LONDON - It's nearly 50 years since Iain Macmillan snapped the cover photo for the Beatles' Abbey Road album, and still fans of the Fab Four flock from around the globe to the landmark zebra crosswalk to capture their own shot.
"For many boomers, it's on the bucket list, but lots of young people come too," says Richard Porter, who runs a Beatles walking tour in London.
When I first visited the crossing outside Abbey Road Studios in 2006, I met people from six continents in less than 30 minutes. They had come huge distances with a specific picture in mind and most, if not all, went home disappointed.
Arriving when there was too much traffic was the main problem, though a young Aussie couple had it out on the sidewalk after learning their camera battery was still in the charger at their hotel.
A decade older and wiser, I met London-based Associated Press photographer Matt Dunham at the intersection of Garden, Grove End and Abbey roads for tips on how to get it right. You can't achieve perfection — the road painting is different and the white Beetle from the original is in Volkswagen's museum in Germany — but you can get a fun shot.
Preparation: "Study the original," Dunham says, "or have it handy on your phone for reference." The shot is square and the zebra crossing creates a band across the bottom quarter. Note that the road meets the horizon almost dead centre and that there's an apartment poking through the trees in the top right (the trees have since grown, but it's still a good marker, especially when trees are bare).
Equipment: The original was probably shot on a square format Hasselblad, "and you'd need to be a mathematician to work out all the details," Dunham says. An average person will want a wide-angle lens, at least 24-millimetre, for a DSLR. Point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones can do the job, though not if you want a serious print for posterity. The original was shot from the low rung of a ladder, though a solid box can get you high enough to ensure your subjects don't block where the road meets the horizon. "A Hail Mary shot (holding the camera high above your head) will do if you're tall," Dunham says. "Oh, and make sure your battery is charged and in the camera," he adds with a smile.
Getting there: The crossing is nowhere near Abbey Road station on the Docklands Light Rail line, which confuses many tourists. It is in Westminster, north of London's main tourist areas. Take the Jubilee tube line to St. John's Wood station, which also houses Porter's Beatles Cafe and souvenir shop. From there, the zebra crossing is a five-minute walk west on Grove End. A monument to Victorian sculptor Edward Onslow Ford is visible as you get close. The 139 and 189 buses also go there.
Timing: Traffic is the enemy, so arriving before the morning rush is smart. Most people visit later and have to rely on luck. You can stop traffic at the crosswalk, but stopped cars ruin the background. Sunday is good, but the tube starts later (I walked). Summer is best because "trees are filled out in the original, and the sun rises earlier, creating more opportunities," Dunham says. Try for a clear day: The original, shot Aug. 8, 1969, features blue sky.
Road safety: Traffic moves fast and Britons drive on the left. I saw a woman almost hit by a cab after looking the wrong way before stepping onto the road. Some drivers won't abide ditherers. Porter, who brings his tours to the crossing, says tension between drivers and Beatlemaniacs was once so great a local politician tried to have the crossing removed. The idea backfired and the site now has heritage protection. Dunham, who did a special 45th-anniversary Abbey Road shot for The Associated Press, recalls a driver leaning on the horn for ages.
We can walk it out: Subjects should stroll up the middle of the crossing with those long inverted-V strides the Fab Four used. Your shot will look lame and static if feet are flat on the asphalt. Moto Yama, originally from Tokyo but living in London, added a nice touch by wearing a white John Lennon suit and a wig for shots he and his wife Marika planned to send home to their parents, who are also big Beatles fans.
Camaraderie: What you've learned will likely be used for shots of others. You may have to communicate through a language barrier to someone who will shoot for you. Visitors often trade email info so they can swap photos. On busy days, accidental photo-bombing is inevitable and patience and a smile is often the only response. As Aleks Zelikov of Moscow told me while waiting for traffic to clear so he could take shots of a Chilean couple who had just snapped pictures of him: "It's United Nations buddy system," he said. "All you need is love."
Celebrity sightings: A few months back, a couple of women declined an offer from a man offering to shoot their picture, Porter says. If they'd looked closely, they may have noticed they were talking to Paul McCartney, who lives nearby. Days before my visit, "Zoolander" stars Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller paid a visit.
Any Time At All: Many now phone friends and relatives when they arrive so folks at home can watch at www.abbeyroad.com/crossing. The 24-hour web cam mounted at the recording studio has also caught scenes ranging from an exotic pole dance to a jogger being hit by a car. But mostly, during daylight, it shows pilgrims trying to get that perfect shot.
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