Keep on snapping! – A day in London

Back at the beginning of the week I had an opportunity to spend a day up in the Capital with a fellow ex-Lilly employee. Robin and I had discussed the idea a few weeks back at Bill’s retirement get-together and were both keen to spend some time devoted just to the pleasure of taking some pictures. I’d not spent any time purely on taking photographs since last August when I visited RHS Wisley and so with the weather generally improving each week I welcomed the idea. Indeed any opportunity to get away from the house these days now that I am unable to drive myself is to be grabbed with both hands so a date was set.

As I mentioned in my last weblog entry I have recently reached the half-year milestone. As a way of celebrating the occasion (and because I like treating myself occasionally and will use any excuse!) I decided to take advantage of a bank holiday special offer in my local photographic store and bought a new camera! Well I figured that just because I have a terminal illness doesn’t mean I should stop living :-). Anyway it was good timing really because Canon had just released the 450D (click here for a tour), a new entry-level digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera that was a fourth generation successor to the 300D I had bought a couple of months prior to a holiday in Florida back in 2003. Now as we all know a lot can happen in the world of consumer electronics in just a few years and digital photography is no exception. But because of my growing disability I now find myself looking at a camera’s specification list from a different angle. So for instance the doubling of pixels (from 6 to 12 million in my case) will to some extent obviate the need to carry long telephoto lenses around as I’ll be able to selectively crop the image afterwards whilst still ending up with enough pixels should I wish to make a print. This is an over simplification and any serious photographers reading this may shake their head but for my needs it will have to suffice. Anyway by minimizing the need to carry long telephoto lenses around immediately gives me three important advantages: one is a reduction in the overall weight I have to carry around on my shoulder all day; the second is the combined camera body/lens weight becomes more manageable for my weakened arms; thirdly by reducing the number of lens changes out in the field I reduce the chances of actually dropping an expensive piece of glass!

Several other features that lend themselves to physical disabilities also had a strong influence on the purchasing decision: The camera body is extremely light (475g) and compact and quite nicely balanced. The 3 inch LCD monitor screen is now large enough to see a lot more detail without squinting – very useful if your eyesight is starting to deteriorate like mine. The standard zoom lens supplied is also very light and compact and has an image stabilisation feature built in which is invaluable if you cannot hold a camera steady for long.

So a 450D it was then and with my local camera store offering a nice price reduction plus a free camera bag that offered plenty of room for expansion it made it a hard offer to refuse. In fact it became even more enticing when I was able to use the vouchers I had been given as a leaving gift from Eli Lilly. So it became my present to myself, and a very nice one too! I think the salesperson was amazed at how quickly he’d made a sale. I mean basically I just asked if they had any left in stock and said okay I’ll have one! Normally people ponder over these things at the counter as they push every button and turn every dial but I tend to do all my research well in advance so by the time I get to a shop I already know what I want. Besides I’ve been using Canon equipment for something like 30 years.

Armed with a new camera Robin and I caught a 10am fast train to London on Monday which was packed with commuters. I sat there thinking how modern times had changed even a simple journey like this. Back when I was younger (and not so many years ago) people would sit quietly and perhaps just read a newspaper or paperback. Today however it is a bit like sitting in a busy office. Laptop computers are perched on the tables whilst people participate in online conferences, mobile phones are everywhere as people are engaged in group discussions, others are marking up reports whilst the ubiquitous iPods seem to be all part of the commuter dress code these days. Yes’ technology is changing us into an ‘online’ and ‘always on’ society. I wonder what it will be like in a few more decades?

Well I didn’t get too long to ponder the question as we arrived in London in less then an hour. Waterloo station is ideally placed to take advantage of a number of attractions almost straight away. So after leaving the station it was only a short walk to the London Eye situated on the very edge of the River Thames right next to County Hall. Out came the cameras and like a couple of dogs let off the lead we were off and running! Well I would have been except that my arms are becoming so weak and limited in their movement that it was a struggle just to get the camera out of it’s protective bag and place the strap around my neck (there was no way I was going to trust my hands to just hold a new camera, I wanted a safety net). Eventually after much struggling and some help I was good to go. So off we both went trying to acquire shots that probably just about everyone else had already captured since the day the London Eye was erected. I sometimes wonder how many millions of duplicate shots of the world’s tourist attractions there are and if they were laid out on a (very) large table would we be able to recognise our own? Why do we even bother attempting that which has already been achieved? Perhaps it is just a desire to say ‘I did it’ and to have our own personal memory. Of course if the shot includes family, friends or a loved one then the photo is already unique. But our shots (or at least mine) were pretty much standard fare but it still felt good to be out in the open and away from the confining walls of the house enjoying the fresh air and experiencing the moment.

