Photographing London

Aggressive, visceral and jarring, the city of London is exploding with life and vigor. Yet simultaneously, the city offers a level of reverence, holiness and inspiration not seen many other places in the world. Impossible to capture in a single frame, the city is a great place to work on photographic skills and techniques. Offering an eclectic mix of everything life has to offer behind each closed door, through every winding alley, inside all the ancient museums and up the stone staircases of buildings, London is hard not to love and impossible not to photograph.

Traveling the world is one of the only opportunities a person can pretend to be anyone they have fantasized themselves to be. It is even easier to put on a persona of anonymity from behind the lens of a camera. Big cities are some of the most forgiving places in terms of being anonymous. Combining the ability to peer into the private lives of strangers with the thrill of being someone and somewhere new, London is the perfect place to test new photographic techniques otherwise tossed aside out of fear or reservation. No one is there to judge you. The relationship is solely between you and the lens. Diversity of architecture and people make for an exciting adventure both into the heart of the city and on the outskirts of town.

Knowing the turf before you venture out is a good way to ensure you will pay attention to detail. Knowing the history of the area is an even greater way to get diversity in your photographs. Give yourself a crash course on the city's history and art history that way you can appreciate it even more. When you know what you are photographing inside and out, your photographs have more respect for the area. Going into a location without any knowledge of the space will leave you with misguided and sporadic photographs that tell no story. No matter where you are, as a photographer it is your job to show what is in front of your lens as honestly as possible. Why not achieve that in a way that will enable you to show-off your work in the best way possible?

When visiting London, you have the distinct pleasure of being in two places at once: Londinium and the largest metropolitan area in the entire United Kingdom. Built, inhabited and ruled by the Romans starting in exactly 43AD (how's that for accurate historical documentation?), Londinium grew into the colossus it is today through hard work, dedication and mass amounts of bloodshed. Because London is and always has been respectful of its history, there are preserved ruins of the Roman Wall that was built shortly after the Romans established a majority presence in the area. One of the best examples of its superior construction can be found just outside the Tower Hill tube stop which takes you to the Tower of London. There you can find the statue of Trajen, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 98 to 117AD. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will see other remnants from the wall scattered about the city.

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Statue of Trajan Photo Credit: Harry Erwin

Certainly unique to the city of London are its churches. Magnificent, rivaled only by the art found within their walls (where photography is often prohibited), the churches and cathedrals of London exhibit some of the best architecture of the city. The tallest point within the City of London, the one square mile area centrally located within Greater London, St. Paul's Cathedral remains one of the most breath-taking monuments in the whole country. Standing 365 feet tall at the dome's highest point, the architecture and attention to the exterior's detail make this a vision from the outside in. A seemingly different structure from every view point, St. Paul's is one continuous opportunity to pick up the camera and capture the true essence of London. Another spiritual gem of London is the towering Westminster Abbey located on the River Thames just behind the Houses of Parliament. The current structure began its architectural roots in the thirteenth century, making this one of the oldest examples of Gothic architecture in the country. Although both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's prohibit photography inside, still bring a camera along to photograph the exterior. If you have the time and space, bring along a tripod. The clean, structured lines of the buildings will benefit from the stillness a tripod offers the photographer. Observe quietly; mass, hourly prayers and services are still conducted within the holy walls of both structures daily. Although you cannot take your own photographs, it is highly recommended you pay the admission fee to enter the building to experience the friezes, mosaics and frescos that have withstood the test of time.

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St. Paul's Cathedral Photo Credit: Maggie O'Briant

In a totally different vein, London also offers some of the most contemporary, eccentric art and culture the world has to offer. Located just outside Covent Garden (this writer's most favorite place in all of London), Neal's Yard houses the best damn cheese you will ever eat at Neal's Yard Dairy, the best haircut £13 can buy you at Hair by Fairy and some of the coolest graffiti that has remained untouched for years. Photographing within Neal's Yard and Covent Garden will always yield excellent results. Since the buildings are relatively low in comparison to the Gherkin or even some apartment buildings, the light is always available, whether it be uncharacteristically sunny or a regular ole' foggy day in London Town. London's largest collection of contemporary and modern art is the Tate Modern. Accessible from the Southwark tube stop or a walk across the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul's, it is free to enter and difficult to leave. The Tate Modern is a little looser on their photography rules in comparison to other museums. Because the work is of a sturdier medium such as plastics, metals and the like, the work is not as affected as oil or water-based paints. It is one of the only opportunities a photographer can get to photograph the best contemporary art civilization has to offer. Another wonderful museum that is free and allows photography is the British Museum. Often called the largest collection of pilfered artifacts in the world, it is like reliving your college art history class in life size. There is no way to convey how marvelous it is to stand in front of the Elgin Marbles for hours and actually be able to take a picture. The level of appreciation and respect for the art pours out of every hallway and exhibit begging you to take it in and share it with others through photographs. When you return home and revel in the moments you spent with Egyptian statues and the Book of the Dead, your photographs will help take you back to that place. As with any museum, respect the rules; adhere to photography limitations, never touch the art and take the time to observe the art with your eyes and then your lens.

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TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzales-Forester Photo Credit: Maggie O'Briant

The people of London are just as lovely as the sights. Everyone from street purveyors to strangers on the tube seems unshaken by a camera pointed directly at them. Figuring that at any given time there are just as many tourists as there are true inhabitants within the city limits, they are pretty accustomed to cameras flashing. If you do decide to photograph the people, be respectful. Some personal bubbles are more fragile than others. Camden Market, accessible from the Camden Town tube stop, is an excellent place to photograph the people of the city. Heavily populated and overflowing with typical London fare, one word describes the Market would be alternative. An endless supply of interesting subjects comes at you from every turn. If you are claustrophobic, anxious or faint of heart, avoid the Market and opt for the London Zoo nearby.

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Camden Town Photo Credit: Wikitravel

The best part of London is the juxtaposition between contemporary and historic. One day, you can be fully immersed in the art and relics that date back to the beginning of mankind and the next day offers a new, thrilling experience immersed in a culture that is unmatched by any elsewhere. Every moment spent in London is a chance to photograph something new. Enchanting, unique and lively, London is a wonderful amalgamation of all things worldly. London has their bustling China Town and the infamous Bond Street; 3 A.M.'s best street food in the world and the finest quality high end dining; fast paced raves under bridges on the Thames and hidden, quiet graveyards housing some of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Just bring along a camera, any will do. There are no rules when it comes to exploring the city. Grab a tube map and an Oyster Card, hop on and get lost. There is guaranteed something around every corner that will catch your eye and tease your lens.

Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant Personal Blog | Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree. She is currently a freelance writer and photographer. She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby.