I’m a big fan of long exposure photography. I love the way long exposure photography blends all of the elements, such as light and colour together in a single image. Colours tend to be softer, distractions removed and overall, I have a cleaner, less cluttered composition. This is especially true when applying the technique to my London cityscape photography. If capturing wide vistas of London’s skyline from the River Thames, it can end up a rather cluttered image. The fast-flowing river, the many, many people that walk along the banks and some of the less attractive or ill-fitting architecture can all add a sense of chaos and noise to the final image. By rendering the river silky smooth, removing all of the people and softening the sky, I find long exposure photography adds balance and focus to the final image.
I previously wrote a more detailed article about why I take Long Exposures and what it brings to both the colour and composition of my images. You can find the post here: SLOWING TIME: WHY THE LONG EXPOSURE?
In this post, I’m going to show you 5 of my top spots along the River Thames that are ideal locations to capture long exposure photos of London’s iconic views. I will attempt to cover some of the more practical information such as how to get there and when to visit. It’s probably worth noting at this point that the list below is far from exhaustive. There are many other great locations along the river or elsewhere in the city to take long exposure photos but as mentioned, these are some of my top locations which I want to share with you.
In this post, I won’t talk too much about the technique or equipment I use but if you are interested in this, take a look at a previous article I wrote which covers my 10 step approach to taking long exposure photos: HOW I TAKE LONG EXPOSURE PICTURES.
One last thing to add before we jump in to the 5 locations is that all 5 are tripod friendly. Tripods are a key component when taking long exposure photos as the camera has to be absolutely still and like most cities, there are many privately owned areas with strict rules around tripod use but for all of these locations, you should have no problem with tripod police spoiling your fun.
The London Eye from The Golden Jubilee Bridge.
Travelling West to East along the River Thames, we will start at the London Eye. The London Eye itself is probably the best landmark in London to capture with Long Exposure photography as the spinning wheel adds a great sense of motion and interest in the sky, especially when the sky is clear as in the photo here. There are a handful of great locations to capture the London eye such as from Westminster Bridge in the distance, directly from the front or behind the wheel but for long exposure compositions, this is my favourite.
Top tip: Opening times for the London Eye vary throughout the year so if you want to get the movement like that shown in the photo below you should ensure you plan the shoot while the London Eye is open.
The nearest tube station is Embankment which is along the Circle and District lines. When existing the station, head towards the riverside and under Hungerford Bridge and up the stairs onto the southern Golden Jubilee Bridge.
WHEN TO VISIT:
The London Eye itself faces west so straight at the setting sun. This means during the golden hour and sunset, you can get some great light. You can still get some great shots of the London Eye at sunrise but I find it best to avoid the months Between September and March as the sun rises behind the London Eye which can cause issues getting a correctly exposed image. Oh, and you have to get up super early!
Westminster from Waterloo Bridge.
Over the years, I have walked across Waterloo Bridge many times and love this view towards the west, but before I started taking long exposure photos, I never really captured a photo of it I particularly like. How does it go again? “A good view does not necessarily make a good photo?”
Usually, there’s a lot going on in this composition. With the rough waters, London Eye, people walking across the Golden Jubilee Bridge and along the Southbank, it’s hard to pick out the main focus points in the composition. By capturing the scene as a long exposure, some of these elements are removed from the composition leaving the rest of the image some room to breathe.
There is a choice of tube stations for this location. Waterloo which is on the Jubilee Line or you have both Embankment or Temple to choose from on the Circle and District Lines.
WHEN TO VISIT:
To capture a good sunrise, the winter months are a great time to do so as the sun will light the scene from the left but I find the summer months the best time for capturing the evening light as the sun sets to the right of the scene, later in the evening meaning less river traffic to avoid in your photo and importantly, less people crossing the bridge as the path is a bit tight for space, leaving little room to set up the tripod safely.
If you’re interested as to how I edited the photo above, I wrote a post about the steps I took which you can find here: EDITING SUNSET AT THE SOUTH BANK
St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge.
Continuing east along the river, the composition here is an incredibly popular one for good reason. The Millennium Bridge creates fantastic lead-in lines towards the world-famous St Paul’s Cathedral. The Millennium Bridge can be very busy at times and taking this photo with a standard exposure will capture all of those people compromising the strong, simple lines as you can see here but by using the long exposure technique, all of those people are rendered invisible in the final image simplifying the overall image.
