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London from the Rooftops | James Burns

Question: How can you take a dramatic lightning picture from a rooftop whilst you’re relaxing in the pub? (Answer at the end of this blog!)


There has been a sea change in the London skyline over the last couple of decades. One of the most notable professional photographers documenting this has been James Burns, our speaker this evening at Photocraft. It was his first ever Zoom presentation and he actively encouraged questions and comment. He started with a clip from a documentary film in which he’d featured.


James has focused on London rooftop photography for over fifteen years, though this evening he took us through the last decade of this project, documenting the eruption of modernism big time. Initially, he would sneak his birds-eye views from the top of social housing tower blocks. Eventually his fame spread and he began to get privileged access to exclusive central London rooftops. He has a special passion for the capital’s rooftops. He says they give him a different connection with London and they’re where he feels most at home.


Part of his fascination lies in the fact that the views are always changing, in different weather conditions or at different times of day, or as the architecture alters over time. As any Londoner knows only too well, our weather is never constant and often unpredictable, but James has a knack for being in the right time and place for the stunning photo. He particularly likes to evoke the emotional draw of sunrise and sunset and iridescent rainbows over London.


Emotional connection with the viewers of his images is paramount for James. He likes to give people hope, to make them feel happy to be alive, and to entice them to fall in love with London. ‘Shoot from the heart’, he advised, ‘and you can’t go wrong… though you might go hungry!’ James successfully fits in his evocative rooftop photography alongside his more commercial work, to bring powerful ‘stories of beauty and hope’.


His images are honest and unmanipulated. If the moon is red and in a prime position in the image, that’s how it really looked (although he once had to turn to the Royal Society of Astronomy, no less, to confound his critics who had suspected photographic fakery!). An important tool is The Photographer’s Ephemeris app, which helps him calculate exactly where the sun or moon will rise or set in relation to any building and sightline.


Over the course of the decade, not only did the London skyline evolve, but we could see how James’ photography had improved, as had his camera kit. Since 2010, he had built up an intimate knowledge of the city and had uniquely photographed from extraordinary and rare places. He had developed expertise in taking gorgeous time lapses. And the subject matter of his photography had subtly shifted. Originally, he had wanted to document the changes impacting the London skyline, but now he is most excited by the weather and the interplay of the wonder of nature and this evolving city.


There were a number of useful tips for the budding rooftop photographer, such as: take someone with you if you’re going somewhere dodgy; if you want to photograph the moon, underexpose and do it at twilight, whilst there is still light in the sky, otherwise there’s a risk the moon will be blown out; his favourite lens is a 100-400 mm, which helps to achieve compressed dramatic composition.


Not everyone would share James’ love for the new skyline of London, nor his predilection for Brutalist architecture or Georgian townhouses, but his enthusiasm was surely infectious. He described The Shard as ‘a gift for photographers’, as it changes so much in different light conditions. Some might see the newly evolved skyline of London as evidence of humanity’s constant creativity and quest to transcend itself. Others might see the new skyline as an example of the worst excesses of capitalism. It was intriguing to see The Shard and St Paul’s Cathedral juxtaposed in a couple of James’ images. I wonder which of the two buildings, in the grand scope of human history, will ultimately be most remembered and valued? At the moment there is a protected sightline from Primrose Hill (and other spots around London) to St Paul’s Cathedral. Will there, or won’t there, one day be a similar protected sightline for The Shard?


After James’ presentation he recorded a brief video for us, responding to these two questions:

o What first ignited your passion, James, for rooftop photography? &

o Which of your latest photos (if you had to choose just one) are you most proud of?

This is what he had to say…



(The film James refers to in the video is Koyaanisqatsi)


PS the answer to the question posed at the start of this blog is that James, one evening, knowing a storm was on its way, set up his camera on the rooftop, mounted it solidly on a wall, made sure he had a fast memory card and good battery, dialled in fairly low resolution, and then started up the camera’s intervalometer to take a time lapse. He left the camera running and collected it next morning. He had often tried to capture lightning, but to no avail. This time he succeeded. In fact, one of the images was so good that it went on to appear in fourteen different newspapers across the world!


Thank you, James, for a truly fascinating evening – it’s a shame to have to come back down to earth!

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