Traffic Streaks Past London’s Big Ben

One of the great things we did in Europe was get lost. A lot. In London this mostly consisted of wandering around on foot without resources like Google Maps as a safety net. It was really a liberating experience, and something we’d recommend. Instead of rushing from one tourist spot to another, we wandered around, seeing neighborhoods and stopping at places we didn’t read about in any guidebooks.

Although I feared our wandering would lead us to that creepy little pub in American Werewolf in London, we were fortunate that it mostly led us to safe (albeit rowdy) pubs and other interesting places. On this particular night, it also led us to a tourist spot. As we were walking down this street, the name of which I can’t remember, we noticed the tip of a giant clock tower peeking out through the trees. We stopped in our tracks, amazed that someone had actually built that cool tower from Peter Pan!

It was really cool to ‘discover’ the Elizabeth Tower in this manner. We had planned on visiting it later in the trip, but there was something to be said for stumbling upon “Big Ben” late at night, with few others around (don’t let the streaking traffic fool you).

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Photographed with a Nikon D600 and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR. Calling my technical details here a “cautionary tale” might be a bit strong as I like this photo, but a lot of post-processing work went into what I think is a fairly ordinary photo, so that’s what I’ll call it. More than anything else, I’m sharing this shot as a learning experience (and because, flaws and all, it’s probably my best Big Ben photo).

My main mistake here was choosing an aperture of f/16. I did this intentionally, because I love natural starbursts (as in bursts created by the aperture, not a separate filter). At that aperture, all of the street lights created starbursts. Unfortunately, that aperture also led to crazy amounts of lens flare throughout the frame. Not minor, visually pleasing or “stylized” flare, but crazy flare and imperfections in totally random parts of the photo. I noticed this when reviewing my LCD screen at the time, but figured I could clone them out in Photoshop, so I didn’t bother to take another shot at a lower aperture, say f/8, to see if that remedied the flare problems (I’m not sure that it would have, but I should have tried). Nor did I attempt to reposition my camera to change the angle of the light hitting the lens. I just assumed I could fix the problem in Photoshop.

I like to do things efficiently when taking photos, and I have a quantity over quality approach. This can sometimes be good in that I don’t waste time fixating on one scene, chasing perfect that isn’t there. However, it can also be bad in that I don’t fix obvious problems, instead thinking that I can correct the problem in Photoshop. With this, I don’t mean things like getting the exposure wrong (I can usually get the exposure right on the first try), I mean not noticing random junk creeping into the corner of my frame or odd flare like this–things that I think I can later clone out are the biggest offenders for me.

In this case, I probably could have spent 5 minutes repositioning and changing my aperture when taking photos and saved myself about 30 minutes or more editing. Instead, with this shot I first tried removing the flare with the cloning and healing brushes in Photoshop CS6, before realizing that there was simply too much to clone out. I then opted to just darken the sky, in this case using a combination of a levels adjustment, and a new layer with the burn tool (only for the shadows).

I also then had to do some color adjustments, because there was a deep pool color illuminating the building on the right of the frame, whereas the street lights cast an ugly orange over the rest of the frame. This was something I couldn’t have “fixed” on sight, and it took multiple color balance adjustment mask layers to fully fix. Even now, the colors don’t look nearly as good as they did in person. The scene is a bit washed out due to selective desaturation.

All told, it took me about 45 minutes to process this photo, which is around 35 minutes more than I like to spend, and most of this is due to not taking an extra couple of minutes when taking the photos. Sometimes time is of the essence and it’s easier to spend a lot more time on the computer than it is to spend time on location, but in this case, I had the time…I was just lazy. Hopefully this is a good lesson?

Your Thoughts…

Does Big Ben remind you of Peter Pan? What do you think of the time shooting v. time editing quandary? Share your thoughts on these questions or anything else in the comments!

1 reply
  1. Jeff Krause
    Jeff Krause says:

    Awesome. You are a master of fixing stuff like this in Photoshop. I’m a technical shooter so I assume a lot, sometimes to much, can be fixed in post. All this talk of flare, I couldn’t help but think of Office Space and the required 15 pieces of flare, err flair. I don’t think you have enough.


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