d just found these two covers and were starting to play around with them.  I’d love to say I’d made the effort of finding out the exact covers and posing them just so but they made the frame for me.  While not being the hardest frame to capture, it still puts a smile on my face.  More images can be found here.

Covering the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships at Sheffield Arena in March, the photographers were given the chance to shoot from directly above, allowing us to catch the action from a new perspective.  At the time, I didn’t really appreciate how rare an opportunity it was until I’ve seen the “best of 2011” images from a number of leading sports photographers have included shots from the gantry from over that weekend.

I was sitting in the office of Agence France-Presse, the news agency that I work for, on a particularly quiet day when I noticed the end of a rainbow over the financial district of London. I grabbed my camera and began taking pictures of the rainbow that could be used to illustrate a future business feature or story, when I noticed that it was starting to get longer. Within a few seconds it had become a full arc, and shortly after a second rainbow appeared over the top. By this time I’d called everyone over from their desks and they stood and watched the incredible light show as I frantically snapped away from under my coat (to cut out reflections from the glass of the office window). Then, as fast as it had appeared, it was gone.

Another shot from the first night of the London riots and it’s pretty self-explanatory but I liked how it captured the energy and frantic movement as the night developed.  With an appliance store on fire, the riot police moved forward pushing the rioters further down the street.  It’s always a challenge in this kind of situation to find the right place to be, as you’re facing incoming missiles when too close to the police but are at risk of being attacked if you’re in with the rioters.  More images can be found here.

Never having shot Wimbledon before, other than a few of the features surrounding the event, I got to cover the actual play this year with this shot being my favourite. After a long and frustratingly close rally, French player Benoit Paire threw his racquet while diving as he played against Spanish player David Ferrer.  A truly desperate move but it gave me a shot for the yearly round-up!  More images can be found here.

Another moment from the Comic-Con 2011 convention makes my list and this one was the opposite of the shot above, being a moment I spotted as I wandered around the main concourse during lunch.  While all of the attendees were connected by their love of cosplay, they still divided into some groups, so I had a poke around to see how they were mixing.  The guy in the centre was clearly quite proud of his costume and seemed to be a bit of an alpha-male of the group.  I’m proud of catching his flirtatious look towards the passing girl while the guy on the right eyes me suspiciously.  I also loved the Comic-Con show for this moment. More images can be found here.

It’s hard to fail on a story like this but when sent to cover the 25th annual International Kite Festival in Bristol, my favourite photo was of the interaction between a giant flying lobster and a spectator.  Even if it wasn’t a favourite picture, I’d probably include it anyway, just so that I could write that sentence.

While covering the on-going fighting around the town of Bani Walid in Libya, AFP journalist Dominique Soguel and I started chatting to a group of National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters as they sheltered from the midday sun on a dried riverbed running under the road. After shooting a few portraits of them, a senior figure in the NTC army arrived with a reinforced briefcase filled with wrapped bundles of tens of thousands of Dinar and started to pay the troops. With the fighting dragging on longer than hoped, the fighters were struggling to survive with families at home in need of income, so supporters had raised money by selling their possessions and sending the funds to the front line.  My posts from Libya can be found here.

The day of the royal wedding was truly one of the most stressful days of my life, but in the end it was saved by bridesmaid Grace Van Cutsem. The young girl became world famous after she covered her ears to protect herself from the noise of a fly-past, just at the point of the royal kiss, creating one of the moments of the day. I was very grateful that we were shooting from so far away, as if I’d been closer I may have tried to crop in really tight on the kiss and would have missed Grace’s moment.  The whole story can be found here.

During the visit to Britain by US President Barack Obama, I was covering a number of the meetings inside number 10 Downing Street. It included this one between the president, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron. I have absolutely no idea what was said, but I love the body language between the three subjects. While the prime minister had moved out of the way to allow us to photograph Mr Clegg and President Obama, the combination of the apparent giggling fit on the left, and the rather stern look from Mr Cameron, makes for an amusing caption competition shot.  More images from the visit can be found here.

