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Manchester cityscapes: Where to view them and how to photograph them

Manchester's skyline is developing at an astonishing pace. In just a few years many new buildings have appeared as the skyline reaches ever skywards. Cityscapes of Manchester are the most clicked on photos on this site. I'm often asked for the best tips on viewpoints and how to take cityscape photos. In this article I share some of my insider knowledge.

First of all, let me make a complaint. Manchester has no observation tower or viewing platform, unlike Tokyo, Blackpool, New York, Kyoto, Paris, Toronto, Berlin and many other cities.

The highest viewpoint on the city centre is the top of the Beetham Hilton Tower, but this location is not accessible to the public. Luckily I've been up there four times and the view is magnificent. Located in the south west corner of the city centre, the sun is to the side or behind you, which is ideal for photography.

There is so much to see from the top of the Hilton tower, you could take hundreds of photographs. Actually, that's exactly what I did on one visit, nearly a thousand to be exact. These photos are source material for my Manchester Mega-Photo.

Another vantage point which is also not open to the public is from the CIS Tower. The problem here is that you are looking from the north over the city and on a sunny day, it can be difficult to achieve good photos due to glare. If you have the opportunity to visit the CIS building, early morning or late afternoon are best for photography.

The Maths Building offered an excellent viewpoint looking north towards the hills, but in 2005 it was demolished. A new tall building near the site of the Maths Tower may offer a new vantage point, which I hope to try out.

The problem with photographing from buildings is that you need to obtain access. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard or impossible. Normally you need to contact the owners of the buildings, who may refer you to the building manager. If you have a contact in an office within a building you'd like to photograph from, that can enable you to gain access.

Here are some more buildings I've photographed from, with the permission of the owners:

North Tower, former Highland House, near Manchester Cathedral.
City Tower, former Sunley Tower
Portland Tower, former Scottish Widows Fund building
These three buildings are owned by Bruntwood

Universal Square Ardwick
Flats near Chapel Street Salford
Tempus Tower by Victoria Station
Gateway House near Piccadilly Station

So where can you go if you don't have the time or inclination to gain access to a building? There are a few places.

The Manchester Wheel offers a good vantage point, though you are shooting through glass, or more exactly, perspex, which can diminish the quality of the picture.

The Imperial War Museum North has a viewing platform at the top of its Air Shard. Though this location is publicly accessible, if the photos are for commercial use, then permission may be required. Check with the museum first.

The Imperial War Museum Air Shard is Manchester's only observation platform. We need more!

It's possible to get reasonably good views over the city from various car parks including Tib Street in the Northern Quarter, Chorlton Street car park, the Lowry car park Salford Quays. Again, this is classed as provate property and so you would need permission to take photos.

On the street, one of the best places to see Manchester city centre from the south east is on Oldfield Road Salford. Construction is in progress on this site and the view is now partially blocked. The nearby A57 Regent Rd bridge over the Irwell also has good views.

From the Cliff in Salford there is a view over Manchester, though trees can get in the way.

From the north west, you can get a stunning view over the Manchester conurbation from Winter Hill. The only problem is that due to the distance - over 12 miles - there is haze caused by heat and dust.

Photo tip: Dust, fog, rain or mist in the atmosphere can reduce the contrast in a scene to shades of bluish grey. It's possible to paritally correct this by manipulating the contrast controls, making the lower greys darker and the lighter greys lighter. In Photoshop, 'Levels > Auto' will automatically rebalance the contrast and colour, but it will probably need some find tuning. Experiment with the slider controls.Nothing is better than on a bright clear day, but that doesn't happen very often!

From the south, there is a view from Alderley Edge, but as it's over 15 miles away, the buildings become indistinct due to dust and heat haze.

From the south east, Werneth Low offers an excellent vantage point over the conurbation, which at night appears as a huge expanse of twinkling lights. The iconic Winter Hill transmitter is clearly visible with its bright red warning lights.

From Hartshead Pike views over the conurbation to the west are also spectacular.

Distant, but worth seeing are the views from the A57 Snake Pass east of Glossop, and the M62 north east of Rochdale.

For true aerial views over Manchester, you need to fly. If you're taking off or landing from Manchester Airport, the views from the porthole can be spectacular. Try to sit on the right hand side of the plane for views towards the city centre. As I understand it, a digital camera is not classed as an electronic device and can be used during take-off and landing, but check with the cabin crew anyway. A film camera is definitely OK.

In mid 2006 I had the opportunity to photograph Manchester from a hot air balloon over Heaton Park. That was the experience of a lifetime. In the near future I hope to make a balloon trip over the centre of Manchester.

From Barton Aerodrome, officially renamed 'City Airport', it's possible to fly in a microlight, light aircraft or helicopter.

One viewpoint I'd love to try out is from the top of the Winter Hill transmitter mast, which can be seen from all over north west England from the south of Cheshire to the Lake District.

Whether or not you're able or willing to gain access to a building, there are a multitude of vantage points from which to photograph the Manchester conurbation and its rapidly changing skyline. If you haven't done so already, it's worth trying out the overlapping photos technique for making panoramas. Keep the sun behind you, choose a clear sunny day - or a clear night - and you won't go far wrong.

Keep visiting aidan.co.uk to see lots more cityscapes of Manchester including the Manchester Mega-Photo.

First written 5 June 2007, updated 28 May 2008.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2008-05-28

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