A Guide to Photographing London

So you want to photograph the capital, but where do you start?

Things you’ll need

What you’ll need depends on what you intend to photograph. If you wish to capture an arty shot of a squirrel running around in a blur, you’ll need a tripod so you can keep the camera very still while you use a long shutter speed... for panoramic shots a wide-angle lens is best. But if you haven’t got much experience it’s best not to spend money on equipment at this stage, simply pack your camera in a waterproof bag to keep it safe from the elements and get walking.


Places

It makes sense to start off photographing things that interest you. Do you want to take holiday snaps to send to friends in other parts of the world? Do you like nature, or people-watching? You might want to photograph iconic London sights like red double decker buses, the Big Ben, the beefeaters outside Buckingham Palace, the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. Or perhaps you want to capture images no one else has spotted yet, by getting lost in the city and observing your surroundings.

London is a little like a quilt woven together from many different fabrics; you’ll find streets and neighbourhoods that evoke very different moods. From leafy suburbs to boarded-up estates, quaint cobbled alleyways to industrial landscapes. So how can you narrow down your options? You can start by choosing specific imagery, like heading to a cemetery or park, or a busy shopping street. Then look around till something piques your interest. Perhaps the branches of the trees in a densely wooded area like Trent Park or Epping Forest will make a good composition, or you’ll spot people you like the look of on Peckham’s bustling Rye Lane, or well-heeled Sloane Street. You might get lucky and see deer at Richmond Park, or a peacock at Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden.

Around Bank and the City you’ll see throngs of people in suits during the week, particularly around lunchtime. Tourist hotspots are good for crowds of people, as well as Oxford Circus, and busy markets on a Saturday like Borough Market, but be warned - people in busy places won’t take kindly to you poking a camera in their face.

Camden and Shoreditch, once deemed “alternative”, are now anything but, however you’ll still find graffiti and funky-looking shop fronts. And for panoramic views over the city, climb to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Primrose Hill or Forest Hill.
Architecture

As befits a city that is steeped in history, you’ll find no shortage of gothic, neo-gothic, Victorian and brutalist constructions, to name a few. Modern buildings like the Barbican and the Trellick Tower divide opinion, whereas the Victorian gothic St. Pancras station is unanimously praised. Since the noughties city planners have been looking to the skies, and the Gherkin and the Shard are the two tallest buildings, also of note due to their energy-saving mechanisms, mostly through the use of solar panels that have the added benefit of making them sparkle in the sunlight. For more, check out our feature on London’s best architecture here.

There is plenty of interesting housing, from Notting Hill’s rows of pretty, pastel-coloured stuccoed houses to the contemporary canal-side apartment blocks with naval-inspired design by King’s Cross.

What’s on the inside matters too of course, but bear in mind that before you start snapping away at the interior of a building you might need to ask for permission, especially in museums. The Open House weekend takes place every September, when many buildings that would not normally be accessible to the public open their doors, but again, check whether photography is permitted before you go.


Events

These are some of the most colourful annual events that may be of interest to the budding photographer:

Chinese New Year: Taking place sometime between the end of January and the middle of February, a procession of dragons and lions (not real ones naturally) parade between Trafalgar Square and Soho.
The Chap Olympics: Tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking gents take part in cucumber sandwich discus and other unsporty activities in Bedford Square Gardens every summer.
Actual sporting events: the London Marathon, the Boat Race, and the World Naked Bike Ride.
Notting Hill Carnival: Europe’s biggest street party and a mighty celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture, with music, dancing and food. Every August bank holiday.
Bonfire Night: Effigies of Guy Fawkes and fireworks; pack your tripod if you want to photograph the latter. Takes place on November 5th, various locations.
Christmas: For the month of December there are Christmas markets, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, festive shop displays and twinkly Christmas lights on every high street. Photography tours and classes

Nothing beats stumbling across scenes to photograph yourself, but if you’re new to the city or need some inspiration you could take advantage of a photography tour. These often have themes, so you could pick one on street art, architecture, or on a particular area like the South Bank.

You can also brush up your knowledge at a photography class; most local colleges offer part time courses in the evenings or at weekends, for all levels of experience. If you like the idea of using film and processing it yourself, some colleges still offer courses in darkroom techniques, although this will usually be restricted to black and white photographs (it’s trickier to develop colour because of the hazardous chemicals involved). As all professional photography is now digital, these are becoming few and far between. Kensington & Chelsea College and the Imperial College Photographic Society offer darkroom training.

See all the photography courses, workshops as well as photography exhibitions taking place in London in our what's on section: London photo events and courses


Where to buy equipment

Many high street camera shops have closed down, but thankfully they still have an online presence, such as College Cameras. Websites usually offer better deals than shops, however if you want to look at camera equipment first hand head to one of the dealers on or around Tottenham Court Road, like the Classic Camera. Alternatively, search our listings for retailers. Remember that if you’re after a film camera specifically you’ll have to buy it second-hand, as these are no longer manufactured.

Finally, if the muse hasn’t struck yet head to the Photographer’s Gallery, the V&A Photographs Gallery or the Magnum Print Room on Gee Street for inspiration.

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