Picture a City: London from the rooftops

In Picture a City, Travel Inspiration, UK by Kai

London is a city of many facets, few of which can be truly appreciated at street level. For an unimpeded view of the capital, it’s necessary to rise above the street markets and skyscrapers: from the rooftops, London is a shimmering jewel, bifurcated by the serpentine crawl of the Thames.

HomeAway spoke to aerial photographer James Burns as part of Picture a City, a new series documenting great cities and the great photographers who curate them for our enjoyment. If you’re mulling a trip to London, James’ stunning aerial shots should hasten your arrival.

Seeing my city from a brand new angle always excites me.

 The early days were quite slow but I had a few good strokes of luck. The few clients I did have at the time were based in or owned some useful locations and I pursued every single new contact I could for new locations. However, I had several locations that I still use today which are my secret gems and from there spent several years photographing all the buildings I wanted to one day access. With a strong body of work behind me it became easier and easier for me to negotiate access to certain high profile buildings but the real game changer was the inaugural ‘London from the Rooftops’ exhibition. The project received some brilliant press coverage in newspapers and on the television which in turn caught the attention of the industry I had been trying to capture for so long.

Surrey Quays at sunset

 My proudest achievement was being featured on the BBC London News back in February. I had only just opened my second London from the Rooftops exhibition but it was eight years’ worth of work and to get that level of recognition was a dream come true. However, despite the achievement of certain career milestones, the real highlights are when I’m on a rooftop, especially when it’s from a building I have never shot from before. Seeing my city from a brand new angle always excites me and if it’s a magical sunrise then really nothing comes close to the feelings that stirs in me.

London from up high

 The city has so many different aspects of interest from the cluster of new skycrapers in Canary Wharf and The City to the more classical architecture and monuments of the West End. However, if there is one theme that always satisfies it is that of the River Thames. No particular part of the river stands out but just the calming nature of water and the fact that London owes it’s existence to the river means it is always a source of joy and inspiration.

Olympic Fireworks, Tower Bridge, The Gherkin

Favourite shots

Moonrise over The City: I had been after this shot for a very long time but was frustrated time and again by the weather. Eventually the pieces all fell in place on the night of the World Cup Final, so as much as I wanted to watch the game, priorities are priorities.

Sunset from Surrey Quays: A brand new view of London became available when the building I shot this from emerged on the London skyline in 2013. It was an angle I had long dreamed of getting and it didn’t disappoint. I just love the positioning of London’s classical buildings at the centre of the frame.

Skyscrapers rising above the morning fog: Again, another shot I had long dreamed of getting but had missed for various reasons on several occasions. Eventually I bagged it in March of 2013 from the roof of Tower 42.

Skycrapers above the fog, London

 What other city has such a dynamic mix of architecture and history? London absolutely has it all. It may not have the classical consistency of Paris or the visual impact of New York or many Asian and Arabic cities but that’s its charm. Also, I’m a Londoner born and bred, the city is in my veins and its music has inspired me my whole life. I think the more you learn about London, the more you come to understand its intricacies, the more you fall in love with it.

My shoots are planned meticulously.

For first time visitors to the city my number one recommendation would be to rent a bicycle and cycle the length of the Thames before sunset and into the night. For views, you can’t beat Primrose Hill or Greenwich areas and with great pubs too!

St Paul's silhouette

London from behind a lens

 When I photograph a major attraction, I absolutely must come up with something new and original or else I would just give up. It’s a pressure that comes naturally but is never a hinderance, only an inspiration. My shoots are planned meticulously with regards to light, time of day and time of year are always very important factors. The only time I find it a struggle to find a unique angle is when I’m on holiday doing the tourist thing and there have been times when it has bothered me so much I wont even take a single snap. I should probably get over it in this these situations!

The still image doesn’t do justice to what my eyes and my imagination see.

Future photography

 My next big project is the book; I self-published the first edition of London from the Rooftops in 2012 but since then so many buildings have opened their rooftops to me that I will start it again from scratch. The mandate is to produce a comprehensive collection of London views from all corners of the capital in all seasons. A book to educate as well as inspire, it has long been my dream to produce something that could be considered as a cultural artefact Londoners would be proud to own.

Other than that, my next big project is to begin making time lapse movies of London. So often I feel that the still image doesn’t really do justice to what my eyes and my imagination see from the rooftops and I am just bursting with ideas.

London by night

Twitter is my favourite new platform and Flickr is where most of my work can be seen, while Facebook also has a great little community going on. Finally, more London areial pictures can be found at Londonfromtherooftops.com.


Discover London

Searching for the perfect city apartment? From swish townhouses to cosy cottages, HomeAway has the right rental for you.

Click to browse London holiday listings

Share this article

About the Author


Twitter Google+

Creative chaos.



KaiPicture a City: London from the rooftops