Gas Street Basin, Birmingham

The presence of water in its various guises has long been an attraction for outdoor photographers. This month’s On location shoot saw Phil and I drawn to the urban landscape of central Birmingham, to explore the inland waterways in and around the rather intriguingly named Gas Street Basin.

In the world of canals and narrowboats, Gas Street Basin certainly has generated a reputation — it is one of the places to moor one’s vessel. The first canal was built here in the late 18th century and was a victim of its own success, quickly becoming over-congested with traffic. It is said that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice. From a total of over 160 miles of navigable routes in the 19th century, today’s 100-mile network has seen considerable changes in its usage, from industrial and cargo transportation to tourism and residential.

Having spent several enjoyable holidays on British canals many years ago, I was intrigued as to what the centre of Birmingham would hold for us during our shoot. I always associate canals with relaxation, a slow pace of life and beautiful countryside well away from traffic noise and fumes -the sort of peace and quiet craved by many of us. Although throughout our shoot the sound of vehicles was minimal, the close proximity of the National Indoor Arena and International Convention Centre, plus countless other waterside developments aimed at leisure, meant there was always going to be a buzz around the place. Constant blue skies and temperatures higher than in Barcelona at the time also meant we were in the company of large crowds for much of our visit.

Joan, Helen and Peter took to the challenge like ducks to water (excuse the pun). Our meeting place, the Canalside Café was perfect for our needs and finding a shady corner was a real blessing. Just before our trio arrived, I was getting into the swing of pressing the shutter, having spotted a lone cloud against a backdrop of a blue skyscraper and sky, when out of the corner of my eye I was aware of someone kindly waiting for me to complete the job before passing in front of me. It was Joan, whose timely arrival was announced by her tripod separating into several pieces. We managed to fix it. With us all wielding sizeable tripods (carefully and strategically of course), we were always going to be subjected to bouts of entertaining banter -all in good (clean-ish) fun I must add — from the seemingly well-lubricated audience, which frequented the balconies of nearby hostelries.

The light was excellent, especially in the shaded areas, which lay under a rich blue sky. We made the most of it and experimented with colour temperature and daylight settings.

A pit-stop for refreshing drinks and a progress report, left me feeling that Peter, Helen and Joan were well into the swing of photographing what the basin had to offer.

As dusk approached, the area had an entirely different feel to it. The atmosphere was electric and a holiday mood prevailed. My personal highlight was meeting a narrowboat owner, Fred Brussels. Relaxing while fishing from his chair on the tow-path, Fred told me he was a retired landscape gardener and had reconditioned his boat himself. It was by far the most colourful on the canal and fully deserved the attention of our lenses. As we chatted, several other narrowboats pooled past and moored up nearby — much like a flock of birds coming home to roost.

Peter’s best picture.

I was trying to find an image which, although showing the canals in Birmingham, did not necessarily reveal the more modern parts.

I wanted an image which reflected the history of the canals. Not an easy task, as there was hundreds of people there. I found this small narrowboat through an archway in the canal. The brickwork of the archway appealed to me, the colours of the engineering bricks contrasting with the brighter brick behind. The red and blue of the boat provided a bright point of interest and the reflection of the boat lit up the ripples in the grey canal. Despite the surrounding hordes, the picture looked quiet and peaceful. The underside of the archway is a little dark, although detail of the brickwork and lime scale can still be seen. Nikon D60 with 70-300mm lens at 135mm, ISO 100, 1/500sec at f/5, UV filter.

Clive’s Comments: Well done Peter for having a plan and sticking to it. The mix of old architecture can be a daunting prospect to capture successfully in an image. This image certainly does give us a glimpse of the former glory years of the canals.

Peter points out the darker area under the bridge. Although the image is exposed correctly the contrast between the brightly lit areas and darker shadows is too great to give the best effect. While the composition works well, the image would work better if it had been shot a bit later, when the sun was lower in the sky. The boat would still have been lit, thus retaining a fine reflection, and the character of the foreground and rear facing walls would have been emphasised.

The most important and successful consideration Peter has giver to his image, is the gap left between the left-hand end of the boat and the bridge. It helps to inform the viewer about the characteristics of the boat.

Helen’s best picture

I have chosen this image as I liked the juxtaposition of the building and the sculpture. I had already taken several images of the building, but wasn’t happy with the final results. As I walked away I saw this sculpture. I tried several angles working with the straight and curved lines, including the sculpture curved around a sunbather on an adjacent balcony.

Eventually I tried this shot. It was very difficult on such a bright day to get enough detail in the face and the veins of the sculpture but I think this exposure just about achieves it. I like the contrast between the straight lines of the building and the curved lines of the human form of the sculpture. I also like the way it almost looks like the sculpture is diving down from the building. Initially, I wanted to try and show images of the original canal basin, but I do think this shot is good at showing the re-vitalised area. Nikon D200 with 18-135mm f/3.5 5.6 G lens at 32mm, ISO 125, 1/30sec at f/14, UV filter, white balance set on fluorescent

Clive’s comments: I love this image, it shows great imagination and awareness. It’s all too easy to focus our efforts looking for interesting subjects that lie in front of us, and below, but miss those above and behind.

The juxtaposition of the building and sculpture works superbly and makes a powerful, well-balanced image. I often go on about the importance of leaving gaps between various elements, but in this instance I prefer the overlap of feet and glass, as it adds a feeling of depth and produces a nice flow as opposed to possible niggling separation. The simple colour palette is striking, while the variable light, shade, and the detail captured on the sculpture is excellent.

Joan’s best picture

I chose this shot because there were various elements to it. I put myself next to the rounded wall so that it, as well as the metal bridge, could feature in the shot. I liked the reflections in the water, of the bridge and the people at the pub, together with the straight lines and curves of the various buildings. I also liked the step effect of the four blocks of flats. I thought the array of colours in the shot added vibrancy. Overall, I think the image portrays a typical sunny Sunday afternoon at the canal side.Canon EOS 300D with 18-55mm lens at 18mm, ISO 100,1/1000sec at f/3.5

Clive’s comments: Joan’s image shows the conditions we enjoyed — flat calm water and blue skies — and it has a holiday mood about it. There are a few too many elements in the image; a ‘less is more’ approach might have been better. I agree with the inclusion of the curved wall, the stepped buildings and bridges, but I would have omitted the Sea Life building, the crane and the dark trees on the left. Sounds a bit radical? Not necessarily: adopting a position slightly to the right would have produced a nice angle to the sloping wall and moving forward or back a few paces would have made it possible to include the top of the buildings in the reflection.

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