Christmas can mean a lot of things to Londoners. To some, it means fancy carnivals, expensive dinners and binge shopping – a season during which lavish spending is rightly justified. To others, Christmas means cozy gatherings, thoughtful presents, and strolling down streets under dazzling Christmas lights. If you happen to be on a tight budget but don’t want to miss out on the holiday, stay assured! With some of its busiest streets decorated with overhanging Christmas lights, London is a really enjoyable place to be during Christmas for many, especially photography-lovers. You can definitely see Christmas lights in London for free – and here is where to find them!
1. Oxford Street
As Kat mentioned in Where to find Christmas Lights in London, everyone knows about this, but it deserves a mention nevertheless. Starting from the eastern end, the lights are spherical in shape. When lit up, they become patches of silver and gold against the night sky. Since the area always has heavy traffic, there is a good chance that you can capture a bus passing by. The light rails would go really well with the lights! It is a good idea to shoot from the pavement in the middle – it is wide enough to fit a tripod. It does take a few trials to time the bus so that it fits nicely into the composition. But even without the lightrails, the sight is spectacular in itself.
Moving westbound, you get to where Oxford street meets Regents street. At the junction, the lights become more varied. Displays with the words ‘Christmas’ are hung up in the middle. Alongside those are square boxes – some containing Santa Clauses, some containing raindeers, some containing gingerbread men and the rest containing candies. Walking down Regent Street, other light displays are put up – read this article by Adil to find out more!
2. Picadilly Circus
Another location to see Christmas lights in London for free is Picadilly Circus. Hung above the streets intersecting at Picadilly Circus are lights of angels, whose wings spread across the streets. To capture the angel, I would advise against directly placing the focus on the light source. This would make it harder to snap a sharp photo because the body of the angel is too bright.
Alternatively, try focusing on vehicles that are coming your way and are at a convenient position. This creates bokeh in the background. A lens which enables a large aperture (eg. f/1.8) would be optimal for this purpose as it decreases the depth of field. But even on a standard lens, adjusting the aperture to the minimum (usually f/3.5) would yield satisfactory results. The closer you walk up to the vehicle of interest, the more apparent the bokeh. This is a good way to include the lights in the frame while ensuring that there is a clear focus in the picture.
This may sound too good to be true, but Carnaby is another amazing place to see Christmas lights in London for free. It is a shopping district lined with a range of semi-luxury to discount brands. As the holiday season approaches, it is usually crowded with visitors and shoppers. A great photo idea here is to photograph the crowd along with the lights. Ideally you would be able to place the focus somewhere further away from yourself. But you also want to include a blurred vision of the crowd.
With my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, I was able to achieve this effect. As shown in the shots, the members of the crowd were out of focus. Instead, the foci were on the hanging displays. This captures perfectly the busyness of the area. It is a matter of striking a balance between including more detail and driving attention to the highlights of the photograph.
4. Bond Street
The lights on Bond Street came as a pleasant surprise to me. After shooting around the Piccadilly area, I thought I was done for the evening and was about to return. I was walking towards the closest tube station when I discovered Bond Street, with a wholly different set of lights put up.
When I turned into the street, I realised the cars running on it were mainly cabs. This was probably because the area is home to many high-end luxurious brands. Owing thanks to London’s traffic, the cabs were always crawling slowly forward, if not stopping. This presented a perfect opportunity to shoot because the vehicles are in slow motion. In particular, I enjoy creating close-up shots of cab drivers. Their expressions and actions are always interesting to see, so interesting that the Christmas lights here are merely auxiliary – to add to the background.
5. Covent Garden Area
Walking down Long Acre, I came across this heavily decorated area on my right close to Covent Garden. At the time I had my 50mm lens with me, which was not wide enough to capture the entire display. At the opening of the courtyard, there was also a ring structure, with a bird sitting within. To include the entire display, stand on the other side of the pavement, and shoot with a wider lens (i.e. <24mm focal length).
Apart from this self-contained area, Covent Garden is also a really pretty place to see Christmas lights in London for free. The apple market is a great place to shoot images of the crowd. There is also a giant Christmas tree right outside the apple market. Click here to see more amazing photos captured by Noemi.
If you happen to be in London in December, be sure to visit these places! Every year, Christmas lightups are always highly hyped up events among Londoners. If you are broke like I am, and like taking pictures like I do – get up and see Christmas lights in London for free – while they are still up! Wish you all an early Merry Christmas!
See also: London