So there we go.  Unless you hear about a series of crushed cars near Oxford Circus over the weekend, bring on 2012.


December 30th, 2011

The Royal kiss

This just might be a one shot deal…

The working day

After many hours of thought, concern and general fizz, the day of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was quite definitely the biggest rollercoaster that I’ve ever been on.  Thirty six hours after the day ended, I’m just starting to get a clear idea of how the day went.

The problem with this job is that a photographer puts so much time, effort and emotion into capturing a high-profile event that it becomes truly mentally exhausting.  To an outsider, it may simply look as though I turn up and click the shutter a few times and head home for tea, but there really is so much more to it than that.

The day started at 5am with a taxi to the Queen Victoria Memorial, opposite Buckingham Palace.  With the streets closing at 6am, it was important to get through the traffic and be slotted into position before the chaos began.  Thanks to a stroke of luck with the positions, I managed to get a really strong spot to shoot from, so simply had pass the seven hours away with getting my gear set up.  AFP had arranged for me to have a fast network cable to my position so, combined with Nikon’s WT-4, I could transmit my images straight from my camera as the kiss was actually happening.

Thankfully, the staff provided us a chance to see just how much of a throw this would be when they came to set up the balcony drapes.  As you can see from the pictures, the shot below is the area between the two columns in the centre of the frame above.  That’s quite a distance.

A downside of drawing the central position was that I was “trapped” within a mass of tripods, bags, cables and sandwich boxes so was unable to shoot many feature shots throughout the morning.  This only added to my apprehension as I had nothing to distract me other than wondering about my camera configuration.  As I’ve previously mentioned in rule 2 here, the longer a photographer has to wait for an event to occur, the more he or she will begin to doubt their kit choices.  This results in a near-constant swapping of converters, lenses, clamps, cables or camera bodies.

With the use of a helpfully placed PA system, the photographers on the stand could hear the BBC’s coverage of the event, so we had an idea of when to expect our first view of the newlyweds.  Thanks to a combination of the commentary and the roar of the crowds as they came down the Mall, I knew when to wrestle my way out of the pack and round onto the corner to get a shot of the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arriving at Buckingham Palace for the first time.  As a colleague later pointed out to me, of the two “footmen” on the back of their carriage, one is an actual footman and one is a close protection officer, ready to dive in front of a miscreant’s bullet at a moments notice.  Can you guess which is which? 😉

Once safely inside, the police began to slowly filter the public out from behind their security fencing and along the Mall.  With the possibility of a crush or stampede, the sheer volume of tens of thousands of royal supporters and tourists were thankfully held back by a thin blue line of police.

With the public in position, the time had come.  After weeks of planning, meetings, equipment tests, logistical headaches and sleepless nights, it was the moment to see if it had all been worth it.

With a twitch of the curtains and a cheer from the crowds below, William and Catherine were there on the balcony.  With my final decision being to opt for a Nikon D3x, I had to watch my shooting speed as the buffer fills up VERY quickly and takes an absolute eternity to clear.  All around me, photographers who had opted for lower resolution, but higher speed cameras, rattled through their shots at nine frames per second.  Being used to that kind of speed myself, the urge to gun it and hose them down as soon as they appeared was immense but I forced myself to shoot single frames at what I hoped would be the key moments.

Then, there it was; the kiss.  After noticing an earlier look from Kate towards William that had been met by a whispered “No, wait a while longer”, he turned to her and they kissed.  The crowds cheered, the cameras exploded into action and the adrenaline surged.

After what seemed like ages (but looking at it afterwards, was really quite fast), they separated.  I quickly hit the transmit button on my camera and returned to shooting.  Following a fly-past by a variety of aircraft that I didn’t even look up to see, a second kiss came.

With more cheers from the crowd and a final wave, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge turned and with a final look over her shoulder, they walked into the Palace and the doors closed.

