Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Paris Through the Viewfinder

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Paris is known for many things, from its beautiful architecture to its delicious cuisine. I visited Paris in 2011 with my wife and was shocked by the unlimited opportunities to capture great images through the viewfinder of my camera. While wandering around Paris with my wife, my camera never left my eye. This blog will showcase some of the most amazing sites from a photographer's standpoint. Although most of the attractions here are the typical cliche touristy hotspots, I tried to capture the sites from unique vantage points.

La Tour Eiffel

I'll start with the most-visited and most cliché attraction in Paris. When I told people I was going to Paris, about half of them told me I had to see the tower and the other half told me not to bother. I honestly could't care what people told me...I had every intention of seeing the tower. Having studied engineering in university, I see the tower as an amazing engineering and architectural feat. 

I visited the tower almost every day of our vacation, trying to see it from all different angles and in all different kinds of light. At first, I thought that I had to go right to the tower's location to see it. So my wife and I walked all the way from our apartment near Notre Dame to Trocadero, the plaza that looks straight down past the tower and the Champ de Mars park, where loads of people hang out on the grass to nap, picnic, or play games. The view from Trocadero in the middle of the day gives the typical view of the tower, straight-on, in the sunlight. You can see all the people hanging around the tower, and it's amazing how small they all look in its shadow. However, the middle of a sunny day is never a crazy exciting time to take photos, so I figured I would come back to the tower another time.

I made my wife go to see the Eiffel Tower again near sunset one night. Although the walk to the tower was long, there is so much to see and do along the way that it's totally worth it. All the little shops and streets are so beautiful, you could spend almost an entire day getting to the tower if you wanted to.

We stopped for dinner along the way and then made our way to the tower as the light started to fade, but sadly the sunset wasn't too exciting. I started up at Trocadero before the sunlight faded. Every night at 9pm and 10pm, tons of little lights on the tower start to sparkle. Maybe it's a bit touristy, but it's neat to be standing at Trocadero and hear the "ahhh" come from the hundreds of people looking at the tower. 
From Trocadero, there are lots of angles from which to view the tower. The is a large park with pools, fountains, and grass, so you can find some neat vantage points, like viewing the tower from across some water with its reflection. You can also capture the whole tower or just part of it. Walking down from Trocadero, I made my way closer to the tower, and I got some photos from the road looking straight at the tower. I like photos tom the road at night because I like seeing the trails from the cars' tail lights passing by the camera. Then I got really close to the tower, and with my wide-angle lens, I took some cool shots from right below the tower. 

You can see the Eiffel Tower from a lot of different places in Paris. It stands high above the buildings surrounding it, so you can see it from some of the streets and bridges of Paris, given that you aren't too close to other buildings. You can see it from the bridge with locks all over it, Pont des Arts, and as you get near to the park surrounding it, you can see it sneak into view as you look down some of the side streets. It's pretty cool how it just pops out of nowhere, and some of the best photos of the tower are the ones that put it in context of another area of the city. It's great to capture the tower in all its glory in the park or from Trocadero, but I enjoyed getting pictures of it with some cool old French buildings surrounding it and the odd French car in the foreground. If you can get to the Pont des Arts, it is a cool photo to get the tower peaking out from above the buildings, with the River Seine in the foreground.

If you can get up high, you can get some really great vantage points from which to view the tower. There are lots of opportunities to do this; some apartments have great views of the city, but ours did not. You can look for hotels or restaurants that have rooftop terraces, and try to catch a view of the tower from there. Since I was travelling with my wife, I didn't seek out too many different places to get photos from above the city, but there were three places I visited that allowed me to do so.

If you tour the Notre Dame tower, you can walk all the way to to the top of the tower, where you can see most of the city from its terrace. It can be quite a long wait in line to climb the stairs on a busy day, but the view is more then worth it. We went up the tower mid-morning, which doesn't offer the best lighting to view the city, but you can try to go up at different times to catch the city in a better light. Regardless of the time of day or the lighting, the view from the Notre Dame tower is beautiful. You can see over the entire city, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and the River Seine cutting through the buildings below. 

You can walk to the top of the Arc de Triomphe as well. This doesn't get you very high above the city, as the Arc isn't that tall, but it gets you high enough to see down Champs Elysees and to see the Eiffel Tower over some nearby buildings. Although you don't get as high as Notre Dame, the tower seems so much closer from atop the Arc de Triomphe. You can go up the Arc until about 10pm, so you can try to catch the Eiffel Tower from this vantage point at sunset. Looking over the beautiful old French buildings and seeing that tower in the distance at sunset would make for a wonderful photo.

The last place from which I viewed the tower was Montparnasse Tower, which is a very tall office building across the city from all of the historic attractions. Montparnasse Tower isn't much too see, as it is a modern office building, but you can take the elevator to the top of the tower, and from here there is an excellent view of the city. I got to the tower too late to catch the sunset, but the view of the city all lit up was incredible. I was able to see the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and many of Paris' streets and buildings from atop this tower. I waited until 10pm to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle, and even took a picture of the tower out of focus, which was kind of cool.

