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Night photography, rappers and oligarchs

Back in the sixties, St Tropez was, as you imagine - a small fishing village on the Cote d'Azur showing the first trappings of chic. I came here frequently then as a child , whilst camping with my parents down the road on the Ramatuelle Peninsula. Even then, large yachts, then mostly sailing yachts , lined the harbour amongst the working fishing boats. Artists lined the port showing off their paintings and sketches of ragamuffin children with large eyes and tatty cloths - remember them? Later in life, some 25 years ago now, I returned with Julia. The chic was still there, as were the yachts, although changed from sail to power, but expanded beyond all recollection were the car parks lining the sea wall. With the car parks came traffic and people, but even so, the charm remained.

Now, Julia and I return again. Still camping up the road. Our first visit to the town, for almost 25 years, synonymous with the rich and famous, still didn’t disappoint. This daytime recce rediscovered for us the winding backstreets climbing south towards the Citadel, which then overlooks the copper roof tops and paint washed walls of the houses huddled together in the summer sun. The motor yachts lining the quayside, register ports from Valletta to London, via the Bahamas of course. We overhear that Jenson Button’s yacht is moored just of the crowded harbour entrance, perhaps the oligarchs have taken all the moorings in the harbour?

Anyway, having set the scene, what’s the plan? A few street scenes and, as the market is on, a few shots covering the hustle and bustle of the jostling crowd. Lighting is always a problem in markets Generally I try to compose out the luminescence differences as far as possible rather than use fill in flash, but I know that’s down to personal preference. Constant monitoring of the histogram, making adjustments to ISO to ensure that the hand held speed is okay, and altering the aperture for the effect I want is de rigour and a peace meal for the main event to come in the evening, a couple of days later.

On my list of shots are evening images of St Tropez and Port Grimaud, starting with the 60’s doyenne. Arriving in plenty of time, some 3 hours before sunset. I sussed the location for the shots on my first visit to use the side lighting of the setting sun falling away behind the Montagne de Maures as much as possible . The shoot is in two bites as is usually the case for evening shots. The first is the yellow light kissing, (a Notonism), the buildings surrounding the port which intensifies as sunset draws near. There will be some detail shots as well around this time picking out elements of the port and its essence. Then there is always the lull. As the strength of the sun wanes, so does the directional light’s colour saturation. It’s as if someone switches off the light and you are left with drab muted tones. Then we have to wait for the night shots. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again, night shots are not generally taken at night, but at twilight when there is still some colour in the sky. That way the highlight difference is not so great and you get a better spectrum of colour.

Anyway, as we walk round to the harbour wall, my chosen viewpoint, one thing strikes me as a problem and that’s just how tall these super yachts are. Some of them are as tall as the houses they shroud. Unbelievable. The problem of course is the shadows they cast on the buildings which erodes the purpose of these first series of shots. Like a numpkin I hadn’t taken this into consideration on the recce. Luckily I can and do adjust my position slightly to minimise the problem but is just goes to show how careful you have to be in location finding. The field craft of photography can be as important as the F stop! As we were taking position, Julia points out the reflections of the houses in the back, (stern), of some of the highly polished super yachts. As we watch one such yacht, complete with ‘saffa’ crew scrubbing, polishing and waiting on two men lounging on the middle deck, I could hear one of the two men asking the crew what I was taking picture of as my lens was pointing towards the hull. His accent was very eastern European as were a number heard around the port. I therefore shouted a request to the presumed oligarch for me to take the reflections in the hull of his boat. Having confirmed my request with the crew, he acknowledged that this was okay. I then had visions of the Alexander and Miller sketch where the Russian allows such a request then orders his sdie kick - to his agent, “Kill Him!” . Julia discouraged me from taking any more!

Having settled on a couple of compositions, plus the usual landscape and portrait alternatives, I start shooting. As ever in these situations, when I come to process the images, the early shots will inevitably be ditched as the later images become more intense with light until it fades. Despite the fact that these skyscrapers of yachts are afloat and as such do move a little, I try to keep the tripod mounted camera at quite a long shutter speed to smooth out the water a little. Choosing between F9 and F11, a strong and sharp point of most lenses, with the polariser fitted to intensify the colours on the buildings, I shoot on mirror lock up and no image stabilisation - never a good thing when using a tripod as there is always some possible movement in the charged motors in the lens. Working hard on the composition to give the image some bold impact, I use the diagonal shapes of the yacht bows to provide angle to an otherwise perpendicular scene and work mainly in the 70-200mm range. Then comes the lull. Off comes the poloriser and on goes the Lee Filter wide angle mount and filter holder. I won’t be needing it all the time but want to be ready to even out the exposures for some of the shots showing sky. As it gets darker, the sky will balance itself out before it gets too dark to give the best impact.

There’s nothing to do now really other than wait. For this part of the shoot I’m looking for the restaurant atmoshere with the yachts as backdrop so to speak - ie the essence of St Trop at night. I love those types of shots as they are a challenge. I want the people in the shot to be moving, so as some are sitting they become more on evidence than those walking by who blur into insignificance with the length of shutter speed. To make it look like ‘night’ the lights have to be on obviously, but that happens haphazardly. Most of the restaurants lights are on but the street lights ore off. This is very annoying as the balance in the images demands the street lights. My worry is that they won’t come on until its too dark and all they will do is flare up. I therefore recompose and get some images in the bag. As soon as I do this, the street lights come on thankfully. It’s always a worry wondering if the conditions will come right for the shoot, to save another visit.

The memory cards are filling up so we move down for some street shots on the way round the port. It used to be disconcerting stuck in the middle of s street throbbing with people ambling past restaurant after restaurant; diners sat eating and drinking; tripod and pro camera plonked down; Julia keeping a look out that I don’t fall off the quay or wander into the path of a child/pedestrian/truck/dog/waiter; now not so. I just get on with the job. Still checking the histo after each shot then adjusting exposure with compensation and reshooting as necessary. All the yachts are lit up now, some like small towns with discos blaring and minders guarding the gangplanks. As we walked towards one such yacht, lit like a Christmas tree with bright coloured lights, balloons swinging, rap music pumping and the ubiquitous glitter ball, the ‘minder’ on the upper deck hollered, “Paparrazzi!”, pointed to me still bedecked with camera loaded tripod and then told me that Jayzee was on board. I of course know who Jayzee is, but for those of you who don’t, or don’t have daughters young enough to advise you, he is the main man. Probably the most famous rapper in the world! The minder then asked me to come on board, again with an Eastern European accent but I still had visions of that Armstrong and Miller sketch so I moved on - much to my daughters chagrin mind you!

Downloading the images later, deleting the obvious error shots, showed some promising material, but at the end of the day, it’s only worthwhile if it pays its way so we’ll have to wait and see for that. Tomorrow another place, another shoot, Port Grimaud. When I came here the first time, it was still a marsh! I'll tell you about that later.