Freshly graduated from college and traveling abroad for the first time in my life, my first trip to London — in May 2007 — found me wandering around with my family and a tiny point-and-shoot camera. I’d barely had my PowerShot a week when we boarded the plane, but I was ecstatic to be going overseas.
Dad was our tour guide, plotting out the places we wanted to see in the city before boarding another plane for Rome. In Italy we met up with our tour group (Trafalgar, of course!) and ate amazing food while visiting gorgeous, historic places. It was life-changing.
But before Italy was London, and London has my heart.
Being a 21-year-old who had only ever traveled with her parents, I was completely reliant upon them to get us around the city. As the Tube seemed too complicated to attempt, we traveled by tour bus or taxi to see Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and more. By some miracle we even found ourselves at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the other side of the Thames. And though we didn’t get to see the Houses of Parliament on foot, we whizzed by on our “coach” a few times.
My photos were pretty terrible. I didn’t know anything about Photoshop or post-processing. Terms like composition, exposure and aperture meant nothing to me; I was just concentrating on getting something in my frame. Sometimes I succeeded, and other times not so much. In my own defense, we were on some form of transportation most of the time . . . and it’s pretty challenging to get an amazing shot from a fast-moving tour bus.
But looking at it with a critical eye, I just didn’t know what I was doing.
The next time I returned, I was ready — and not just with a better understanding of photography. My friend Stacy was studying abroad and living in England, so I knew she could navigate us anywhere we needed to be. We stayed away from very “touristy” spots and favored local eateries. We took the Tube everywhere, and when we wanted to go to Surrey — where I did got to the quite touristy (but awesome) Hampton Court Palace — we took an actual honest-to-goodness train.
We were on foot and busy, excited and without trepidation. Stacy was my tour guide, showing me another side of the city I’ve come to love so well. Though my parents dropped me off in D.C. and my friend met me at Heathrow, it was my first time actually traveling alone. If visiting England for the first time was life-changing, visiting for a second time was incredible. When I close my eyes, I can still remember what it felt like to ride the Tube alone headed back to the airport on a quiet Sunday morning. Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” came on my iPod, and I looked out the windows and felt . . . alive.
Aside from all that emotional growth, the photos I took — those above — were so much better. Between that first and second trip to London, Mom and I took a local photography class. I got really into macro shots and began to understand my point-and-shoot’s settings. Same camera — different perspective. And more knowledge. And more passion.
And I wasn’t on a tour bus then. Trust me, I love tour buses — and they’re a great way to quickly get the lay of the land. But if you want the real action? The real deal? You better get your feet on the ground. You better start walking.
When our travels brought us back to London in April, I had my Canon Rebel in hand. I’ve spent years cultivating my interest in photography and have had plenty of time to obsess over the city. Without a friend there to guide me, I developed an itinerary of what we should see and do during our four days in London — both before our group Trafalgar tour through the U.K. and after.
I was the tour guide.
I navigated the Tube with (relative) ease, getting us from Trafalgar Square to Charing Cross Road and back again. We rode on the London Eye. Shopped at Covent Garden. Attended Easter Mass at Westminster Abbey. And though we took the long way from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace, we got in some excellent exercise — combined with a memorable story to tell. (Yes, it was one step away from a death march. But it was a fun death march.)
Same places, different perspective.
And who knows what I’ll see — and how I’ll see it — the next time.