L'Arc de Triomphe

There is something about the Arc de Triomphe that I just love. It's just a huge concrete archway, but it's more than that. Part of it is the history behind it, but more than that is the atmosphere surrounding the monument.

It starts with Champs Elysees, the long, wide, tree-lined street that leads to the huge round-about encircling the Arc de Triomphe. Champs Elysees is lined with car dealerships built right into the old French architecture running up the entire street, mixed with restaurants and stores of all sorts.

There is a lot of great shopping on Champs Elysees, and my favourite thing about it is that the Arc de Triomphe is a tiny dot in the background when you first hit Champs Elysees, and as you shop your way up the street, it gets larger and larger until it's right there, in your face. You can step out from any point along the street and see the gorgeous concrete archway centred on the roadway, with cars flying up and down Champs Elysees.

While you are walking on Champs Elysees, the photos of the Arc de Triomphe are fairly limited to the pictures of it looming over the street. You can take some with it centred on Champs Elysees as you cross the street to visit stores on the other side, or you can step out from the sidewalk and capture the monument from an angle, with some trees and French cars in the foreground. I waited until the sun had set and then stood directly in front of one of the street lights in the centre of Champs Elysees. I set up my tripod and took a few photos of the Arc de Triomphe with the traffic flying by. This was difficult from where I was standing for two reasons. The first is that I had to time the exposure right. If the light went red in the middle of the exposure, I would get bright headlights and tail lights in the camera and the shot would be overexposed and there would be no light trails. I needed the cars to be moving for the majority of the exposure. The second reason was tourists. When people saw that I had a cool view of the Arc de Triopmhe, they wanted the same picture. Countless people stood directly in front of my camera, since it looked like I wasn't doing anything during the long exposure, and so I have 50 or so photos of random tourists in front of the Arc de Triomphe. It took a while before I could get a shot of just the monument, with the right amount of cars driving by.

I also went right to the round-about at the end of Champs Elysees. This is a huge, busy round-about with cars and buses constantly flying around and honking their horns at each other. The view of the Arc de Triomphe from the edge of the roundabout is great. You can get some great photos from here, unobstructed by trees and cars if you time your shot right. The other thing I liked about the photos from here was the texture given by the cobblestones in the foreground. The detail of the cobblestones seems to lead you into the picture, right to the amazing monument in the centre of the frame.

La Louvre

The apartment we rented for our stay in Paris was very close to Notre Dame, so we walked past the Louvre almost every day. It's a huge old palace that spans many city blocks and has tons of history. It has been added to and it's appearance has changed over time, and that alone makes it interesting. It is also the home of a huge collection of art, including the Mona Lisa. 

The Louvre has a huge open courtyard, surrounded by the amazing old architecture of the palace. It's amazing to see hundreds of tourists and locals just having around in the courtyard, sitting on the edges of the pools and steps to the buildings, reading or jut hanging out. It's a relaxing atmosphere as you sit surrounded by the beautiful architecture. 
There are a lot of people who don't like the glass pyramids sitting in the courtyard. People feel they are too modern and ugly to be placed around the ancient palace. By I feel the opposite. Typically I like ancient stuff and I think the modern stuff is ugly. But I actually thought the contrast was perfect in this case. The glass pyramids complimented the existing architecture really well, and I think they really added to the photos of the Louvre. 

I spent a few hours at the Louvre one night. My wife sat on the edge of one of the pools and read a book while I ran around the courtyard taking pictures. There aren't too many different things to shoot, but you can get all different angles of the pyramids, pools, and pieces of the palace architecture. 
The architecture and pyramids are very well-lit, so it's pretty easy to get the right exposure without too many over- or under-exposed areas. It's easy to get pictures of the pyramids with the buildings, or the pyramids with the pools, or all three together. The water in the pools is almost stationary, so it looks smooth in most pictures. I'm a huge fan of taking photos at nigh, and even shorter exposures make the water look like glass, and the reflections are crystal clear. 

Notre Dame

The apartment we rented was right across the River Seine from Notre Dame, so I had lots of opportunities to take photos of the huge church at different times of the day. There are two bridges facing the front of Notre Dame that offer great views of the church, with the river and trees in the foreground. At most times of the day there are people walking or sitting along the river, adding a bit of life to the photo. 

As with most photos, it is always best to avoid the middle of the day to photograph architecture, and that's true for Notre Dame as well. One issue with Notre Dame is that the sun rises behind the building, so you will want to get ready to take photos before the sun gets too high in the sky during the morning hours. It can look cool with the sun just above the horizon, giving a bit of a halo to the church. I didn't get up quite early enough to see Notre Dame before the sun rose, but the sky can be very dramatic just after sunrise as well.

