on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

London’s Unforgettable Summer

Location guide - urban landscapes in London

As a London based photographer I have built up a detailed knowledge of the best places to make images of the city over years of practise. This summer, as you may have noticed there were one or two things going on in the capital raising its profile to lofty heights. This is my account of the last six weeks in our capital with a few pointers on creating collection of images different to any I had made before.


How I photograph London

I operate in a certain way. I like to create a large number of shots on any day and store them in my image bank. Although I will have ideas about how I want to use them as I shoot them, I leave a lot of decisions until much later, often months later. So I take a lot of shots to be stitched as panoramas, merged into HDR images, or “similars” so that I can decide on optimal composition at a later date. The key thing is that I create a number of high quality files from which I can work, on a project by project basis. This may make a lot of purists cringe, but it’s the way I like to work! My images often look much better to me months after they were shot.

If skies are clear, then deep blue skies can be used as a backdrop to neon lit buildings.

I do a lot of night photography, so often the most important decision is where I want to be in the hour after sunset. This is a time of real opportunity. If skies are clear, then deep blue skies can be used as a backdrop to neon lit buildings. Its less important if skies are overcast, although its possible to play with colours at this time to great effect.

Once the twilight hour has been planned, I’ll fix the route of the day based upon all the other factors - how long I’ve got and how late I want to be out. I do much of my work along the River Thames so apart from weather conditions the tide plays an important part. It may surprise readers to know that you can walk along a lot of the River down on the Thames beach even in central London. Wear some decent footwear, though.

If I’m doing dawns I like to be on location an at least hour before sunrise for the best light of the day. It rules out much of the summer – from May to September - as I have a ninety minute journey. There are many spots along the River which benefit from first light. St Pauls from the Millennium Bridge, and Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge looking east instantly come to mind.

Whichever end of the day I choose I will try to visit at least three locations – often more - each trip. This is not difficult as many are close together. Then the results go on file until I decide to work on a particular subject when I will draw on the results of several shoots. This approach also helps with client work. If I’m asked to supply images of, say, Albert Bridge, I have a large collection to draw from.

About London in 2012

So to London in 2012. I had expected the games to produce a wonderful sporting spectacle, but had not anticipated the transformation of the city and particularly the River Thames that would take place during August and September.

Once I realised how the city would decorate itself, my summer was dominated by using the weather and locations available to try to capture some London’s attractions.

I was bowled over by project dazzle – a light show along the river – from the first time I saw it till the last.

I was bowled over by project dazzle – a light show along the river - from the first time I saw it till the last. Seven bridges between Hungerford and Tower were lit beautifully. At sunset they would be illuminated, then on the hour there was a light show at each location, lasting for fifteen minutes. But this was not any old light show. The city was transformed by spectacular colours. Participating bridges were Hungerford / Jubilee, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Millennium, Southwark, London and Tower. You sort of new that Tower Bridge would dress up well, but seeing Waterloo and London Bridges looking so good was quite a shock.

I walked the river on numerous occasions. Once I realised how great the transformation would be it was a case of planning numerous trips and making the most of conditions. The lights were timetabled, so it was a case of covering each bridge a few times on different days.

And the highlight? Undoubtedly the rapidly changing colours of Tower Bridge. In fifteen minutes the lighting must have changed a hundred times or more. And I don’t mean subtle changes – colours went from red to blue to green to orange to yellow to brown and back again over and over again.

Another great experience was the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. I had spoken to Newham Council about opportunities for photographing the Olympic Stadium. I bought a viewing package on the night of the ceremony to photograph nightfall over Stratford, and another spectacular light show at the stadium.

The London Olympics exceeded everyone’s expectations. The way the city was illuminated massively exceeded mine.

Shooting London’s sights

I’ve included a few pointers about every day opportunities to shoot some great London locations:


Shoot from

Buckingham Palace

From St James Park in
the morning. The park can be used to frame the palace nicely.

London Eye

From Westminster Bridge
in late afternoon or at night. Its colours change throughout the year, and to
quote Forest Gump, you never know which one you’ll get.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is either
best viewed from London Bridge (close to the North side where there are few
obstructions), from the front of the More London office complex or from the
front of the Tower. In each case I prefer night shots to daytime shots as the
river is often a shade of dirty brown during the day.


St Pauls Cathedral

From the southern end of
the Millennium Bridge in the morning or at twilight.

Canary Wharf

From outside the O2
centre (North Greenwich Arena) in the morning.

Houses of Parliament

From Lambeth Bridge or
the Albert Embankment in the morning. Also outside County Hall, but tripods
not allowed.

Millennium Dome

From the waterfront
below Marsh Wall at the Isle of Dogs.

The Tower of London

From the front of More
London in late afternoon or early evening

Westminster Abbey

Difficult! Best from the
front of the QE2 conference centre.

City Skyline

From the East side of
the Millennium Bridge or the Front of More London. Great at dawn / dusk.
There is a fine view of the city from the East of the Millennium Bridge at

Trafalgar Square

Anytime. It’s a big open


There are fabulous great
westward looking views, quite close to each other. The first is the western
Jubilee Bridge with fine views of the London Eye and the Houses of
Parliament, with Lambeth and Vauxhall in the background. The second looks
west from Waterloo Bridge, where the same sights come into play as well as
the Jubilee Bridges themselves. After sunset is a good time for both of


Other considerations

• There is a lot of traffic in London. You might want light trails from bridge road traffic or boats on the Thames, but you might not. So prepare to be patient.

• The tide is a major factor. It transforms the river, so check tide tables so you know what you will be dealing with.

• If you want reflections, you need an early morning and some luck, or later in the day when the city is floodlit.

You can see more of Martin Smith's images at his website

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