I immediately scrolled through my frames and selected the kiss pictures and hit transmit again.  By this point, four or five of my shots had left the camera and were back with the editors in London’s Centre Point.  Relieved to have caught the moment, I phoned back to the office to check that they were seeing the frames.  “Did you get the second kiss?”, I was asked.  On telling them that I had and it was coming shortly, I was told that they needed them fast as the first pictures of the kiss were soft.  It was round about now that my heart just crumpled.  The problem with the WT-4 system of transmitting pictures is that I don’t get to see them or work on them at all; what I shoot is what the editors see with no chance to check my production or tweak the pictures in any way.  While everyone else was sat around me discussing their shots, I was just left standing there in shock.

The next fifteen minutes were possibly the longest in my life.  As the frames slowly dropped down the line to the office, I could only sit and work out what had just happened.  Had I screwed up?  Was it the set-up?  Was it the heat haze?  Were the second kiss pictures any better?  Slowly, as the other photographers around me filed their frames, the phones started to ring and suddenly I was noticing that they were all saying a very similar thing.  It seemed that a combination of the heat, the pollen in the air and the distance had caused trouble for everyone.  With those people shooting on higher burst-rate cameras having more to choose from, they could pick their choices a little easier but we were all suffering.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge drive to Clarence House

Even with the knowledge that nearly everyone was in the same boat, I can’t begin to describe how low I was feeling.  After such a huge amount of effort and time in getting the pictures, to hear that things weren’t perfect was heavy blow.  It seems odd to admit this but it’s only a few days later that I’ve come to look through the raw NEF images and can see that the photos are actually pretty good but, at that moment, I hadn’t had chance to sit down and properly look through them.  With no chance to check my output, the day continued with comings and goings from the Palace and lots of running around, laden with satellite phones, long lenses and tripods.  It was well into the evening when I finally got into the office and saw the frames.  It was a hell of a relief to see the results.  With the situation magnifying itself in my mind over the afternoon and evening, I’d imagined the shots to be seriously ropey but in the end, a bit of considerate editing with the haze being taken into account had produced a decent set.  This job really is not good for people who can’t handle stress.

Now this may seem like an odd post but I don’t want this blog to live up to it’s title of being just another “vanity project”.  This job provided some real highs and some incredible lows but three days later, I can stand back from the heightened emotions and pressure of the day and see that I actually ended up getting the shot after all.  The image of “The Frowning Flowergirl” Grace Van Cutsem covering her ears as the couple kissed has done very well, and other moments have made front pages in various countries around the world.  As I said in the opening to this post, the photographer can get so unbelievably attached to an assignment that it will always have the potential to leave them feeling less than chipper.  Combining this close emotional bond to the work, with the fact that the job itself is so full of variables and unpredictable events, means that I’m sure this won’t be the last time in my career that I get side-swiped by a job.  Thankfully, the years have taught me that every dip has a peak waiting at the other end.  Bring on the rollercoaster!

May 3rd, 2011

The wedding countdown begins

The Royal countdown begins…

The working day

12/04/2011 (17 days to go)

With the details finally announced, AFP finally receives the list of positions that will be available to us on the day of the Royal Wedding.  With so much planning already in place (despite a total lack of actual knowledge on where we’d be), it’s a relief to find that we’ve got a decent selection of the best views of the day.  While shooting a rather poor feature on the RAF’s band rehearsing their fanfare, I receive a call from the boss, telling me I’ve drawn the pressure point; the Queen Victoria Memorial (AKA The Kiss).  Crikey.  Now that I know where I’ll be, I can begin planning what I need.

My first call is to the lovely people at 3leggedthing, the new tripod and camera support manufacturers that have produced some truly innovative gear since launching in early 2011.  Having contacted me a while ago to see if there was any gear that I’d like to try, I finally have an actual assignment that requires some serious stability.  Having already discovered that the balcony shot is a VERY long range picture (or “throw”), I already know that to capture the kiss, I’ll need at least a 600mm lens with the possibility that I’ll need to use magnifying converters too.  The problem is that to capture the kiss, I need to be tight but what if something important happens among the other members of the Royal family as they stand there?  The conclusion I’ve reached is that I need two cameras with long lenses, mounted on the same tripod.  Now I’ve seen this done before with shorter lenses, but can I get the hardware that can support such a vast weight of metal and glass and keep it rock-solid?

