I wanted to go up The Shard since I first heard about it. Now it’s finally open (well it opened a few weeks ago now), I took the opportunity to go up while sunset was a convenient time.
In the run-up to going, I was having a look around for other photos from the top, but to be honest there didn’t seem to be many great photos out there. There are some cracking photos of the shard itself, but very few actually from it. In some ways, that’s probably good, as it meant I was able to go up with no preconceptions, and without setting myself a high watermark that I was unlikely to reach (my usual trick).
So lets start at the beginning...
What is the Shard?
It’s a (very) tall building recently built in central London, next to London Bridge station. It’s been controversial from the start, as there was great opposition to it at the planning stage. There are many people who see it as a blot on London’s historic skyline. My view is just that cities have to evolve, and it’s nice to see good architecture blended alongside the historical landmarks. Lets be honest, London is not a museum, and it has to keep pace with every other city in the world. I think it’s a striking and beautiful tower, and a great antidote to the old brick buildings all around.
Photography at the Shard
As far as photography is concerned, like most private buildings, visitors are not permitted to sell photos taken there. As such, I’ve included my best photos of the visit in my website portfolio, but they’re not available to buy or licence. If you want to sell the photos you take, you will need to contact the Shard management, and I’m sure it will be a costly and loss-making exercise on your part. So – first things first: Go to the Shard for the fantastic, newly available view of the capital, and to get some lovely photos too. Don’t go thinking it’s an easy way to get saleable photos.
Next; be prepared to be shooting through glass. Much of the difficulty of photography at the Shard is fighting reflections, and overcoming the challenges of photography through windows. The lift takes you up to floor 68, which is indoors, and places two layers of glass between you and the view. This means that if you manage to eliminate the reflections from the first pane, you’ll get caught by the reflections from the second one, inconveniently placed about a foot behind the first. So floor 68, is more or less useless for photos.
You want to take the stairs up to floor 69 which is open to the elements – to some degree, but still has glass all around. Some angles are obstructed by 2 or 3 overlapping layers of glass, but for the most part, you can get some great shots through just one layer of glass. The only view I was unable to get good photos of was Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. The angles of the glass just weren’t right for it, and if you deviate too much from the angle of the window, then the photo is ruined by reflections.
My favourite view was looking East, over Tower Bridge, towards Docklands, and using the Thames to lead the eye through the picture.
From some viewpoints, and with a wide enough angle lens, you can also get in London Bridge station, and the leading lines of the railway.
And speaking of lenses, I suggest taking up a wide-angle lens (as I did), and also something in the region of 100-150mm (which I didn’t). Up until sunset, there’s great potential for using longer focal lengths to highlight one building or area in particular. However, I didn’t anticipate this, so I have no examples of this to share. But I’m sure the BT Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Tower Bridge would all make great subjects for longer focal-length photos.
Time of day
In terms of timing, we went up around an hour before sunset, and stayed until around an hour after sunset. You have to pre-book a time-slot, but once up there you can stay as long as you like. My sunset photos were ok, although I would have liked just a little cloud overhead for some texture in the sky. Or even some cloud movement to catch with slow exposures. Overall, I would say I preferred the light around 30 minutes after sunset. You get the lights on in the city below by this point, and it’s just dark enough to get some rich colour to the shadows. By an hour after sunset, it’s too dark for much more than black & lights. I’m sure there are many people out there who could make great photos from that, but it’s not my bag.
You can pre-book up until the next day, so we waited until the day before to be confident in the weather forecast. It’s also worth avoiding weekends which are their peak times. And speaking of peak times – sunset itself was predictably popular up there. If you want to get photos of the sun actually setting, you need to ‘book your place’ by getting to the West window at least 15 mins before sunset. As the time draws on, more and more people collect at that side, and if you’re not already at the window, you’ll find there are too many people between you and the glass to be getting any sunset photos except the back of people’s heads.
As it gets darker, hand-holding the camera becomes impractical. The shot above was a 25 second exposure. I assumed visitors wouldn’t be allowed to take tripods, but I did see a couple of people with them up there. Personally, I found it perfectly workable resting the camera on the ground, as the windows are all floor to ceiling anyway. There’s a handrail in front of the windows too, so you could attach a gorillapod to that if you have one. But I got on fine without. Also, with a full-sized tripod, the spreading legs may mean it’s impossible to get the lens touching the glass, which will mean more reflection than view – especially as it gets darker, and reflections become even more of a problem.
Overall, I thoroughly recommend a visit for any photographer. I think it’s the kind of thing we go to on holidays in cities elsewhere, but it’s well worth doing on your own turf too. In the past, I’ve been up the CN Tower in Toronto, and the Empire State Building & Top Of The Rock in New York. The Shard is by far the most expensive of them, and doesn’t quite take your breath away like the two in Manhattan. But it’s a view of London which has never previously been possible, it’s very modern & well run, and definitely worth a visit.
If you do visit, leave us a comment below, or a link to your photos. I’d love to see how others get on.