As the days get shorter and the nights draw in, some people put their cameras away. Not so, Umbreen Hafeez, the speaker at Photocraft last week. Umbreen’s specialism is photographing London by night. She took us through a kaleidoscopic array of her night shots of the capital, captured with pin sharp detail and a consistent eye for excellent composition. Most of the photos had been taken from tall buildings, though some had been taken at ground level or, more precisely, river level: Umbreen isn’t afraid to don her wellies and take to the foreshore (though always with an eye on the incoming tide!).

Her real passion at the moment is photographing London from the air. There seemed to be hardly any tall building that Umbreen hadn’t used as her vantage point to create her mesmeric images. She has taken her camera to high rise council blocks, new builds, rooftop restaurants, penthouse suites, and offices in the sky. One way or another she has managed to gain entrance, by blagging, tailgating residents, befriending office workers or simply asking permission. Initially, she is sometimes refused, but her dogged persistence usually gets her into the vantage points she most covets. Sometimes there is some quid pro quo, as she donates low resolution pictures to her hosts. She confessed that she even resorted to becoming a volunteer at Severndroog Castle in order to take photos there. As well as persistence, Umbreen certainly has oodles of patience as she waits for a day with the right weather conditions (50-70% cloud). Mind you, she also warned against cancelling because of bad weather: two of her most amazing images were taken in less than ideal conditions (a full rainbow and a lightning strike). 

The camera she uses is a Canon 5DM2, with 17-40 F4 L lens, 24-105 F4 L IS lens and used to use a 70-300mm DO IS lens but has now switched to Sigma 50-500. She normally shoots an hour before and an hour after sunset, so a tripod (carbon fibre) is essential. She uses Adobe Lightroom for post production. Her standard setting is f13 for 30 seconds at ISO 100, though sometimes, if she’s having to shoot through a dirty window, she’ll open up the aperture to reduce the depth of field and blur out the dirt. As much of her work is through windows she also uses a “lens skirt” to keep light interference from double glazing panes to a minimum. (This is a black cloth/hood which fixes to the window with suction cups and the lens fits through a hole in the middle).

Normally she works with a single exposure, except, say, in the case of Big Ben, when, for obvious reasons, the clock face has to be taken separately and overlaid on the rest of the long-exposure image in Photoshop. She said her use of Lightroom was fairly conservative and usually amounted to: taking down the highlights, upping the shadows, adding lots of contrast, and doing some sharpening. Interestingly, she said that she didn’t tend to boost saturation. She will also adjust white balance, not necessarily for accuracy but for something that looks pleasing. So, there were plenty of useful tips to emulate and Umbreen’s presentation certainly whetted my appetite to try out more London photography. It’s amazing to think that people travel the globe to photograph London… and it’s right here on our doorstep! 

One of the most impressive things about Umbreen’s photography is that she is self-taught – which gives all of us hope! Be inspired by her images and find out more about Umbreen at TimeOutand on Flickr.

Here is a short video interview I did with Umbreen

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