13/04/2011 (16 days to go)

Into the office for a team meeting to discuss the details of what we know and what we need to know; a true “known knowns and known unknowns” moment.  General consensus is that while the other guys will have chance to move around a little before the main event and possibly shoot some features, I’m going to be welded to my position for the day.  Aside from the kiss, the couple will return to the Palace past my position before the balcony family picture.  There is an RAF fly past plus the newlyweds will be heading out to Clarence House in the evening for a reception party.

One of the issues that we’re expecting to run into is communications.  With millions of spectators lining the streets, it’s pretty certain that the phone networks will buckle under the pressure so we’ll be hiring short-wave radios for the day.  The only concern being the range and as they’ll only get to us on the 28th, there’ll be no time for tests.

Equipment-wise, the chaps at 3leggedthing have been stress-testing their hardware and are flying one of their global prototypes back into the country for me to use.  This heavy-duty tripod should be able to take the weight and allow my unusual requirements to be met.

Having considered the logistics of using two cameras, I’m now thinking that a better way to ensure I don’t miss anything is to fire one of the cameras remotely; as I shoot the picture using the longer lens, the wider lensed camera also fires.  It’s another thing that could go wrong but it’s also a way of guaranteeing that I don’t miss anything while shooting on the other body.  My current thoughts are to use a 600mm f4  on one side and a 300mm f2.8 on the other (for the family shot).

14/04/2011 (15 days to go)

The Royals will have to struggle along on their own as it’s my birthday, and I refuse to think about it for the next few days.

18/04/2011 (11 days to go)

Back to work and the planning continues.  Today’s discussions focus on remote camera triggers and the use of foot switches to avoid any interference from other photographer’s radio signals.  Hard wiring seems to be the way to go, so lengths of cable are purchased and foot switches ordered.  For some of the positions on the route, the photographer will feel like a one-man band as he shoots with hands and feet.  At the moment, I plan on just sticking with the two cameras, although that may change if I can work out a way to get a wide angle too.

The wedding still remains a staple ingredient of every photographer’s conversation when bumping into colleagues on jobs.  Aside from the question of positions, more specific questions have begun to crop up such as; “Are faster memory cards worth buying?” (yes) and “Can I use a stepladder from the crowd?” (no).

19/04/2011 (10 days to go)

With a quiet afternoon, I get the chance to head down to the Palace and test both the angle of the sun and the lens possibilities.  With only ten days left, security is getting tighter with search teams checking drains and scaffolding and media crews beginning to spend more time outside the Palace and the Abbey.

My options for the day are all based around the Nikon 600mm f4 but the options lay with camera body choice (D3s, D3x or D300s) and whether to use a lens converter (Nikon 1.4x, 1.7x of 2x).  With too many options bouncing around inside my head, I leap in a taxi and head down to the QVM.  Having tested the D300s and the D3s, I can discount the D300s due to the slow frame-rate and small buffer but won’t know about the D3x until Paris decide whether to send me one over.  The shot seems to be alright on a 1.4x or a 2x converter but there’s no way I can truly simulate the day itself, as I won’t know what factors are at play.  A wet overcast day will need very different gear to a bright sunny one and the added threat of the dreaded heat haze is ever present.  A colleague informs me that he’s shot the Trooping the Colour for many years and has only ever managed to get truly sharp pictures once due to the heat coming from the crowds below.  The heat rises and causes a distortion that plays havoc with long lenses.  This task becomes more challenging on a daily basis.

20/04/2011 (9 days to go)

Aside from thinking about the kiss, the ravenous news beast requires a healthy portion of wedding feature every day, so this morning I’m sent to Wellington Barracks.  A blog on this visit can be found here.

21/04/2011 (8 days to go)

With the wedding just over a week away, any job involving the Royal family is of great interest, so I’m sent to Westminster Abbey to cover the Royal Maundy Service which coincidentally falls on the Queen’s birthday.  With the vaguest possibility that William or Katherine may turn up, a healthy turn-out of photographers are on show but in the end, it’s “only” Brenda and Phil that rock up, so more fun is had with the traditional pageantry than the actual Royals.

