A Photographer’s Guide to Amsterdam

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Amsterdam, a city made famous by canals, cannabis and one or two other things, has the potential to be a photographer's paradise. In reality, despite its very obvious photographic charms, it can be a particularly difficult city to capture. Part of this lies in its success as a tourist destination. On any given day it can be utterly overwhelmed with tourists, summer and winter alike. The other major contributing factor is its sleaziness, the red light district, cannabis coffee shops and legendary open society can combine to make the place a magnet for some of the more colourful elements of society. Today we are going to provide a short guide to get the best out of shooting this potentially amazing city.

Getting Around in Amsterdam

Amsterdam Schipol airport is one of the world's great hubs. There are flights into Schipol from every continent as well as a plethora of budget airlines within Europe offering excellent prices. Once at Schipol itself, the city is a 20 minute straight train ride away, the station being under the airport itself. Getting around the city itself is best done by walking, or for those with tired legs, the water bus services. Further afield, beyond the central canals, trams and buses run frequently and cheaply.

The Best Time to Shoot

There is no getting around the fact the the very best time to shoot any of the major landmarks in Amsterdam is in the hours around dawn. Up until 9.30am the streets and canal sides are relatively clear, the red light district, which contains some of the major locations, is not open so there is no fear of accidentally photographing a girl in the window (we will discuss this a little later). On a good day, the light is soft and golden but because of the narrow canals and tallish buildings you will run into problems with contrast.

Using a location tool such as The Photographer's Emphersis can help isolate the best angles on major landmarks. The main canals run in a semi circular loop around the city centre, with some canals intersecting at right angles so with a little planning, you will find a good angle on most things.

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Early morning is the best time to shoot in Amsterdam, by Bert Kaufmann

For the evening golden hour you are going to find the old city centre and canals rammed with people. However there is another side to Amsterdam, the modern business part of the city which is close to the centre but without the throngs of tourists.

What to Shoot

Lets start with the red light district or to give it its proper name De Wallen. Despite its reputation, this area is in fact the heart of the city center and contains some of the more interesting canals and landmarks. Because of the tightly knit buildings and narrow canals shooting here can be tricky.

At the very heart of the district is De Oude Kerk a 13th century church. Situated on the banks of a narrow canal, this is best shot very early before the crowds arrive. From the bridges crossing this canal there is a good shot of the towers at the Church of Saint Nicholas, this can be shot in either of the golden hours but in the evening, you will be fighting others for space on the bridge. Just to the north west of De Wallen is Damrak, a canal basin and start point for many of the boat tours. In calm morning light the reflections in it can make for some great shots.

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St Nicholas church taken from the heart of De Wallen, by Bert Kaufmann

Returning to the issue of the girls in the windows, you will not be able to miss them. They do not take kindly to anyone trying to photograph them so if you value your equipment keep your lenses away from shooting them. You can however shoot the neon lights of the sex shops and shows and the infamous Coffee shops from the outside without any issues.

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Shots like this should not present a problem, by Cédric Puisney

To the north west of the city centre is a beautiful canal called Brouwersgracht. This is often voted the most scenic canal in the city and chock full of beautiful house boats, bridges and houses. It is also a lot quieter than De Wallen making photography a more relaxing pursuit at any time of day.

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The beautiful Brouwersgracht, by Johan Wieland

Taking any of the canals off Brouwersgracht, such as Singel or Herengracht, you can walk all the way around the centre of the city. Towards the southern part of the centre, near Rembrandtplein a number of the bridges are beautifully lit at night making for some great blue hour shots. Rembrandtplein itself is a fairly modern square but with some interesting monuments that are well worth shooting.

Not far from Rembrandtplein on the banks of the Amstel Canal is the spectacular Stopera, a cultural complex that includes the city’s opera house. It is a modern building that contrasts well with its older surroundings.

Off course the canals are alive with boats of all kinds and there are great shots to had of all the different types and in different locations. One of my favourite places to shoot boats is from the bridges looking directly down on them. Also, as befits such a bustling old city, there is more than ample opportunity for some great street photography.

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Amsterdam is a great location for street photography. By Sgt. Pepper57

Amsterdam is an enigma, a beautiful, old city that can ironically, be hard to shoot. To get the best out of it, concentrate on one area at a time rather than trying to rush to as many locations as possible. Use tools to such as Google Street view (some of the canals even have street view) and The Photographer’s Emphersis and preplan what you want to shoot and when and you will certainly come away with some great shots of this endlessly interesting city.

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Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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