Dissecting the image: how I created this shot

Shot at 1/13th @f/4.5 ISO 640 40mm(17-40mm) Canon 5D mkIII

Hey folks,

Today I want to do something very cool and fun. I am going to dissect how I took an image from both a technical and narrative standpoint.

So you see the image above, it’s one my and Di’s favourites, taken in Hackney Wick, East London a couple of years ago.

It’s a super popular image of mine, one of my limited edition prints. One of the people who bought me this image told me a crazy story about this location. I’ve included the story below.

But first, let’s start with the technical:

Look at the image and what do you see? Honestly I think I used the wrong reciprocating exposure. I had a tripod with me which I didn’t use!

Now – what could I have done better? What would have given this image greater clarity, contrast and detail?

You guessed it – a lower ISO. ISO 640 is not bad at all with my Canon 5D mk III, but ISO 100 would have been a better choice for increased quality.

That said, this was near the first exposure I made here at Hackney Wick at 5:45 am so that is my excuse – I was practically sleepwalking!

A better exposure combination, as I look back, would have been ISO 100 with an f/11 aperture at a shutter speed of whatever worked for a -1.5EV.

I say “whatever shutter speed” because I had a tripod and time (long exposures) were not a limiting factor in making my exposure calculation.

One second or one minute makes no difference with a good tripod setup. By -1.5EV, I mean an Exposure Value of -1.5 stops from a “0” or middle exposure.

Why -1.5EV? Every exposure I make before the sun rises is at -1 to -1.5EV. I do this to embrace the ambiance of the light.

This is why it’s so important to know how a light meter works. All the tones in this image are below or near the middle zone so an underexposure keeps it looking dark and realistic instead of what a 0EV exposure would do which is wash out the mood by overexposing.

So – to create the atmosphere and ambiance of light you are seeing – you need to know how to ensure your light meter won’t over or underexpose. (More about that here)

If you have no idea what the above means and do not understand how light meters work than that is your homework for today. It is really important to viscerally grasp the exposure scale.

I think this shows, doesn’t it, that you can get things a little wrong – but still create a great image.

We don’t need to worry about being perfect, we just need to focus on showing up to take the shot. To go to places that inspire us and to give it a go!

Often in the progress to manual we miss shots or get things a little wrong. But it’s OK! If you don’t make the leap you won’t create unique images like this.

Now we’ve picked apart the technical execution – let’s look at the narrative in the image.

The first thing I think when I think of narrative is feeling. A two-dimensional image does not move or interact in any way physical with you so it must translate a feeling to be interesting. That feeling is the start of the narrative or story.

I have a story that I learned about this place, which I will share, but first, it’s the story that I created in my mind that counts. Because that is why I chose to aim my camera at this particular scene.

This image speaks to me of abandonment and serenity, of beauty and balance of coarseness and decay. These are all things I love to photograph. In my imagination, I look at this abandoned building and I think of parties in dark places and zombies.

I imagine creepy realities inside and the feeling of escape on the outside. That is just me – I love reading and watching films about dystopian futures so that is what comes to my mind. Not very deep or profound but fun for me.

I am sure your interpretation will be vastly different than mine and others and I would expect that. So what does this image speak to you of?

(It reminds a quote I used recently, that sums up our subjectivity so brilliantly, from the photographer Brassai “Everything passes through your imagination. What you produce at the end is very different from the reality you started with.”)

So here’s a true story. The building in the photo is an old pub in East London. Someone saw this photo online and sent it to his friend who used to live in the pub as a child in the 1980’s.

The friend calls me and asks if the image was for sale. He told me that his father was the last pub landlord before they were evicted and it was shut down.

He was a child of a mixed-race marriage, things were tough for his family…and mom. East London was rough for him, and his family stood out. He was bullied. Mom left. Dad descended. Things just got harder.

As a young boy, when his life was crashing down around him, in this very location, he made a promise to himself that NOTHING would ever bring him to that edge again. He is now a VP of a fortune 500 company.

To him, this picture is the visual representation of that promise. I love that he chose my photo, and not just any photo of this old building. It’s beautifully framed, hanging in his home as a reminder of where he came and as a reminder of how grateful he is for all the love he now has in his life.

To me, it shows how powerful images can be in our lives. How they provoke, remind, encourage and create all kinds of stories, fantasies and ideas in our minds.

It was amazing listening to his story, knowing just one of the stories of the people who lived in this place. The world is full of stories like this, and often as photographers, we can only guess at them, we can only see the smallest of signs about life lived all around us.

This is one of the reasons I love to photograph London, why after almost 18 continuous years of living in the city and exploring, it has never stopped inspiring me. You can feel the history, the stories, the weight of human imprint everywhere. The jumble of old against new, the beauty and the decay – it’s an incredibly unique city.

That’s it for now. I’d love to know what you think about this photo and my analysis. Did the technical breakdown make sense to you? What did the image say to you? How do you create stories in your images? Let me know below.

Have a fantastic day, and happy photographing!

Anthony and Diana