This location is really easy to find. When I took this photo, I was situated right outside the front doors of the Tate Modern Museum on the south bank of the River Thames. Getting here is also super easy as there are many local stations such as London Bridge for National Rail, Jubilee and Northern Lines which are all located south of the river or on the north side you have Mansion House for the Circle or District Lines. You also have St Paul’s on the Circle Line. Head towards Tate Modern and you will find the spot right by the river.
WHEN TO VISIT:
Catching a good sunset or sunrise requires a bit of a late night or early morning as the summer months are best. During May to July, the sun rises in the north-east and sets in the north west. Facing north to take the photo, the sun is close by when the best light hits the cathedral. If you want to visit the area and have it all to yourself, then a summer sunrise, although incredibly early is the best option.
City Hall and The Shard from Tower Bridge.
Looking west from Tower Bridge provides some great views of The Shard along with the striking architecture of More London and City Hall. Although they belong to different estates, the modern architecture of More London and The Shard complement each other nicely.
This view is another example of how using long exposure removes some of the distractions in an ordinarily busy scene to add calm and focus on the main subject. With the smooth water and softer clouds, the hard-chiselled lines such as those belonging to the Shard are enhanced leaving no doubt as to the main focal point in the composition.
By far the easiest way to get to Tower Bridge is to take the short walk from either London Bridge (Jubilee Line, Northern Line or National Rail) or Tower Hill (Circle and District Lines). During the day and late into the evening, Tower bridge can be incredibly busy with tourists and commuters so, although tripods are allowed, there is a high risk of it being knocked or bumped. My advice is to keep the tripod retracted and take advantage of the deep walls around the towers to rest the tripod away from the foot traffic. Just be careful the camera is not knocked into the river!
WHEN TO VISIT:
As with Waterloo Bridge, if you want to capture a cracking sunset with a little less people around, I think the summer months are best. The sun sets just off to the right lights up the architecture beautifully and the later sunset means a little less foot traffic. As for sunrise, the winter months provide the best chance of great light in the clouds above the buildings as in December and January, the sun rises just off to the right of the scene.
Tower Bridge from the Girl and the Dolphin Fountain.
The last stop on this trip down the Thames is Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is arguably one of the most instantly recognisable structures in the world. The twin towers are a fantastic subject for a long exposure photo and I think this location, with the fountain adding foreground interest, provides one of the best compositions of this iconic bridge.
As with the location above, the easiest way to get to Tower Bridge is to arrive from either London Bridge (Jubilee Line, Northern Line or National Rail) or the now closer Tower Hill Station (Circle and District Lines). Once at Tower Bridge, the fountain is on the north side of the river right by to the stairs that lead to the bridge’s road level. You can’t miss it.
WHEN TO VISIT:
You may have gathered from what you have read so far, I find the best light for a long exposure at sunrise or sunset and I find this location great for a sunset photo during the summer months. I’m not keen of having the sun set directly in the scene when taking long exposure photos as it creates too much contrast and can render the subject a silhouette. Having the light come in from the side or front of the subject creates a more balanced exposure and when an epic sunset takes place just outside the frame the best of the light is captured without fighting the dynamic range.
You may require a little patience when capturing this shot as this is the only location listed where people can literally walk in front of your camera. This is a popular spot for tourists capturing a look at Tower Bridge, usually standing for long enough to be rendered visible in your image, regardless of how long the exposure time is. If you want to avoid waiting for a suitable gap or even happy to risk not getting a clean shot at all, then a winter sunrise, all being well with the weather can provide a great shot with a lot less people around.
To capture a great long exposure sunset/sunrise photo of London, you are at the mercy of the weather to get that great light but one other important element that needs to be considered is the clouds. With a long exposure photo, the density and direction the clouds are moving can make or break the final photo. In terms of composition, if the clouds are moving directly away or towards the camera, they can create fantastic lead in lines. Even if the light doesn’t turn out great, if the clouds play their part, you can still walk away with a great long exposure image.
So, there you have it, 5 of my favourite spots to take long exposure photos along the River Thames in London. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are many more spots around the city that are also great to capture but I personally feel that by incorporating the river adds great balance against the movement captured in the sky.
Feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions for long exposure locations in London and further afield.
Until next time.