How does a photographer make meaningful images in one of the most photographed cities in the world?
How do you carve your own path, especially in a place that has a legacy of memorable “decisive moments” and so many master photographers who have brilliantly captured the spirit of Paris—Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Brassai, Kertesz, and Ronis, to name a few?
The challenge for all of us, as photographers of the moment, is to find a unique way of seeing—a way to make the subject our own.
The good news: If you’re looking for places in Paris to make compelling photographs, there are hundreds of choices. It all depends on what you’re looking for—local characters, lush gardens, cobblestoned history, sparkling lights, stormy skies, lamp-lit twilights, or the line and form of great architecture.
The “best place” can be a quartier, a scene that becomes a stage for passing action, a particular building or place, an event, or even a weather condition or time of day. It all depends on how something makes you feel and what kind of connection you make with your subject.
Here are five ideas to inspire your journey in the City of Light.
The bridges of Paris offer a world of changing perspectives—you can photograph from the quai (or bateau) looking up, or you can shoot over the railings looking down (transforming the usual way of seeing). You can also consider the bridge as the stage that it is—for travellers of all shapes and sizes. The goal is to become part of the bridge to catch the passing characters in the act of being touchingly or humorously human.
My favourite bridges are of the pedestrian kind. The Passerelle Debilly, with the Eiffel Tower standing sentinel. The sleek double-decker lines of the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor (the bridge formerly known as Solférino near Musée d’Orsay). The omnipresent street artists on the Pont St Louis, which connects the Ile St Louis with the Ile de la Cité. And the undulating Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir connecting Parc de Bercy with the Bibliothèque Nationale. There is always something happening on these bridges; and the characters, structures, and details provide material for close ups and long shots alike.
I boycotted La Défense for as long as I could after I moved to Paris. It was not part of my imagined vision. I was looking for elegance, romance, and layers of history, not skyscrapers, suits, and briefcases.
But when I finally broke down and hopped on the metro to the 21st century, I was enthralled. Complex reflections, dramatic lines, modern textures, playful fountains, sculptures, sweeping stairs, and a wild mix of people. All are elements for defying the traditional view of Paris.
Wherever the Dancers Are
Dancers are a part of Paris life—from the “Last Tango” to Benjamin Millipied.
We have spontaneous movers and shakers who are prompted into action when the street musicians play just the right rhythm. And we have passionate dancers who frequent regular events. Dancers have a way of providing rich photographic material, especially when Paris is the backdrop.
My two dancing rituals include the Sunday morning dancing (and singing) at the base of the rue Mouffetard near the St Médard church and the warm evenings by the Seine in the amphitheaters near the Jardin Tino Rossi (tango, waltz, salsa, traditional musette, and rock—there’s something for everyone.)
If you want to experiment with dance energy and movement in photographs (freezing action with a fast shutter speed or showing motion over time with a slow shutter speed), these events are full of promise . . . and fun.
I was going to select just one park, but the truth is: every park has treasures to offer the photographer. (Note: This is how I surreptitiously turn 5 ideas into 50 ideas.)
Botanical forms and textures; sculpted trees; graceful lines à la Le Nôtre; foot bridges; fountains; lakes; and benches, carousels, and lawns filled with humans doing all sorts of fascinating things.
I do have my favorite parks (beyond the heavily populated Luxembourg and Tuileries):
- the serene Jardin Albert Kahn, with its Japanese simplicity and koi-filled waterways
- the upscale Parc Monceau with its curved expanse of benches and classical colonnade
- the Butte Chaumont, with its grottos and soaring Roman temple
- the two diverse parks in Batignolles (the formal Square des Batignolles and the modern multi-use Martin Luther King Parc)
- the Bagatelle with its roses, strutting peacocks, and expanse of lawns and wildflowers
Palais Royal is multifaceted. There are graceful arcades, an explosive fountain, and corridors of trees that are canopies in summer and clipped to a straight edge in winter. And who doesn’t love a pigeon perched on the head of a classical statue?
At the center of the action is the Buren sculpture. Although this installation elicits both love and hate, it does spur interaction—good moments for photos. Children leap, adults pose, and scooters wend. And when subjects are wearing Buren-esque stripes, which, oddly, they often are, the opportunities are exponential.
Even though the five “best places to make photographs” have multiplied in this article, there are still hundreds of places in Paris to explore. The key is curiosity and a sense of adventure—the desire to sneak into a secret courtyard when the door is ajar or to walk just one alley further to see what’s around the bend.
In the end, the best places are the ones that have meaning for you.