22/04/2011 (7 days to go)

Huzzah!  The day begins with a front pages of The Times and the Washington Post newspapers, plus the LA Times framework website front page.  I’ve had a serious drought recently, so it’s very much appreciated to get some covers again.

With the rest of the country savouring the start of their long weekend (and if they played their cards right, an 11 day break), colleague Carl de Souza and myself join Picture Editor Alessandro Abbonizio on a final walk-through of the wedding route.  London is soaked in tourists at the moment, all bumping into each other and following umbrella-wielding tour guides.  It has to be said that it’s a real pleasure to see the Capital festooned in Union flags and, for once, be able to enjoy it for what it is rather than it being tied into some far-Right march or protest.  Coffee shops are handing out Union flag coffee cups, pubs have bunting in their beer gardens and everywhere you look, there are happy symbols of patriotism and enjoyment.  Any overseas readers may be scratching their heads at this and wondering what the big deal is but the combination of the British desire to remain understated, and the hijacking of patriotism by right wing groups has created a population that distances itself from it’s own colours.  Like Godzilla, it’s taken the Royals to emerge from their slumber and take back the icon, allowing us to celebrate our nationality for once.

With the hike over, I return to AFP Towers to piece together the 3leggedthing behemoth and test if it’s up to the job.  Using the 3LT X3 “Jimmy” carbon fibre tripod with D91 and D93 gimbles, a B3s ballhead and a cross bar, the beast was born.  Combined with a pocket wizard trigger firing the second camera, the system manages to hold a HELL of a lot of weight.  Considering that the tripod is so light, it manages to support about £20,000+ of very heavy gear and remain stable.  As it’s designed for a lot less weight, this will need some testing and I’ve already had to adapt a few ideas to remove small amounts of movement.

After a bit of head scratching, I got the pocket wizard firing the second camera remotely, so I think I might actually be getting somewhere!

23/04/2011 (6 days to go)

Three of today’s papers are giving away Royal Wedding bunting.  With all of the other flags and assorted paraphernalia being printed, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of red, white and blue loads for the recycling collectors next week.

Another day, another wander along the route with an emphasis today on tourism and royalists.  With the beautiful weather and no particular plans, I get the chance to shoot another webclip as I meander.

One of my favourite discoveries of the day is a street performer on the South Bank, dressed as Queen Elizabeth II.  After dropping a few frames and a bit of video, she takes her mask off for a breather and it turns out to be a middle-aged Eastern European woman.  Maybe those conspiracy theorists are right about the Illuminati after all.

24/04/2011 (5 days to go)

Despite it being a day off, I suggest a jaunt into town to Kirsten so we take Max off to see the sights and act like tourists for the day.  It’s a beautiful day so we start at Buckingham Palace and I bore her to tears with tedious information about where we’re all positioned and what we can see from each position as we walk back to Westminster Abbey.  Kirsten acts suitably interested and impressed.

27/04/2011 (2 days to go)

Westminster Abbey has begun to look like it’s besieged by a patriotic army of “special” fans.  The upsides to this is that both the media and the police know exactly where to find all of the rather more passionate supporters.  The area has become a feeding ground now with all of us sent to get yet more features surrounding the mass of flags and gaudy merchandise.

28/04/2011 (1 day to go)

With the Royal wedding now upon us, today really needs to be a short and quiet day, so that we can get through it with no hiccups and get a good night’s sleep.  Instead, the rumour of Kate and Will’s wedding rehearsal in Westminster Abbey proves to be true.  Within minutes, AFP sends out the team and we each find ourselves covering a random door, gate or passageway in the hope that we can get them on one of the entrances.  I find myself on a back door and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  You can see from the lack of pictures which door they DIDN’T go through.  With the time close to 10pm, I finally head home and begin to prepare myself for tomorrow’s big day.  It’s finally here.


May 1st, 2011