Anyone who speaks to me and hears my accent knows I’m not a native Londoner. But London has now been my home for most of my adult life, and for most of that, I’ve been making a living as a professional photographer here. I have years of experience shooting on these streets, and I’m never bored with it. I think I’m actually more in Love with London then the first day I step foot here.
London can be a tricky place to photograph in for professional purposes. Everything from Wedding, to Engagement Sessions to Portraits, needs a slightly special “London Approach”.
1. Know your Private and Public property
To be fair, if you don’t know what is your public and private property, you’ll be told very quickly by an over-eager security guard. This isn’t as much of a problem for engagement sessions when your clients are wearing “normal clothing” but more of an issue for wedding day or shoots involving any time of clothes that look wedding related.
The more “stuff” your shoot involves, the more likely you are to be asked to move on. Flashes, softboxes, reflectors, and props all make you stand out more from the normal joe or jane out on the streets taking photos. Carefully consider what you’ll actually need and figure out ways that you can minimise the size of what you’re taking.
Generally, most pavements (or footpaths) are fair game, however some cross private property that are given “public access”. So you might not be aware that you’ve accidentally popped onto private property.
Expect that when your clients put on “wedding day outfits” the likelihood of being spoken to be a security guard increases. Most security guards I’ve encountered have been polite and nice to me and the clients.
If you’re under any doubt about your location, get what you need quickly just in case you’re asked to move on. If you’re not sure where you want to shoot, scout your locations in advance and make notes about how you’d like to shoot that location. If you’re using lighting, set it up in advance. Brief your clients before you get to the location about what you’d like them to do. The more prep you can do in advance helps you get the shot quickly and be able to move on, just in case someone does speak to you.
Royal Parks, such as Hyde Park, Regents Park, St. James’s Park all require photography permits. The photography permit does have a fee but can be easily obtained from the Royal Parks Office. Apply for this permission sooner rather than later, as they would like this to be at least 8 weeks before the shoot day.
Don’t assume that just because a hotel that your clients are getting married in may be next to a Royal Park that you automatically have permission to shoot in this park. The fines for wedding shoots in Royal Parks are high and don’t assume that the hotel will sort this for you.
If you’re looking for me to tell you exactly what is and what isn’t private property in Central London, I’m not going to do that. Mostly because I don’t want that liability sitting on my shoulders. However, the more you move quickly and keep things low key, the less problems you’ll have.
2. Shoot at Sunrise
I often find myself out of bed at 4 in the morning and catching a taxi to meet photography clients in central London. Every time the alarm goes off, I question myself on why I keep suggesting this in the first place. But then I’m met with the gorgeous morning light and empty London streets, and I forget the pain of pulling myself out of bed so early.
When I suggest sunrise shoots, some clients naturally aren’t interested. But those clients who are keen to use the famous London landmarks as backdrops are more likely to be willing to get up early.
Places like Tower Bridge are empty at sunrise, but completely jam-packed the rest of the day. The streets around the Houses of Parliament are also considerably easier to work in at Sunrise.
3. Keep your equipment on you at all times
When you’re shooting on the street, it’s very easy to get distracted with making sure that you get “the shot”. It only takes a second for someone to walk by and grab your bag. Every London photographer knows someone who’s had their gear nicked from the street.
Invest in a rucksack or camera bag that doesn’t look your “normal” camera bag. A clever thief will be able to recognise a camera bag right away and make it even more of an enticing target. My personal favourite is the Kelly Moore bags and the Fig Bags.
Keep your camera bag on your back at all times, nothing ends a shoot quicker than lack of any camera equipment.
4. Know your temporary art exhibits, structures and street art
London has a whole host of incredible, unusual and fairly temporary backdrops to use for photography. Keeping up to date with local events, following London street art blogs and Instagram accounts can keep you up to date on what’s going on where. Street art tends to congregate in the same areas. East London, in particular Brick Lane and Shoreditch, are always safe bets when looking for interesting street art backdrops. Columbia Road is a favourite of mine, it has a great mix of colourful shop fronts and houses and street art on the side streets.
My personal favourites are large scale art projects and sculptures, as well as temporary architecture, like the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. These make for incredible and unique backdrops that are only available for a short time.
6. Get Some Distance
It can be difficult to use some of the famous London landmarks and locations, especially when the landmark is so big. It can be hard to get the whole “experience of a place” in one frame. Places like Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Barbican, are all easier to photograph from a distance. So it’s well worth finding little spots that overlook the landmark rather than being right on top of them. A bit of distance can give you some scale as well.
8. Keep an eye out for pretty back streets
This is especially helpful for wedding shoots. Sure the main road is busy, but there may be side residential roads that are nice and quiet. Google street view is extremely helpful here, as well as doing a site visit or going for a walk about before you start shooting.
Don’t rely on other photographers to tell you what’s a good backdrop and what isn’t. What may inspire one photographer will bore another.
9. Head out on the weekend
One of my favourite places to shoot in London is the City of London and the area around Bank Station. This area during the week, particularly a weekday evening, is completely rammed with commuters and city workers, but on the weekend it’s very quiet. Here you get the best mix of historical and modern architecture and some very empty back streets. Knowing what locations are quiet on the weekends and what locations are super busy can save you a world of trouble when trying to have a relaxed session.