On any given day, you’re most likely to find James Burns on top of a building. The extraordinarily talented photographer has been taking jaw-dropping photos of London from above for over a decade as part of his London from the Rooftops project. Burns has a skill for capturing dramatic moments in the sky, whether that’s a blood moon over St. Paul’s or lightning at the Barbican. Here, he shares his tips on how to capture the city at its best.
My Dad always gave me his old cameras as a kid but it was really at university, where I studied a little bit of black and white film photography as part of my degree. Quite simply, it changed my whole outlook on life. As soon as I left university, I knew that I would never apply for a job. Instead I set about building my portfolio and laying the foundations of the career I wanted to forge for myself.
London has such a dynamic variety of architecture, topology and weather, but it also evolves by the year and so as the seasons change, the opportunities arise for very different shots from the same spots. It’s impossible to ever tire of photographing it.
Shooting from the rooftops evolved from my first photographic passion of capturing London’s social housing tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s. As well as capturing the architecture of these environments, I always sought to capture the towers’ views and there came a point in 2006 that I enjoyed capturing the views so much I thought: “I’m going to capture all the best views in London and make that a project in itself.”
The shots that give me the most joy are those of spectacular moments in the sky, where the planning I put in really makes it unique to anything any other photographer may have also caught of the occasion.
I captured a red full moon rise over St Paul’s Cathedral in March 2015 that really changed the direction of my career, and so that shot will always mean a lot to me. Last year, I captured two shots that I’ll always be very proud of. The ‘Rainbow of Hope’ that appeared a couple of days after the London Bridge attacks was a very poignant shot for me, but it was also ‘the perfect arc over the city’ that I had been trying to capture for so long. The following month I was lucky enough to add another shot to my all-time favourites from the same location at The Barbican. It may have taken several hundred attempts, but eventually I captured that elusive lightning strike shot that I had failed so many times before to pull off.
The best tip I can give is always have a long lens as well as a very wide lens in your kit bag. So many times, I’ve left a lens at home presuming that I knew the location and what shot I wanted, only to be surprised by the light and left without the right lens. Other than that, always use a tripod, especially for low-light shots, but it’s worth checking in advance that they are allowed at the location you are visiting, as a lot of buildings do not allow them.
London is blessed with a multitude of natural and man-made viewpoints available to the public, ranging from parks and bridges to skyscrapers and monuments.
The best parks for views are Primrose Hill and Greenwich Park but if you want to get higher, I would recommend The Shard, The Sky Garden, The AM Orbit, The Tate, St Paul’s Cathedral and of course, the London Eye.
If I’m on a serious shoot, I will take my three Canon cameras and the entire suitcase of lenses as well three tripods. It’s not doing my back any favours though, so I tend to pick and choose my shoots more carefully these days, although I do sometimes pack a light backpack kit if I’m shooting for leisure.
New York is a photographer's dream and has probably inspired everyone on some level. I’m also hugely drawn on a visual level to Rio, Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai and Sydney. I hope to visit them all one day but nothing will ever give me the endless joy that London does