I liked taking pictures of Notre Dame with the river in the foreground because the courtyard leading up to the church isn't the most exciting. It is a fine gravel with large raised flower beds. It's not hideous, but it's a bit monotonic in my opinion, unless you are looking straight onto the building, as there is a nice brick pattern from that perspective. However, straight-on photos aren't necessarily the most exciting, so it's good to capture the church from an off-centre viewpoint. Something else I like to do is to capture only a small part of a building in the frame of the photo, and grab a piece of another object in the same frame, I like to look for nearby trees or lamps that will provide some contrast to the architecture of the building.

As with all landmarks, I really enjoyed taking pictures of Notre Dame at night. The really great thing about Notre Dame is that it sits so close to the River Seine, so you can get some great photos of Notre Dame with the water reflecting nearby lights. There are also lots of tour boats that travel down the river all day long. At night many of the boats do a dinner cruise. Although to didn't capture one from this angle, it is cool to take a photo with a boat making it's way down the river.
As with most major landmarks, the front facade is the view that gets the most attention. However, the back of Notre Dame is gorgeous. There is a small, quaint garden and fountain within the walls of the church. It's a beautiful little area, and the architecture of the back of the building was surprisingly nice, with lots of detailed stonework, and you can see the buttresses from here, which you can't see very well from the front of the church. This was a nice area to stop for a snack and a drink during an afternoon walk around the area.

The River Seine and its Bridges

The River Seine winds and cuts through Paris, and many attractions are very close to its banks. Many parts of the city can be described as rive-gauche or rive-droit, refer to which side of the river they are located. There are 37 bridges over the River Seine, and each of them offer a great view, as you look out over the beautiful water and see the amazing French architecture. I didn't see all of the bridges, but I frequented the 5 bridges closest to Notre Dame. Each of them offered a very different view of the city. Some of them looked at either the front or the back of Notre Dame, while you can see the Eiffel Tower from others. Some bridges do not show any of the main attractions of Paris, but the surrounding architecture along can make for an interesting photograph.

I tried to get photos from the bridges at different time of the day. Sunrise and sunset offer great photos, but after the sun had set was also interesting. Large boats make their way down the river, and it's easy to capture a picture of a boat on the river with a cool sky in the background. I was lucky enough to be able to take some photos of an oncoming thunderstorm over the river. I was standing on one of the bridges and caught photos of an amazingly dramatic sky; some of which even had a bolt or two of lightning.
I took a lot of photos from the bridges with boats making their way down the river. Sometimes I took a longer exposure, and that was cool because the lights from the boat made trails along the river through the frame. And sometimes I took a much shorter exposure, in order to capture the boat's shape and the ripples in the water. 

Sometimes it is enough to get a picture of the bridges themselves. There is a great bridge which some refer to as the "lover's bridge," on which couples place locks with their names on them and throw the keys in the river. All of the metal on the bridge sparkles in the sunlight, and makes for some cool detail shots at any time of day. At the end of this bridge is the French language building, where the French dictionary is compiled. The wood on the floor of the bridge and the locks all over the sides make for a really great photo. There is also a great view from either side of this bridge. To one side, you can see Pont Neuf as it crosses the River Seine, and to the other side you can see the Eiffel Tower above some buildings. 

The Streets

Part of the beauty and charm of Paris is that even when you're not looking at an historic monument or tourist attraction, you are still looking at something beautiful. No matter where you go, Paris has something to offer. And in many cases, some of the greatest views in the city are seen just by looking down a side street. The cobblestone roads, the ancient buildings, and the cars, bikes, and scooters parked or driving down the streets can always make for a great photo. 

I like to photograph corners of buildings with little cafés on the ground level. You can see the people sitting, eating, and people-watching. Many of the buildings on the corners are flat-iron buildings, or have curves and amazingly detailed brick and stone work to add some texture to the photo. I like to capture one or both of the oncoming roads, giving the building some context, and hopefully capturing people or cars coming down the street. It makes the city seem alive when you capture people or cars in the frame. But sometimes it's great to see the area empty and peaceful, because that doesn't happen very often in many parts of Paris, especially during the summer months.

When I walk down the street, I try to look both up and down. I look up toward the tops of the buildings. In some of the tighter streets, the buildings are co close together that simply pointing your camera straight up let's you catch many building corners or edges at the same time, as well as pieces of the sky. With some clouds to give texture in the sky, these photos can look really great. I try to do pictures like this at intersections where I can catch the corners of all the buildings at the crossing, and when there are really cool structures like churches or flat-iron buildings. 

Looking downward, you can find great detail or texture pictures in the cobblestones, bricks, or sewer drains. As well as getting pictures of just the details, getting down to the level of the street can give a cool perspective of the street that you don't often see. Usually we hold our camera at our face and walk down the street, but it can be really great to crouch down and take a picture close to the ground.
I love cars, so I take a lot of pictures down streets with single car parked at the curb. I try to get angles that showcase the car, with the buildings just providing a nice backdrop. There are a lot of great older cars in Paris, and they are usually parked outside of great older buildings. Sometimes I take the photo on an angle, and sometimes I take one straight onto the buhuildings. From straight on, you can see the signs for the stores or restaurants, which can have great artwork. From angles, you can catch the corners of a couple different buildings, and more of the detail in the street.

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