Being as the London Eye is quite a tourist magnet it is therefore no surprise to see street entertainers congregate along the Embankment, some of which are quite entertaining and colourful. But I have no idea how some can pretend to be statues for so long. I couldn’t stand still for five minutes. I’m a fidget! Well one good thing I suppose is that you don’t need a fast shutter speed to capture them :-). Anyway we next headed off towards Westminster Bridge where I found it impossible to resist the clichéd shot of a London bus and Parliament in the background. Now I wonder how many times that one’s been done, hehe. Over on the other side of the Thames we grabbed some shots of Big Ben before making our way to a local supermarket to buy some food and drink and then sitting down on a stone wall over looking Parliament whilst we had our lunch. Again I struggled a bit here as I found it almost impossible to lift the bottle of drink to my lips without assistance. My arms are becoming so weak that even such tasks are starting to slip away from me. At home I wouldn’t have this problem as I can drink out of a smaller mug. I made a mental note to myself to always carry a drinking straw in future!

After lunch we took a walk over to Westminster Cathedral for a few outside shots before catching a tube train to Tower Hill where we spent an enjoyable time photographing Tower Bridge before walking across it and taking shots of some of the more recent buildings of architectural interest as well as the wonderful Hay’s Galleria. Time sure passes quickly in London and already it was late in the afternoon when we arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Another tube train back to Westminster and we finished off the day taking photos of County Hall bathed in evening light. As I looked all around there were people in large numbers making the most of the lovely evening, happy children riding piggyback on their dad’s shoulders, passenger ferries doing a brisk trade along the Thames, pigeons in large flocks congregating around bins eager to gain any scraps. It was a lovely way to end the day. In fact we’d been blessed throughout the day with beautiful sunny weather and I was glad that I had decided to dress light in just a short sleeve shirt and shorts plus a cap to keep the sun off my face as I tend to burn easily. I suppose if I was being super critical I would say that we could have done with some nice fluffy white clouds to add interest to what was a blank featureless blue sky. But I was just grateful for a nice warm day.

A quick stroll back to Waterloo station and we were shortly on our way home again with flash cards full of pictures. I’d been up on my feet practically all day without any noticeable problems. My arms might be steadily getting worse but so far (touch wood) my legs still seem strong – surely a good sign.

As enjoyable as it was taking photographs I would also have to admit that it was far from easy. Just putting the strap over my head would often require help as I cannot lift my arms up very high. Hoisting the camera up to my eye required me to fall back on the tricks I’d learnt around the home by throwing or swinging my arms and using momentum and then bracing my arms against my chest for added support. Even when I did have the camera against my eye I would not be able to keep my arms upright for very long so didn’t have the luxury of spending long on compositions for fear of dropping the camera – and if it wasn’t for the strap I would have done on several occasions. And as for vertical photos, well I just couldn’t manage to get my arms to work holding the camera like that so all my photos are in the horizontal format. So in a place like London which is full of tall structures I really struggled to get the tops of the buildings in the frame and when my arms would run out of lifting ability I would end up bending backwards as far as I could without toppling over. The effect of this was that by the end of the day my lower spine was aching. One way to overcome all this bending backwards is to use something called an angle finder which is attached to the camera’s rear (optical) viewfinder and which bends the light path through 90 degrees. They’re often used in close up work where it is difficult to get your eye close to the ground. Maybe this is what I need.

So how did my new toy perform? Marvellous actually. For a camera that is at the bottom of the range it sure has a lot of features, most of which have yet to be explored – and I will have fun doing so. Two features really stand out for me and make me glad I bought it. The first is the excellent image stabilisation feature built into the lens which made it possible for me to obtain sharp pictures despite my unsteady hands at times. The second impressive feature is the lovely 3 inch view screen which made it so much easier to evaluate pictures without waiting to get home.

I have no idea how long I will be able to continue to take photos or how much use I’ll actually get out of this investment but the way I see it you cannot put a price on happiness and even if I only get a few months of joy it will still be more then I would have got without it.

So before I sign off let me just say thank you, Robin, for your companionship and for all your help throughout the day. I really appreciate it and hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did and hope that we can do something else before too long. My new photo-buddy :-).

And just like that the day was over. Sure, I ended up with a lot of shots very little different to every other tourist I suppose, but I still had an enjoyable day and that I think is the most important thing. But perhaps even more important than that is…keep on snapping!

I’ll upload a companion gallery of photos fairly soon.


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