IntroductionWe’ve decided to kick off our Raw Naked World Street Photography Ratings, introduced here, by reviewing London, UK. There are number of reasons for our picking the great lady as our premiere victim. First of all, it makes sense to start what is fundamentally an index-based rating system by picking the top draw. We won’t be comparing cities, because each place is unique and has its own charm. But we will try to be careful when we quantify our opinions. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to give a city a 9.0 out of 10.0 on our rating system if it has a public transport system much worse than London’s or traffic that grinds to a stop. Knowing what a ten looks like helps define what a 6.0 looks like.
Other than Bill’s hometown of Washington, D.C., London is probably the place where we’ve spent the most time shooting, and the one that we’re the most familiar with. Maria was born there, and Bill has taken over a half dozen trips there over the years, which brings us to a key point. This is not a review of how much we like a place, although for shooters, there’s probably a strong correlation. Being from London’s Bermondsey in the Borough of The infamous Southwark, home of Shakespeare, Maria views her hometown through knowing, perhaps jaded eyes. She frankly doesn’t like London, except when she has a camera in her hand. Bill, on the other hand, feels more at home there than in his native D.C. and loves the place. Nonetheless, when it came time to rate The Old Smoke, we ended up giving her the same overall score, 9.4. M even rated London slightly higher for street photography than two cities she loves, Venice and New York.
So, what is the overall rating based on, you might ask? The answer is simple: the richness of the opportunity for good photography. Street photography isn’t just about people. Similarly, photography trips aren’t just about snapping photos. Therefore our ratings encompass a number of aspects of street photography and maneuvering in the city: People Shots, Cityscapes, other Visual Stimuli, Getting Around, and the Experience as a whole. These are detailed more below.
London was the only city besides New York City (or Manhattan, to be precise) to be rated Blue in four of five categories. A Bucket List Destination doesn’t mean it’s flawless, but it does mean that photographers should consider it to be a safe bet that if you venture there you’ll return home with a number of shots to be proud of.
At the bottom of our scale, a “Don’t Bother” city is just that — a place not worth a separate photography trip. Importantly, remember these are photography ratings. There may be places worth spending your hard-earned cash for a visit that we’ll rate as Don’t Bother. It simply means you should perhaps leave your camera at home, or be prepared for a selfie-only experience.
London scored a 9.4 out of a possible 10.0, which puts it in our Blue ratings category, meaning we consider it to be a Bucket List Destination for street photographers. With its diversity of people and districts and its easy blend of tourists and locals, London is unsurpassed for chances of finding good subjects on the street. The city blends old and new architecture, with earth-toned buildings of varying size and shape contrasting with the bright colours of buses, taxis, and the people themselves. The light in London is usually pretty flat, owing to frequently overcast skies, which can be good or bad. Here, the even lighting contrasts with the city’s structure–dark pavement, buildings, etc.– making for good photography. When sunny, long shadows trail central London streets at both dawn and dusk, adding interest with the occasional fog adding atmosphere as well.The Thames adds water vistas that are photographic draws unto themselves and serve as magnets for crowds.
Few places manage to seem so simultaneously like tourist destinations and robust business districts like central London, and even fewer do it in such a comfortable atmosphere. In all our times shooting, I can think of few instances where we were made to feel ill-at-ease. Of course as with any large city, there are places one just doesn’t go shooting without local knowledge – like residential areas, for instance – but London accepts photography as part of its way of life, and Londoners, though they may give a wary eye, rarely object if you’re not a complete numpty about the whole deal.
A must-see city for street hawks.
Street Shots (People)
The question we are most frequently asked by non-street-shooting photographers is, “Don’t people get mad when you take their photos?” The general answer is “No,” unless they are up to no good or selling unlicensed products on the street. The answer for shooting in London is a resounding “Hell no.” Londoners are likely to pay no attention to you at all, whether you’re working in close or from across the street. They aren’t unaware, they’re just used to people with cameras, and unless you’re being particularly disruptive, you’re not likely to earn more than glance (or a smile) in your direction.
Of course there are exceptions, but even then, we’ve found it more likely to have a couple of Londoners stop and give an unsolicited pose than object. One of Bill’s first experiences with that resulted in an “ugly American” incident wherein the photographer chewed out two slightly inebriated posers. Since then, pretty much all encounters have been pleasant.
Like anywhere else, there are rules, and as long as you pay attention to posted signs and police direction, you shouldn’t have any problems. We’ve had the most success in areas frequented both by locals and tourists, especially Oxford Street (which Bill calls “London’s 5th Avenue”), Covent Garden, Marble Arch / Hyde Park, Westminster, and Trafalgar Square. Of course, you’ll get more diversified shots if you wander a bit, which we highly recommend. Just steer clear of some of the more dodgy areas unless you’re traveling with someone who knows the environs fairly well.
If, like us, you love museums, you’ll find plenty to shoot in the British Museum, as well as some pretty cool “street” photo ops. Likewise, there are good opportunities to capture candid shots in the Underground stations or on the Tube, but be careful. Pickpockets abound in London, like most big cities, and if you’re not security conscious, you could end up with a pretty unhappy experience. Know your surroundings and use a common-sense gauge to security before you whip out a few hundred pounds worth of kit. London has 8.6 million people, and not all of them are charming.
Cityscapes / Architecture
Many architectural styles compete for pride of place in this huge city, with almost every nook and cranny filled to bursting with details, from the florid, ornate pub frontages, to the avant-garde glass structures of the City and the financial district. From skyscrapers to industrial terraced houses once built to house factory and dock workers during the 1700s, there is not a chance that you will ever get bored of things to look at, and almost zero chance of it all looking the same, as in some places such as Paris. Remnants of ancient London still survive with traces of a Roman wall still visible on the north side of Tower Bridge. And of course the bridges themselves which are architectural marvels that add a very distinctive flavour to the city’s scenery. Background scenery plays an important part in street photography, and in a place like London where every last square inch has been manufactured, filled and put through the rigours of history, it is worthy of photographing without the enhancement of people. Though the crowded streets also form part of the city’s architectural landscape, as is true with New York. London without people in it is a very eerie place indeed, and usually means that you are up far too early, though it can be an opportunity to capture some rare shots, especially if the sun happens to be out, (also rare).
The visual landscape of London is uneven and very diverse which Bill and I think adds much interest to potential photographic compositions. In fact the more visually diverse a place is, generally the more interesting it is to shoot, which leads us into our next section.
London is an endlessly fascinating place. Although it is the city of my birth it never truly came to life for me until I began looking at it through a camera lens. The once jarring visual diversity of the place is now, for me, like standing wide-eyed looking through the window of a sweet shop marvelling at all the different jars full of coloured sweets and myriad flavours, at least when I have a camera in my hands. Most of the pedestrians in the centre of London tend to be tourists or business types going about their daily affairs. Often the tourists have a real flair for fashion, whether tasteful or not, but in terms of photography they add an element of excitement to the street that Bill and I have found in few other places we have visited together, and separately. New York is very much on par with the Old Smoke in that respect.
The weather and ambient light play important roles too no matter where you shoot, and it’s something that has to be considered in terms of visual stimulus. The height and stature of buildings can obscure and reflect light. Light is also enhanced or subdued due to surrounding colour, both in terms of masonry, and artificially as produced by sources such as electronic advertising, shop fronts and signage.
London is a visual feast that although leaves you spoilt for choice in terms of potential photographic subjects, can be a challenge when deciding on the correct settings to use. Oftentimes Bill and I will find that we change settings frequently in order to adjust to the rapid changes in light, even from one side of a street to another. You may turn a corner and enter a narrow, dark alleyway, or come out into the open expanse of one of London’s many lush green parks. Shooting street in London is not for the feint of heart, but for those passionate about street photography it is a mecca that has to be experienced.
Transportation is simple in London, probably the best in any city whose confines you can’t breach entirely on foot. The Tube is clean and goes fairly everywhere you want to go. You can purchase an Oyster card to allow for multiple trips without having to deal with cash or pulling a card from your wallet. If you take the Tube, pay attention to the signs, they can be a bit confusing for novices, and Mind the Gap, and your valuables. Maria has had pickpockets try (unsuccessfully) to steal from her, and I, well, look a bit psychotic in cities and folks leave me be, so don’t go by me. Just watch your stuff and you’ll be fine. 🙂London taxis are EVERY.WHERE. and are quite happy to take you where you need to go. The newer ones take credit cards so you don’t even have to learn the money. (But do anyway.) Just remember: 8,600,000 people. It’ll take you time to get around via cab, hired cab, or even the bus. Because cars. We stick to the Tube, but that’s us. If you want to experience a ride on a double-decker bus, do so, but be patient. You might find yourself waiting a while for one, just to have 3 finally show up at once. If so, feel privileged: you are now an official Londoner.
Like all tourist sites, there are hop on, hop off choices that might serve those of you who want to get out on the street but can’t handle walking great distances or who don’t want to negotiate the stairs in some of the older Tube stations. (Old Tube stations are Old; not American old, Old old.) Neither of us has taken one of these on/off tour buses, but we’ve often smacked ourselves in the head later and asked “Why didn’t we do that?”
Walking is quite possible in central London, with distances between major cites like Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace measured at 30 minutes or less at a brisk (Maria) pace. Walking also has the advantage of allowing you to get a feel for what’s happening at the more populated areas like Soho, Piccadilly Circus, and in and around Covent Garden.
For longer trips that take you out of the London metropolitan area, the regional trains (Southern Line, etc.) provide excellent service for a reasonable price. Plus, they provide more good photo ops for the wary fotograffer. For the less adventurous, parking yourself in central London and not straying far will still make for an enjoyable trip. Travel hint: to save (quite) a few quid, try one of the Travelodges in town. They’re a basic room for about a third of the price of the big-name hotels.
London is one of those places that needs to be seen in person. Sure, you’ve seen photos of the main attractions: Big Ben, the Thames, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, those cute, red little phone boxes, Dr. Who. But seeing them in person is different. The city balances the drab and the sublime, the new and the old. Even compared to the ethnic diversity of the D.C. area in which we live, London stands out. On my second trip to London, I was there for two days before I heard my first English accent, Maria’s. The photo opportunities abound, and there’s enough to see in a two-mile radius that you won’t care what you missed. For shooters, being in one of the big three historical centers of street photography (along with New York and Paris) won’t disappoint. Sure, there’s enough grit and grime to go around, but there are also museums, Covent Gardens, Regent and Hyde parks, wonderful architecture, a big, dirty river (actually extremely clean these days), and a diverse populous that if not welcoming, is at least politely indifferent. What’s the difference between a New Yorker or a Londoner, and everybody else? An innate big-city cool, mostly.
Perhaps the main downsides are the weather – endlessly mediocre – and the price. Surprisingly, most things in London seem to cost in Pounds Sterling around what they cost in the U.S. in dollars – a 50% markup. With experience, you can learn to hold down the cost, and once you’ve seen the cars go the “wrong way” around the circuses, you’ll forget the expense. Just mind that you pay attention to the markings on the pavement that tell you which direction traffic is flowing. It’s not obvious, even to natives.
Oh, and have fun!